Without Honor: Part II

This past Friday, my wife wrote about the negative relational toll that often accompanies a confession of faith in Christ, particularly in those instances where repentance has come later in life. Regrettably, the newly-minted Christian will almost always have years – perhaps even decades – of sinful/stupid behavior that “lives on” in the hearts and minds of friends and family members. Even a deep understanding of the total forgiveness of God given to us in Christ (fairly uncommon to new believers) can be temporarily derailed by the less-than-enthusiastic responses we receive from those around us. (If you missed Part I in this mini-series, you can find it here.)

While Shelly and I would both be quick to acknowledge that our mutual, later-in-life pursuit of Christ has also brought us into many, many new, rich, rewarding and encouraging relationships – our own marriage fits quite nicely into that category – it’s nevertheless discomfiting to watch, almost helplessly, as God carefully and patiently “prunes” people, places and things out of our lives…oftentimes against our will and/or in direct conflict with what we think will make us most happy. As one relationship after another fades into the sad obscurity of unreturned phone calls or e-mails, we might well start to wonder: “Does God really know what He is doing here? Can this sort of unwanted division possibly be a good thing?” Jesus, aware that true discipleship is never without cost, answers both questions in the affirmative:

John 15:1-5 (ESV)
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.”

By using the culturally-relevant analogy of a vinedresser, Jesus makes it abundantly clear that God Himself is actively involved with “taking away” and “pruning” so that we, as Christians, will ultimately bear more fruit. But it’s also important to note, I think, that the vine does not become more fruitful without first suffering damage and loss. Hacking off a branch and tossing it into the fire (John 15:6) hardly seems to be a “tender” manner of handling the vine! Whenever any of us suffer the “loving severity of God,” it seems to me that one very real danger is that we can start to focus not on the fruit that is clearly being brought forth in greater abundance – even as we continue to suffer the initial wound of the pruning hook – but choose instead to dwell on the perceived injustice of the initial loss. Put another way, even as my vines are bringing forth fruit I could never have produced on my own, I might yet find myself looking wistfully back at the bonfire that contains the ashes of other branches that once belonged to me.

So, then…what about those lost/damaged relationships that Shelly alluded to in her Friday post? Does this mean we should rejoice whenever newfound faith in Christ causes “relational awkwardness” or results in outright rejection and an ultimate pruning of relationships in our lives? Hardly! Rejoicing over relational brokenness would most certainly not be perceived as very loving. It’s absolutely right and proper to mourn our relational losses…Jesus did (Matthew 27:37-39).

Instead, I think it’s important for all of us to recognize that newfound faith can be very alienating to people who have known us as unrepentant sinners for most of our lives. It may take folks a while to adjust to “the new you;” they may put off your desire to talk with them about Jesus for years, just to see if your newfound faith sticks…or they may be flat-out frightened by the previously-unheard-of choices you are making as the gospel gradually takes hold of your speech patterns, your day-to-day habits, your spare time, your circle of friends, your sexuality, your bank account, etc.

When we are first saved, the Bible says we are a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17). Having been reborn into the Kingdom of Christ, then, we are often motivated to evangelize all of our friends and family members and share the single greatest gift we could ever imagine – eternal life with Christ. I confess that my own efforts at evangelism soon after my conversion were quite often tremendous failures. Human pride is such that we readily entertain the non-biblical notion that the salvation of even one friend or family member somehow hangs on our efforts, our determination, our fluency with words and/or knowledge of the Bible. These are all good things, of course, but they are not ultimate, determining factors. Jesus assured us that no one could ever snatch His sheep from His hands (John 10:27-30) and Paul makes it abundantly clear that everyone who is called by God will be saved (Romans 8:28-30). Do we believe this? Will we trust these truths? Or will we behave as if it’s up to us – and only us – to be the deciding factor in anyone’s salvation?

While it’s only natural to want to share the awesome gift of Christ with those we love, I think we are wise to remind ourselves of the fact that Jesus Himself was rejected by the people of his own hometown (Luke 4:16-30). How is it that we think we are going to fare so much better…especially when our feeble witness is so incredibly compromised, before we even have a chance to open our mouths? Let’s face it, our friends and family members have a rich history of sin in our lives (past and present) to draw upon. No one was ever able to make any charges stick against Jesus (John 8:46) and yet even in the face of a sinless life and a ministry filled with inexplicable miracles, His rejection in Nazareth was so thorough, so complete, that He – God Himself in human flesh – “marveled” at their unbelief. If the perfect, sinless Christ was surrounded by people who were blind to the amazing work of God demonstrated in His life, how much more can we be scoffed at and rendered ineffective? This dynamic hinders “evangelism at close quarters” for everyone, so we must recognize that it will be even more of a problem for those of us who have a “colorful history” as unrepentant sinners prior to our salvation.

I want to be absolutely clear about this; we are supposed to talk about our faith with friends and family members if they will receive us gladly and are truly interested to hear what we have to say. But when it becomes obvious that our faith is being rejected, and that Jesus is quickly becoming a stumbling block in our conversations and/or our attempts to care for people, I think we need to back down and seek instead to pick up every opportunity that comes our way to love and care for that person…without proselytizing. Personally, I find that “talk less, pray more,” coupled with selflessness, is its own silent witness to the effect of the gospel in the lives of others. (Maybe we should consider adding “talk less, serve more” to that recipe?)

I now know without a doubt that if God wants someone, He will effectually call them, with or without my rather-unimpressive efforts at apologetics and/or Christian service. It’s now abundantly clear to me that if my witness to anyone is very obviously compromised by my own sins – especially if I have sinned directly against that individual – I might do better to stop arguing with that person and trust Jesus to bring the right witness into that person’s life (or not). These days, whenever I find that someone does not want to hear about Jesus from me, I can relax into the knowledge that 1) I have made a good-faith effort to leave the door wide open; 2) this person knows that I very much want to talk to them about my faith; and 3) God is a heck of a lot bigger than my ability (or pride-fueled desire) to “argue someone into the Kingdom.”

Whenever our well-intentioned discourse with others becomes heated and unpleasant, the loss of honor can quickly become complete; we have unwittingly forfeited whatever small amount of honor we may have had to begin with, we have very likely assaulted the honor of the other person, and (most serious of all) we have made it that much harder for the other person to develop the spiritual sensibilities to grasp the very-real and all-surpassing honor of our Lord Jesus Christ. My most obedient efforts, I am coming to really understand, come more from living out an active, joyful life of faith every day, and trusting God to use my wordless witness in the lives of those I love…or not.

Mark 6:1-6 (ESV)
Jesus Rejected at Nazareth
He went away from there and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. And on the Sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astonished, saying, “Where did this man get these things? What is the wisdom given to him? How are such mighty works done by his hands? Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. And Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household.” And he could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them. And he marveled because of their unbelief.

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