I have several times referenced the devotional blog, 843 Acres. It is published online five days per week, and includes a very brief devotional on a biblical text. The devotional for February 12th gave me pause. I’d love to interact with it here, with our readers. In it, the question was asked:
“How can we live together with people whose beliefs, practices, and views deeply distress or offend us? How do we relate to them, care for them, and even love them?”
We spend a lot of time on this blog dealing with ‘beliefs, practices and views’ which ‘deeply distress or offend us’. But we don’t spend a lot of time talking about how to deal with those beliefs as Christians, when we encounter them in the individuals of our daily lives.
In the abstract, we can rail against what we see as stupidity, deceit or sin. But what about the beliefs and practices of our neighbors, co-workers and even family members? 843 Acres continues:
“Tolerance is the answer that our culture gives, but the gospel gives a different one.”
I want to stop there for a moment, and point out that the original meaning of ‘tolerance’ was ‘to bear or endure‘. These days, the primary listed definition of ‘tolerance’ is “a fair, objective and permissive attitude…”, making it–to me, anyway, virtually synonymous with acceptance. In any event, the devotional goes on to reference the apostle Paul’s reaction to those with whom he disagrees:
“…He told the strong to be driven by love, not selfishness. He wrote, “We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For Christ did not please himself.” (Romans 15:1-3a ESV)
You can go and read the remainder of the original devotional, as well as chapter 15 of Romans. But I’m not sure that the specific example (of eating meat sacrificed to idols) is very helpful to us when considering the statements from the first paragraph of the devotional. Surely this is more akin to debates between Christians who dance, drink alcohol and/or smoke, versus those who feel some or all of those things are sinful?
I think it’s much more pertinent today for us to know how to interact with those with whom we must relate, day by day, but with whom we deeply disagree on larger–even salvific–issues. What about the neighbor who works in an abortion clinic? Co-workers in euphemistically alternate lifestyles? A loved one who stops attending church and begins to live in a way you believe dishonors God?
Tolerance, by today’s definition, would mean being unbiased (and basically silent) towards behavior we judge to be sinful, allowing others to view as tacit approval what we are simply gritting our teeth and bearing. Is this what Paul meant by bearing with failings?
On the other hand, an all-too-common Christian response is to “come out from them and be separate”… in other words, to cut off communication altogether. Is this the appropriate attitude to take? Is it what Jesus did?
I don’t have an easy answer, because such behavior covers a wide range and must be approached case by case. But I would point us to Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) as a starting point. When asked, “Who is my neighbor?” by a man who wanted to justify himself, Jesus told the famous story…and did not answer the question. Instead he asked a different question: “Which of those men WAS a neighbor…?“
- He didn’t give us a check list of characteristics by which we can determine whether someone rates “neighbor” status.
- He didn’t even say, “Dude–everyone is your neighbor!”
- Instead, Jesus forced His hearers to decide whether they themselves could be considered a neighbor, based on their actions. (Thanks to Eugene Peterson’s Tell It Slant for finally hammering home this insight for me.)
We need to be bold enough to judge certain behaviors as despicable. We need to educate, to legislate, to cooperate with those who are like-minded, and work against policies, laws and practices which oppose truth.
But let’s be careful we don’t end up vilifying any individual who holds these beliefs…which is what we are accused of doing, and what the “other side” often seems to be doing to us. When it comes to interpersonal communication, the first step toward changing hearts is to try avoiding an “us and them” mentality. Owning the moral high ground gives no one the right to be uncivil.
I just want to leave this here. But we might be brave enough to ask ourselves, on a regular basis, “Am I acting like a neighbor toward ____?”
I’d like to be that brave.