The culture of the USA in general believes that Christians love the word NO. People believe that being a Christian is about thinking you are perfect and everyone else is a bad person in God’s eyes.
This misconception about Christians and Christianity is one example of the disinformation that has come to be accepted as the truth about us. We do, of course, believe that some behaviors are good and some are not, and we are all guilty of behaving badly, even by our own standards, so none of us appears to be a good example of being Christian. As a result, the culture often concludes that we are complete frauds. The fact that some people pose as Christians and perpetrate real fraud on people does not help our image.
Complicating our issues with image and reputation are cultural changes that have nothing to do with us. The mix of ideas and religions in the culture of the USA has undergone massive change in the past fifty years. As a consequence, the number of people who accept Christian ideas as normal and desirable has declined dramatically. In 2012 many more people doubt the existence of any god whatsoever than would have claimed that viewpoint in 1962. In 2012 the proportion of people who claim to be Christian is much reduced since 1962, alongside an increased proportion of people who claim to be Muslim, Hindu or humanist. Many who claim to be Christians because of their upbringing no longer practice their faith in any public way and even claim to believe that it ought not to be expressed publicly because of the possibility of offending people who believe something different. This sort of generic dismissal is coupled with widespread disinformation about Christianity.
A Christian who speaks and acts on Christian faith principles is likely to encounter real opposition to Christianity because of a public notion that Christians are hate-filled bigots. They further believe that we think all non-Christians are wicked.
And they are right! What they do not understand is that we know Christians are wicked, also. As a bumper sticker once reminded me, “Christians aren’t perfect–just forgiven.”
We have a real challenge when we try to tell people the good news that as Paul wrote, “In Christ, all of God’s promises are YES!” We don’t live in mournful gloom and doom. Living redeemed, living in relationship with Christ, is a resounding YES to life and love and fulfillment.
One way to demonstrate that truth is to rescue the Ten Commandments from the King James translation of the Bible. The culture hears “Thou shalt not” as a big NO, and interprets it as a harsh judgment intended to suppress and devalue human beings. That misconception thrives on any focus on “Thou shalt not.” It is biblically true that our God expects us to put boundaries on our behavior, but the best way to establish a boundary that shuts out unwanted behavior is to understand the mandate for desirable behavior.
Take for example, the first commandment Jesus said it in a very positive way: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” (Matthew 22:39) Jesus put the focus on God’s expectations, but even the word “expectations” must be understood in the context of the fact that it is Jesus speaking. Who is Jesus? Jesus is God in the flesh, come down to earth, accepting the limitations of a human body in order to suffer and die a humiliating death because of his love for humankind. He stands there in the flesh, the living evidence of the depth and strength of God’s love for us, and he asks us to love him back with the same fervent commitment. That makes the first commandment a loving invitation to a relationship in which we will absolutely receive more than we can possibly give. Will that relationship be exclusive? Yes, but who cares? How is it negative for a person to love and serve this God exclusively? Why would you want to make any room for some fake god, some second-best option?
Try another. Jesus spoke the commandment often stated as “Thou shalt not bear false witness,” in a positive way, too. He said, “Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No.’” (Matthew 5:37) He gave this statement to refute a Pharisaic legal view that taught people it was bad to swear to a lie. Jesus said people ought not to swear at all, because swearing proved nothing. His point is that when we speak, we should speak truth. Our words must be truth. We expect God’s words to be truth, and we should expect nothing less of ourselves. When people live by the standard “Speak the truth,” then swearing or not swearing means nothing. After all, we all know that people can swear to lies. If they are going to lie, why would they fear to swear to a lie? You know without my saying it that our world would be a very different place if everybody spoke only truth.
People accuse Christians of being bigots and hate-mongers because they look at the behaviors we reject and think that we are defined by what we reject. If we live by Christ’s positive restatement of the commandments, we can refute that misconception without saying a word. I paraphrase the two great commandments Christ gave us this way: Love God more than anything else, and love your neighbor as yourself. If we live this way, people will see a lot more of Christ’s YES to life than they will ever see of the ancient “Thou shalt not” that sounds so negative to them.
Have you ever tried restating each of the Ten Commandments as positive directives?