God So Loved the World But Do We?

God so loved the world and peace with God crosswalk image.

His voice was monotone. His gaze was mostly directed at the ground. He had to know he was putting his co-worker in a very difficult position, but he kept going with his Gospel presentation.

This guy had theology to share, and he had not yet fully explained the glorification that comes after salvation. I imagined him thinking that his fellow cashier needed to know RIGHT NOW that after responding to his Gospel presentation she would one day receive a new body from God.

I was standing in line, too embarrassed by the situation to feel impatient. While a supervisor stood a few feet away, this guy working behind the counter had been laying out a very detailed and complex Gospel presentation. The woman at my register receiving this message should have been scanning my lumber order. Instead, she was caught in the awkwardness of trying to do her job but not rudely ignoring her fellow cashier.

When the supervisor prompted her to start checking me out, the guy kept droning on with his Gospel presentation. He was on a roll, and I don’t think anyone or anything could have stopped him. Well, maybe a 2×4 that accidentally bumped him in the head… but I restrained myself.

That moment has weighed on me because of how clueless that guy acted toward his co-worker. I don’t have any problem with someone sharing their faith, and if there’s a down moment at work, by all means have a chat.

Yet, I’m struck by how unaware he was of his co-worker. It felt like he had a script to follow, and he had to get through it no matter what. Perhaps I’m reading into the situation too much, but it felt very transactional: insert Gospel presentation, receive personal assurance of sharing the Gospel boldly, and then hope for the best.

In a brief moment, I felt that the man simply communicated a lack of care for his colleague that undermined how much God cares for her. He imparted cerebral information rather than an incarnational message of God’s love demonstrated for us.

Information without transformation is one of Christianity’s greatest challenges.

We have received a message that God so loved the world, but do we love the world?

In fact, when I heard about “the world,” it was often in reference to the people outside my faith who posed a threat, corrupting my holiness and thinking. The world was an opponent, if not an enemy. Someone untrue to the faith was described as “worldly.”

Language is subtle, and we can always try to talk down what exactly we mean when speaking of the world. At the very least, I wasn’t turning toward the world with compassion and incarnational love like the God described in John 3:16.

This isn’t a distinctly Protestant or evangelical challenge. Catholic writer and Trappist monk Thomas Merton frequently bristled against the “contempt for the world” that many in his monastery harbored.

I have grown up in Christian circles where animosity toward the world was justified as a response to the world’s hostility towards Christians. There’s a fear of laws being passed against Christians or cultural marginalization that has long energized the platforms of pastors, politicians, and anyone else in media seeking to gain a following.

The old rule holds true that you can mobilize people to do your bidding if you tell them they’re being attacked. If the world is out to get Christians, then Christians can rally to their leaders who promise protection. These leaders will successfully deliver protection because there was no significant threat in the first place.

Reaching out to the world in compassion and presence can feel like a threat to those who hold the world in contempt or who need the world to be the enemy in order to consolidate influence and power. In fact, some pastor recently wrote in an article online that empathy is sinful because it erases one’s individual moral choices.

Thankfully, people with more training in psychology (and in responding to poorly conceived ideas) have addressed this deeply flawed thinking. Still, such articles gain a foothold in some circles because they tap into our existing disconnect from outsiders. To respond with empathy risks contaminating the purity of thought that fundamentalists try to maintain.

The practice of contemplative prayer that stills my reactive thoughts has a way of silencing my worries, fears, and anxieties. Once my raging mind is quieted, I’m generally in a better position to hear God and to be present for others.

Teachers of contemplative prayer routinely mention compassion and empathy as the byproducts of practices like centering prayer that make contemplation possible. If I’ve cut off the noise of my thoughts and tapped into the quiet presence of God, I’m far more likely to see others where they are, to hear their words with greater attention, and to process with less reactivity or prejudice.

When I’m talking to someone about my faith these days, compassion and empathy are a much better starting point than fear, contempt, or defensiveness. Without the drumming noise of fear, I have a better chance to be more hopeful and kind—not that I always succeed in doing so.

One conversation that remains with me was with a guy who appeared hostile toward Christianity when I met him. I asked him about his past experience with Christianity, and he immediately softened, sharing about some very negative moments in his childhood church.

I would have felt the same way if I’d been in his shoes! Of course anyone could relate to the animosity that arises from negative experiences when you’re a vulnerable child. Our conversation took a very positive turn from that point.

