Speak with Respect

Recently a friend asked me what to do when she felt led to share Christ with someone who does not believe. With all the current emphasis on speaking “correctly” in various settings, she was concerned that her mention of Christ’s name was disrespectful to people who do not believe. She had read Paul’s words to Timothy, a young pastor, to preach the word “in season and out of season.” In other words, preach all the time. It is fundamentally the message Christ gave to his disciples as he prepared to ascend to heaven when he said, “As you are going, make disciples.” Jesus said, and Paul reiterated, that we are to be busy sharing our faith all the time. My friend wanted to know how she could speak of her faith without upsetting people who do not believe.

The answer is that it is not possible to know whether the mention of Christ’s name will upset someone. Christians are called to love people the way Christ does, and if they love people, they will want to share Christ with people who do not know him. In the US today, a mention of Christ, even an invitation to receive Christ, is not against the law. It is free speech protected by the First Amendment, but that protection does not have any effect on the personal reaction of someone who thinks religion is a bunch of “ghost stories.”

This problem really is a problem in some countries around the world. Not too long ago, a new convert to Christianity in Morocco was arrested because he “shook the faith” of a Muslim. This new Christian is so happy in his faith that he can’t shut up about it. His Muslim neighbors complained that he was always inviting them to church and talking about Jesus. In prison he was tortured by guards and abused by fellow prisoners, but he said, “Before I became a Christian I had no peace, but now I have peace all the time.” In prison, subject to torture and beatings, he had peace. He is currently out of prison on condition of being silent about Jesus, but he is not silent, despite the risks. He reminds us all of the statement by Peter to the high priest in Jerusalem: “We must obey God rather than men.”

In Iran, a Christian and a Muslim had a quiet conversation in a park. They were in the capital city, where Evin prison holds many Christians imprisoned for being vocal about their faith. These prisoners are all convicted of being threats to national security. During the conversation, the Muslim spoke of the religious police who circulate all over the city and of the many rules and regulations that control daily life in Iran. He said, “This place feels like a prison.”  The Christian in this case had to be discrete in his response to this statement. He had friends in Evin prison who had carelessly agreed with such statements, only to discover that the statement was made as bait to entice them to criticize the government. He did not hesitate out of “respect” for the Muslim’s unbelief but rather as an act of serpentine wisdom. He truly must beware. If a Christian in Iran speaks of Christ to a Muslim, he does so knowing the risk he is taking.

In the US, Christians are not yet at risk of arrest for sharing the faith. I greet people in the name of Christ without knowing their beliefs, because I love to share Christ. Even people who look a bit puzzled and turn away do not seem to feel that this greeting is illegal speech. In the US we speak freely because free speech is protected. However, this state of affairs can change and may change. Without even repealing the First Amendment, it is possible for the Supreme Court to frame the wording of a decision about speech that categorizes faith sharing as outside the protection of the First Amendment. It is hard to imagine how that could be, but with daily assaults on the free exercise of religion, some assault on free speech about religion seems almost inevitable. Already, the word “proselytizing” has begun to surface as a scornful description of faith speech.

When Christians speak to anyone about Christ, the motivation is love. Love is both respectful and powerful. Real love is willing to do the hard thing in order to bring blessing to the loved one. There certainly are people who are adamantly and angrily opposed to the sharing of faith speech in public. They do not want to hear anything about Christ. They might be very angry if someone said, “Jesus loves you.” Christians need to be wise about when they  speak and what they say.

Fortunately, before Christ was crucified, he promised his disciples that the Holy Spirit would always be with them to guide and inspire their words. He also promised them that they would be hated and reviled, even persecuted. Christians who obey the guidance of the Holy Spirit need to speak when they receive that guidance, but when they do, they must also be ready to accept whatever response they receive. Those to whom they speak may think the Christian is kindly sharing something good, but it is possible that those people will erupt angrily, lashing out and accusing the Christians of hate speech or even unconstitutional acts.

There may be reasons to be silent on some occasions. Jesus taught that Christians are not called to barge in like roaming cattle. The guidance of the Holy Spirit is the only reliable guide for speaking or being silent. A Christian must certainly respect the human value of each person, but a Christian must expect and be willing to ask for the respect of those who do not believe. Every person is entitled to respect for being human, without regard to what he believes or does not believe. When a non-believer rails against a Christian for speaking of what he believes, the Christian has the same right as the non-believer to speak up for respect. Not aggressively demanding respect, but quietly asserting a right to be respected. A non-believer has the permission of God Almighty to refuse to believe, but the non-believer does not have God’s permission to speak abusively or to engage in outright assault. In the US, believers should be able to speak with courtesy and respect in conversation with unbelievers, but there is no guarantee that the response will always be in the same vein.

Christians must respect everyone, but they must always follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit. If a Christian speaks of God’s love to someone who reacts violently, Christians must continue to follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit in love and grace. To speak of God’s love to someone who rejects him is not a lack of respect; it is an act of profound love.

What is your experience when you speak of Christ to people who reject him?