As a Jew, I love Israel. There’s no way around that. In fourth grade I remember being assigned to write a report on any country in the world, and it was a complete no-brainer as to which country my report would be about. With great pride I decorated the blue-and-white report cover with the Israeli flag. Although seemingly irrelevant, I sprinkled some family recipes for things like matzo ball soup into the report, although now I see that the ethnic pride in recipes and that nationalistic pride in my peoples’ country really are not that far apart.
Years later, I’d get to take my first trip to Israel, and tour dozens of ancient Biblical archaeological sites. And where our Israeli tour guide could not take our group, but instead handed us off to a Palestinian tour guide, we also got to tour the ancient sites of the West Bank. As I came to realize how many places in my peoples’ history and my Bible were not under Jewish ownership but instead Palestinian, I started to realize that this did not sit well with my fantasies of what the “Jewish homeland” should be. My inner child wanted a complete restoration of what once was – I was living a fantasy of having walked back through the pages of the Bible, into the land of my Fathers and Mothers and into the “Kingdom of Israel” — with King David or Solomon, take your pick, ruling from Jerusalem, the Shekinah glory of God sitting on the Temple Mount in the Jewish temple, and every ancient parcel of land firmly a land for me, for us, the Jews.
It would be so neat and tidy if it were like this. Dare I admit that while I wouldn’t have let myself think such a thought with conscious intentionality — I started having a secret wish that the whole thing would blow up, and that Israel would have an excuse to destroy the Dome of the Rock, and that some war would break out allowing armies to wipe away the Palestinians by the millions, allowing there to finally be peace in the region because, well, there’d only be Israel and no more Palestine to wrangle with.
Of course, the Palestinians have their own fantasy that works a lot like this, but in reverse. In their daydream, they rise up and push Israel into the sea. Thus there is peace in the region because there’d be no more Israel. It’s funny how dreams for peace tend to take on a tone of ethnic cleansing and ethnic Utopianism.
Of course all of this comes from a dream of what once was – the dream of returning to a time when one ethnic group had a golden era in the land. I want to have my peoples’ golden era back. I want to walk into the pages of my ancient storybook and have that world again. The Palestinians are an uncomfortable inconvenience.
But this is my fourth grade Utopian dreamer self musing. My adult self can dream of peace that doesn’t put my collective ethnic self quite as much in the center of it all. My people don’t need to have a land that has the exact same borders they had 3000 years ago. I can dream of Isaac and Ishmael dwelling together again as one family, or at least learning how to have their respective tents side by side, even as much as Martin Luther King, Jr. could have a dream of black and white kids holding hands in America.
In that day Israel will be the third, along with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing on the earth.The Lord Almighty will bless them, saying, “Blessed be Egypt my people,Assyria my handiwork, and Israel my inheritance.” – Isaiah 19, ESV
The first time I ever read Isaiah 19, tears went streaming unbidden down my face as I realized that God didn’t just love Israel and He didn’t just love Jews. He didn’t even always have Jews first – so much for all that I thought being the “chosen people” was about. It was not an affront to see this – it was a relief. It meant I could have new fantasies – fantasies where loving Palestinians, Arabs, Egyptians, Syrians, Jordanians, Iraqis – was somehow in the center of God’s plan, not peripheral to it. It meant I could care about what it meant to be a Palestinian, and what it meant to be Arab, and what it meant to be living as the unwanted party in the middle of the Jewish hopes for a restored homeland.
My adult fantasy might have about as much realism as my fourth grade Utopian fantasy. The Palestinians, Arabs, and the Jews might never get along, but at least this dream of finding a way to share the land doesn’t inflame tensions in the region and make things worse. My fourth grade ethnic pride admittedly got really excited to know that Trump proclaimed Jerusalem to be the capital of Israel; some part of me hoped as many of my evangelical friends proclaimed that, “God was working something out here despite how insane Trump is to do this.” It’s a dark fantasy – the fantasy that diplomacy is unneeded, that Jerusalem is the Jews’ merely by history and divine right, despite any developments or changes that may have occurred over the past 2000 years, and despite the history of any other people that could now also have a stake in the matter.
We can brush away those “other people” with a mere return to what once was, we wish inwardly. By reading history from 3 and 4 thousand years ago in a sacred book, we can brush those people away by pointing to prophesies about the Jews’ return from Babylonian exile and rework them so they are talking about today. We can brush away the Palestinians because there’s no room for them in our narrative, they aren’t in our Utopian dreams, they don’t get us excited about the Bible coming to life in front of us the way a conquering, abiding, reigning Jewish presence in the Holy land does. They don’t fit in our ideas of God’s covenant with Abraham, so we can brush these people away theologically. And if we brush them away enough in our fantasies and musings, we can brush them away in the types of political solutions we applaud and get excited about. To the point where our dark fantasy selves will even applaud at brutal, blood-filled military efforts to brush them away should any sort of provocation or incident give us room to happily justify it.
What then is eschatology? Eschatology becomes the working out of our Utopian desires to walk into the Biblical world from the past in some promise of the past becoming the future – but even better. In clinging to eschatology, we give ourselves permission to rejoice in other people being marginalized, removed, or destroyed for our personal fantasy of what the future should hold. It’s a glorious future, no doubt, one in which we imagine God and His Messiah receiving all sorts of glory for elevating people who come from the storybook fantasy and return it to that storybook ideal – while destroying all the people who weren’t written into the story we want to see enacted.
Or we can dream different dreams, and hold to different goals. We can even revisit our eschatology and see if there might be room in it for the past 2000 years of Palestinian history and life in the region to be included as a God-thing. Maybe.
All this to say – if your fantasy is for a perfect Israeli gestalt end to all this, I get it. I really do. I just know how dangerous it is for me to live in that mindset, and how impossible it is to be able to love this other tribe of Abraham and value them while my fantasies for a perfect Jewish world would be held out as some idyllic dream on God’s heart – and I hope to warn you too.
Forget apologetics. Forget signs and wonders. If you really want to excel at evangelism, there is one golden key worth more than all the others – LIKE the people you are reaching out to with Jesus. Since we often get really messed up with doublespeak when we talk about what it means to “love”, I’d like to submit that the real issue is whether or not we LIKE “them.” In general*, we can’t bring people to Jesus that we don’t like.
What is evangelism, first of all?
A student of Greek will quickly explain that evangelism involves sharing good news, being an ambassador, etc etc. And that’s all good and true. Evangelism is part of our kingdom role of being priests and kings. Malachi talks about one of the jobs of a priest:
“True instruction was in his mouth and unrighteousness was not found on his lips; he walked with Me in peace and uprightness, and he turned many back from iniquity. 7“For the lips of a priest should preserve knowledge, and men should seek instruction from his mouth; for he is the messenger of the LORD of hosts.”(Malachi 2:6-7)
Sharing the knowledge of God both with believers and nonbelievers is incredibly important and is our honored role in the Kingdom. I’ve heard people often quote, St. Francis in saying, “Preach the gospel, and if necessary use words.” But the reality is that words will always be necessary. We are to help people UNDERSTAND things about God, and share knowledge.
BUT – if our view of evangelism is just about TELLING people something, shoving a sign or a track or a well-rehearsed message at someone, I don’t think we’re going to get very far with real humans with that approach. At least, I never saw much come of my own efforts at evangelism when I approached people with that mindset. Evangelicalism for a long time has I think based much of its lifeless attempts at sharing the good news with people on a misapplication of one verse:
“so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” – Isaiah 55:11
This verse is often used to justify completely violating or at completely impersonal attempts at sharing Christ with people. Under this mindset, all that matters is making people hear words. It doesn’t matter if the message comes to them in any real understandable form, or if it has any personal connection to them… simply shouting at them is good enough, for God will make any words we shove at them “not return void.” Though an explanation of why that’s a bad way to read that verse is well beyond the scope of this blog post, that’s not what this verse meant when it was written, and I don’t think its what it means for us today.
LEARNING A DIFFERENT WAY
My relationship with being an emissary of the gospel really started to change a few decades back when I stopped trying to be a “good witness” (which is evangelicalism-speak for “hiding all your sins and faults from nonbelievers in order to supposedly attract them with the perfection of your life now that you are a believer in Jesus”) and instead let a non-Christian friend see me “for real,” as I shared with him the depths of the depression I was in, as well as my intense struggles with God at that time. When he suddenly up and decided that Christ was real and he wanted in on the Kingdom when I was contemplating how best to hurt myself, I started realizing that my first “convert” was teaching me something about how Christ makes Himself known to people – and it wasn’t by me being fake and seemingly having it all together in front of non-believers.