The ministry of Jesus involved a lot more than dying on a cross and rising from the dead, but it feels like talking about our faith can be reduced to those 3 days. His incarnation can offer us a really helpful path forward, entering into the situations of others, bearing their burdens, and embodying God’s love for them in the highs and lows of their lives.

Laying down my life for others like Jesus means that I have to drop my defensive posture. Sacrifice and loss may be called for, and let’s be honest: that is a tough ask.

I do have a lot of compassion for Christians who fear that the “world” is attacking them, trying to take away their Bibles, religious liberty, or whatever else. I spent a lot of years thinking that way.

I’ve found that a lot of hurt and fearful people, both in the church and out of it, are so alienated from each other that they can’t imagine dropping their defenses or hoping for the best in the other. Let’s not even talk about love for enemies!

Often the most angry, fearful, and combative Christian fundamentalists agitate the most angry, fearful, and combative atheists. And then both extremes offer enough anecdotes for the wider groups to feel under siege and to justify the status quo.

At the very best in these divisive contexts, we get people like the cashier who very dispassionately conveys information without apparent concern or care for the other in the moment. I wonder what motivated him to share the Gospel like that?

I know that I used to carry a lot of guilt and fear related to sharing the Gospel. If I didn’t share it, then I was a bad Christian who was ashamed of Christ. Would Jesus be ashamed of me? That guy didn’t strike me as very outgoing, so he very well could have been at his limits for reaching out to someone like that. It likely was the best he could do within the limits of his training for sharing the Gospel in a very extroverted manner.

Although I like to think I used tremendous restraint in not “accidentally” clipping him with the 2×4 I was holding at the time, the truth is that I could relate to him in many ways. I’d been in his shoes plenty of times and had been combative, clueless, or prideful in how I’d talked about God’s love for the world. Needless to say, I was a far cry from introducing people to the Father’s love for them!

It has frankly been hard to “learn” how to talk about God’s love for others because I wasn’t a very loving person to begin with. I was a messenger with information. I was a Christian trying to stay pure from the world. I was trying to prove myself, to do my duty, to not be ashamed.

I didn’t see myself as God’s beloved child. I didn’t imagine I was a recipient of mercy. I didn’t see how the compassion of God toward me should make me compassionate toward others.

God does indeed love the world, and God showed it through self-sacrificing love. When I let that love transform me, I can’t allow human-made divisions stand in the way of my love for others. Getting past those divisions is very, very hard, and that’s why it will always be tempting to leave them in place for ourselves and to leave “loving the world” to God.

I Used to Say Cruel Things in Love: A Tale of Evangelical Cognitive Dissonance

love-evangelical

Back in my anxious, overly zealous evangelical days, I had this habit of telling people horrible things or insulting them all for the sake of the Gospel and being “loving.’ I told them that I was saying these things for their own good—the ends had to justify the means. I reasoned that they were on the brink of eternal destruction, so any means of getting the message to them had to not only be justified but loving. This was just sharing the truth in love, right?

This is a common problem: people hear unloving things from Christians and then Christians assure them, no, this is actually the most loving thing I could do.

No wonder so many people thought I was crazy back then. In truth, I was living in a delusion.

I’ve found that I don’t get to tell someone how to receive love or an insult. Evangelical Christians struggle to understand that good intentions do not make up for a smug or dismissive tone, hateful words, or damaging actions. We can discuss the merits of “tough love” in some situations and we all need some boundaries in extreme situations, but in our day to day interactions, some evangelicals say genuinely hurtful if not hateful things.

Even just sharing a perspective that isn’t particularly hateful can be done in an angry, belligerent, or dismissive manner. I regularly receive emails from and read articles by Christians who take great umbrage at my support for women in ministry, and their typically mix their rage with just enough condescension to make their words sting.

When such Christians are accused of being hurtful or hateful, they either claim they’re misunderstood or bemoan persecution and our “politically correct” culture.

Let’s step back to consider a hypothetical situation: If I insulted and badgered my wife in order to convince her to make a particular decision, no matter how beneficial it may be for her, anyone with a functioning brain would tell me to lay off. She would clearly not feel loved. Anyone witnessing my behavior in this scenario would surely take her side and roll their eyes at me if I said, “No, this is for her benefit. I’m being very loving.”

