I was talking to a friend this week and she said something that made me take a step back and think. We were talking (or texting) about how we as Christians function in a society that continues to slide further and further away from God’s righteousness, and how you sometimes have to put it aside and dwell on the good, or else your entire life will be spent in misery and vexation.
She told me that she’d found herself agreeing with “the horrid Westboro Baptist group” about something, and that she’d had to remind herself about being a light as opposed to a condemner of the world.
That made me think a little. Have you ever had a conversation with someone with whom you basically agreed politically, socially, religiously or anything else, and they said something that made you want to stop and say “can you please not be on my side of this argument?”
I’m betting that if you’re a Christian, you’re probably smiling a little sadly and nodding your head.
The reality is that people are flawed, no matter whether they’re Christian, Muslim, Atheist… none of those philosophies keep people from being who they are. Some are great at expressing disagreements in a kind, civil way, and some aren’t. And sometimes we look over at a brother or sister in Christ who in all likelihood truly believes they’re doing God’s work, and we think: “I know we’re using the same book, but I think you missed a few pages in there.”
Jesus and the Pharisees
Jesus had a few moments like that himself, I believe, in his dealings with the Pharisees and other religious leaders of the day. Contrary to what some (well-meaning) Christians often claim, Jesus ate with religious people just like he ate with sinners. Jesus didn’t gravitate toward people because they sinned; he gravitated toward people who expressed an interest in listening to him. Whether you were a Pharisee, Sadducee, tax-collector or prostitute, you needed to hear Jesus.
In one instance, in Luke 14, Jesus takes a dinner invitation as an opportunity to teach the Pharisee and his guests some concepts in kindness and humility. No doubt observing the important people sitting around him, he points out the importance of hospitality for hospitality’s sake, not for the sake of gaining favor and influence. One of the attendees, oblivious to this message, chimes in: “Blessed is everyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!”
You can almost see Jesus shaking his head as if wondering, “Are you even listening to me?” His follow-up parable makes it clear that many in attendance are in danger of never finding out what bread in the kingdom tastes like. As he tells the Jews of his day concerning the Pharisees: “Do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do.” (Matthew 23:3)
Whether our motives are good or not, we create a real issue when we allow our “teaching” to become “posturing”. We become the stereotype. The angry Christian who seems to take delight in telling other people that they’re condemned and going to Hell, presumably waving goodbye to them as he rides up the golden escalator to Heaven. The person who seems a lot more concerned about showing God how much he hates sin than showing God how much he wants the lost to be saved.
The problem is that many of us who want to be diplomatic – want to be kind in the way we address people in the world – have a tendency to hesitate in speaking up because we don’t want to be “one of those people.” I’m sure many of the Westboro members think they’re wielding the sword of the Spirit with all good intentions, but what they’re really doing is putting a damper on efforts to “speak the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15) because anyone who speaks up about sin now has to deal with the accusation that “you people are all the same.”
Don’t some Christians paint Muslims with the same violence-condoning brush? So why are we surprised that non-Christians would seize upon the more angry, hateful elements of Christianity and say “this is what you’re all really like”?
Speak with grace and purpose
Paul – a man who once called the high priest a “whitewashed wall” in an apparent outburst of anger – makes it clear that how we speak to people about God is important.
Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person. – Colossians 4:5-6
Paul was no stranger to strong rebukes, but when he walked up to Mars Hill and spoke to a group of immoral idolaters, he didn’t start out by condemning them. He found common ground, started by convincing them that even their own writers and philosophers acknowledged some of the basic concepts (Acts 17:26-28). In fact, it seems that the only times that he really spoke in a rebuking tone were to those that he knew should know better: his fellow Christians, and his Jewish brothers who were more interested in insulting and persecuting than engaging in discussion of the scriptures.
The reason, as he says in Colossians 4, is pretty evident. When you find yourself talking about Christ with a non-believer, you may never get another chance to talk to this person when he’s in the frame of mind to listen. And there’s no telling if this person will ever have another chance to hear the gospel taught. You and I need to be a lot more concerned about saving someone’s soul than in winning an argument or venting some internal feeling of anger, indignation or self-righteousness.
Make no mistake: many people are going to be angry with you no matter how nicely or carefully you talk about the word of God. Jesus predicted it: “They hated me, and they will hate you, too” (John 15:18). Light rebukes darkness by its very existence (John 3:19-21). But we can’t give them any more justification.
“Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.” – 1 Peter 2:12
“Having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.” – 1 Peter 3:16
Convincing a worldly person to turn to the Lord has always been hard, but with God, all things are possible (Mark 10:27). Let’s just make sure that’s really what we’re trying to accomplish.