I also started learning that it wasn’t about shoving impersonal sentences at people that supposedly were “the Word of God that won’t return void” to them. Some wise person shared with me that every person in existence is already in a relationship with God, and that He has been dancing with them their entire lives, carefully cultivating a conversation with them. I started to understand that my job as an evangelist was not to plod on into that conversation like a bull in a China shop, but to respect it – and to learn to peer into how God has already been engaging with that person, and that person with God – and to enter appropriately into THAT conversation. Just as the Holy Spirit is one who “comes alongside and helps” I started to see my job as a colaborer with Christ by the Holy Spirit, agreeing with the Holy Spirit in coming alongside a person being drawn to Christ, rather than coming at them. Good evangelism is midwifery, and while some babies are born on their own, much of the time someone helps the baby along.
But how does one come “alongside” the process, already in progress, of the Father drawing someone to His Son Jesus? This is where I would say that there is no replacement for GENUINELY LIKING the people one is trying to reach.
Liking People is the Opposite of Alienating Them
It’s almost too obvious to write about, but people don’t generally want to hear what someone has to say when they sense hostility coming at them from the speaker. Instead, most humans put up walls, and get defensive. This is why standing on a street corner holding a sign and shouting, “The end is near! Repent or burn!” is probably one of the worst images that our society has of Christians…and of evangelism. It would take an extraordinarily humble person to want to subject themselves to learning from someone who approaches them full of condemnation and hostility.
But an even more subtle form of hostility that Christians present to nonbelievers comes from an “us/them” perspective. If we walk into a relationship with an us/them mindset means it we carry a type of “alienation” to the relationship with nonbelievers before we’ve even started. It puts a wall up between oneself and one’s target or uh, “victim” because us/them is a form of alienation already in play. Most of us have experienced this: when you have an “us/them” perspective in your approach to someone, they will feel like a project to you – and the person will eventually sense they are a project in the evangelist’s eyes as well. If you manage to convince the person that being a project is ideal, and a spiritual thing, then you might be able to bring them to the point of becoming your disciple where the project mentality can continue even past the point of their conversion. But generally people feel a bit creeped out at being someone’s project.
Ideally, evangelism should be “incarnational.” Incarnational has at times been a Christian buzzword, but it’s a good one. It means that neither of these two above things are in play – there is no hostility, and there is no us/them mentality. “Incarnational” describes what God did when He put on human flesh and became one of us. It sparkles; there is a closeness about it, a warmth where the one who is incarnated is identifiable and now as one of those he or she has now become. They are tangible and relatable as “one of us” now to the culture they have stepped into. In fact, we don’t just share a message, we become the message, as the apostle Paul wrote:
“It is clear that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts…”2 Cor 3:3
In order to BE the letter, we need to be able to be known, to be seen. This is true even with all our messiness; the point is that as we relate to God and He relates to us, our history with Him marks us and writes something into our souls. And this is available for those we walk with to read. This is Christ incarnated into us, even as we are incarnated into someone else’s world.
But uniquely, all the gifts and beauty of the realm from which the incarnated one has come are brought into the realm of the society and reality in which she or he is now involved…and those gifts are offered for the taking in a very personal, connected way. Someone who is incarnated brings their pre-incarnated identity into their incarnation. But incarnation is a position “in the middle” of where they are coming from and what they are stepping into; for the person who has been incarnated takes on the identity of the people he or she steps into to become, as well as the flavor, the struggles, the atmosphere and rhythm and likeness of them as well.
INCARNATION SETS US UP FOR CONNECTED SYMPATHY
As all of humanity was made in God’s image, it was because He wrote, as it were, a prophecy in human flesh of Himself which was waiting for fulfillment: we were made in His image, so that at the right time, He could come to us in our own image. And thus He did. And there were many reasons for this, many specific benefits and necessities, one of which was so He would know what is like to be us….so that He could fully relate to who we are and what we go through.
The writer of Hebrews captures this in Hebrews 4:15 – “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who was tempted in every way that we are, yet was without sin.”
And this is INTENSELY important. It brings us back to my opening point about LIKING those we want to reach. For too many years the type of Christianity I was in treated Christians as “real” people while nonbelievers weren’t worth really knowing or being friends with. They were simply objects to be captured. But as I kept trying to keep in step with the Spirit and how He was moving in someone’s heart and life, I found those people becoming real to me in a way that makes me now ashamed to admit how I treated people as evangelistic objects. When we like someone, we get to see them as a real person, valuable and truly worth being connected to, and having real friendship with. And we find ways to sympathize with what they are going through. If we can’t sympathize with the things keeping someone from seeing Christ clearly, we’re not going to reach them very easily. Examples:
I love to reach agnostics and atheists. Why? Because I genuinely ENJOY atheists and agnostics. I tend to think of atheists as one of God’s gifts to the church. When the church tries to make theology that is inhumane, or nonsensical, sometimes it takes a bunch of atheists to bring us to our senses. This doesn’t mean that every criticism or critique a nonbeliever makes will turn out to be valid. But I love the fact that these guys challenge us when we get too lost in the clouds with stuff that just doesn’t make sense.
I also can relate really well to these folks because I know what it is like to be unable to believe in something, even when I wanted to. My own testimony involved coming from a place of unbelief, struggling really hard to find out if there was “anything out there” and having a really hard time taking a leap of faith to find out. Some Christians would never believe how many atheists and agnostics have told me they really WISH they could believe in something – or that if “Someone” were there, they really wish they could know that. And especially for those folks, I get it.
And when I hear people bash atheists as if they are somehow deliberately in rebellion against God, that there is something ugly and hateful about someone honest enough about their doubts as to say, “I don’t know if God is real” or, “I’m pretty sure he isn’t there”, it really upsets me. I would rush to most atheists defense in a moment, because many of them are intensely truth-hungry people that I just want to help them find how to truly find Him, and the army of rancorous Christians shouting at them about how horrid they supposedly are sure doesn’t help.
You’re not going to win an atheist or agnostic to Christ by telling them that God doesn’t care about how they try to be a moral person; they were never being moral for the sake of God anyway. You’re not going to draw them in by telling them by telling them that without God they have no basis for ethics or morality, because they know you’re wrong. Quoting at them from a completely different context out of the book of psalms the verse, “The fool says in his heart there is no God,” just affirms to them that you hate them, that you call them a fool, and you’re quoting at them from a book they can’t relate to anyway. Again, all you’re doing is putting up that wall of alienation and hostility for them that Christ died to take down. And that is the opposite of the incarnation. And besides, Jesus gave dire warnings about calling someone a fool.
We can win atheists and agnostics to Christ by putting ourselves in their shoes, being honest with ourselves about our own doubts and difficulties at times walking in faith. We empathize with them by being a real friend and letting them see our real struggles – and victories – with Christ. We sympathize with them by walking with them through their questions about God, being honest about not having all the answers for them, while appreciating these people for who they are and what they bring into our lives, and how God is using them before they even know Him. We show Him to them by just being who you are in a real way, talking about Him and His truth in authentic contextual ways that are real to our lives, and giving them all the room in the world to do the same – knowing that a real God is lighting the way forward for you and them together to figure it out.
One of the surest ways NOT to draw Muslims to Christ is to have all sorts of ideas about them. I continually run across evangelicals that think they’ve got the “Muslim thing” figured out because they’ve learned about a half dozen ugly statements from the Koran about hating infidels or something. They also tend to approach those verses in the Koran the way Christians approach their own Bibles – not realizing that Muslims may have their own reasons for approaching those texts differently (just as Christians have their own reasons for approaching Deuteronomy differently than nonbelievers often assume they do.) But none of that really is the point anyway – you can’t learn a culture just by studying some of its documents ; you learn a culture by hanging out with people.
You can read the Koran from cover to cover 1000 times and still understand next to nothing about muslims, because to some degree, it doesn’t matter what a holy book says – it matters how the people who believe in it interpret it and live it out (or don’t live it out.) There are many, many cultural things that affect how any particular Muslim will view themselves as a Muslim, and view the teachings of the Koran. There are various nationalities, various sects in those nationalities, various levels of commitment, various understandings of how to interpret the Koran, and there is folk Islam with its own sets of beliefs. There are militant Muslims, there are devout yet peaceful Muslims, there are disinterested Muslims and disaffected Muslims. And just as there are many different cultures of Christians (nominal Catholics, Bible banging Baptists, serious Catholics, liberal Baptists) there are many many different categories, movements, and personalities of Muslims.
But no matter what, one can’t LIKE a Muslim without hanging out with him or her and really getting to know them. As long as Christians regard Muslims as “the enemy” rather than approaching them as their next best friend, one will never have the privilege of getting to be part of their Islamic friends’ exploration of their own prophet, Isa (Jesus).
