Befriending and Belonging in an Age of Scorn

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In my role as a “public Christian” who values spirited discourse about the issues of our time, I want to nurture environments where people can openly wrestle with their beliefs—but without the fear of being caricatured, labeled or demonized.

In other words, I am for disagreeing in an agreeable way. I guess you could say that I am an advocate for tolerance.

My friend and former colleague Tim Keller says that tolerance does not require us to abandon our convictions. True tolerance, says Keller, is revealed by how our convictions lead us to treat people who disagree with us. Tolerance that tolerates only people who think like us is not tolerance. It is covert prejudice, scorn with a mask of niceness.

For the Christian witness to be taken seriously in an increasingly pluralistic and secular environment such as the West, Christians must learn the art of being able to:

1) have integrity in our convictions;
2) genuinely love, listen to and serve those who do not share our convictions; and
3) consistently do both at the same time.

Otherwise, rather than being a light to the culture, we run the risk of becoming products of the culture.

I believe that an effective Christian witness—especially when the prevailing tone in virtually all public discourse is outrage, not civility—depends on Christians adopting a tone that is counter-culture to the norm.

I appreciate what a former Harvard chaplain says about bridging relational divides between people who disagree, even on the most fundamental level. He writes:

“The divide between Christians and atheists is deep … I’m dedicated to bridging that divide—to working with atheists, Christians and people of all different beliefs and backgrounds on building a more cooperative world. We have a lot of work to do … My hope is [to] help foster better dialogue between Christians and atheists and that, together, we can work to see a world in which people are able to have honest, challenging, and loving conversation across lines of difference.”

The Harvard chaplain’s name is Chris Stedman. He is an atheist. Yet, his perspective and tone are deeply Christian and biblical.

The Israelite spies came alongside Rahab, a working prostitute, to advance the work of God’s Kingdom. Joseph served alongside Pharaoh, Nehemiah alongside Artaxerxes, and Daniel alongside Nebuchadnezzar. Jesus, a Jewish male, received a drink from a promiscuous Samaritan woman. Paul, a Messianic Jew, affirmed secular poets and philosophers as he quoted their works from memory to Athenian intellectuals.

All these were faithful, non-compromising people of faith in deeply secular pluralistic environments who:

1) had integrity in their convictions;
2) genuinely loved, listened to and served those who did not share their convictions; and
3) consistently did both at the same time.

Contested issues like politics, the refugee crisis, sexuality, racial and economic justice and more should be approached and discussed in a way that builds relational bridges instead of burning them. Inviting others to belong and journey with us even before they believe with us or agree with us is a deeply Christian thing.

So is breaking bread with people and welcoming them into relationship, whether or not they ever end up agreeing with us. Do we understand this?

In this, Jesus shows us the way.

When the rich ruler dismissed Jesus’ invitation to come follow Him, Jesus looked at the man as he walked away in unbelief, and loved him. And as the man walked away from Jesus, the man was sad. Not angry or hostile or feeling judged … but sad.

Consider this thought from my second book, Befriend: Create Belonging in an Age of Judgment, Isolation and Fear:

“Wherever love dominates the environment, it’s no condemnation first and ethics after that. With Jesus, love establishes the environment for the morality conversation. It is not our repentance that leads to God’s kindness, but God’s kindness that leads to our repentance.

After eighteen years of pastoral ministry, I have never met a person who fell in love with Jesus because a Christian scolded them about their ethics. Have you?”

Gandhi, who claimed that his humanitarian ethic was almost one hundred percent inspired by the life and teachings of Jesus, chose Hinduism over Christianity. Why? Because of how poorly he was treated, and how much he felt judged, by the (deeply misguided) Christians that he knew. Chillingly and famously, Gandhi said, “I like your Christ, but I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” In a climate of hostility and “us against them,” let’s start working for a different narrative, shall we?

In contrast to the above, over the years I have met hundreds, if not thousands of people who fell in love with Jesus because a Christian or community of Christians loved, served, lifted a burden, and befriended them. When Jesus said to let our light shine before men that they may see our good works and glorify our Father in heaven, he envisioned something more like this. He envisioned people being drawn irresistibly to him, not in spite of Christians, but because of Christians.

One example is this, written by Nicholas Kristof in The New York Times:

“Unfairly, the pompous hypocrites get the headlines and often shape public attitudes about religion, but there’s more to the picture. Remember that on average religious Americans donate far more to charity and volunteer more than secular Americans do.”

It would be something else, would it not, if more secular thinkers like Nicholas Kristof began saying that the pompous, hypocritical caricatures of Christians are unfair, and that believers were actually doing more for the life of the world than anybody else. It would be something else if more secular thinkers started to take note of good works done in the world and for the world in Jesus’ name. Let’s give the world some more lovely, life-giving things to talk about, shall we? Let’s let more of the light of Christ shine through us, more love and good deeds, more service and less self–so that, as Paul the Apostle wrote–the world will not be able to find anything bad to say about us…or, most especially, about our Jesus (Titus 2:8).