Back in my days as a zealous evangelical, if I had been challenged to be nicer to the people on the receiving end of my aggressive evangelizing, I would have probably ranted about political correctness and then said, “If I kid was about to run off a cliff, wouldn’t you stop him by any means possible?”

Aha! Checkmate, no? Well, not so fast… This is the kind of reasoning we use to stop someone in the midst of a split second, life and death scenario. This isn’t necessarily how we help someone start a relationship—which was the other thing I would have told you quite emphatically about Christianity. I would have gone to the mat to argue that Christianity is a relationship, not a “religion.” And yet, I used extremely pushy and impersonal means to start that relationship. If this is a relationship with God and we’re speaking to other adults about it, we can’t adopt a scorched earth policy that attempts to make them have a relationship with God AT ALL COSTS.

Actually, we can do this and enjoy some success… with children.

In my seminary class on evangelism (I’ll pause here so you can roll your eyes that I took an actual “class” on evangelism), we learned that high school and college students are the most important years to share the gospel. These are the years that we make our life-changing decisions that can alter the courses of our lives. To a certain extent, this is true. That’s why brands send free stuff to college students. For instance, the Bic razor handle I received for free in the mail is still in our medicine cabinet because I use it every morning.

However, there’s another side to all of this. High school and college students are also at a very black and white point in their lives. They’re sorting things out, and an aggressive, take it or leave it evangelism pitch that’s trying to save them from an eternity in hell may actually work more often with them than with older adults who will be more likely to question any angry or insulting means of sharing “good news.”

As one of the many evangelicals who is now repenting of my scorched earth evangelism that was trying to get people saved no matter what, I can now recognize the cognitive dissonance of my message. If I tried to share about God’s love through guilt, judgment, shame, or fear, I was only sharing my own guilt, judgment, shame, and fear. People were actually learning nothing about God from me. I was using the devil’s own tools in order to shove people toward a loving God who absorbed our anger and insults rather than dishing them out.

Even more disturbing, I see cognitive dissonance all over evangelical Christianity today.

When pastors teach against women in ministry or mutuality in marriage, they assure us that these limitations and restrictions actually free women to serve… in a much smaller sphere.

When I receive angry, insulting, or dismissive emails because I hold the “unbiblical” view that women should, in fact, preach and serve as pastors, the senders completely miss the fact that Paul noted his words are a clanging cymbal without love.

As church leaders overstep their authority through far-reaching covenants with their members that hand over enormous power to the leadership hierarchy, they assure us, no, we’re actually just caring for people.

While unraveling my false conceptions of God, love, and Christian community, this cognitive dissonance has been the hardest thing to untangle. On the one hand, our faith does appear to have these dissonances wrapped up in it.

There is liberty in discipline and the practices that help us remain connected with Christ, our vine, help us to receive God’s gift that we could still never earn. The more we surrender to God, the more freedom we will enjoy. The more we give up fleeting earthly indulgences, the greater chance we have to find the abundance of God.

In all of these instances of potential dissonance, keep in mind that our sacrifices all come at our own expense and help us draw near to God. We don’t have to look someone in the eye and say things like: “Yes, I just insulted everything you believe and hold dear, but it’s all in love so that I can save your soul.” “Yes, I just told a woman that she can’t be a pastor, but now she’s free to work at our children’s ministry at no cost to us.” “Yes, I just told a woman that she has to stay in an abusive/unfaithful marriage, but she signed the covenant that gives us the power to care for her.”

Speaking the truth is not automatically loving, and that has been a hard lesson to learn. We can only communicate the truth in love if we actually speak and act in ways that people recognize as loving. When people said I wasn’t acting very loving, it was on me to recognize that a message of love has to be communicated with genuine love and care as well.

Am I actually loving someone when I talk about Jesus? The answer is as simple as the standard we use for telling a joke. If you have to explain it, then the answer is no.

When I Was Ashamed of the Gospel: A Guest Post for Micah J. Murray

A Christian Survival Guide

Micah J. Murray is one of the most talented young writers I know. His blog Redemption Pictures is a must read each week. However, he does a lot more than blogging. He produces videos, designs websites, and, in his latest venture, designs t-shirts based on his most popular posts. I’m especially fond of this one:

LOVETHESINNER1

 

Micah was kind enough to share his blog with me so that I can post an adapted version of the Survival Guide’s chapter on sharing the Gospel: “Death of a Sales Pitch?” Maybe you can relate to feeling like you’re ashamed of the gospel if you aren’t out there sharing it all of the time…

 

When I realized I was ashamed of the gospel, I feared losing my salvation.

