In the July/August 2011 issue of Books and Culture, N.D. Wilson wrote a review of Rob Bell’s Love Wins. One statement stood out to me as I pondered the review. Wilson wrote, “There is a strange unstated axiom floating around in the background of the book, namely, the gospel will necessarily be appealing when presented correctly (if your church isn’t growing, find a new God, etc.).” This is an interesting observation, and one that seems to be present in many of the “emerging church” or anti-traditionalist literature. But I would also say that this attitude is present in the mainstream church as well. How often do we hear pastors or leaders in the church state that we need to proclaim the gospel, that our nation would heal if we proclaim the gospel, that our congregations would swell if we proclaim the gospel. Yes, proclaiming the gospel is important, but it must also be lived, it must be evident in our actions as well as on our lips. I’m increasingly coming to believe that the greatest obstacle to Christianity in our culture is not that the gospel isn’t being proclaimed, but that Christians often seem to be jerks.
Ask any person in the food industry what shift is the most difficult to work, and they will probably answer with the bar rush or the post-church rush. I have heard stories of belligerent pastors who were denied a pastoral discount, and I could tell quite a few stories about that myself. Just yesterday two women grew angry over a miscommunication and muttered that the person didn’t know how to do his job correctly. Based on my work experience alone (in a Christian book shop) I would easily characterize the majority of our customers, who would classify themselves as Christian, as passive-aggressive or outright rude and self-centered. The temptation of all the clerks is to repay this treatment in kind, which I confess that I have sometimes done and other times have not. My desire is to treat those around me with kindness and grace as much as possible, but it is hard when a self-centered customer starts tearing a co-worker or myself down. I want to push back. I want to defend my friends or, at the very least, my own pride. When you serve people who question your convictions because they find a 7th Day Adventist book shelved in the wrong section or they speak harshly about a book and its fans without trying to discern if you or a person in earshot is a fan, these things start to wear on you. They break you down. I realized recently that the greatest temptation for me to turn my back on the faith isn’t a well-reasoned atheistic argument, it is the behavior of people I encounter who proclaim the name of Christ. And it breaks my heart to know that I have also mis-represented Christ.
These experiences have been rattling around in my head for a few years now. I have been trying to make sense of them. Back to the hope that proclaiming the gospel will change our culture. While that is certainly possible, I almost wonder if it is the same belief that lurks in Love Wins, that if we present the truth of Jesus, everyone will accept him. But if Christians go around cutting each other and non-believers with their words and actions, words and actions that betray our casual indifference to one another, the no one will care a whit about who Jesus is and what the Christian life calls us to. While the obvious solution is to just be nicer to one another, I also have to wonder why we are like this. Why are we so mean to each other?
First of all, life in America is rather easy. Even under our current economic troubles, there are jobs to be had (they may just require lowering standards and moving to other areas) and a person can still make his or her way. American life allows a person to be self-sufficient. Apart from the occasional tragedy of nature, life is pretty much stable. For the middle and upper classes in America, God is rather distant because we don’t depend upon him. We have allowed traces of deism into our theology. God exists and has ordered things, but he doesn’t much interact with us. So, we Americans continue to make our way. But the problem is that the gospel which seeks to set us free from the slavery of death and oppressive life is lacking something when we have hospitals that keep us alive and life is only as oppressive as our creditors (and I understand that some creditors can be quite oppressive). Life in America is largely good, so we don’t think about it very much. Instead, we think about Hell. Sure, Hell is somewhat abstract, but we secretly know we are guilty. We know that our society likely stands on the backs of those who are oppressed in slave trades or sweatshops. We know the corrupting force of our media on the world and that our gods are self-indulgence and entertainment. We connect, on some level, with a Jesus who saves us from our sins because we are consciously or unconsciously guilty. N.T. Wright, in doing interviews on his book Surprised By Hope, in which he talks about the Kingdom of God, Heaven, and The New Jerusalem, found that time and again he was asked by American interviewers about Hell. Does Hell have a lake of fire? Are the damned eaten by worms? How right was Dante? Wright was flabbergasted by the American fixation with Hell. I wonder if the fixation with Hell is the guilt of our success. I wonder if the fixation with Hell is a result of knowing we are self-centered and indifferent to our fellow man, whether American or foreign. So for us, the gospel is to protect us from Hell, to appease our guilt. But that doesn’t necessarily change us.
How does a Christian know he or she is saved? Well, you respond to the alter call and pray the sinner’s prayer. Sometime soon afterward, you are baptized. There isn’t anything necessarily wrong with any of these things (baptism, in fact, was highly prized in the first century church), but each of these has become sacraments in their own rights. Each of these have become the tangible signs of faith, but none of them require a change of heart or an action that truly illustrates one’s devotion to Christ. In the New Testament we have stories of tax collectors returning extorted money and the wealthy selling off fields to meet needs. These were acts that Christ’s followers took as an outward sign of devotion as well as an outflowing of love from their hearts. These people didn’t pray the sinner’s prayer and didn’t read the “Roman’s Road” with Jesus or Paul. They are people for whom Christ’s message, death, and resurrection had profound meaning and they couldn’t refuse it. They were unable to ignore it, so they reoriented their lives to make that new affiliation stick. An alter call or the sinner’s prayer are not necessarily bad things, but without any follow-up, without any guidance, they can be seen as the one and only act of devotion a person needs to make. Not only is this incredibly misleading, it serves to stunt the spiritual growth of the individual. Becoming a follower of Christ requires the individual to reorient his or her life around the will of God, which requires becoming familiar with the story of God’s people (both Jews and Christians) and the teachings of Christ and the other writers in the New Testament. And part of that is living at peace with other people as much as you can do so. And part of that is considering others greater than yourself. Being rude, indifferent, and self-centered are not fruit of the spirit.
We all have our struggles. We all have temptations, and these vary from person to person. My struggles are different from my wife’s and hers are different from our co-workers. We must be willing to exercise grace with one another when confronted by Christian rudeness and indifference. We are to be the change we wish to see in others. We cannot repay evil with evil. This is hard, I know. My struggles are cynicism and sarcasm (although, I sometimes like to think sarcasm and wit are gifts). It is very easy for me to push back at those who are rude and hurt me, and to do so with very little effort. But this does not honor Christ and it does not advance His Kingdom. We cannot use other people’s rudeness and insensitivity as an excuse to devalue them. We have to treat them better than they treat us. Despite proclaiming Christ to the world around them, if we treat them with grace, we may be the only example of Jesus in their lives. We must live with the awareness that these are people whom God values. These are people that, as C.S. Lewis said, we would be tempted to worship if we could see their true nature rather than the debilitating guise of the flesh.
We have to be nice.