This week Ravi Zacharias posted a Facebook status that hit me hard. It said, “It is self-defeating to trample underfoot everything others hold dear before giving them the message of Christ. My mother used to say, ‘There is no point cutting off a person’s nose and then giving them a rose to smell.’”
He followed it up with this post, “Listening is a vital part of responding. The more and the better we hear others, the more and the better others will hear us.”
I’m probably not alone when I say I often see this ideal within Christian circles that hearing out philosophies/theories/concepts that we don’t agree with—or just being respectful of another’s right to differing beliefs—is synonymous with validating those beliefs.
The problem with this practice is that, not only does it shut down the other person, it also mutes us, making us irrelevant in a quickly changing world.
Jesus promised us that the world will hate us. We already know this. The world hates Jesus’ message of holiness. Do we need to stoke the fires by diminishing their right to be heard? By spitting in the face of what they believe?
Can we walk a line where we respectfully interact while clearly not condoning sin?
I believe so.
Paul in Athens
When I read Ravi’s words I immediately thought of Paul on Mars Hill. But let’s back up a bit in Paul’s story. Before he preached at Mars Hill (also known as the Hill of Ares or the Areopagus) he had arrived in Athens to find a city devoted to idolatry. Acts says, “his [Paul’s] spirit was provoked.”
Provoked. Feel familiar?
So he began where he normally began, in the synagogue. He, “reasoned with the Jews and the God-fearing Gentiles.” He then hit the marketplace and engaged in street preaching to, “those who happened to be present.”
Some who happened to be present where the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. Within this group, there was a mixed response to Paul’s preaching. Some mocked him, saying, “What would this idle babbler wish to say?”
Others responded with curiosity, saying, “He seems to be a proclaimer of strange deities… May we know what this new teaching is which you are proclaiming? For you are bringing some strange things to our ears; so we want to know what these things mean.”
This wasn’t Billy Graham’s America. No huge revival numbers for Paul. He was preaching to our climate—mockery or mild curiosity.
How did Paul preach in Athens?
In 1 Corinthians 9:20-22 Paul wrote, “To the Jews I became as a Jew, so that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law though not being myself under the Law, so that I might win those who are under the Law; to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, so that I might win those who are without law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some.”
Paul left the marketplace and went with the philosophers to their cultural center, Mars Hill. He didn’t demand to be heard on his terms. He went where his audience would hear him—and not just hear him, he went where they would listen to him.
Acts 17:22-23 picks up the story: So Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, “Men of Athens, I observe that you are very religious in all respects. For while I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, ‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.’ Therefore what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you.
Paul didn’t consider it tantamount to acceptance of idolatry to treat his audience with respect. Instead, he found positive common ground between himself and his hearers, “I observe that you are very religious in all aspects.” He then used this common ground as a jumping point to present the gospel, “therefore what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you.”
What stops us from this approach? And what are we losing if we can’t switch our approach from finding fault to finding common ground?
Could fear be holding us back?
Fear that if we show respect others will judge us?
Fear that if we listen we could hear ideas that challenge or scare us?
Fear that our consideration might be viewed as commiseration?
The only fear we need to worry about is the fear of the Lord. And he said we need to be the salt of the earth. Our interactions with all men should be seasoned with grace, preserving, flavoring, and healing. (More here...)
Today, more than ever, we must find a way to model this to the next generation or we will become irrelevant. If salt loses its saltiness, what good is it?
Respect does not equal acceptance. Listening to understand does not equal approval.
We can’t bitterly long for times that we perceive as better, blaming the world for ruining what we had— “for you were formerly darkness, but now you are Light in the Lord.”
Instead, we need to walk with those trapped in darkness up Mars Hill, respectfully find our common ground, and present the Good News that brings light.
As Mordecai told Esther in Esther 4:14, “And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” We have been adopted into a royal family. We are the bride of the Prince of Peace.
We were each born into this time and place by God’s design.
Let us not diminish the beauty of that by losing our saltiness and becoming irrelevant.