I’ve been told that REAL Christians share their faith and aren’t ashamed of the gospel. In fact, I’ve been told that if I didn’t share my faith at EVERY opportunity, I’m actually ashamed of the Gospel and Jesus would deny me (Matthew 10:33).

Talking to strangers is pretty much the last thing an introvert like me wants to do, but when an evangelism class in seminary required that I share my faith ten times every week, I finally had a crisis of faith and sanity.

I had constant anxiety attacks about evangelism . . . even while shopping . . . at Wal-Mart.

We could make ourselves insane with evangelism.

If every person is an eternal soul who could end up in hell suffering for the rest of eternity, shouldn’t we walk from person to person every minute of every day asking them if they know Jesus?

 

 

Read the Rest at Micah’s blog: Redemption Pictures.

If You Need Hell to Share the Gospel, Then Your Gospel Is Eternal Fire Insurance

hell and its eternal flames

Christians aren’t offering eternal fire insurance when they share the Gospel, right?

That’s what people keep telling me. When we share the Gospel, we’re inviting people into a relationship with God, into the Kingdom of God, and into the Spirit-guided fellowship of the Church. That’s it, supposedly.

The focus is on what we’re calling people to, right? We’re really not just offering fire insurance? Or are we…

 

Why is it that so many Christians spend time sharing the bad news before the good news? Are they using hell as a scare tactic?

Why do so many leading Christian pastors say what we believe about hell is extra super important?

 

I would argue that it’s because they’re actually selling fire insurance.

They would counter, “We’re just sharing the truth of the Bible. Hell is in the Bible, Jesus spoke about hell. We’re just being faithful.”

I’m not so sure about that. In fact, hell was rarely mentioned in the spread of the Gospel.

 

Did Jesus speak about hell in the same way we do today?

Did Jesus routinely share the “bad news” first?

True, Jesus warned the teachers of the Law and Pharisees about being cast outside of God’s Kingdom—thrown into Gehenna. He warned the unprepared that they would be left out of God’s feast where they would weep and snap their teeth. That’s not the same thing as our concept of hell being a place of eternal conscious torment by the way.

However, the core message of Jesus was the Kingdom of God. His message was “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is near.” He went around healing, casting out demons, and teaching things like the Sermon on the Mount over and over again.

Judging by today’s standards, Jesus had a terrible track record of sharing the bad news before the good news.

Even the sermons in the book of Acts only mention God’s judgment once. There’s nothing about hell in all of the sermons of the early church when the church grew by leaps and bounds because of the Spirit’s empowering.

Far from providing details about the fiery fate of unbelievers for eternity, Jesus and his disciples spent the vast majority of their time pointing people to life and freedom and offered very little by way of details about the consequences.

What’s the point of it all? They actually weren’t offering eternal fire insurance. They were inviting people to follow Jesus, to enter his Kingdom, and to live in step with the Holy Spirit. Hell didn’t come up because it wasn’t a key part of the message.

The majority of the messages about being cast into Gehenna were addressed at people who routinely resisted the message of Jesus. Jesus didn’t preach to the crowds about the threat of being cast into Gehenna. It may be that he only preached about it as a warning of last resort.

 

Here’s the focus of the New Testament: The followers of Jesus are proclaiming the coming of the kingdom and making disciples.

We’re not called to proclaim the terror of hell.

I at least don’t see anyone in the New Testament doing that.

That doesn’t mean we overcompensate by saying that everybody is cool and can do whatever. God is just. There will be judgment. We will be called to account for what we have done and left undone. There is a weight to that message for us. We shouldn’t ignore it.

However, judgment isn’t the thing we’re called to proclaim. We’re inviting people to follow Jesus, to join in the Kingdom. An invitation is not the same thing as a warning.

Whatever you believe about hell, there’s no escaping that making hell central to the Gospel message draws us in the wrong direction.

The Gospel says that the Kingdom is here. Repent so that you can join it. Jesus calls us to follow him with an invitation. If we need hell in order to scare people into God’s Kingdom, then we’re emphasizing the wrong thing.

Jesus didn’t need to say much about hell in order to share the Gospel. Why do we?

 

This post is adapted from my book: A Christian Survival Guide: A Lifeline to faith and Growth.