Conversational Irreverence

Written by on September 12, 2020

As we come alongside others, we are invited by God to become living reminders of this startling reality––their story is unique and it matters deeply to God and us.

I have been reminded recently that meaningful conversation with another must be rooted in a sense of wonder or reverence for the person. Few things are worse than when we sit with someone and feel like we have been reduced to an object of analysis. One person rattled off this frustration when he asked me:

Why is it that so often when we share with someone else we get the suspicion that we have become a project to be completed or a puzzle to be solved? The more we share our lives, the more we become cornered by their attention, smothered by their consideration, and fearful of where this conversation will end up. Although I am certainly the object of the conversation, I doubt whether I am being addressed at all––does this person across from me even see me, does he hear me, does she notice me?

Sadly, there can be such a great distance experienced between two friends or family members or co-workers sitting right across the table from each other––a chasm, a relational breach that stems from a sort of irreverence. A conversational irreverence.

Let’s clarify this term––conversational irreverence. For too many of us, we can leisurely listen for an hour or so to someone’s predicament or their disorientation, or perhaps we just hear their story, with its characters, its twists and turns, some general themes. All said, after hearing “the short of it,” we begin to zero-in on the problem, or we begin to connect the dots, and then we “humbly” deliver the analysis and the solution. This is conversational irreverence.

This way of relating to our neighbor grows out of a mindset that treats another person like a puzzle that is to be figured out or a problem that is to be solved. This is a persistent temptation for those of us who offer spiritual leadership to others. And it is most often reflective of our self-absorption and our need to be in control. Certainly, we have problems in our lives that appropriately need to be solved or figured out. But when we reduce each other to things that can be fundamentally figured out, explained, and then solved, we treat one another irreverently.

In the past 100 years, there has been an explosion of study in regard to human behavior. Certainly, the social sciences have led us to some tremendous insights. Study after study has helped us to explore how the different variables of our life––whether family of origin, childhood traumas, adolescent confusion, chemical imbalances, political affiliations––give shape to the people we have become and are becoming. All this research has led to a deeper exploration of who we are. One cannot deny the benefits of such knowledge in promoting understanding and health, both physically and mentally. However, with all this explanatory power there has been a central side effect that has been particularly troubling to human life and relating. This emphasis on explaining has resulted in a loss of an appreciation for our mystery as human beings.

This is where the biblical notion of the person stands counter to the modern conceptions of the person. We are (1) created, (2) created in the image of a personal God, and (3) redeemed in and through the person of Jesus Christ. What a radically different conception of what human persons are and can become. Such realities offer tremendous possibilities for human life and understanding. Chief among our concerns is that we are not beings who can be reduced to a sum of psychological and physical variables. Our whole is larger and more precious than the sum of our parts. Thankfully, by God’s grace, the quality of our companionship with others can expand beyond this narrow dynamic of conversational irreverence. As we get to know people more deeply, we realize that they are far more complex and their frustrations far more nuanced than we might first conclude. In this discovery, we then begin to listen intently, pay attention, and be open to the one who sits across the table.

With all our tools to explain the human psyche and behavior, we each could use a large dose of wonder when we sit across from a friend or sister or parent or neighbor or co-worker. Compare for a moment the difference between looking on a map to find the Pacific Ocean and taking a walk on the beach to find the same thing. When we are lost, a map can certainly be helpful, but we are in deep trouble when we confuse the location of the ocean on the map for the discovery that we are walking next to the splendor of something so vast and beautiful, un-encompassable. When we sit with our neighbor, we sit before “the ocean” of another person. This is conversational reverence––not primarily looking to figure the person out or categorize their story or gain any advantage, but looking to walk with them compassionately by honoring the wonder and mystery of who they are.

“I doubt that Jesus did anything more important in his ministry than listen to people in such a way that they discovered the image of God in themselves.”-James Houston

May we learn with Jesus to offer this same sort of transforming presence to others…


This piece is adapted from VP3’s The Journey process, Stage 3, Session 3: Walking with Others


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