There is perhaps no better way to finish this thought than with these words from Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water:

“We draw people to Christ not by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.”

Let’s roll up our sleeves and love somebody, shall we?

 


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5 responses to “Befriending and Belonging in an Age of Scorn”

  1. DP McCarter says:

    Hello Pastor Scott,

    Thanks for another good blog post. I agree with the vast majority of it, but I’m kind of confused by your interpretation of the rich young ruler account. Looking at the account in Mark, doesn’t the passage mention Jesus loving the rich young ruler prior to the rich young ruler’s walking away sorrowful? Knowing what Jesus is like, I’m inclined to believe that Jesus still loved him after he walked away, but the passage doesn’t actually say that, so I’m not clear on how this is the best passage to demonstrate your point.

    Thank you in advance.

  2. Bonnie Jean says:

    I am re-reading Walking on Water for the 7th time. I come back to it every year at least once… that phrase about “a light that is so lovely that they will want with all of their hearts to know the source of it…” is something that I have aspired to for several years. Slowly, God is making me over into someone like that. She has many wonderful things to say in that book. I miss her influence in the world. Recently someone commented to me “How is it that you are calm and generally happy all of the time without being sappy ?” It took me a bit by surprise, coming from an agnostic/atheist (not quite sure yet). And since the corona virus came into our everyday conversations, such comments are even more common “Why aren’t you afraid ? Why are you still doing most of what you did before ?” I said that I guess I am not worried because I truly believe that if my time comes to leave this earth, I know where I am going and it is far better than I can even begin to imagine. I do follow common sense safety practices, but if my friends need something and cannot get it… I want to get it for them. If they need money for the rent and I have it, I want to give it to them. And I believe that if I do get sick, I will have Jesus with me through every moment. ” I also am unafraid to admit that I am far from perfect, which to them makes me feel more “real” like the “Velveteen Rabbit”. I apologize for my mistakes when I am wrong. And I try to find the areas where we do agree and work out from there. I listen more than I speak. I listen to what they have to say, what their concerns are, get involved in their lives when it is appropriate. I think it is hard to be “in the world, but not of the world.” But day by day, I just keep walking in faith and try to do what I believe St. Augustine said ” share your faith all of the time, use words only when necessary.”

  3. Patrick McClarty says:

    What you say is correct, we should be a light. However, most of us fail, that’s why we need Jesus. If an outsider to the faith wants to find fault with Christians, pretty easy, we can be a sorry bunch. But, we are also the most giving in the world. Right after tornado thousands upon thousands showed up to help, gave money, bought supplies. Guarantee you the vast majority of these people were Christian, many from your church. It appears to me most not in the faith spend a lot of their time criticizing the faith. Are they justified? Probably. As I said we can be a sad bunch. I can tell you from experience the greatest people I know in the world are Christians, sinful, yet loving, many times graceful. Let’s look at Mr. Steadman, great that he wants to bridge gap, so that we can make a better world. The problem is he is going to hell, that’s eternity, not this short life here. I would be non-loving if I did not share with him Jesus Christ, I desire that no one enter hell. Some see this as mean spirited, I see it as love. Let’s do our very best to live the Christian life as best we can, but at the same time not afraid to confront people with gospel. We have to be more concerned with eternity than this short life here. God bless.

  4. Darryl Voskamp says:

    Thank you Scott for this post. I hope you will remind us of this often as I am ashamed of the ways that I have been part of the people that, ‘scorn, with a mask of niceness’ in a self-righteous way. Praying that I may ‘crucify the sinful nature, with its passions and desires’ Gal 5:24 and live by and keep step in the Spirit. I have listened to some of the (Christ Presbyterian Church) messages about the Spirit and am working on memorizing Galatians 5:16-26. I am thankful for your example of having integrity in your convictions and loving, listening to, and serving people who do not share those convictions. I really like the example of Joseph in the Bible and how he does not live in bitterness for the incredible hardships he had. As in Luke 11:13, I want to ask for the Holy Spirit to live in/work in me ongoing as my sinful nature needs crucified. I so agree with that when we love, listen to, and serve people it does get noticed as a shining light. An example of this is when we helped a refugee family. I remember the new comer family saying to me that their families back in their home country had told them that they had better be nice and caring to us because of how nice they have been treated. We have found that they are interested in hearing about our beliefs. They don’t feel threatened by us because they know we love them as people, have listened to them and shared with them. It does make a difference. May I/we practice this far more. Keep up the good work!

    Darryl

    • scottsauls says:

      Darryl, you and Ann and your family are shining examples to us of what the cruciform life looks like. You not only speak of Christ faithfully, you EMBODY him. These examples you mention are only a few of what the Lord is doing through your beautiful lives. We love and esteem you so much, and only wish we got to live closer to you so we could live in daily community with you. May Jesus hold you close. Scott

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