Last week I wrote about the impression we as Christians are leaving with the growing number of Americans who are unconnected to any religious community. When, through Google, they ask the internet about us, they are much more likely to ask why we are so mean, judgmental, close-minded and hypocritical than to ask why we are so loving, forgiving and kind.
So, if we’re living in a post-Christian world, what are we called to do to be Christ’s representatives to the unbelieving among us who are also increasingly unfamiliar with even the most basic tenets of Christianity? And how can we improve our reputations?
As representatives of Christ we often think we are called to be bold. And in a world that is increasingly active in challenging our belief systems, increased boldness would seem to be just what the doctor ordered. But what shape should our boldness take?
Many of us gravitate toward Old Testament pictures of God’s people being led into battle and emerging victorious because of their faithfulness and God’s favor. We’re tempted to beat our chests, attack our opponents as enemies and lay waste to those who would stand against our values, our beliefs, or our heritage.
We see ourselves as God’s champions, ready to storm every hill, accept every challenger, and welcome the fight with courage and bravery. We are all too willing to “put on the armor of God,” all too prepared to slay giants, all too ready to do our best Samuel L. Jackson Pulp Fiction impression and “strike out with great vengeance and furious anger” to snuff out the “iniquities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men” (Ezekiel 25:17).
But this Christmas, I wonder if we should embrace a different vision of boldness. It’s the life and ministry of Jesus; a life and a ministry that began bundled up in a feeding trough and that somehow (imagine that) succeeded without our help, a God who came to earth not so that we could be His champion, but so that He could be ours.
As we approach Christmas, we would do well to remember how God first entered the world; not as one prepared for battle, or even as a skilled apologist or master of rational arguments, but as a baby in a manger; a savior who grew up to encourage love, hope, faith and humility; who said turn the other cheek; and who refused to engage at the level of his accusers even in the final hours of his time on earth. Paul teaches that God produces in us things like gentleness, patience, peace and self-control.
The Bible repeatedly warns against being quarrelsome and self-righteous. Perhaps the warnings are repeated because we tend so strongly in that direction. Often in the Old Testament, the worst judgments from God are reserved for those outside the faith. In the New Testament, Jesus reserves his harshest criticism for those within the faith community.
Nelson Mandela said, “”Difficulties break some men but make others. No axe is sharp enough to cut the soul of a sinner who keeps on trying, one armed with the hope that he will rise even in the end.” As followers of Jesus, we’re playing the long game. We don’t have to win today’s battle. But we do need to be remembered fondly tomorrow for the way we handled our critics today.
When it seems like the tide is turning against us and we’re losing the battle, it’s easy to think the answer is to redouble our efforts and step up our attacks. What if we engaged the issues of the day with calm assurance, “armed with the hope that [we] will rise even in the end.” We’re not called to win the battle. That’s why Jesus came. We’re called to announce the victory…and model what it looks like.