But this requires learning to LIKE Muslims. I have found that practicing Muslims are inspiring in their adoration and love for God. Their reverence and awe for Him are beautiful, the way they seek to involve Allah (and even Christian Arabs call God, Allah) in everyday life puts many Christians to shame. One thing that seems to be fairly universal however is the importance placed on hospitality; if you can let yourself be invited in, the value of hospitality in this culture in many cases completely transcends any anti-Christian sentiment you might fear your Muslim friend might hold towards you. Muslims tend to value their guests very highly, and its a great way to get to know them and learn all the things there are to like about them.
And as far as sympathizing goes; I know what it is like to have a works’ mindset in approaching God, and I think many Christians have at some point in their relationship with God a similar experience from which to relate to Muslim religious experience. Instead of judging devout Muslims for approaching God with a works mindset, I find myself being reminded of how I’ve struggled with the same thing, both before and after knowing Christ. And many Muslims are not necessarily even approaching God that way either – it’s important to get to know what is actually going on in the lives of one’s friends.
On the flip side, I’ve met young Muslims so in rebellion against the teaching of their parents that they were taking steps with their lives that the God who cares for them would not want them to take. Sometimes sharing my own sins and stupid decisions and how “Allah knows best” (Allah is just the Arabic word for God) is the best way I know how to help a Muslim-culture friend care about knowing God – and Jesus – when everything about God seems irrelevant to them.
WHOEVER IT IS, LIKE THEM
The main point is, we will be most effective with the people we like enough to truly relate to them, and probably be completely ineffective with people who we are only sharing Christ with as some sort of a duty, or some sort of niche on our Christian-y belts. I’m also not writing this to give folks an excuse to shrug off reaching out to people they don’t LIKE or don’t GET. But instead, I’m writing this as an encouragement and a challenge to the church to stop making ourselves “feel good” by how we can look down on those “foolish, God-hating Atheists”, or those “evil satanic Muslims.”
Joshua and Caleb set themselves apart from the other men who “spied out the land” of Canaan because they liked the land they saw, and they thought it was a good land that God was ready to give them. The other spies looked at the land as being too full of strongholds for their trouble. Likewise, do we approach people like they are cherished and beloved by God, and that the things keeping them from Christ are not that big of a deal? Do we find them delightful and enjoyable and know they are a hair’s breadth away from the Kingdom, and that God is near them? Or do we put up walls of fear and hostility that just don’t need to be there, which alienate us from them and them from us, ultimately cutting us off from our inheritance and the blessing of walking in Kingdom relationship with them?
We’re called like Jesus to love and serve people, and one of the biggest differences from serving someone from a place of superiority verses authentic incarnationality comes down to one thing: Do we authentically like them? If not, I do think it’s worth asking God to show us how.
* Footnote from first paragraph: I say, “in general” because, heck, God can do anything and when God is really moving in someone’s life, they may not need much human involvement at all – whether you or I hate them or like them may be completely immaterial. But in most cases, we’re talking about the actual action of evangelism here, where we are the tour guides taking someone by the hand and showing them all the sights along the way and leading up to an encounter with the cross and the resurrected Christ.)
My aunt, as long as I’ve known her has always been an extremely liberal Democrat and a staunch atheist. That is, until a couple who were planting a church in her housing development befriended her and invited her to start attending their church.
At first it seemed like an unprecedented change was happening in my aunt’s life. I couldn’t believe she had even said yes to the invitation, but somehow going to church became intriguing to her, and from there it was only a few months later that she told me, with daring and nervous tones, that she no longer considered herself an atheist. She told me wasn’t quite ready to believe in a “personal God” and didn’t yet know what to do with Jesus, but that she had decided that there was “something out there.” From my theist perspective, having known my aunt my entire life, this was unprecedented progress. She laughed at herself as she agreed with me at the change in her viewpoint that she had never thought possible.
And she kept going. Something was drawing her to continue going to this church, even though she told me their Republican-sounding views on Israel she found somewhat annoying to her liberal, secular Jewish sensibilities. But she found it something she could overlook, and continued fellowshipping with her friends.
Until Trump was elected. As his magic pen signed executive order after executive order, the leadership of her church rejoiced and extolled that the man they had helped elect was taking what they considered to be such glorious stands for righteous lawmaking.
My aunt, still reeling with grief about the fact that this man was even in office, was repulsed beyond measure that the leaders of the church she had come to call home had not only helped elect him, but were proclaiming the very executive orders that sickened her and kept her up at night worrying about the future of the world were their pride and joy in the man.
She quit going to church, and now tells me she has a real ax to grind with Christians for ruining the country.
Another story, if you’ll allow me:
I knew a man named John, he was a brilliant concert pianist who had destroyed his life with drugs and alcohol. My friend Rob, who was John’s brother, told me that he could barely believe his ears when this brother he had prayed for his entire life suddenly asked him one day on the phone to buy him a Bible. By some very strange event, John, who was now in his mid-60s, after spending a life carousing and studying all types of philosophies and intellectual pursuits through a drug-induced haze, had met a Korean pastor in a McDonald’s one morning. Somehow the pastor managed to entice him to come to his church – and John became a regular, going to Bible studies regularly.
John attended this church and incredibly enough, gave his life to Christ.
But then, he started to tell me and Rob that he needed to find a new church. Apparently the church had started railing against legislation that had been passed allowing homosexual couples to marry; and John, who had dabbled in homosexual relationships in his life and said, “I think it was wrong what I did, and I don’t want to live that way anymore, but I just can’t agree with the way they are talking about people who are gays and lesbians and the way they want to make laws against them. And it’s not just that: I’m also bothered by the way they keep holding these classes teaching pseudoscience trying to prove evolution isn’t true.”
The “moral” of both these stories:
I think the evangelical church has some serious questions to ask itself…the biggest one being,
“Does someone have to have a Republican view of politics to feel comfortable finding Jesus with you?”
Have we gotten ourselves so confused that we don’t even know the difference between presenting the Bible and the gospel to people and what our derived viewpoints are that are actually just Republican or Democrat?
Are we comfortable in creating a church culture where a political platform and leanings are so married together with what it means to follow Jesus, that if someone wants to find God and Jesus in your church it will be presented to them that they can’t really do that without accepting Republican beliefs too?
I suppose liberal and progressive churches can ask themselves the same question in reverse. I know many churches where Republicans coming into the church will find themselves inundated with so many leftist ideas of what it means to follow Jesus that they may well walk out of your church before they’ve really had a chance to know much more about Him. But this is not the norm as much as the conservative version of this, so I aimed this blog post more at my conservative friends and thus I ask:
Do we expect that as soon as someone begins to open their hearts to Jesus and finds His message and work attractive, that they will immediately adopt our church’s version of political leanings? Have we taken the typical salvation message and added to it our political leanings, thus essentially saying,
“Accept Christ into your heart, and please change your voting registration to Republican or go find other friends to fellowship with?”
(And how soon after ….or even before….accepting Christ are we assuming peoples’ political viewpoints should become the same as ours?)
I fear our emphasis on “politics emanating from our understanding of the Bible” has created a situation where, we’ve conflated teaching people to be Jesus’s disciples with teaching them they have to vote the platform of a particular party, or they may as well leave our churches because we don’t need Christians that think like THAT – that “other party’s” way of thinking.
Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians against factions and parties in the church. At that time the issue was parties arising over spiritual leaders in the church, not political ones. He called such party thinking “carnal” – fleshly, unspiritual. I don’t think he ever imagined the church would divide up over something even beyond that – earthly politics.
If his answer to that was “all things are yours” – the very name of this blog, in fact, is there something to be said for the idea that both the Republican parties and the Democratic parties in the USA might have ideas on BOTH sides of the fence that the church could see Jesus agreeing with? Perhaps ALL things really are ours? (After all, Jesus did ride into Jerusalem on a donkey, not an elephant. Ok, bad joke…)
That will take some really outside-the-box we’ve created for ourselves thinking. Until we can go there, let’s not forget that there is something to be said for creating a church culture that has something of this at its heart:
“And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God.For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (1 Corinthians 2:1-2)
Otherwise, we end up promoting one of the kingdoms of this world – the Republican kingdom (driving away all the Democrats from Jesus and our churches) or the Democrat kingdom (driving away all the Republicans from Jesus and our churches) – not to mention all the independents and Third Party folks among us too. All of these kingdoms are the kingdom of our God, and His Christ, Jesus – He’s at work in all of them, and owns all of them. So let’s learn to reflectively listen to the various perspectives represented by people in our society, and make sure the only thing that someone would be sick of if they decide to leave our churches, is Him… not our love affair with some party platform (or our hatred of it either.)
