Gentleness and respect

“Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander” (I Peter 3:15-16, NIV).

“If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other” (Galatians 5:15, NIV).

Since the founding of the Christian Church, each generation of believers has used available technology to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The writings of the apostles were copied and saved on scrolls, but before long they were collected in codex form. The printing press and less costly paper made written communication easier to distribute—the Bible itself, as well as books, sermons, tracts, and other explanations of the Bible’s message. Now the internet and social media have opened a new world of communication to the Church, making outreach, apologetics, and irenics easier than ever before. Printed material can be smuggled into a country that censures writing, but the internet sneaks across borders far more easily. Peter preached to thousands of people on Pentecost Day, but the potential audience for any internet posting can extend to many millions.

Those of us who belong to Jesus Christ have wonderful opportunities to share his promises with the world. I know that God blesses our efforts where and when he chooses. I know that all the saints on earth remain sinners, subject to the devil’s temptations to fumble our attempts to share the Gospel. My heart is broken, though, over the many samples I have seen of Christians tarnishing the name of Christ by failing to describe our hope with gentleness and respect. I am doubly heartbroken over the many times I have seen Christians debate one another online, not with mutual love and respect, but rather biting and devouring each other.

Written communication has pitfalls, and those pitfalls only increase on the internet. Much of our personal communication is helped with facial expressions, body language, and variations in tone of voice that do not appear in writing. (Emoticons help a little, but only a little.) Close friends sometimes develop a banter that, to strangers, sounds hurtful and even abusive. Language that amuses some people repels others. As Christians post and as we comment on other posts, I believe we need to keep certain ideas in mind so our words bring glory to Christ and his Church rather than embarrassment and shame.

First, I do not think rhetoric and logic alone can change the heart of an unbeliever. Only the Holy Spirit can bring a person to faith. The Holy Spirit works through the Word of God—the writings of the prophets and apostles through whom he spoke. They can be quoted directly, or they can be summarized, paraphrased, and explained. In any case, our best weapon against the devil and the sinful world is God’s Word. Our best way to lead other people to Jesus is to use the very words that changed our hearts and made us believers.

Atheists and agnostics who have already encountered God’s Word and have rejected it are unlikely mission opportunities, although God is capable of working miracles even in hardened hearts. If rhetoric and logic are not enough to change their hearts, surely ridicule and demeaning language will not accomplish that goal. Even when they choose to communicate using ridicule and demeaning language, I do not think that we bring glory to God and do his work by reducing our language to their level rather than writing with gentleness and respect.

Gentleness and respect are not only for unbelievers. When communicating with fellow believers, gentleness and respect are even more required. The Church on earth has been divided into many sects and factions, contrary to the will of Christ and of his apostles. True Christian unity cannot be accomplished by compromise, watering down the truth to a pulp that all will accept. Rather, each of us is called to defend the truth, but to do so gently, respectfully, and drawing on the power of God’s Word rather than relying on our own reason and understanding.

When you disagree with another Christian, consider the level of your disagreement. Are you correcting heresy? By all means, counter dangerous lies with the truth, but do so with gentleness and respect. Are you responding to heterodoxy? By all means, communicate with fellow believers about our differences, hoping to work toward greater unity within the Body of Christ—but do so with gentleness and respect. Are you differing over a case of Christian freedom? Perhaps—for the glory of God and for the strengthening of your faith—you are refraining from something not forbidden by Scripture. (This could be eating meat sold in the marketplace, dancing, playing cards, drinking moderately, or any other practice that Christians are free to do and free not to do.) By all means, share the benefits you have seen in your fasting, but do not criticize those who choose not to fast in your way. And, if you choose not to fast in a way that benefits a fellow believer, refrain from judging or criticizing your brother or sister in the Lord.

When two Christians are disagreeing over the meaning of a passage of Scripture, stop and consider the hermeneutical principles each is using. Is one reading the Bible evangelically while the other is reading legalistically? Is one seeking prophecies of future events while the other considers all prophecies already fulfilled in Christ? We read the Bible and discover differing messages—possibly one of us is guilty of replacing exegesis with eisegesis, but the root of the difference is probably in hermeneutics.

Those of us who are one in Christ will remain diverse, not only in language and culture, age and gender, wealth and social status, but in political opinions, artistic preferences, and the like. We can and should discuss these differences, but always with gentleness and respect. In the United States last November, some sincere Christians voted for Trump, others voted for Clinton, and still others voted for third party candidates. Even if you question the judgment of other people’s votes, their political convictions do not make them heretics.

