Conviction versus Curiosity
From The Curious Christian by Barnabas Piper
Can someone be a person of conviction and a curious person at the same time? It’s a pertinent question because all this talk of “in versus of” the world seems to create a tension. Stereotypically the people we think of with the most conviction are not people we would consider to be very curious. Instead of learning and seeking their motto seems to be “Here I am; I will not be moved.” They’re static and closed-minded, whereas curiosity is dynamic and demands movement. In short, people of conviction are boring while curious people are interesting. Clearly a conflict exists, especially when you consider that Christians must have conviction.
So how do we do it? How do we grow in curiosity and conviction without one cannibalizing the other?
Consider the idea of being open-minded first. Just a few sentences ago I described people of conviction as being closed-minded, and in doing so I exacerbated a false dichotomy many hold to, maybe without realizing it, that says conviction is closed-minded and open-mindedness is for fools. Few people would describe it just this way because nobody wants to think of themselves as closed-minded, but if we look at how many conservative Christians live, this is the state of things. One’s convictions preclude allowing new ideas or beliefs in or even near. The alternative, then, is that to be open-minded is to have no conviction and to be swayed by whatever the latest trend or thought or discovery might be.
While juxtaposing the two sides against each other in this manner is simpler to understand, it is also untrue (as is the case most of the time when we turn something complex into an either/or—Binary Thinking Alert). True, being closed-minded means being immovable and refusing to let new ideas in. But being open-minded does not mean letting the cage of the brain open so all the birds of thought can escape. Neither does it mean being easily swayed by the winds of society.
Open-mindedness, at its best, is humility and grace blended with curiosity—but not without conviction. It means being open to listen to others, to take what they say and interpret it as graciously as possible, to consider alternative and opposing points of view to see if they have merit. It means really listening—listening for meaning and intent rather than just for the chance to offer a counterpoint. And it means looking for truth in what one hears. Notice none of that requires the release of conviction. I don’t need to give up on my beliefs about Jesus in order to listen graciously. Rather my beliefs about Jesus should be the very reason I listen graciously. I don’t need to ignore Scripture to be curious about what other people believe. In fact, Scripture gives me security in my curiosity.
I have forgotten most of what I was taught in college, or I wasn’t paying close enough attention in the first place. However a few seminal moments from lectures stick in my mind. One such moment was from a class taught by Jerry Root when he said, “I will believe anything someone can prove to me without a shadow of a doubt.” My nineteen- year-old brain was bent. I had been such a stubborn, arrogant person that the thought of being persuaded to change my views was anathema to me. But what I heard from Dr. Root was both eminently reasonable and humble.
In a single sentence he explained godly open-mindedness—be willing to listen to arguments carefully and process them honestly, but do not move from a conviction without ample reason to do so.
When we are curiously open-minded in this way, we find the inter- section points where the gospel connects with people. We listen for their desires, their beliefs, their passions, their pains, the holes in their lives and . . . there it is! The place the gospel connects. Through learning about people’s passions and beliefs and through getting to know them by really listening, we begin to see where things we feel deepest conviction about can make a difference in their lives too.
Don Richardson, in his excellent books Peace Child and Eternity in Their Hearts, shares stories of how this so beautifully plays out. In Peace Child, Don tells his own family’s story of going to Papua New Guinea to reach the cannibalistic Sawi people. The Sawis so highly valued treachery and deceit that when the Richardsons began to share with them the story of Jesus’ life, Judas, not Jesus, was the hero. By any measure their culture was one of counter-gospel.
How could the Richardsons explain the gospel to a people whose greatest values appeared to be antithetical to gospel values? The villain was their hero. The betrayer was their archetype. Don and his wife saw a way in through a ritual the tribe held called the “peace child” in which warring tribes exchanged a child in order to make a truce. Through this ritual, the giving of a child by his father for the sake of peace, the Richardsons were able to introduce the gospel, showing how our heavenly Father gave His Son for the sake of our eternal peace. Could that have happened if they had not been open-minded, curious, looking for the cultural connection to truth?
In Eternity in Their Hearts, Richardson tells story after story like this one. He tells of ancient cultures the world over with rituals and prophecies and teachings that are pagan but end up being the open door for the gospel. These stories show how every culture intersects with truth somewhere. Every heart yearns for it. It takes curiosity, open- mindedness, and a lot of patience to see it often times. But it is there.
Notice the implication of this for those of us in the West. We often think we have a corner on the gospel. We think of Christian culture as Western culture and vice versa. But it is not “our” gospel. One of the greatest miracles of the gospel is that it transcends every culture. That’s because it is the truth of a transcendent God who created all people. When we attach cultural values and implications to the saving truth of the gospel, we often hinder it and limit its effect for those from different cultures. The gospel is not monocultural; we are. This is why we must be curious and open-minded enough to learn other cultures and expressions of the gospel.
What we need is curious conviction. We must welcome without wavering. We must recognize that what we see is not the entirety of truth—the foundational conviction of curiosity. We must be humble enough to realize that we could be wrong, especially in our expression and application of convictions. We often are. And we must constantly be looking for where truth and people intersect because that point is where the gospel can land.
The Best Convictions
Curiosity is, in great and generous minds, the first passion and the last.45 —Samuel Johnson
Nobody had better, more perfect convictions than Jesus. Nobody expressed His convictions better than Jesus. He never dug in His heels when He should give nor did He ever give when firmness was needed. Jesus welcomed all without ever wavering on His mission or message. In fact, welcoming was usually His means of sharing that mission and message.
Think of Zacchaeus, the hated cheat of a tax collector. Jesus invited Himself over to Zacchaeus’s home, a thing nobody did. He dined with Zacchaeus. Through that act, that connection, that simple gracious willingness to associate with him as a peer, Jesus shared the message of forgiveness and a life was changed.
Think of the woman at the well, a philandering Samaritan female— three things that would make a Jewish male of that time despise her. And yet Jesus asked her for help, talked with her, and answered her questions (even the ones designed to deflect from her sordid personal life). He was not shy about correcting her sins, but He did so in a way that led her to truth, not into a defensive or combative stance. In the end she and many in her town found salvation that day.
Think of Nicodemus, the Pharisee who had all the scriptural knowledge but not the assurance that his knowledge amounted to salvation. Jesus listened to his questions and challenged him with hard truths. Whereas He was gentle with the fragile, He was firm with the religious leader. He spoke in a manner that would be respected, as one with authority, and challenged Nicodemus. Here too the message of God’s saving love for the world was shared.
In each instance, as in so many others, Jesus interacted in an open-minded way. Could He have communicated His convictions about lying and cheating to Zacchaeus and reminded him of the Ten Commandments? Could He have excoriated or shamed the woman at the well for marital failures and adultery? Could He have talked down to Nicodemus or outed him before his pompous peers for his questions? Yes, yes, and yes.
But Jesus didn’t handle His convictions this way. Rather through holy open-mindedness, through good questions, through really listening, He saw where each person’s life intersected with saving truth and He declared the truth at that intersection.
What we see from Jesus, throughout all of His life, is the balance of conviction and curiosity. We see how someone rooted deeply in God’s Word can venture into the most lascivious of places—after all, Jesus was known for partying with the sinners of all sinners—without becoming part of the mess.
We have nothing to fear from the world if our curiosity is truly seeking God’s truth and is anchored in His Word and character. We can’t catch the world’s evil like a cold. If our curiosity is like that of Christ, we have everything to offer the world and a way to offer it.