Without Honor: Part I

“I liked you better before you were a Christian.”

Has anyone ever said something like that to you? Particularly if you came to Christ at a later age (a statistical anomaly, according to Keith Simon’s sermon on Aug. 15*), you’ve probably had times when you sensed that some of the people in your life have felt that way, even if they didn’t articulate it. Particularly people who knew and liked “the old you” might find that “the new you” doesn’t seem like a better model to them, and are now perhaps less interested in maintaining the relationship.

Maybe no one has been bold enough to say something so abrupt to you, but I have had that exact sentiment expressed to me. A family member, in the course of a particularly difficult phone conversation, actually voiced what I think many unbelieving friends probably think and feel, perhaps mistakenly feeling “left behind” in the dust as you run to Christ: “I got along better with you before you were a Christian.” The person who said this to me didn’t actually point to my faith, per se, as the change they found abhorrent, but rather the decisions I’d made in the last several years that have made me a different person, with seemingly-strange priorities. Whether or not they actually realized it, though, the relational angst was not created simply by the choices and decisions I’ve made in my life, but by the driving force behind those choices – the difference they found so distasteful was the work of Jesus.

There’s no rejection quite like the kind that says, in the face of a changed life in Christ, “I liked you better as an unrepentant, unregenerate sinner.”

I confess it took me months to get to a point where I could talk about that phone conversation without getting upset. I’m still struggling to understand what a God-honoring relationship with this loved one should look like, given that our values seem to be at polar opposites. But I’ve long come to accept the state of this relationship (and others) as evidence that what Jesus said was absolutely true: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household” (Matthew 10:34-36).

When Jesus said this, he was sending the twelve apostles out into the surrounding countryside to speak to the Jewish people, “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 10:6). In other words, He was commissioning them to go witness to their own brothers. Then He tells them that they will be like sheep among wolves (10:16), that persecution will come (10:18), and they will be hated for His name’s sake (10:22). He finishes up by telling them that he has come to create division, even among families.

I don’t know about you, but had I been presented this opportunity to spread the gospel, I would have liked a “slightly more motivational” pep talk!

But I think at least part of the point here is that Jesus’ disciples were going out into the Jewish community to share with them a very different way of life, a very different way of thinking from what the Jews of that day had grown up believing. Things were changing radically, a new covenant was being established, and people wouldn’t always embrace that change. The same dynamic is true today, and is played out with great clarity in our relationships with people who knew us as different people.

A sister who has grown up knowing you one way can be very dismissive of the changes she sees in you as Christ begins to change your heart. A college friend who was for years your favorite drinking buddy can feel uncomfortable being around you when your priorities begin to change and you no longer spend all your Friday nights with a beer in your hand. Unbelieving friends and family can act as though they feel judged by your very presence; you don’t even need to open your mouth to make them feel somewhat itchy. Their opposition to your faith is oftentimes subtle, staying in the realm of what I would simply call “relational awkwardness,” but sometimes you may even get directly challenged, as both my husband and I have experienced on more than one occasion.

Though some people may relish a good debate, I think most of us would say it’s hard to face opposition from anyone, let alone someone you care deeply about. Friends, parents, siblings, adult children, maybe even a spouse who indicates, through words or actions, that they don’t support your faith in Jesus, can make it hard to stay faithful. It’s tempting to minimize your beliefs when you’re around them. It’s even more tempting to ignore opportunities to confess Jesus as your Lord when you’re talking to them, in order to spare awkwardness and maintain the relationship. And it’s painful to walk the line between your growing relationship with Jesus and the increasingly-strained relationships with those in your life who don’t share your faith in Him.

In the face of this kind of rejection – when it’s the changes Christ is making in you causing strain in your relationship with others – I’ve found that one thing that helps me is to cling to this truth: assuming that I am not being arrogant, deliberately provocative and/or self-righteous, the rejection of unbelievers, according to the Bible, is a clear sign that I belong to Jesus (1 John 3:13, 4:5-6, 5:19). The person your friend or family member is rejecting is not you – it’s Jesus Christ. Identification with Him is alienation from the world (John 15:18-21). And while that’s not always an easy thing to live through in this life, it is a sure sign of the reward of things to come in the next, assuming you don’t deny your faith (Matthew 19:28-29).

Do you see division in your life as you strive to walk more closely with Him? Are relationships with unbelieving loved ones changing in ways you didn’t expect? Are you losing relationships you never wanted to lose, didn’t think you’d have to lose, for the sake of remaining steadfast in your faith to Jesus? I know many people who have.

I certainly have. And there is no denying that it is emotionally painful (and costly) to open up about your faith in Christ when you are nearly certain that the person you are speaking with will respond with a roll of their eyes, several reminders of “who you really are,” an attempt to “talk sense” to you…or worse.

It seems to me that a lot of people come to faith in Christ expecting Jesus to solve all of their problems. And yes, it’s certainly true that Jesus does, in fact, solve your most pressing and urgent problem, namely sparing you from eternal death and the wrath of God that is sure to come (Romans 5:8-11). The mistake we often make, I am convinced, is in not being prepared for the inevitable problems that will arise in this life as a result of that relationship with Jesus. Christ Himself warned us that the world would hate us for His name’s sake, but He also assured us that the victory is already His (John 16:33). May we all hold tenaciously to that promise as we inevitably experience the loss of some of our most-treasured relationships.

Philippians 1:27-28 (ESV)
Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God.

*See “The Eternal Perils of Procrastination,” in The Crossing Sermons Audio Feed.

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