As a born appeaser and committed conflict avoider, I have deep respect for folks who are willing to speak publicly of their faith, especially in situations that leave them open to criticism and ridicule. My graduate school adviser is a Messianic Jew and a gifted chemistry professor. He has periodically taken out an ad in the school paper stating the basics of his Christian beliefs. I think it's gutsy and God-honoring and life-giving for the students who need to know that there are well-respected and brilliant professors on campus who are Christians.* Academics can be harsh and condescending to students of faith.
There are, however, public and ballsy statements of faith that are, I think, damaging. A friend sent me Rabbi Jonathan Miller's response to Alabama Governor Robert Bentley's remarks at a church service following his inauguration. Governor Bentley said,
"There may be some people here today who do not have living within them the Holy Spirit. But if you have been adopted in God's family like I have, and like you have if you're a Christian and if you're saved, and the Holy Spirit lives within you just like the Holy Spirit lives within me, then you know what that makes? It makes you and me brothers. And it makes you and me brother and sister. . . Now I will have to say, that if we don't have the same daddy, we're not brothers and sisters. So anybody here today who has not accepted Jesus Christ as their savior, I'm telling you, you're not my brother and you're not my sister, and I want to be your brother."
Rabbi Miller's response was gracious. He seemed to feel both disenfranchised and degraded. He said,
"Governor Bentley, as a non-Christian, I felt disenfranchised from your grace as our leader in the immediate hours after your inauguration. If you were an archbishop or the pastor of a church, I could take issue with these statements, or even ignore them. But you are my Governor. Our great nation, by law and tradition, provides us with religious freedom. And even though we do not believe exactly alike, we ought to see each other with brotherly affection, and as equals in conscience and human worth."
I'm going to set aside the issue of what is and is not appropriate in a political leader. As his sister in Christ, I think Governor Bentley's remarks are wrong for other reasons. As believers, when we speak of our faith to non-Christians, our attitude should not be
"I'm in a club you're not in. Don't you wish you were me."
That's prideful, annoying and completely off-putting. In his letter, Rabbi Miller speaks of all of humanity as brothers and sisters and as children of God. I think what he's saying to Christians is, "Don't put yourself on a different level than me." He has a point. Our attitude should be instead,
"We're in the same club in terms of being screwed up. I'm messed up, and I'm confident you are too. Left to my own resources, I'm the kind of person who is needy, demanding, self-righteous and self-centered with my husband. I'm angry, demanding and unkind to my children. On my own, I'm completely self-absorbed in my relationships with others."
From a posture of humility, gentleness and respect, I'm called to share that there is hope - that God's solution is not for us to grit our teeth and try really hard to become better people, the kind of people who don't yell at their kids, aren't demanding and self-absorbed with their spouses,... His solution was to send his Son to take on the responsibility for my sins. If I accept that solution, I gain access to the Holy Spirit. According to his own wisdom and somewhat in relation to the degree I'm willing to live my life God's way - the way Jesus would have if he had been me,** God changes me by his Holy Spirit. There are some things I don't struggle with, because of the particular way God made me. I don't cut people off on the road. I'm naturally patient with any one of my children when we're alone together and don't have a task to complete. But, give me more than one child at a time or something to accomplish, and I really struggle with anger. Without God's help, I yell. A lot. But by the work of the Holy Spirit, God is changing me. Through prayer, the wisdom in the Bible and through fellowship with other believers, my character is changing, albeit painfully slowly.
There's purity of heart and wisdom needed in when and how to share the hope we have found in Jesus. A great deal of damage is done when it's shared at the wrong time or from a place of pride and condescension, as I believe it was in the governor's speech. Jesus instructed his followers to be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves. What's the wisdom of a serpent? It's to strike only at the right time. What's the innocence of a dove? A dove is gentle and without ulterior motive. It is guileless.*** In sharing our faith, evangelicals too often have the trampling feet of an elephant and the pride of a peacock.
*If you're interested in reading more about Dr. Tour, see this article or his personal statement on his website here.
**Shamelessly stolen from Dallas Willard. See The Divine Conspiracy.
***Again, shamelessly stolen from Dallas Willard.