A few years back I lost my job, in a traumatic burn-out on the level that caused me to retire permanently from teaching and shake with anxiety and fear every time I even tried to explain the struggles of my career to anyone. (Actually, I had to quit my job, but the reasons were so compelling that unemployment found in my favor and started paying me for job loss.) Even though I was on unemployment, I could no longer afford my apartment and in a perfect storm of weird dynamics within a church I had been in that was crumbling, and abusive family dynamics, I found myself faced with two choices: live in a homeless shelter or live with my boyfriend. My boyfriend and I chose the latter.
Evangelical and others’ viewpoints on the matter:
Among charismatic evangelical Christians (which is my spiritual background) this was absolutely a no-no. In the Pentecostal world there is a name for this: it’s called, “shacking up.” Shacking up is denounced loudly in sermons without so much as a Bible verse mentioned as to why it is deemed absolutely hideously unacceptable, but the assumption is that you’re having sex. And even if you’re not, by living together you’re violating another one of the great, immoral, evangelical rules: “Having the appearance of evil.” Merely “appearing” evil is as great of an evil to Christians as doing the evil itself.
Except to those outside the evangelical community, it doesn’t come across as evil. Non-Christians, at least the average Western nonbelievers, absolutely don’t care or find anything at all questionable, immoral, or indecent about two unmarried people living with one another, nor even with them having sex. To them it is not only normal, but wholesome. So it is not nonbelievers that find the appearance of two people living together to be potentially evil. It is exclusively Christians for whom the appearances thing is an issue.
The fact is, the Bible verse that Christians often use to say that Christians need to be careful to not “look” like they are doing anything immoral really shouldn’t begin to be understood that way. That Bible verse isn’t saying, “avoid looking sinful.” It’s saying, “wherever evil appears, avoid it.” Click here for a better explanation.
But beyond considerations of what the verse says or doesn’t say, the concern ultimately is a concern about sexual purity between unmarried persons. Religious cultures however have a long-standing fear of men and women being alone in a home or room together. Orthodox Judaism has a rule called Yichud which means that any time a man and a woman are alone in a space together, it can be assumed that sex has occurred. Billy Graham (and now, by extension, Vice President Mike Pence) had a rule that he would never be alone with a woman in any setting, not in his office or out at lunch. The irony is that religious culture, in its quest to prevent sex, often ends up looking like it is obsessed with sex, albeit preventing it. And often law triumphs over mercy.
So…I moved in with my boyfriend. Was it a great idea? No.
If I had any other option that I could have emotionally handled at the time (moving in with strangers or living in a homeless shelter were not things that I could have handled in the midst of the upheaval of job loss and other things going on. Call me emotionally weak if you want, because I was…) I would have done so. If there were friends who would have allowed me to move in with them while I had no money left from my measily unemployment check to pay them for rent, I would have. Do I recommend after reading this blog post that others go home and move in with their fiance’s or boyfriend/girlfriends? No.
The choice carries with it all sorts of emotional complications, not to mention bearing total shame in front of one’s faith community, that stigmatizes people who “shack up.” As our relationship hit the rocks that other couples living together (read, newly married people) would hit, we were without the help and resources of counseling that others trying to share a household in the context of an intimate (emotionally intimate) would have had in our context – because we were not yet married. It strained us to the point of calling off our wedding plans because we both became unsure of our future together.
But aside from our faith communities, there are others that instantly have the wrong idea when you tell them you are living with a domestic partner, in ways that sometimes make me wonder what century I live in. As we sat in the secular counselor’s office (since we couldn’t go to faith-based counseling, although some well-intentioned friends were helpful) she asked us about our sex life. We told her that while we had a very sweet time cuddling, that we did not as yet have a “sex” life as we were both committed to waiting until marriage for sex. But I learned most people think:
Men’s sex drives are an issue, women’s are considered a non-issue.
She then asked my boyfriend, who had previously told her moments earlier that this was his conviction as well, “How are you handling going without sex?” She never posed the same question to me. In instance after instance, my boyfriend was asked by various people how he is holding up in a relationship without sex.
I have never been asked the same question – never – neither by men nor by women. It is assumed somehow that a woman has no desire for sex? In Judaism, it is interesting that sex is considered a woman’s right, not a man’s. It is her right to have children, or at least to attempt to have children.
While everyone was busy asking my boyfriend how he was enduring the supposedly awful ordeal – assumably imposed by me – of not having sex, no one was asking me about the tears cried into my pillow regularly about forced infertility being a relationship that was not coming to completion in marriage. Not to mention the fact that shouldn’t have to be mentioned: women have a sex drive too. The assumption that male pleasure and temptation was somehow always an issue and female pleasure and temptation somehow just doesn’t exist was something I found passively insulting, to say the least.
Not that I wanted to break our mutually-enforced rule of chastity either – despite my libido, my convictions about sex before marriage are still stronger than my sex drive. But, there is something in both secular society and religious culture that acts as though self-control doesn’t exist as a thing.That the only way to explain abstinence is by absence of desire.
While no one ever asked me if I minded going without sex, there were several who asked me if I thought my boyfriend might be gay. Again, not having sex is all about the male party….but this question is one that betrays the assumption that not having sex is only possible if one doesn’t want it. There does not seem to be a narrative in either the church or the world in which two people can very much want it, but for one reason or another decide not to do it – while being alone in a room together.
Is it possible? Definitely yes. Is it ideal? No. I wholeheartedly affirm that ideally – two people have a marriage covenant together and can let their wildest sexual pleasures and fantasies with each other find a whole range of beautiful expression, while having babies and providing emotional security with one another, in the context of the joyous partnership of sharing a home.
But we live in a world that is not always ideal,
where sometimes the only person who loves and cares enough for you to keep you off the street or help you find your way is someone of the opposite sex whom you are not yet married to. I’m grateful for the love shown during our confusing relationship of non-marital cohabitation, and for the commitment to abstinence that both of us held on to. And I sincerely hope that as I go on from here, I can be open about this part of my past – even though it hardly counts as a “past” – without being seen as not-really-a-serious-Christian because of it. Although doubtlessly, that will be the case for some.
(I should add that we eventually found a faith community to be part of that was non-charismatic but accepted our situation without misjudging our situation, and yet offered us pastoral counseling in the midst of it.)
A long time ago I wrote a post called, “A Different Kind of Obedience” and posted it here. It wasn’t terribly noticed as a blog post – but an odd thing has happened since I wrote it. It is the number one “searched for” post on my blog. For some reason, a lot of people seem to be typing into search engines, “Kinds of Obedience” and “Types of Obedience” and end up on that post because of that search.
I’m intrigued by this – honestly I never thought that people would go searching for those terms all that often, but apparently, according to my blog statistics, they are. So I say, let’s give the people what they want, and talk some more about different types of obedience to God! 🙂
BEFORE YOU CAN OBEY, YOU NEED TO KNOW HOW TO HEAR HIS VOICE
First of all, before we can talk about types of obedience, the most important thing is to have a relationship with God and to have learned how to connect with Him through Jesus, and to hear His voice. I am busy writing some blog posts on the topic of hearing God, but until I have them finished, I will point you to another resource, the AKOUO page. AKOUO has an entire course (for free) about learning to hear God’s voice. You can’t obey Him if you can’t hear Him, and you need a relationship with Jesus to be able to hear Him reliably (or else it gets very confusing as to whether it’s God’s voice or the enemy’s voice – Jesus is the way through that.)
The blog post I mentioned above I think is probably the best thing that I personally have to say on the topic of obedience to God, so if you’re someone who has googled “types of obedience” then by all means, read that post. But here is another little bit of thinking I’ve done on the topic –
And that is, that obedience really differs in difficulty according to what is being asked of us according to a few factors. One factor is whether or not we know how to do what God is asking us to do. Being asked to do something you are good at and like to do and have the means to do is very different than the type of challenge someone faces if they believe God is asking them to do something they don’t know how to do, or don’t like doing, or don’t know how to get the means to do it.
Another factor is if we know the probable outcome. Do we think the outcome of obeying what God is saying is something we will enjoy? Or is it something that seems like it might turn out badly but God is telling us to do it anyway? Or do we have no idea what the reason or outcome of our obedience might be?
Putting these factors together into a scale, I’ve come up with:
7 types of obedience to God:
Type one: You know how to obey, and know the results will be pleasant
You are led to do something where you clearly can see the intended outcome of your actions and that outcome is clearly going to be overwhelmingly positive. You also know how to do this thing and it is fully within your power. The only thing at stake is diligence on your end.
Type two: You’re not sure how to obey, but know the results will be pleasant
You are led to do something difficult that you aren’t sure you fully know how to do. However, you can see that it will have a positive outcome on all counts.
Type three: You know how to obey, but don’t know the reason or outcome.
You are led to do something easy but you don’t know why or what it would accomplish. However, you know the Lord is asking you to do it.