In my case, I consider liturgical and traditional worship more reverent and more meaningful than contemporary worship. I have learned, though, that other Christians are blessed through contemporary worship. Their way of worshiping does not make them heretics, or even heterodox. I am more concerned about teachings in liberal Christianity. Some of those teachings are truly heretical, and they need to be opposed with the truth of the Bible—but always with gentleness and respect.

Finally, the devil and the sinful world delight in hiding Christ’s Gospel under distractions and diversions. Proper places and times can be found for discussing science and religion, archaeology and the Bible, abortion, patriotism, men and women and how they relate to each other, and many other topics. Often these topics are a barrier to the Gospel—a barrier to proclaiming Christ and Him crucified. No one has been changed from a nonbeliever into a Christian by being proved wrong about some peripheral topic. The Gospel itself is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes (Romans 1:16).

Pardon my rant. I’ll try to be better now. J.

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Petty contempt

The heat has been extreme, even dangerous, lately. Lawn care has not been a priority for me. My work allows me to spend the day in air conditioned buildings. When I get home in the late afternoon, the temperature and humidity are reaching their peak for the day, and I don’t feel like walking around the property behind a gasoline-powered motor with a spinning blade.

When I came home one day this week, I was pleased to see that Mrs. Dim was doing her yardwork in the afternoon. Her habit of running her mower and trimmer and blower early in the morning has not been helpful to my efforts to start the day pleasantly. I thought it would be right neighborly of me to go ahead and shorten my grass the next day so her surroundings would be tidy, consistent with her own property. Meanwhile, as I worked at my home computer that afternoon, I kept an ear open to her work. If she should collapse in the heat, I was ready to be at her side and to call for help. She wisely took frequent breaks, resting in the shade, until her work was finished for the day.

I got home from work the next day and changed into my usual mowing outfit—an old T-shirt, jeans dappled from painting projects, tattered tennis shoes, and a baseball cap encrusted with salt from several years of sweat. Anyone in the neighborhood would recognize my mowing uniform. I filled a large plastic mug with water and went out the front door, heading around the corner to get the mower out of the shed. I filled the gas tank and took the mower to the front of the house to trim the front lawn. As I came around the corner of the house, I noticed that Mrs. Dim was driving away in her car.

This is not the first time this year that she has left the neighborhood while I was mowing. I wonder if the sound of other people’s lawn tools bothers her as much as her lawn tools disturb me. More likely, I think, she cannot bear to watch the quick and shoddy way I care for my lawn. I started the mower and began to work, and then I saw what Mrs. Dim had done.

In the time it took me to get out the mower and fill the gas tank, she had moved her sprinkler to the edge of her property, so that more than half the water it was distributing was landing on the grass I was about to mow.

I considered moving her sprinkler a few feet from the property line at least long enough to finish my work on that part of the yard. However, I was reluctant to set foot on her lawn or adjust her equipment. I try not to give her any reason to complain of my behavior; she complains enough about the things I do not do. Instead, I proceeded with my mowing while wondering what prompted her to move the sprinkler. Several possibilities crossed my mind.

• Perhaps her daily watering of her lawn is on a strict schedule and nothing—certainly not consideration for a neighbor—could cause her to change that schedule.

• Perhaps she was concerned about my well-being in the heat and wanted to make sure I would be cooled with splashes of fresh water while mowing.

• Perhaps it never occurred to her that watering grass and mowing grass are not generally done at the same time (although I’ve never seen her mow and water her own grass at the same time).

• Perhaps she is continuing her canine behavior of marking her own territory.

• Perhaps it occurred to her that putting her sprinkler on the property line while I was getting ready to mow my grass would be one more petty gesture of her general contempt for me and my way of maintaining my lawn.

Does Mrs. Dim have friends with whom she can share stories of her pranks? Do they sit around a table at some fast-food restaurant and cackle together over her amusing accounts of our contretemps? Does she have a blog where she can post descriptions of her behavior to the admiration of her many followers?

If not, I hope she appreciates the publicity that I am providing her. And I am pleased to report that my lawn—not just by the property line, but throughout my property—is as green as the lawns that have been watered daily, thanks to the occasional summer showers we have received this month. A minor vindication of that sort is all that I needed to make my day. J.