You know the headlines: “Swedish Pastor Sentenced to Month in Prison for Preaching Against Homosexuality;” “FBI Examines Pastor’s sermons on Abortion and Homosexuality;” “IRS Goes after Church for Anti-war sermon” to mention just a few. They are reflective of an increasingly intolerant culture – intolerant of anything that challenges individual rights to free choice of moral and religious beliefs.
More and more, we are finding ourselves in a world that not only does not want to hear the Word of God, but it is a world that seems to be on the attack against any suggestion of beliefs or practices of Christianity. There is a growing (and no longer subtle) pressure on us as God’s people to keep our beliefs and practices to ourselves if we want to get along in our schools, workplaces and communities.
Bad news: “Getting along” with the world is not a mandate from God’s Word to God’s people.
Speaking the truth in love is (Ephesians 4:15). So it seems as if we’re in a tough spot. We want to be a positive influence on our neighbors, which means not offending them. But the truth of God’s Word is going to be offensive to my neighbor who is living with his girlfriend on one side of me, my neighbor who works for an abortion clinic on the other side of me, and the couple of lesbians who live together across the street. The pressure on me by my community is “Shut up, keep your beliefs to yourself and get along.” The watchwords of my community culture are “Respect,” “Diversity,” and “Tolerance.”
But I can’t help thinking that the burning question Jesus is asking us is not, “Are you getting along with everyone?” I think it’s more along the lines of “Do they know the truth? Do they know how much I love them?” So here’s the question: how can we bear witness to the Gospel, the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection for a lost world, when the world refuses to believe that it’s lost? How do you share the truth of a Savior with a world that doesn’t want to be saved?
Good news: This struggle is nothing new to God or His people in past ages. He has given us a pretty good blueprint through Paul in Acts 17:16-31. If you have a Bible handy, take a break from this article and read it now.
There’s obviously a lot of good stuff in this passage, but four things stand out that will help us to speak the truth of Jesus in hard situations while at the same time loving the people as Jesus would.
1- Go where they are.
In Acts 17, Paul is in Athens because of opposition to his teaching in Berea. In Athens, he is upset by all the idols he sees around him. So, v.17 tells us he “reasoned in the synagogue…as well as in the marketplace.” In church, Paul talks to believers, Jews, and God-fearing Greeks. In the marketplace he runs into the pagans, Epicurean, and stoic philosophers. The marketplace is our neighborhood, our schools, our workplaces. It is full of people who believe other truths, who are trusting in other gods.
It’s where we’re supposed to be. But going to where they are is a lot more than being physically present. It is understanding where they are spiritually, mentally, emotionally. This is incarnational ministry. It’s God in Jesus Christ, taking on the weakness of human flesh, showing us that “He is able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and going astray, since He himself is subject to weakness” (Hebrews 5:2). It’s Paul, walking around Athens, looking carefully at their objects of worship so he can understand that these people are, indeed, “religious.” Too many times, as people of light, we assume we know where people are and we really don’t have a clue. When it comes to my neighbors who are living together, do I know where they are? What their hurts are, their fears are, their hopes are? Have I walked around, observing their “objects of worship?” I know who the Truth is. Who, or what, is their truth?
One dictionary defines truth as “that which is considered to be the supreme reality and have the ultimate meaning and value of existence.” Going to where they are means me spending time at Starbucks over a latte, listening to their story. Going to where they are means praying to God on their behalf and listening to the Spirit who guides me into the wisdom that shows where my weakness and brokenness intersects with theirs so that I, like my Teacher, might deal gently with them. I have to believe that when the Word says that Paul saw all the idols, he was “greatly distressed” out of love for those he saw who were “ignorant and going astray.” Going to where they are means doing whatever it takes to understand my neighbor’s situation and love them with the heart and mind of Jesus.
Reflection questions: Think of a few of your “neighbors” whose “truth” is way off. Why do you think they believe what they do? What hurts, fears, or other factors do you think influence their beliefs? What are some things you might do to go where they are? What does the Holy Spirit tell you about where they are?
2- Bring Jesus to where they are.
Listening, love, compassion, and prayer will bring us to where they are. But that’s only the first step. The next step is to bring them the Truth. For us, Truth is a relationship – it’s knowing Jesus Christ. When we see and understand their “truth” by going to where they are, we are in a better position to then bring the Truth of Jesus to where they are.