Type four: You’re not sure how to obey, and don’t know the reason or outcome.
You are led to do something difficult that you aren’t fully sure how to do it, and you don’t know why or what it will accomplish. But you know the Lord is asking you to do it.
Type five: You know how to obey, but know the outcomes could be both pleasant and unpleasant
You are led to do something that clearly will have positive outcomes but may result in other negative outcomes as well. You may fully understand why, and it is a choice of whether or not you are willing to bear the negative outcomes for the sake of the positive ones. If you can’t see any positive outcomes at all, it’s probably not God asking you to do this thing – God always has a good purpose, and if there is no good purpose at all then it is usually not God asking you to do this thing.
Type six: You know how to obey, but don’t know why and know the results will be very unpleasant.
You are asked to do something that makes absolutely no sense to you whatsoever, but you clearly know what it is you are to do. It is also very clear that some seriously negative ramifications will come as a result of your actions.
Type seven: You’re not clear on how to obey, and you don’t know what will happen when you do.
You have a vague awareness of what you are being asked to do but some details are missing and you aren’t sure you fully know what you are to do. Outcomes are also unclear.
Of course, if things are all the way at type seven, you might want to consider that you are just not ready yet to obey this instruction, and ask God for more clarification. But sometimes, sometimes the Lord’s clarification will be, “Just do what I am telling you.” Sometimes His clarification will be more conversation on the topic than that. When all else fails – read the other article! 🙂
And one of these days – I’ll have published the article series I’m working on that goes into the HOWS of even hearing God’s voice. So, stay tuned!
I like to observe trends in the body of Christ and keep an eye out for what God is doing, and since I hang out in and around various “prayer movements” I have been intrigued by what I see happening with prayer when it comes to engaging with those outside the church.
I’m noticing what I think is something of a scale or range in how praying for people outside the body of Christ to know Jesus engages with those very “stake-holders.” By stake-holders, I mean that “the people the prayers are aimed at reaching or helping know God better”, since they are ultimately the folks who have the greatest stake in how the prayer plays out! 🙂
So with no further intro, here is the scale that I think we are seeing:
(Type 1) Evangelism of some type or another, with little to no specific prayer
I hope this type is somewhat rare, but I know it is out there. Taking a cue from verses such as, “I am not ashamed of the gospel for it is the power of God to salvation for them that believe,” there are workers in the body of Christ who consider prayer to be a small trivial piece of their engagement with the world. “All that matters is sharing the gospel – and since in and of itself, the gospel is powerful, there doesn’t NEED to be any prayer involved in sharing it with people” is the mindset this set brings to evangelism.
While in my experience, people proceeding on this basis often find evangelism to be a lot of effort for a tiny bit of headway, I can’t deny that there is a tiny itsy bitsy morsel of truth here. I consider the verse to, “preach the Word! Be ready in season and out of season…” to somewhat describe what is happening here. Without prayer, it will almost always be something of an “out of season” activity to preach the Word, but hey, even that sometimes helps people. (And if the ‘preaching’ is done without BEING preachy – with cultural sensitivity, and real engagement with people, and acts of kindness and justice – so much the better.)
(Type 2) Prayer for “workers to be sent” into the harvest field.
This type of prayer has a pretty explicit scriptural basis and takes many forms – whether it is praying for workers to be sent, or praying for workers to have strength or provision or an open door into a culture. Prayer of all types involving workers comes into this category – praying for safety, praying for strategy, praying for workers to find spouses or ministry partners or have happy marriages so they can be their best while reaching a group of people evangelistically – there are all sorts of ways to pray for workers. This prayer focuses on Jesus being the Lord of His own growth strategy – and honoring Him in that by asking Him to direct and provide for His body as they are led by Him in this endeavor.
Prayer for the body of Christ itself can often fall into this category – as praying for the body of Christ to be strengthened, equipped, strategic, obedience, unified, etc, is in some way a prayer for everyone who represents Christ in an area, when people who approach evangelism in a mostly category #1 sort of way may also engage in this type of prayer, as even a simple prayer to “help me find the person you want me to talk to today, Jesus” is, technically, this type of prayer – a prayer for the worker themselves as they are sent. But this type of prayer is only in the beginning part of the range of the evangelism/prayer spectrum, because there is no direct engagement of prayer here with the actual stakeholders – those who are to be met with the gospel.
(Type 3) Prayer in a room somewhere for people but – mostly about peoples’ lifestyles, rather than their ability to believe in Christ.
Now the prayer starts to focus in on the stakeholders, as prayers are actually being aimed on their behalf, directly. In this case, what does this look like? Praying against crime in a city, praying for people to choose certain political candidates, praying for peoples’ minds to be changed to something “better” on a specific topic whether political or otherwise.
The word “repent” means to “change one’s mind” so essentially these are prayers for repentance. It’s hard to find much explicit Biblical precedent for this, as there are not many clear examples of people praying for other people to act or think a certain way – although assumably, praying “for those in authority” per 1 Timothy 2:2 would include prayers for rulers to have divine wisdom to make good choices. And there are other non-explicit rationales that can be gathered from Scripture that there might actually be some value to praying this way. 1 Timothy 2:1 simply says to “pray for all people” with petitions, prayers, and thanksgiving – which seems to open the door wide to pray for basically anything that might improve their lives. 2 Timothy 2:25 contains nothing whatsoever about prayer, but does mention the idea that God grants repentance – so if repentance comes from God, then it’s not a leap of logic to decide petitioning him to move over people in that way is not beyond reasonable.
Declaring the wisdom of God in the cross of Jesus in prayer and worship also has an effect on the spiritual powers over a region, too, so if a group of people know what they are doing there is some value in tackling the spiritual “winds” blowing over the minds of people in an area. However, thankfully, most groups that pray in this way tend to mix other forms of prayer into the mix, which we’ll talk about next.
(Type 4) Prayer in a room somewhere – or sometimes at a specific strategic location – specifically for Christ to be made known to those who don’t know Him.
This probably makes up the bulk of prayer that intercessory prayer groups engage in for our non-believing “stakeholders.” Surprisingly, however, there is again in this category not much ‘explicit’ command or example in Scripture about praying for people to know Jesus. Most of the prayers about peoples’ minds being enlighted to see or know Jesus better in the New Testament, were not actually prayers for those outside the church, but were prayers for folks who already believed in Jesus to know and see Him better.
However I don’t believe there is no scriptural support whatsoever for praying for nonbelievers – it just doesn’t show up in the Bible with the intensity or frequency we might think it should, and this is worth considering. Of course 1 Timothy 2:1, the verse we saw in Category 3 which talks about praying for all people, certainly still applies to praying for them to come to faith in Christ in some way or another. Category 4 here would include prayers for “revival”, and Acts 3:9 talks about turning “to God” as being a step before he sends “refreshing,” there is some evidence here for the idea of believers “turning to God in prayer” being a precursor to something that might end up bigger than the initial “turning to God,” – in this case, “refreshing” – as a result. Identificational repentance – where believers in God repent on behalf of those in their city or region – would seem to also be in this category. And anecdotally – and historically – many, many believers testify that they have seen amazing outcomes when they have prayed specifically FOR the people they are trying to reach with the gospel.
Watchman Nee once made a list of all of his friends that he wanted to share Jesus with, and after being frustrated by seeing not one of them come to faith, his mentor advised him to start praying for that list daily. In a short time after he began to pray, almost the entire list had come to faith in Christ.
(Type 5) Encountering people and praying for them where you meet them.
This takes things up a notch in terms of interaction of the people doing the praying, with the actual stakeholders that are receiving prayer. Instead of praying for people in a room somewhere, this is when believers offer to pray for people – nonbelievers included – wherever they have had a meaningful encounter with someone.
The newest prophetic evangelism approach called “Treasure Hunts” often involves people finding people on the street somewhere and striking up a conversation that results in praying for someone’s needs then and there. This brings prayer TO the people who need it, as well as to God, and creates a bridge between someone who might not know how to pray for themselves, and God. The people offering prayer are therefore doing a priestly function of ministering both to people and to God in prayer on behalf of those people. This is where prayer first starts to directly turn into evangelism, as sharing the good news of Jesus with people and praying for them become in some ways one united action.
(Type 6) Creating opportunities where people who are foreign to prayer are invited and enabled to begin praying to Him themselves.
