One of our deepest desires is to be understood. Each of us desperately want other people to hear what we are saying and understand what we mean. When people misunderstand us we are left with a sense that they don’t care for us. What is even worse is when we feel as though people are intentionally choosing to ignore us.
As a Christian living in the United States, a “Christian” nation, I am lumped in with many people who in no way reflect what I see in the Bible. Please don’t hear me whining about some sort of persecution, that’s not at all what I’m saying. What I want you to understand is that most of the people that the 24 hour news sources interview do not reflect me. The Christians who do reflect me, are often not interviewed more than once because they don’t get clicks because they don’t offer inflammatory perspectives. I want to be understood.
I have a good friend who is an atheist. He lives his life in an unending experience of people who refuse to understand him. You see, living in a “Christian” nation means that he is on the outside looking in on much of American life. Even in a time where the secular is overtaking the religious, there is still an assumption that people should “believe in God” to hold positions of power. There are subtle little atheist jokes that are constant. He wants to be understood.
In college I knew a couple of Muslims. Living in a “Christian” nation meant that they lived life misunderstood. We were all in the religion department together at Central Michigan University. One of them was Sufi and the other Shi’ite. Their understanding of their faith was radically different from one another, let alone non-Muslims trying to understand their perspectives. Both of these guys just wanted to be understood.
The Apostle Paul said,
‘Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.’ (1 Corinthians 9:19–23)
The idea here is not that Paul had some sort of dis-integrated life or that he put on different masks. What he is saying is that he “moves into the neighborhood” so to speak. Paul seeks to understand the people he is ministering to so deeply that he can say, “I have become all things to all people.” We see him doing this very thing in the book of Acts. The way he engages with his various audiences is contextualized so that they can most fully understand the story of Jesus. When he’s in the Synagogue the proclamation sounds different than when he’s on Mars Hill which is different than when he is before King Agrippa. The message is never changed, the way he talks about the message does change.
Paul speaks differently to different people because he understands them. He seeks to know them and understand their world. He does so because he cares and loves them enough to make himself uncomfortable so that “by all means” he “might save some.”
Too many Christians refuse to understand other people. We look at the stories in the Bible in a disconnected way from a position of social privilege and power. This leads us to say things like, “Look at how much the prophets suffered and the evangelists. They were really hated.” What’s interesting though is that what you really see is their lament. There is sadness and heartbreak over people not “getting it.” The evangelists and the prophets were not persecuted and abused because they were being jerks, they were abused and persecuted because the people of God refused to be faithful. The prophets, were not persecuted by exterior forces, they were largely embraced by them. They were beaten and set aside by God’s people. The early leaders of the Church experienced much pain at the hands of God’s people. While there was persecution by Rome, that was largely due to Christians living a life that was subversive to the Empire and less about the gospel message itself.
If we are going to be serious about being Jesus’ representatives, his ambassadors, then we must be willing to understand what others believe. This is akin to loving others as ourselves. Just like we want to be understood, we must not only acknowledge that others want to be understood but then seek to understand. This means that we must listen. Listening is not waiting to respond. Listening means that we are trying to really hear what the other is saying. It means that we are making a choice to truly be interested in them. It means sacrificing our desire to be understood in the moment so that we might love well and understand the other.
Do you want to love well? Do you want to follow the Jesus way in this world? Then understand what others believe.
Note: I am grateful to Dr. Jerram Barrs and his book, “The Heart of Evangelism” for helping to shape my understanding that we must live this way.