The unmarried couple living next to me is out of line with God’s will. My other neighbor is working at a place that is a horrific abomination to God. My neighbors across the street are in a relationship that is missing what God created them for. All of these facts are true. But until my neighbors know the Truth, they will have a difficult time accepting these facts as true. This is where many of us foul up in speaking the truth in love. We forget that the truth (small “t”) about abortion, homosexuality, and morality is not the Truth (capital “T”). Our goal in engaging people in discussions about truth is to bear witness to the Truth, who is Jesus Christ (John14:6). In Acts 17:22, Paul finds an opening for the Gospel in the altar that is inscribed “To an unknown god.” Then Paul simply says, “Now what you worship as something unknown, I am going to proclaim to you.” He proceeds to identify God as the One who raised Jesus from the dead. The point of Paul’s going to them is to bring the Truth to where they are.
The point of me going to a gay bar with my neighbors who live across the street is to be able to bring the Truth of Jesus Christ to where they are. It’s interesting to note that in his speech at the Areopagus, Paul does not mention Jesus by name. Without compromising the truth, He uses terms that his hearers would be able to understand. He witnesses in a way that starts with an understanding of where they are and then brings Jesus to them. The gay bar might not be the place for a “full witness.” It’s probably not the place to whip out the Bible and start spouting verses. But it is a place, just as the Areopagus was for Paul, for us to bring the Truth into. The school, the workplace, the abortion clinic, the community – all these are places that need the Truth. But we need to use the same tact and wisdom as Paul, starting where they are and bringing Jesus to where they are in a way our hearers can understand.
Reflection questions: Thinking again of your “neighbors” and where they arewhere, in their lives, are they searching for “the unknown god?” What are a few ways you can bring the Truth of Jesus to them that they might be open to it? Jesus comes to us restoring sight, healing the sick, forgiving the guilty, setting the imprisoned free. How might your neighbors’ needs make them open to Jesus’ coming?
3- Bring them to Jesus.
Going to where they are and bringing Jesus to where they are sets up the third principle – bringing them to where Jesus is. As we continue to read the Acts passage, in his speech in the Areopagus, Paul refers to God commanding “all people everywhere to repent.” Sometime after Paul left this meeting, “a few men became followers of Paul and believed.”
One thing we are notoriously bad at is following through with people we have “witnessed” to. We dump four spiritual laws on them, invite them to youth group, expose them to Christian music, and drag them to church all hoping to connect them to Jesus. We tell people to repent, to believe in God, then what? We hope “it takes” and they’re on their way.
Paul tells the Corinthians “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). To the Galatians, he confesses that “I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you” (Galatians 4:19). Alright, so Paul was an Apostle, an Xtreme Christian. But the principle applies to all of us. Sharing the Truth in love means being willing to walk with them for as long as it takes until “Christ is formed in them.” How do we know when that has happened? That’s a Holy Spirit question, one of those things we have to depend on Him letting us know at the right time.
When my next door neighbor comes with me to church and admits that she’s starting to see that working at the abortion clinic is probably not right in God’s eyes, but that she needs the work, what’s my response? Bringing her to Jesus means doing whatever it takes to help her get there. So, I might have to make a phone call or two, connect her with someone who can find her a job or, at the very least, pray. Speaking the truth in love gets a little messy here. Do you think that when Paul went to Athens he anticipated a few guys following him around afterwards? Where would they sleep? What will they eat? How long are they going to be around? This leads us to the fourth item.
4- Speaking the Truth in love costs.
Paul was in Athens because he got “booed” out of Berea. When he spoke of the resurrection in the Areopagus, people sneered. Of all those people he shared with, the passage mentions only a few believing. We follow his life and Paul tells us of all kinds of costs he paid because of speaking the truth in love (2 Corinthians 11:23-29). We look at the “Faith Hall of Fame” (Hebrews 11) and see that speaking the Truth in love costs. Finally, we look at the cross and know that speaking the Truth in love costs.
Just one question: Would you know the Truth unless He was willing to pay the cost?
We know The Truth and His love because of the cost He paid. Paul speaks of delighting in his weaknesses because Christ’s power would be seen through them (2 Corinthians 11:9-10). Our confidence in speaking the Truth in love is not that we’ll have all the answers. It’s not that we’ll do all the right things. It’s not that we will always get to where they are, bring Jesus to them, and bring them to Jesus like we want.
It’s simply in this: The Truth who paid the cost to set us free and give us life 2000 years ago is the same Truth that sets people free today. May we always be willing to pay whatever the cost to speak the Truth in love for Him who paid the cost for us.