Ephesians chapter 4 ends with instruction about how we should engage as Christians who are in the world but not of it:
Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tender- hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.Ephesians 4:29-32
Let’s practically apply that in a conversation you might have with your actual neighbor. Every situation is unique and yet every situation is also exactly the same. You are present as God’s representative. You have been redeemed. You know the Truth which sets us ultimately free. You have been forgiven and you have been taught by grace to be gracious. Why would you engage with the weapons of the world like bitterness, wrath, anger, slander or gossip? Why would you resort to cutting sarcasm or degrading dysphemisms? Take joy in the position you have! You can be magnanimous in this (and every) situation because you know this is not all there is, you know to get one up on someone here and now is a pyrrhic victory when the actual war being waged is over your neighbor’s soul.
That perspective changes everything. That was the perspective of God related to you and me and it is God’s perspective on everyone we will ever meet who does not yet know Jesus.
Yes, we are called to speak truth, but in love. Yes, we are called to engage, but in ways that honor Jesus. Yes, we are called to fight for what’s right, but not with the weapons of the world.
This spirit of engagement is captured in 2 Timothy 2:23–26 which reads,
Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.
God knows sometimes people are just looking for a fight. That’s not the posture of a servant of the Lord. We are not quarrelsome. We are not going to engage in quarrels. We are also not going to run away nor be silent. This passage makes clear that we’re supposed to remain engaged, ready to offer information and correction while enduring what is described as “evil.”
We are engaging with worldly people, possessed of the spirit of the age, and we’re on their turf. They are likely to remind us of our strangeness. They will call us fools. They will see if we can be scared off or baited into the kind of fight they want to have.
That’s why putting on the full armor of God is so imperative! We need protection and we also need precision spiritual instruments that pierce the soul and cut to the heart. Indeed, “God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the Devil,” and YOU might be the agent of His grace who is standing right there when it happens.
Cultural engagement is too big to get our arms around. But a conversation with an individual who sees the world differently than we see it, a person who is so captive to the spirit of the world they cannot even see their own enslavement—we can get our arms around that. We engage the culture by engaging in conversation with individuals. And we do so in a way that honors Jesus because it’s not about us; it’s ultimately all about Him.
Sometimes, it is helpful to think about some practical ways to step into a conversation, so the next time you are at the neighborhood BBQ or book club, you are prepared to seize the opportunity. Here are a few practical ways to get started:
- Open the door by asking a question that helps you understand the background, experiences, triumphs, and tragedies that have shaped the life or worldview of the person with whom you are conversing. People want to be understood, to know they are known and they matter. They will not be persuaded to engage if all you seem interested in is making your argument and hammering your point. Remember who you are, an ambassador, and remember who they are, a precious person.
- Humility, humility, humility. Take a posture of humility from the very start. The model here is the incarnation of Jesus Christ. He didn’t need to get down on our level to understand us but so we could understand God. Our model is Jesus—and He is radically humble.
- Be willing to repent. Some people have been deeply wounded by their prior experiences. You are not accountable for things done by others, but you do represent Christ who took on our sin as His own so we might be reconciled to God. Certainly, if applicable, apologize for what you did or failed to do in the past. But be prepared to help them through a wrong not yours to con- fess. Genuine remorse is uncommon today and you can be a healing agent of grace in the life of the other. One warning: do not get down into the pit of despair with someone. You are holding fast to the tree of life. You are connected to the redemptive reality of God. Do not allow yourself to be dragged repeatedly into a pity party nor down into the pit a self-destructive person may be digging. You are there to lift up, not be pulled down.
- Speak with the dignity, diplomacy, and authority of an ambassador by:
- Establishing common ground. Remember the idea of ground rules? Well, conversations today need ground rules. It is important these be identified, articulated, and mutually agreed upon so you can hold one another mutually accountable if things start to go sideways. “I think we both recognize this conversation could become contentious so can we agree in advance we’re going to treat one another with respect, without resorting to name calling, and seek to understand one another as much as we seek to be understood? Maybe we could simply agree the Golden Rule is going to rule?” The advantage of using the Golden Rule is it is almost universally accepted and understood as “good.” That makes it a good place from which to converse with people from a wide variety of worldviews.
- Sharing your position. You may be tempted to say “the Bible says” or “my church teaches,” but those are authorities for you, not the person with whom you are conversing. So, speak the Truth, but make it your own. For example, “I have given this a lot of thought, and after serious consideration, I still believe the best formula for marriage is one man and one woman. To me, marriage is more than just a social partnership. It’s something mysterious and holy. That’s where I am—but you may see things differently. I’d really like to know where you are on this.”
- Being prepared to provide the basis of Truth on which you stand. “As a Christian, I acknowledge that the Bible is God’s Word. That means that what the Bible says has an authority that informs every area of my life. If you are interested, I could show you why I think this way.”
- Before parting ways, invite the continuation of the conversation at another time over a shared meal. It can feel risky, but the worst someone can say is no. Table fellowship has a way of breaking down barriers talking on its own cannot. If appropriate, invite them for a meal at your home. There’s a reason ambassadors move into the culture and set up a place to which people can come and learn the customs of another kingdom and be exposed to foreign ideas. Christ has a way of making Himself known in the breaking of bread.
One final thought: mom was right. If you can’t say something nice you should seriously consider not saying anything at all. If you’re feeling more like Jonah than Jesus, step away. People do not need more condemnation. They need transforming encounters with agents of God’s grace and ambassadors of Christ’s Kingdom.
This is an excerpt from Carmen’s book Speak the Truth: How to Bring God Back into Every Conversation. Find more information and how to order a copy here.