This is a trend that some groups have begun exploring and the beautiful thing in this is that it goes beyond all the other steps in that the medium really becomes the message – stakeholders are brought right into the adventure of engaging with God, and isn’t that right where things need to go at some point? I was once with a group at the University of Pennsylvania who did something called “Prayer Week” where they set up a tent in the center of campus and posted signs around it inviting people to come inside and explore prayer. Once inside, they were greeted with gentle worship music, drawing supplies, 3×5 cards and pens to write prayers on and post on the walls, and papers explaining ideas about how to engage with God, as well as other people who were praying or ready to help orient them in how to begin praying. For a great example of what this can look like, read this story about a prayer space in a school in the Congo. In some ways this is discipleship, prayer, and evangelism all tied into one – people are given an opportunity to come to God and thus develop a hunger to know Him better, which can sensitize them to a need for Jesus who is the one who provides direct access to the Father’s presence.
So there you have a it – a scale from Type 1 to Type 6 of how prayer and evangelism can intersect.
And even though Type 6 is the most engaged with the people who are the topic of the prayers – because they themselves do the praying – the reality is that all those have their place somewhere along the way as the body of Christ walks out its priestly role to make God and His Christ known to all the Earth.
In various circles that I participate in, multitudes of books and sermons have been coming out lately about the need to be “unoffendable.” The idea being, that anytime someone feels snubbed, hurt, bothered, upset, overly concerned, or even in some cases, abused – by those in their circle (or particularly leadership in a church), in a word, “offended”- they are told they are exhibiting a very unwanted, unBiblical, and wrong disposition. Thus the fault lies with them more than whomever they are daring to be “offended” by or with. There is this idea that everyone should treat absolutely everything like water off a duck’s back.
Ok, this idea of being “unoffendable” – I want to call it what it is: the uniquely Christian version of gaslighting. I hope you don’t find that too offensive!
So, if you’re not familiar with what “gaslighting” is, stop here and click through to read about it. Generally in the secular world, we hear about gaslighting most often in reference to when men belittle the concerns of women with whom they are in a relationship.
But gaslighting is not something that only occurs between men and women – it occurs anytime one person is trying to silence people around them who object in some way to their behavior. This can be on a small scale where a coworker is ruling the roost in an office, or one person is ruling the roost in a group of friends, and of course can exist where a leader in Christian group does not want to be vulnerable or approachable by people bringing even helpful forms of criticism.
Sad to say that in the short term, it’s soooo much easier to create a culture in a group of people where everyone is conditioned to believe that anytime they feel hurt, bothered, concerned, etc. with someone’s behavior, they have committed a fault in their own souls called, “being offended” – than to do the hard work of creating a culture that holds together and works through managing tension, conflict, and confrontation in a healthy, productive way.
Of course this doctrine of “being unoffendable” doesn’t come out of nowhere. There are numerous verses in the New Testament where the word “offended” is used in a way that, without really examining the use and meaning of the word, a doctrine can be built that “being offended” is generally a bad thing. And, there are times when “being offended” is a very bad thing – namely, when we are offended by things that are righteous. That is one place we really do want to cultivate an “unoffendable” heart – just as Jesus said in Matthew 11:6 – “And blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in me.” Ironically, one of the most important things in life to “not be offended” by is when someone else comes and shares with us how we have wronged them!
Misunderstanding the Biblical Word for OFFEND
But most of this, “Do not be offended, ever,” doctrine I do believe comes from a misunderstanding of the way the word “offended” is used in scripture. For instance, one friend of mine talked about Psalm 119:165 which reads in the KJV, “Great peace have they which love Thy law; and nothing shall offend them.” She pronounced that people who were offended at her for things she had done were just demonstrating that they had no love for God’s laws! How convenient to be able to proclaim that any hurt or harm one is accused of causing to others is simply because those others are unspiritual!
But the use of the word “offend” in this verse does not translate easily into our modern vernacular use of the word and other Bible versions than the KJV do a better job translating it to what it really means: that nothing shall cause someone to stumble and sin. For a whole long word study of the term “offend” or “offense” in scripture, click here.
In general, also, the Bible says a lot more against people who CAUSE others to “offend”, than against the person who is “offended.” It’s sort of backwards towards what is commonly taught.Luke 17:11 – “He said to His disciples, “Offenses will certainly come, but woe to the one they come through! “
So if “being offended” really was wrong (and it isn’t, as we’ll discuss in the next paragraph), the person whom you are offended BY would be much more in the wrong for causing someone to become offended at them! This isn’t how it really works, but if we were to translate “offend” in a normal English way, that’s what we would end up with.
The Luke 17:11 verse above is translated much better by the ESV, however, which reads, “Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come!” Here there is no mention of the word “offend” – as it is all about temptation to fall into sin, sin of ANY type – temptation to steal, lie, mistreat others, have immoral sexual relationships, etc. and it has nothing at all to do with “being offended” once the word is translated properly.
So am I saying it’s OK to be offended?
Well, I’m saying it’s the wrong question to be asking. No one should make an issue about whether or not someone is offended by something, as if it is the fact that someone is “offended” which is the problem. To concern ourselves over whether or not someone should be allowed the audacity to be hurt, angry, concerned, or upset as if that in and of itself is the problem (which is needlessly meta-) rather than with WHY they are offended is not going to be very productive for anyone involved.
Jesus said that if someone sins against us, we’re to go to that person, one on one, and discuss it with them. He didn’t say, “Don’t be bothered by what they did to you, just pray about it and don’t let yourself be hurt or upset.” Never did He say such a thing. He said to go to them and talk about what you feel they did wrong, one on one.
So if you are the person that someone feels has wronged them, there are some good ways to respond, and some not-so-good ways.
Since Jesus said for people to approach you about how they feel you’ve wronged them, one-on-one, one of the worst things you can do (and people do this sometimes) is to refuse to be available one-on-one. Don’t insist that you’ll only meet with the offended person with another person present of your own choosing, unless you honestly fear for your bodily safety. (Matthew 18 prescribes a time when you’ll meet with others if the one-on-one meeting doesn’t work out.) Don’t quit returning phone calls or emails when someone wants to talk something out with you.
Don’t belittle the person or use manipulative tactics of telling them they are “too sensitive” or that they have no room because of some sin in their own heart or life that makes you unwilling to hear about your own. This is back to gaslighting, which I discussed above. Don’t tell them that Jesus demands they forgive you (because truly it is never the place of the offending party to demand someone forgive them.)
Instead, try to hear where this person is coming from – be humble and willing to examine your own self through their eyes. No one said confrontation is supposed to be comfortable, but rise to the occasion, and talk out honestly with that person why you did what you did, being willing to admit your own faults in the matter and ultimately hear from them and admit how your actions have affected them. That’s so basic that it shouldn’t even have to be said – but, unfortunately, it does.
And, if you are the person who is offended at someone, there are good and bad ways to handle that too.
Do not refuse to allow yourself emotions on the topic – but do not let your emotions flare unnecessarily hot, either. Keep yourself level headed enough that you can discuss the matter with the person who has offended you in such a way as to win them over – to help them see the problem or pain they are causing, but not to pour out revenge on them by making them feel your wrath. There is a fine line between showing someone they have hurt you in order to bring them to their senses, and showing them how upset you are in order to get back at them and vent on them. (I’ve definitely been the venting one at times, in the interest of full disclosure – so learn from my mistakes!)
If they don’t hear you, then Matthew 18 says to return with other people to try talking to them as well.
And a Word to Third Parties…
But finally, if you are a third party – you are neither the person whose words or actions have been “offensive” nor the person who is “offended” – you are probably one of the most important people in this whole situation, believe it or not. When schools teach about the dynamics that go on with “bullying” they will often talk about the role of bystanders and how bystanders create the environment for people to be treated wrongly.
Unfortunately, we have a lot of bystanders in the body of Christ – who see or hear about people mistreated by others and figure it’s not their place to get involved. In the beginning, it isn’t usually your role to get involved, other than to encourage people to talk things out, one-on-one. But in Matthew 18, when one person feels sinned against by another person and they’ve tried to talk things out and that conversation has failed, the wounded person is told to bring one or two others to get involved.
If you’re called upon at that point to get involved, you can be healing balm to both parties by sitting down with the two people in conflict, as Jesus prescribed – and talking things out. Mediation is held as a high value in scripture.
But you will lose the opportunity to be that healing person if you –
-Insist the wounded person go back and try again and again to work it out “one on one” when they’ve already tried that.
-Judge the situation before you’ve heard BOTH sides by telling the victim/accuser that they “should forgive and not be offended” before there has been any resolution or hearing on what has gone wrong
-Judge the situation before you’ve heard BOTH sides by letting yourself become a new “offended person” on the offended person’s behalf, who is now launching themselves at the accused, rather than mediating between the two parties (unless you were present when the wrong was done and know what happened first hand.)
-Refuse to get involved because it’s “not your business” or you don’t want to lose a friend
-Gossip to other people about the situation other than the handful of people who are involved. In a Matthew 18 situation, the rightfully involved people are 3 or 4: the person who feels wronged, and the person accused of doing wrong, and the 1 or 2 others that the wronged person is instructed to bring along with them.
