Do you ever worry about how your Christian convictions come across to non-Christians?
One of my Christian friends had to go to China for a work project. He had heard stories around the office about the debauchery that happens on these trips. Most of the men talked about getting drunk, womanizing and inappropriately flirting with their female coworkers, even if they were married.
My friend, wanting to be a good example of a Christian and wanting to take precautions so he didn’t do something dumb, resolved not to drink any alcohol while there. But when the others going on the trip found out about his decision, they replied with comments like, “C’mon, don’t be like that. Are you serious? You need to let loose a little.” And, “So does this mean you are judging us? Can we trust you not to tattle on us or something?”
Misunderstandings of where our moral decisions come from happen all the time. When people find out that I don’t get drunk, chase tail or cuss all the time, they sometimes assume certain things about me. They believe I’m naive and blindly obey what others tell me, and I’m afraid much of the time they assume my convictions mean I’m judging them.
I wonder if there are ways to tell non-believers our convictions that can prevent (or at least engage) these misconceptions. I know we can trust the Holy Spirit to speak for himself, but we can also help others understand by speaking in terms that make sense to them. Simply telling them we do these things “because the Bible tells me so” probably isn’t compelling to them because they don’t consider the Bible authoritative.
One of the things we can say is a bit about why the Bible tells us so. In Philippians 4:8 Paul says, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Paul then says if you do these things, the God of peace will be with you.
Much of the reason we stay away from certain things is so that we can keep peace in our souls and minds. Hopefully others can respect that. And to avoid being accused of judging them, we can admit to our weakness in our response.
For example, if someone says, “What do you mean, you don’t want to get drunk? Do you think drinking is wrong or something?” we can perhaps reply with something like, “I’d love to grab a beer with you, but after a couple, I slur my words, and I already have a hard enough time keeping up with your sharp wit!”
Or if someone says, “What do you mean, you won’t go to a strip club with us? Do you think we’re bad people?” maybe we can respond with something like, “For me, that’s like giving a beer to a sober alcoholic. It’s really hard for me not to be thinking about that for days afterwards.”
Or if someone says, “Wait, you won’t see the movie because it’s rated R? Are we like six years old or something now?” maybe one way we can respond is, “No, it’s not about the rating. I already have a hard enough time keeping peace in my brain, and I’m afraid the sex and violence in this one would kind of knock me off kilter for a while. Thanks for the invite, though.”
Or if someone says, “Why do you always walk away when we start talking trash about the people in accounting? You think we’re bad people?” we can say, “No, it’s just that I’ve always struggled with being too competitive and overly critical of people, so that stuff can pull me into a downward spiral.”
Of course your responses will have to be customized for you and your reasons but I think if we explain the why behind what we’re abstaining from and then deliver it in terms of admitting our weakness, that can help soften how it is received. And of course if your answer prompts more questions or a genuine interest, you just may have an opening to share more of what you believe, including the gospel itself.
My friend went to China and kept his resolve not to drink…until the last day. He said that things had gotten weird with his boss; working side by side for two stressful weeks can do that. At some point the boss had become distant and seemed angry at my friend for some reason. And although he realized there was tension, my friend didn’t know exactly what he had done or how to fix it.
At the goodbye party with the Chinese team, while everyone was drinking and celebrating, my friend took two beers over to his boss, gave one to him and held up the other one to drink himself. He raised the bottle to cheers and said, “I don’t know exactly what happened between us, but I’m really sorry and I want to make things better.” His boss looked at him, confused, and said, “Wait, I thought you weren’t drinking?” My friend, choosing to prioritize the relationship over a self-imposed rule, replied, “This is worth it.” His boss looked at him, nodded and said, “Thank you.”
I think this demonstrates an even deeper message. Some convictions and truths are non-negotiable, and violating them is sinning. But in grayer areas, we don’t want to lose perspective on what is most important. Our personal convictions help us keep peace inside, but loving people like Jesus did is more important than clinging staunchly to cardboard rules. It’s possible to live rightly and love others in the process.