The Yeah-But defence


When someone challenges me to change the way I think or act, they can expect to meet a well-organized resistance.

They will have to punch through a layer of conceit that doesn’t want to admit that I may have just possibly been slightly, but very understandably, mistaken in this one instance.

Then they will have to overcome a quivering blob of inertia that is designed to keep things just as they are, because I like it that way.

After that, they will have to hose down a fire of social fear that springs to life whenever I am faced with making a change that my friends might think weird or mistaken.

So good luck with that.

But somewhere among all those defences to changing my mind about anything, there is a layer of resistance that I have come to call the Yeah-But defence.

I have seen it occasionally in myself (in rare moments of self-awareness, possibly in relation to my wife being right about something). And of course, I notice it all the time in other people—because other people are mostly wrong, and for some reason use these kinds of dodges to avoid coming around to my way of thinking.

The secret of the Yeah-But defence is to start by acknowledging with a weary nod of the head the very strong, even overwhelming, nature of the argument someone is presenting to you. Yeah I hear what you’re saying. Yeah I’m aware of that. Yeah I’ve read those verses. Yeah we all know that.

And then to introduce the But.

  • But it’s not quite that simple, is it?

  • But there is an interesting verse that might be an exception to what you’re arguing.

  • But surely the evidence you’re presenting isn’t the only thing to say about this subject.

  • But I’ve heard that some scholars take a quite different view.

  • But I’ve seen a documentary on Netflix.

  • But I’m not sure that the consequences of your argument would be easy to put into practice.

  • But if we accept your argument, won’t that lead to (insert alarming consequence here) down the track?

  • But I feel like what you’re saying owes too much to (insert modernism/postmodernism/individualism/Western-guilt-culture or some complex cultural movement that neither of you really understand here).

  • But surely there are more important things for us to be addressing right now.

The genius of the Yeah-But defence is that most of these ‘Buts’ are in themselves perfectly reasonable things to say. Nothing is ever that simple. There are always exceptions. Every view is always challenged by some scholar somewhere. We all have mixed motives. We are all influenced by cultural trends. And there are always other important things to be talking about.

It’s just that none of these ‘Buts’ actually respond to the evidence or argument that has been presented, nor give due weight to its volume and strength. In fact, the purpose of the Yeah-But is to deflect the force of strong arguments or powerful evidence, and (if possible) to avoid actually having to interact with them.

A well-executed Yeah-But, and especially the very powerful Combination-Yeah-But, can neatly sidestep even the strongest challenge to our thinking or behaviour.

To take one example. When theologians or preachers aren’t comfortable with putting the substitutionary atonement of Christ for the forgiveness of sins right at the essential centre of their thinking and gospel, they are faced with the awkward fact that the New Testament does precisely that, at point after point. How do they respond?

  • Yeah, but surely the salvation of individual sinners through the atonement is not the only thing that the Bible says about Jesus death or the gospel?

  • Yeah, but that’s a naive approach to evangelism these days. We need to use categories and ideas that resonate with the cultural narratives of modern people.

  • Yeah, but isn’t your obsession with sin and atonement just an expression of individualistic, guilt-centric Western thinking?

  • Yeah, but we don’t want to end up in some kind of life-denying fundamentalist sect that has nothing to say to the modern world.

  • Yeah, but there are many reputable NT scholars who think that the traditional understanding of the cross is simplistic and outdated.

And so on and so forth. Let’s divert attention from the elephantine quantity of evidence in the room by pointing to some interesting features of the wallpaper.

How can we respond to the Yeah-But?

At one level, we could always counter with a Yeah-But of our own. “Yeah, those caveats you’re raising are worth addressing, and we should look at them. But let’s start by looking at the mountain of evidence that’s in front of us, and assessing its validity. And let’s commit together to obedience in light of the weight of the evidence as we find it.”

Might that work? Perhaps. But only if a spirit of humility and repentance is wafting through the conversation—and that leads to the second and more significant response: to pray for our conversation partners (and ourselves), that God would grant us both repentance in light of a clear understanding of his truth.

The Yeah-But is not simply an annoying rhetorical strategy that frustrates us when we’re trying to persuade someone of something (although it is). It’s a symptom of something deeper—the profound spiritual pride that afflicts us all.

Pride is very close to the heart of sin (as Augustine and many others have observed). Pride is perhaps the primal sin, the unwillingness to give God his rightful place as the highest good and supreme ruler, and to place ourselves there instead. It is the insistence that I am at the centre of the universe, that I need to be acknowledged and deferred to, and that the rest of reality needs to organize itself into an orderly orbit around my interests.

Pride is deeply resistant to any form of challenge, but particularly to that challenge that tells me the truth about myself, and thus dethrones me from the centre of my world. The Yeah-But is one of the weapons that our pride deploys to protect us from the truth.

It doesn’t matter, for example, that creation is pouring forth speech, and that the truth about God, the world and ourselves is plainly displayed there. We will avert our eyes, suppress the truth, and find any rhetorical fig-leaf that falls to hand to cover our nakedness.

It doesn’t matter that the light of the world is shining brilliantly before our eyes. We will hide in the darkness, because our deeds are evil.

The Yeah-But defence turns out to be a pretty good description of the state of my own heart, and all our hearts, when we are confronted by God.

Yeah, I know that you are the loving, ruling, generous God, and that I am your beloved creature and child. But did you really say I shouldn’t eat from that tree?

PS. While I was writing this column I saw one of my hobbyhorses trotting by, and I was deeply tempted to jump on its back for a ride. I am talking about the New Testament’s overwhelming usage of the word ‘church’ to refer to a gathered, local assembly, and the correspondingly deafening absence of the language or categories of ‘worship’ to describe what happens in that assembly. I have been in many Yeah-But conversations about this inconvenient but weighty evidence over the years. In the interests of not boring anyone with another go-around on this topic, I managed to relegate it to this PS!

PPS. This week’s random image, tenuously connected to our subject by being a mountain (as in a mountain of evidence), is a shot of Cradle Mountain in Tasmania, taken while we were there on holidays a few years ago.