by Laurie Nichols
It happened 20 years ago, but the memory is just as painful today as it was two decades ago. I was in high school and I was struck blindside by a scathing remark from a girl I hardly knew. It was harsh and hit right at my heart, sending me into a 10-year period of questioning who God had made me to be and what my place in the world actually was.
Many people speak about the importance of words—how they have the power to bring life or death (Prov. 18:21). What I experienced that day not only proved the power of words, but the power of casting judgment on another. In the span of just 10 seconds I had been tossed into a proverbial box labeled “UNLOVABLE” and had no idea how to get myself out.
As culture shifts, “religion” becomes less important in the eyes of many, and Christians find ourselves in places of uncertainty on how to tread the ever-increasing waters of change. It is time to rediscover a very important concept—that of “friend.” Increasingly, we are seeing fear of “the other” guide our public and perhaps even personal witness so much so that our ability to see the beauty in “the other” is nearly impossible.
For issues related to sexual identity, in particular, Christians have become so fearful of a changing culture that many have dug their feet into the ground and picked up the box marked “UNLOVABLE,” ready to throw any person in who doesn’t agree with them.
This may seem like an exaggeration, but if we stop and look at what we are saying and how we are responding, we may see otherwise. Twenty years ago, my high school acquaintance likely didn’t care how her remark was received—she just felt the need to say it out loud. And she probably believed it to be truth. Her unspoken final and declarative statement really was, “You are unlovable to me.”
As Christians (or even for those of us who aren’t), how unfortunate if we make this unspoken statement, even when trying to defend what we believe to be true. In the realm of sexual identity, too many of us have come to fear “the other”—whether “the other” is a fellow Christian or even a non-Christian on the opposing side of the pro same-sex marriage debate. And our fear of “the other” dictates how we will—or won’t—dialogue with them.
But what if “the other” is actually a person? A real-life, flesh-and-bone person made in the very image of God, just like we are? What if that person has a name, and fears and concerns and uncertainties all his or her own? And what if, when we look hard and deep enough, we actually see a wonderful and beautiful person who looks remarkably similar to our beloved Jesus because he or she has been stamped with His image?
And…what if “the other” becomes our friend?
In a culture that is changing so rapidly, and as Christians sense the foundation shifting, perhaps there are a few reminders that can guide us as we continue to love and engage “the other”:
We must remember the crux of the Christian faith. As important as issues related to sexual identity and the like are, the heart of the gospel is Jesus Christ crucified, risen, and reigning. When we call ourselves “little Christs,” we are making a profound statement and promising to testify to the power of the cross and the saving grace it provides. In relation to the sexual identity argument, many may back up and say, “Well, if you believe in Jesus, then you will believe in His Word.” Others may say, “Well, if you believe in Jesus, then you will love as He loved.” Right and right.
But therein lies the problem. We begin with an argumentative mindset that centers on a peripheral belief related to sexual identity instead of working through the hard and critical issues of the redemptive power of the cross. Perhaps we need to back up and begin again. “Tell me about your faith journey.” “Can I tell you about mine?”
Our words mean nothing out of context. Until we are ready to actually sit down with those who differ with us and actually engage them in true dialogue—complete with questions, listening ears, and thoughtful responses—our witness cannot be authentic. Speaking a diatribe into thin air is not relational. Nor is it helpful to the Kingdom of God. We must sit with, listen to, and be present with others. We must ask, “Can I take you out to coffee and hear more about why you believe what you do? I’d love to hear more.”
There is beauty in “the other.” When we engage people who have differing views than we do, it’s like iron sharpening iron. Both sides are refined in new and different ways. A new level of appreciation and trust is developed and we move closer and closer to honestly saying, “You are my friend!” despite our differing beliefs. We validate their personhood by listening, and they do likewise.
Hearing other sides allows us to work through what we believe and come to a deeper commitment to and a stronger relationship with Jesus as we sit with Him on the topic. We no longer stagnate at a belief that says, “Well, that’s just what I believe!” Our belief becomes tangible, honest, and authentic. We wrestle with God, we question what we’ve heard or believed, and we arrive at a destination that we feel is truly ours. Now, we can say, “Well, this is what I believe and can I share with you why I believe that?”
When God does the hard work of speaking each person into being and then molding them into His image, we have the duty to honor His work. They are loved by God. And He wants each person to come to Him (1 Tim. 2:4). As we value and honor each person we perceive as “the other,” we can rediscover the beauty of diversity and the resulting wonder of a deepening in our own faith.
Nobody is unlovable. It’s time to do the hard work of making sure our witness conveys that with authenticity and humility.
Laurie Fortunak Nichols is editor of the EvangelVision blog. She is also director of communications at the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism at Wheaton College and managing editor for Evangelical Missions Quarterly (EMQ). Not given the gift of evangelism, Laurie is continually seeking ways to encourage like-gifted Christians to share the wonder of Jesus to those in darkness.