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.