Godless People

Nov 29, 2007 |Suzanne Hadley Gosselin

The people surrounding you aren't the enemy; they're just looking for someone who really sees them.

The sensation was something like being trapped in an elevator ... or grabbed and held tightly from behind. In a matter of minutes, the 15 or so people who surrounded me had turned from acquaintances to potential adversaries.

The first warm-up in the acting workshop had begun harmlessly enough. We sat in a circle with one actor standing in the center. The actor would then confess something he'd done — eaten an entire box of Oreos — and everyone who had done the same would stand up and switch seats. The person left without a seat would have to offer the next confession.

I confessed to owning six pairs of black shoes. My friend Matt mentioned a speeding ticket. Someone else admitted to ignoring her mom's phone calls. Then the instructor switched things up: "Now all your confessions need to be related to sex, drugs, and rock and roll." We eyed each other nervously and groaned.

The first few confessions were shy and hesitant — "tried marijuana," "stole a buddy's girlfriend," "didn't call her after a one-night stand." But with each new, and more shocking, confession, inhibitions faded and laughter became louder. Soon people seemed to be clamoring to rise from their seats to confess their most appalling indiscretions. My eyes darted to Matt's, both of us frozen in our seats.

I was a goodie goodie Christian girl, set amongst people who were flaunting, even exulting in, their worst sins. One young man, Ryan, stood up for nearly every shameful, perverted confession, which produced laughter from the rest of the group. I gripped the sides of my chair, imagining what I might say if called to the center: "Twenty-nine and still a virgin." I could only guess how that would go over.

Outside the Furnace

Growing up in a Christian home, I was often sheltered from groups of people whose worldview was radically different than my own. I continued that trend by attending a Christian college and taking a job at a ministry. For the most part, I am isolated from those who live without Christ.

Many of my friends, however, deal with the feelings of being in hostile territory on a daily basis. My friend Kelly works at an organic food store. Speaking up for Christ there can be perceived as prejudice against her coworkers, many of whom are involved in the homosexual lifestyle. Christianity is equated with intolerance. Claiming a moral stance for yourself — such as chastity — is viewed as judgment toward others.

That is the reason I felt threatened. I knew that if I made my position known, I would be the bigot Christian standing in judgment over everyone. The room would go silent. Their opinion of me would be palpable: She's one of those.

A few days later, Matt and I talked about the experience. It was not the first time he'd found himself in an unfriendly environment. "When I went to a secular university," he said, "all the guys on my floor were into the partying thing. It forces you to make a decision."

I asked him what he did.

"Three other guys and I banded together," he said, "started a Bible study. We made it known we wouldn't party." Surprisingly, people didn't react as negatively as he'd expected. "They kind of respected us for it," he said.

Four Hebrew teens faced a similar dilemma. Captured by the Babylonians, Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah (renamed Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego) found themselves thrust into a pagan culture with no means of escape. They made a decision not to defile themselves by doing what was expected of them — eating the royal food and wine. Instead they stuck to a diet of vegetables and water. As a result, they ended up stronger and healthier than any of the others.

At the end of the time set by the king to bring them in, the chief official presented them to Nebuchadnezzar. The king talked with them, and he found none equal to Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah; so they entered the king's service. In every matter of wisdom and understanding about which the king questioned them, he found them 10 times better than all the magicians and enchanters in his whole kingdom. (Daniel 1:18-20)

Not long after this, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah took their convictions to the ultimate extreme when they faced the fiery furnace. Not only did they survive, but Jesus stood with them in the fire.

That's what I want. If I choose to take a stand in a crowd of people who don't agree with me, I want Jesus standing there, too. A self-righteous stand (see the Pharisee) does more harm than good for the cause of Christ. When and how should I stand out as a Christian?

Flash Fire

Gary worked as a photographer and director of photography in a San Francisco newsroom for 32 years. It's hard to imagine a less hospitable environment for a Christian. For most of his career, Gary felt as if he were the only believer. He saw himself as a lighthouse in the stormy newsroom.

"I tried to maintain an attitude of prayer without ceasing," he says. Those of his coworkers who knew he was a Christian, respected him. "They cared about my work," he says, "that it was unique from everyone on staff." A distinction Gary believes was God-given.

When he left the paper, many of his coworkers came to his office in tears. Gary responded, "What, do you need a hug?" In the time they had known him, his coworkers had come to expect his hugs and spontaneous offers to pray for them. "People are just looking for someone who cares," he says.

Some opportunities to care were unexpected. One time a college student named Mark drove to San Francisco to see Gary. The young man was a fan of Gary's photography. The two discussed pictures for two hours. When Mark asked him how he got into photography, Gary explained that God had told him to take pictures. This led to him giving the Gospel. When Gary asked Mark if he would like the free gift of salvation, Mark said yes and invited Christ into his life.

Encountering hostility among unbelievers is part of following Christ. Jesus said to His disciples: "If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first" (John 15:18). But how people react to me matters less than how I respond to them. A seemingly dark place may be the best backdrop for Christ's love to shine.

Eye to Eye

My hands still clammy from the first acting exercise, I faced the second one with some trepidation.

The instructor asked us to mill around, and then stop and face another actor. We were asked to look into the person's eyes for two minutes. At the end of that time, each actor would have to choose a word to describe what they saw: confidence, playfulness, judgment, distrust, mischief. I looked into the eyes of three strangers. Their words for me: Warmth. Comfort. Innocence. I hope what they saw was Christ.

Perhaps looking into someone's eyes and taking time to see what's there is more effective than issuing a challenge in a crowd. Asking someone if you can pray for them is more relevant than explaining your theology. Even Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego did not make a show of their decision to obey God. They maintained their integrity and quietly went to the furnace. And when they emerged unscathed, the glory went to God.

Then Nebuchadnezzar said, "Praise be to the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who has sent his angel and rescued his servants! They trusted in him and defied the king's command and were willing to give up their lives rather than serve or worship any god except their own God." Daniel 3:28

No doubt times will come when I will need to stand up and say, "I follow Christ." When they do, I want Jesus standing there with me. But maybe my greatest stands will look more like Gary's — living unapologetically as a Christian and inviting others to know the One who has shown me so much mercy. People need to know that someone sees them and cares — and it's not just me.

Copyright 2007 Suzanne Gosselin. All rights reserved.

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