This is a guest post by Lex
When I was a Christian teenager, I enjoyed Jaci Velasquez’s music. I bought every album as it came out (and I still put her Christmas album on every December). One song in particular resonated strongly with me, Show you Love. (lyrics available at the bottom of the post)
I’m going to break down how three key lines resonated with me.
1. “I get a little anxious when I talk about God’s love”
I did get very anxious indeed, for several reasons.
The first one is that I believed hell was a real place people who did not put their trust in Jesus would go to after death, and I took it very seriously. Much as it was for Martin Hughes, thoughts of hell gave me nightmares. I used to cry walking past cemeteries because the sight of all the headstones was a visual reminder of many dead people, most of whom who were probably suffering and there was nothing I could do about it. That is why I was willing to endure cruel teasing for years, to have few friends–essentially to be a social pariah throughout middle and high school. Making sure people had the chance to be saved from such a fate trumped my personal comfort most days.
I remember in high school I used to start out my day praying that God would bring people to me that day, people who wanted to ask me about him, who wanted to find out more. I did not start out this way – at first I would just indiscriminately try to get the message out to as many people as possible – but over time it became more and more important to me that the only people I engaged in conversation were ready and willing, not being bothered or inconvenienced in any way. I realized this in part due to the fact that teenagers are blunt, and if you’re bothering them, they let you know – and not always in the most mature or pleasant ways, either. I got the message after a few times. So my anxiety was a cocktail of fear of rejection, desire to communicate a message which could save people’s eternal souls, and concern not to bother people or make them feel bad. Even in this song, this concern is expressed: “don’t want to make you run away”. The desire to talk about God to people on their own terms comes more from a place of not wanting to push them further away, rather than from a place of genuine concern for their comfort level. For me, both drivers were there, but my primary motivation was not wanting to have their blood on my hands.
I tried to understand why they found the message offensive. I concluded that they must think I viewed them as especially heinous people. After all, I was telling them that they were headed to hell. I tried to communicate that it really didn’t have anything to do with how bad they were as people, that I loved them, which is why I was trying to save them. It wasn’t a message of hate from me, but a message of love. In Ray Comfort’s newest movie, Audacity, he clumsily attempts to drive home this point that Christians aren’t being hateful by being vocal about their faith, depicting a Christian character’s nightmare of a lesbian couple falling to their death in an elevator because he failed to warn them the elevator was defective or to talk to them about God when he had the chance, instead exchanging pleasantries. This was how I felt — minus the strange fixation on warning gay people in particular.
2. “I don’t want to be the one to push you out of reach”
Eventually, I was told that the most effective way to witness was to let Christ’s love shine through me in my actions, in my life, in my “glow”. The idea was that if I spent enough time with God, my face would glow with his glory, much like Moses coming down from Mt Sinai, in a way that would draw non-believers to me, wondering about what made me different, asking questions. Actions speak louder than words.
So I adopted this strategy.
And it didn’t work. And it can’t work. Not really.
I had to be perfect – or as close as possible to perfect. I was supposed to reflect Christ in all things. Which meant that while I could have some degree of vulnerability and openness and honesty with people in church, I could never admit to outsiders that I had doubts sometimes, too. That I was actually intrigued by the idea of sex, too, curious about it. That I lied sometimes. That I failed at following my own standards. I couldn’t make mistakes, because I was supposed to represent Christ. Whenever I stumbled or fell and non-believers saw it happen, the guilt clung to me, sometimes for years. What if my actions were the reason they would never want to learn more about God? What if my actions were what sent them to hell?
I inevitably came off “holier-than-thou”, was never invited to parties, never got to have deep friendships, and was treated poorly in return,which only confirmed in my mind that Christians are nicer people.
And that is another reason this cannot work: Christians are not nicer people. They are not necessarily worse people, either. Non-believers value honesty, hard work, kindness, love, thoughtfulness and selflessness just as much as believers do. Even on my “best” behavior, I was not acting noticeably different than my peers on those metrics. I was saving myself for marriage, however. Nietzsche puts it best: “Chastity is a virtue with some, but with many almost a vice. These are continent, to be sure: but doggish lust looketh enviously out of all that they do.” That is the one difference people noticed, pointed out and asked me about, and only because I was about as convincing (and vocal) about “not wanting it” as these guys.
3. Final thoughts: “The way you give love is how you live love”
If you are a Christian just trying to “show me love”, here are some things I would like to tell you which might spare you a lot of pain and worry.
a) Everyone already knows that you aren’t perfect. Stop trying to be holy enough to stand out and have people stop you in your tracks to ask you what is different about you. It isn’t going to happen. Also stop using “Christian” as a shorthand for “good person”. That is offensive.
b) Non-believers for the most part understand that you don’t think they are especially bad people who deserve hell – most people are familiar enough with Christianity to understand that. We do think the concept of hell is offensive, however. Even you don’t believe these people deserve hell. You already believe the punishment should fit the crime. Emotionally you may have a visceral reaction to heinous crimes, wanting the perpetrator brought to justice, but if you are against torturing even war criminals (which I sincerely hope you are, or at the very least that you don’t believe that they should be tortured forever and ever), how can you be comfortable with a God who wouldn’t rescue all of humanity from hell, regardless of their beliefs?
Let’s run with the metaphor that we are God’s children. Say you have a two-year-old. Say you have a bottle of bleach. Say you tell your child: do not touch the bleach.You can drink the orange juice, the apple juice, the milk, even the coca-cola! Would you leave the bleach in the fridge next to the orange juice? If your child drank it, would you call 911, or would you punish them for their blatant act of disobedience even as they lay there dying?
Most people are guilty of no worse sins than you are. Think of the worst thing you have ever done – perhaps you have given love a bad name. Do you honestly believe it would be justice if you were actually tortured for even a day for that?
(meme created by James Walker)
Your message is that God loves us and will save us if we trust in him – but if you are right, he is saving us from himself and his “justice”. If he truly loved us he wouldn’t need to save us in the first place.
c) Or perhaps you don’t actually believe in hell. Perhaps you believe that God wants to save us to empower us to live better lives and have a relationship with him this side of eternity rather than wait until we all get to heaven. If so, you probably have a lot less anxiety about how to witness, because the stakes aren’t as high. If so, you probably should carry on showing love the traditional ways: by caring, by holding people in times of grief, by using your skills and abilities to help people where you can. In fact, you probably already are doing that. Just like the rest of us.
“Show You Love”
Please forgive me
If I come on too strong
I get a little anxious
When I talk about God’s love
Hold me back now
Stop me if I start to preach
‘Cause I don’t want to be the one
To push you out of reach
The way to give love
Is how you live love
That is what I’ll do
You cannot fight it
You can’t deny it
Love will get to you
Don’t wanna get up in your face
Don’t wanna put the pressure on
Don’t wanna make you run away
Just wanna show you love
Don’t wanna beg you to believe
Don’t wanna take you for a ride
Don’t wanna sell you anything
Just wanna show you love
Show you love
Just wanna show you love
I won’t convince you
With anything I say
But maybe you will see His love
In how it is portrayed
An act of kindness
A loving sacrifice
Simple little things that have
The power to change your life
There’s no surprises
And no disguises
Just the blessed truth
Just a gift for you.