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Litmus Test

Posted by Colby Kinser on

Have you been given a "litmus test" lately?

In the laboratory, a litmus test is the way to determine the acidity or alkalinity of a substance. It's an either-or test. In colloquial language, a "litmus test" is any either-or test that someone uses to judge someone else (rightly or wrongly).

Have you been given one of those lately? I have, and with increasing frequency.

One common litmus test happens when someone finds out that another is a believer - the litmus test about the issue of homosexuality. Based on one's answer to a question about that issue, they will be judged as either an acceptable person or an unacceptable person.

Another I've come across lately was something like, "If pastors don't say such-and-such this Sunday, they're not worthy to be called a pastor." Other reasons or considerations didn't matter - just the litmus test. Acid or alkaline. My worthiness to serve as pastor boiled down to a decontextualized either-or test.

How should we respond to litmus tests?

Of course there is no one right response for all possible situations, but realize this: that either answer "A" or "B" on a litmus test will very likely be misunderstood and will shut down any real conversation. So, perhaps the best answer is not to answer.

Rather, set yourself up to listen. Respond with invitations like, "This issue is very important to you - tell me why." Or depending on the person, you might respond with, "Why does my opinion on that matter to you?" You could even redirect with, "Can we be friends and disagree on this issue?" (and then, "If not, then it doesn't matter what my view is ... I'd rather hang with those who know how to disagree").

In other words, try to get to the deeper, more important relational issues rather than fall for a litmus test. I have no interest in entertaining litmus tests.

Not everyone will allow you to redirect - they will insist on you taking their test. The more insistent they are, the less of a real conversation they are willing to have. 

Don't get sucked into the folly of a useless conversation.

(Image: By Kanesskong - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46928384)

Tags: litmus, test