Most of the time, Matthew 18 (Jesus’s instructions) never gets carried out correctly because of a lack of willing bystanders to follow Matthew 18 in HOW they get involved. The goal of Matthew 18 is correction, restoration and healing of all those involved – and when mediation doesn’t happen, often instead of restoration and healing we just end up with more of a mess.
At any rate, let’s stop defeating ourselves from handling conflict in a meaningful and constructive way in the body by saying that people just “shouldn’t be offended.” In most cases, that just ends up creating an environment that grows more and more dysfunctional by the day. Let’s deal with offense in a way that helps us all learn and grow from it, in a way that shows we’re a family and what we all do really has an effect on each other. And let’s stop silencing possible victims of our thoughtlessness or whatever other thing we may be doing by teaching everyone that it is wrong to “be offended” – because, plain and simple – it’s not.
PS – there are times that Matthew 18 is not applicable – such as when dealing with a public/famous leader. But neither is the idea of “being unoffended” applicable in such situations, either!
A few years back, when a tornado ripped through Oklahoma killing a bunch of elementary school children and others, John Piper famously came under fire for tweeting a verse from Job about Job’s children being suddenly killed. The outrage over his tweet, and how insensitive many viewed it to be, took the internet by storm in hours – to the point where Piper himself uncharacteristically deleted it.
As a somewhat neutral observer, I thought then and have chewed on it fairly often since then, that it was interesting to see how people cope with loss theologically – and what ways they are offended theologically at the same time. The wild thing about it is that it is really completely DIFFERENT from one person to the next, and from one subculture to the next, how we want to, and don’t want to, see God’s role when we suffer. It’s almost like a love-language thing.
For some people, from some backgrounds, there is nothing more comforting when going through trauma than the idea that God has a plan for it – in fact, that God even sent it. While I don’t hear this view as often as I used to, it’s still firmly held by many as their source of strength when something goes terribly wrong. A few years back, some friends of mine were in a horrible car accident and their infant child was killed. In the days and months following, they spoke passionately about being comforted in knowing that God was sovereign, and that He had a plan for this. For them, the theme of TRUST in a God who knew what He was doing in the midst of tragedy – either by causing it or allowing it, helped them get through it all and get back on their feet.
For other people, however, the idea that God could behind such a thing, whether actively or passively, just shatters any sense that they have that God is trustworthy at all – so they just don’t go there. For these folks, if someone attempted to comfort them in a time of tragedy or loss with the words, “God has a plan in this,” that person bringing that word might have to duck and cover. So where do these folks see God in pain? More likely, they see God as their ally against the enemy that caused it – whether they perceive the enemy to be a personal enemy, such as satan, or a generalized enemy, such as “the randomness of life and nature” or “the corruption of the Fall.” For them, God is there as the One who we can take our pain to and find perfect sympathy and encouragement through it. For these folks, the universe is not operating according to a sovereign plan of God, but it is either broken, or if not broken, just not quite tame – and thus bad things happen that are really no one’s fault. Yet in the midst of that, God understands our loss – He is there to lean on, and to comfort us as a good friend or parent might. He is there to help us have the strength to get up, dust ourselves off, and go on to conquer the challenge that the trauma has thrown us.
The wild thing is that people usually don’t realize that their agitation at how other people make sense of trauma and tragedy is a preference. Wars could be (and have been) started over this stuff in theological corners – because there are Bible verses that can be lined up and used to bolster either of these positions against the other. But I don’t think that’s what this is really about – this is about what makes people feel loved by God. We tend to cling to the Bible verses that resonate most with our understanding of what love looks like – love either means to me, He’s working everything out even if it doesn’t look that way, OR, love looks to me like He couldn’t possibly plan something awful in an “ends justify the means” sort of way, but His love is there for me to face whatever crazy things come our way.
You can go to war about this with someone and tell them that their understanding of God’s love is lacking and unenlightened compared to yours – and maybe you are even right. But if you step back for a moment and look at this, the reality is – everyone is trying to understand God and this crazy universe in a way that they can handle. And what some people can handle ends up being the exact opposite of what other people feel they can handle. Someone who trusts that God is behind everything would feel very unloved if they suddenly found out that God isn’t controlling the details of their tragedy – it helps them to trust that He is. And someone who sees God as their ally against freak tragedies would feel very unloved to think that God had actually sent the tragedy to them – it helps them to believe He was not at all involved, and is even upset at what happened to them. And, the wild reality is that the Bible provides enough material to support a variety of viewpoints on the topic, even as we change and grow through out lifetimes – strangely enough.
So, I had this friend who was really struggling in his life and was taking steps towards God, and one late night while he and a friend were praying together in my community’s prayer room, he decided that the most authentic thing he could to get real with God was to strip naked and pray his heart out in his birthday suit. Actually I don’t know exactly what he was doing, because I wasn’t there – but it was at an hour of the night when the likelihood of anyone walking in on this…event?…was extremely low (though admittedly not altogether without risk) and thankfully no one did – but his prayer partner thought it made a good enough story that he told a few folks, who told others, who told others, who told others who….eventually told me.
Except by the time it got back to me, it was from someone who wasn’t part of our community, and, the story had taken on a very twisted and shameful tone to it, and had unfortunately come to be used as an example of all that was wrong in our group. Oy. And now I’ve blogged about it – double oy. Realistically, a community’s shared prayer space probably isn’t the best place to fulfill one’s urges to strip naked before God, unless the shared space is a Jewish Mikvah, in which case it is somehow totally sanctioned and even required – but then again, those spaces are not co-ed.
Anyway, I don’t actually know how it played out intra-communally on our turf, whether or not any leaders actually said anything or cared about the fact that this had happened in our prayer room, but, whether it is to our collective shame or our collective honor, or neither, my guess is that not many people in our group cared terribly much, beyond it being a great story of, “You’ll never guess what so and so did!” The group in that season had a culture of encouraging each other to take risks and make both big achievements and big mistakes, and so my guess is for most it would have been a “no harm, no foul” sort of situation. Maybe. (For all I know, everyone might have been horrified.)
But to those who heard about it outside our group and did not have those sensibilities, this was an indictment of monumental proportions. As our group had other rumored indictments (both true and false), this one just seemed to corroborate with those. But this is the thing – I think the shock and horror factor of this story would still have been there for most people in our neighborhood even if it included the fictitious detail that the door had been locked and no females could ever had accidentally entered, and all windows were covered, and the male prayer partner had waited outside so no accusations of anything could be made.
Even with all those safeguards in place, the idea that someone had prayed naked in our community prayer room would have been just as offensive in any regard; of that I’m pretty sure. And I don’t think the offense was merely about nakedness per se – I don’t think the story would have quite been the same if the story had been that this individual had been walking to the prayer room in the rain and got absolutely drenched, and for some reason couldn’t change in the restroom but asked his prayer partner to wait outside and guard the door while he quickly changed into dry clothes he had in his knapsack and then they went on to spend the rest of the night, fully clothed, praying the way they would be expected to do.
Now, there are all sorts of reasons for this. I’m not going to dissect all of them, nor seek to justify nor condemn what my friend did. But there is one specific aspect of this that I want to talk about, and it has to do with the messy confluence of a “Civilized God” with a “Natural God” construct.
What do I mean by a “Civilized God?” When people form communities, and set apart buildings (such as our prayer room) for the worship of God, and have agreed upon procedures for worshipping that God, they are to some degree or another embracing a Civilized God. That is to say, they believe that God receives and desires to be worshipped in the context of the social phenomenon we call civilization with all that it entails, and that He is happy to be in some way, a participant in the things of civilization. What aspects of our civilized social life we outfit His worship with is debatable – but when we produce worship music with state of the art music studios and electric instruments, we have nodded to a Civilized God. If the music is done with a carefully practiced choir, wearing choir robes, we sing that song to a Civilized God. When we read the book of Revelation and see things like angels that write (invented by civilization) on scrolls (again, civilization) and play harps (civilization yet again) and blow trumpets (yep – civilization), we may be so civilized ourselves that we don’t even notice the interjection of the human inventions of civilization (don’t forget swords, horsemanship, herbal medicine, and thrones) into the allegorical description of the spiritual realm, but again, we’ve embraced a very Civilized Kingdom of God. Revelation in fact culminates with the arrival of an amazing – wait for it – CITY. And nothing says civilization better than C.I.T.Y., even if it is a city of God.
But that’s not the only view that people have of God – there is also the “Natural God” mindset. After all, my friend had some instinct from somewhere, that to really have nothing between him and God, he needed to get all the vestiges of civilization off of his person – which of course, meant his clothing. He’s not alone – many, many people have sought God by heading to the wilderness, or a high mountain somewhere, so it could be just them and God away from any and all signs of humanity and its designs.
