Sometimes in non-Christian circles I say something about my beliefs or even something fairly ordinary about my church that gets me noticed. It can even be that occasionally I am conspicuously not taking part in a certain type of conversation because I am a Christian, and suddenly this gets me noticed – and often on these occasions, because I am not (yet!) naturally the type of person to springboard off that and lead a conversation about faith, something rather bizarre happens: Someone makes a comment which shows me they have just judged me and my faith.
“So you are like this then: [insert some unhelpful stereotype].” “So you were brought up in it then - your parents were quite strict, were they?” (the demeaning idea that I have swallowed everything I've heard uncritically, or blindly followed my family/church teaching and being shackled my whole life by a restrictive rule-book/perspective). Or “My cousin is a Jehovah’s Witness and they don’t let her…” or “My life philosophy is …” or “You believe this (X) too, don’t you?” “Does that mean you can’t do Y? Don’t you ever want to? What’s wrong with it? Do you think we are all scum then? Are we all going to hell then? [laughter]” and so on!
Why does this part, where non-Christians start to make their own huge, uninformed judgements about you, happen at all?
OK, so it’s partly lack of knowledge; they strike out at similar things and get it wrong. Also, in my experience, it can happen because of sincere disagreement with Christianity, but more often it is done out of a desire to voice an opinion about life/relationships with others/God which is supposed to prove me wrong in some way and make the speaker look good and his/her lifestyle seem OK. It’s about fun and self and control. They have rarely even got to the point of considering the facts at this stage. Quite often it also becomes a chance to make jokes at what seems rather bizarre to them to start with and which they are uncomfortable talking about.
Now I can’t believe I’m the only one who has been in one of these uncomfortable situations – finding I miss the chance to speak about my faith and then having someone else speak about theirs (or against mine) in my stead?
So this post, which is already getting quite long, is about taking control in conversations – something I need to encourage myself, and other believers, to do!
First of all, two caveats:
• Listening to what other people think is a way of valuing them and loving them, and questioning them will also give you an idea of where they are coming from. So there is a place for working hard in conversation to find out what is important to those people whom God loves who we are speaking to, as we present to them why we live for Jesus, and what that means. Of course, this doesn’t mean being a wet blanket. We must stand firm in our convictions at this stage and not just blindly agree to everything, but show that, while we are engaging with what they are saying, we think Jesus is real and must follow his way.
• Our sinful natures mean we can want to take control for many wrong reasons. For instance I may want to speak up (or write, like on a blog!) simply out of impatience and to make things better for myself. I might say something, not so spiritually dead people see who Jesus is and what he has done and begin to love him, but so that they see I am right and get on my side in the debate. I might in short want others to agree with me to make things more convenient, and so I can get people off my back. Peter didn’t see it this way when he wrote 1 Peter 3:14-18. We need to know that it is better to be gentle and to love others, and suffer for it like Jesus, than bully others to be “right” and have an easier life. Taking control of conversations must be done for the right reasons.
Having said all this, part of loving people is persuading, explaining, pleading with them and showing them why we believe in the gospel. And the only way others will see why Jesus is worthy of their full attention, their time, their lives, is if we jump in and take the opportunity.
Can I suggest quickly pointing to Jesus? “He is the reason I am a Christian today. I wouldn’t keep living following Him, apart from the fact that I think that when he lived as a man on earth 2000 years ago he showed that he was God /the only way to know God.” Or something along those lines. And with confidence in your voice!
Don’t let them get away with saying the message of the Bible has been changed over the years – they haven’t looked into it if they say this, and you can just firmly inform them that the records we have are accurate and were checked and re-checked when copied out to the next manuscript, and that the oldest ones are used today to give us our modern Bibles. More importantly, point to the fact that the first churches started because people were utterly serious about Jesus rising from the dead and that is our hope today too. If we lived roughly 1970 years ago, we could have seen Jesus die and then be alive after death, we could have touched Him and heard Him, and got to know Him. So, somehow like this, we can feel our way back to the point of talking about Jesus!
The aim of pointing to Jesus is to get our friends to look again, as adults, at what Jesus really did, and to think about why He did it and what this shows about Him, and about God. God really wanted to have us as His children. He sent His Son to die for us.
Another approach is to look at humanity and what we are doing with our lives, the world, and our relationships. The Bible would say we are designed to know God personally, and it is our rebellion from Him that is the root of evil. It’s pretty evident in the world. We can talk about the evil in the news, and our own idolatry, making our wants King and hurting those we love. We can talk about the possibility of being restored in God’s sight, forgiven and set free from the power of addicting sin. We can speak of personal battles won by God’s power*, such as battles of faith in prayer and battles against sin, as God has over time helped us become more like our Lord Jesus. We can speak of our connection to our Maker, our privilege of knowing Him.
Also, when friends try to justify their own anti-God lifestyle in what they are saying, you could try being really blunt and asking what this lifestyle is really getting them. Do they have good relationships? Is there something that has become obsessively important in their lives? Do they know where they are heading in the future, or what their purpose is in the world? Is their lifestyle going to win them any points with God? Do they know what he really thinks about it? What about death? Let them know about heaven and hell, so they are prepared.
I’ve already said I’m not a natural at this. And I know one or two people who I really, really struggle to respond well to. But it is important enough to write about and spend time thinking about, and perhaps this could be a starting point for discussion. Any ideas?
*I heard an example from this excellent talk about a man on death row in the USA who became a Christian and stopped pleading insanity, although it was advised by his lawyers, because he knew it was a lie, and he didn’t want to lie any more! People really do change when God works in them.