Adam and Eve seemed to be this way – the closest they got to being civilized was taming a garden. Moses at some point in his life was one of these folks – He met God on a high mountain and had communion with a very uncivilized, Natural God meeting, in the form of a burning bush. John the Baptist, filled with the Spirit from his mother’s womb, also had a thing going with the Wild and Natural understanding of God, wearing camel skins and eating wild stuff and living far away from the temple worship of his father’s house – instead making the great outdoors his temple.
So you see, when my friend got naked in a prayer room, he was putting two things together that normally just don’t really belong together – the raw, natural, “nothing-but-a-man-and-his-God” sort of worship, mixed with the civilized, industrious, “a community of people got together” and pooled their resources to do something which will be a place in a town for townspeople to meet with God together.
And which God is God, really?
The Bible paints a picture of….
– A God who prohibits the use of tools in building him an altar – prefering instead a pile of wild rocks.
– A God who mixed up human languages because the people tried to use their know-how and social organizations to get closer to him
– A God who tells the man who wants to build him a temple, “Heaven is my throne, and Earth is my footstool….where is the house you would build for me?”
– A God who tells a man he is talking to to “take off your shoes….”
– A God who said that people who would consecrate themselves to Him must leave their hair to grow without styling or cutting it, and who may not eat grapes (a heavily cultivated crop.)
– A God who tells a man to lay on his side, outside, for a year, and eat food cooked over animal dung.
– A God who drives people like John the Baptist, Jesus, and Philip out into the wilderness.
– A God who overcomes a king with His Spirit, which leaves him laying naked in a ditch, prophesying.
– A God who is worshiped by a man who takes off everything but an ephod (and no one really knows what an ephod is, so I could imagine it is hardly worth mentioning) and dances wildly before Him.
– A God who does “not accept praise from man.”
– A God who considers a babbling baby’s vocalizations to be “perfect praise.”
– A God whose express image, his very Son, had, “nowhere to lay his head.”
– A God whose Son went to a mountainside regularly to pray.
– A God who desired His Sacrifice to be made “outside the camp.”
– A God who provides for disciples who have been sent out to minister, taking nothing with themselves.
– A God whose Spirit births people of which one cannot pin down their origin or destinations, like the wind
– A God whose Son called his own body, “God’s temple.”
– A God who clothes the lilies of the field with more glory than any king ever had.
– A God of whom it was said, “The Most High does not live in houses made with human hands.”
– A God who met Paul when he conferred with no humans but spent three years in the desert of Arabia.
– A God who thinks has no regard for the fame and honor of this world, but regards as precious what the world rejects.
– A God whose Son Himself was rejected by society.
– A God who is building a “spiritual house” of people.
But, the Bible also talks about a God who is also the one who is…
– A God who gave the Israelites a code of laws to keep.
– A God who set up a priesthood caste with clear ritual requirements of record keeping, administration, times and dates, special foods and rites to be performed.
– A God who gave extremely specific instructions about the cloth and measurements and objects used for his tabernacle.
– A God who authorized fine craftsmanship in the building of ritual objects for his worship.
– A God who punished people like Korah who worshipped him in nonprescribed ways
– A God who spoke to kings and rulers about the events of their kingdoms, and gave them military and strategic advice on the affairs of their domains.
– A God who showed kings dreams about the rise and fall of their civilizations and others, so that the kings established mandatory worship of God in their realms.
– A God who filled an illustrious and expensive temple with His presence in honor of its ritual dedication.
– A God who was worshipped with harps and cymbals by priests working in carefully prescribed shifts.
– A God worshipped by highly structured acrostic poetry.
– A God who has angelic armies that have order and rank.
– A God that speaks metaphorically about piercing his daughters’ ears and adorning them with fine jewelry and rich linens.
– A God whose Son shows a preference at a very young age for hanging out in the temple, even calling it His Father’s house.
– A God whose Son expressed extremely strict ideas about the institution of marriage.
– A God that honors his servants in a far-off country that engage in ritualized prayer three times a day.
– A God whose Son shows some preference for Jewish nationalism, calling a Gentile woman a dog.
– A God whose Son found refuge at His friend Lazarus’s house.
– A God whose Son went to the cultivated garden of Gethsemane to pray.
– A God whose Son teachings his disciples a prescriptive form of prayer, saying, “Our Father…”
– A God whose Son sings a hymn and performs a ritual passover meal, even instituting a new ritual along the way.
– A God whose Son weeps over a city, mourning that the systems and people running that city did not accept His visitation.
– A God whose Son tells his followers to hole themselves up in a room for weeks on end, practicing the discipline of prayer.
– A God whose followers came together regularly on the first day of the week.
– A God whose leaders came up with prescribed guidelines for choosing leaders, and appointed them.
– A God whose leaders issued decrees for ostracizing group members from the tribe who had disagreeable behavior.
– A God whose leaders carefully taught from written scripture truths about Him and His Son, and urged other leaders to “devote themselves to the public reading of scripture” and exhortation and teaching.
Ok. Whew. Where does this leave us?
We have a Natural God with no accouterments – the kind one looks for on a mountain. We have a very Civilized God with a whole structured way of relating to him in society – the kind of God one looks for in a place like Jerusalem – where the Jews had their temple, and where the early church began. (Yeah, I know – these two concepts play together about as well as a naked man trying to pray in a community prayer room.)
So which God will we worship, and how will we worship Him? Will we embrace the Wild God, the unstructured, uncivilized God – or will we embrace the God of human institution, the civilized God of religion? Will we go to the mountaintop to meet with Him or to the place of ritual and artistry and organization and form?
Where’s the living water? What will we use to draw it up out of the well – our “natural God” tools or our “Civilized God” tools? How will we drink?
Jesus weighs in, “Believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father.You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him.God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth. (John 4:23-24, ESV)
Is that an answer? Not until it becomes real to you and me as we actually find out what it means for us for in our own experience, not as a doctrine or a theory about the “right” way to do things, but in the desperate try-almost-anything hardcore search to find Him and find how to relate to Him – not until it becomes a place you truly have met with and worshiped God. And this is the important one – not until you and I, both alone and corporately, find a way to go back and get with Him over, and over and over again, does it mean much either; because let’s face it, a chance encounter with Him doesn’t mean we’ve learned how to drink that water from the well – it just means we had a happy accident. Although I’d venture that when we start having regular, frequent, happy accidents, we’re heading in a good direction.
But we’re looking for that stability of real communion with Him, and we can, and should…journey to the mountain, journey to the valley, go to the city, and go to the town – worship in silence, and worship with lots of noise – worship with ritual, and worship freestyle – worship with others, and worship alone – sing old songs, sing new songs, pray in tongues and pray in English, draw a picture and dance a dance and reach for Him with our focus and thoughts and hearts – or toss it all out if the only thing that’s giving you or I anything is something not even named here. But that pursuit must be deliberate and ongoing – it must be given time, energy, and push some other things aside. Its not a works thing, but a laying hold of the One who has laid hold of us, thing. And if we don’t seek, we’ll almost never find.
And please, I’ve really had to learn the hard way – it’s really important sometimes to forget anything about the “right” or “wrong” way to do church. “Natural God” complexes and “Civilization God” complexes are alive and well in our pursuit of fellowship, unfortunately – but really the main issue is Jesus. Are you finding Him when you’re with your church? Put your doctrines and church theories aside – your organic church ideas or your tradition ideas or your social issue concerns or Holy Mother church ideas – for Christ’s sake I beg you, put it all aside. That stuff tripped me up for way too many years of my life, and I don’t want it to get you too.
Despite how much that church you’re at is doing everything wrong in your eyes, are you growing in Him there, or do you at least see potential for that? If yes, don’t let anything tear you away from there. But if not, move on – even if the church you’re part of is doing everything “right” and it’s the kind of church you’ve always been looking for or always gone to that has the right teaching and way of doing things – you have no time for that, find Jesus for real or at least find people as intent on real communion with Him as you are, who agree with you on perhaps nothing at all other than they want to know and pursue Him too, whether in the Natural God place or the Civilized God place or neither. The less answers any of us have, the better, really… And find, my friend, in the midst of all that, as all of it fades away, where you’ve seen and tasted and experienced a communion with Christ, no matter whether it looked wild and natural or civilized and structured. Find in it all, despite it all – find the One who has truly made “all things yours.”
(PS – I usually hyperlink everything I say referencing a Bible verse to a Bible verse program online, but no one ever clicks on those links. So, if you want to know where I pulled something from the Bible, drop me a comment and I’ll let you know. Otherwise, on this post, it would just take hours to insert links that no one ever uses.)