I don’t know about you, but I’m not a huge fan of the unfamiliar. If I look down a menu in a restaurant, I’ll almost always go for a dish I know. I’m perfectly aware that the Moules Marinières might be delicious, but because I’ve never had mussels before, I’m wary. I have no experience of eating them. They could be tasty or they might not be, and I’m not prepared to risk it. I’m fearful of what I don’t know, and so I retreat and stick to what I perceive as ‘safe’.
Fear of ‘The Other’
It can be the same when as Christians we meet other people. Usually, as Christians, we are familiar with spending time with other brothers and sisters in Christ – we talk to them at church, we pray with them in prayer meetings, we share our lives with them and walk alongside them in their struggles and joys, and long to point each other to Jesus. Being with other Christians should feel right, and like home.
But when we meet people who do not yet know Jesus, we can feel like we need to hide a part of who we truly are, and that we can’t really be honest about our thoughts and our reactions, because ‘they’ won’t understand. We instinctively see people who do not yet know Jesus as ‘them’, ‘The Other’. We find ourselves thinking ‘They’ are not like me, ‘they’ don’t believe in the things I believe. I feel threatened. I feel fearful. That’s not necessarily because the person is being aggressive or antagonistic about our faith, but simply because ‘they’ are not ‘us’ – they have a completely different worldview and it’s not one with which we’re familiar and it’s not one that feels safe and so our instinctive reaction can be to retreat.
Different Christians will respond differently of course, but I imagine many of us find it challenging to step towards people who are unlike us. Perhaps it might be an atheist family member, or a Muslim colleague, or a radical university friend, or an uninterested neighbour. Perhaps it might be someone from a different country, or a different culture, or a different political viewpoint, or a different socioeconomic background. You will know best the people that you most consider ‘Other’ to you. We will all have this fear of the unfamiliar on some level.
A Spirit of power, love and self-discipline
But just because this fear is common, does not mean that it is commendable. The apostle Paul writes to his friend Timothy: ‘For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline.’ (2 Tim 1:7) The Holy Spirit, given to us by our Heavenly Father, empowers us to be loving, and to be disciplined in this love for others. Rather than being shy or timid or fearful in our faith, the Spirit gives us confidence that we don’t have naturally, to step towards those who are unlike us, to love them by seeking to share the truth of the gospel with them. I certainly don’t always feel this confidence – and neither, it seems, did Timothy – but the problem is not that I have no reason for confidence, but that I have forgotten the Spirit’s power, God’s power, and my eyes are only on my own weakness and my fear of ‘The Other’.
How else can they hear?
Aware of our tendency to retreat, Paul writes in the New Testament ‘How can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?’ (Romans 10:14) If we do not tell our Muslim colleague about Jesus – who will? How will they be saved? If you do not reach out to your radical university friend with the joy of the gospel – how else will they hear of it? If I do not share the delight of knowing Jesus with my atheist family member – who else will bring this saving news to them? It may seem safer for us to stay quiet, but we know deep down that it is not safer for them. Let it be said of us ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’ (Romans 10:15).
You probably know people who know no Christians other than you. For many years, I was the only Christian in my workplace of thirty or so colleagues. I clearly remember my surprise when one of my politically left-leaning and liberal colleagues stated categorically that I was the first Christian she had ever known: she was in her thirties, had been to university, worked in London, and was active on social media. It was astonishing to me that in all those years she had never before known a Christian – it struck home the deep spiritual need of my workplace and that truth from Romans 10:14: how can they hear without someone preaching to them?
On another occasion, an atheist senior colleague argued with me at length about a Christian talk we’d attended together, where the speaker had said all of mankind was by nature sinful. It was the first time anyone had suggested she was anything other than good and she was deeply angry. No-one had ever before explained to her that ‘There is no-one righteous, not even one’ (Romans 3:10); she had never before been told of her need for the Lord Jesus. Whilst it was a very hard conversation and there was ultimately no obvious fruit, I was hugely grateful she had been given an opportunity ‘to call on the one [she had] not believed in’ (Romans 10:14).
And I can recall another colleague, a man in his forties from a Hindu background but who would consider himself more ‘spiritual’ rather than Hindu, asking me about Protestantism during a finance review (we had been chatting ‘slightly’ off-topic about London architecture, specifically local churches). When I explained the concept of grace to him, he was astounded. He was visibly shocked at how scandalous grace was. Until that point in his life, he had only ever considered ‘good deeds’ as the way to heaven/the divine entity. Grace upset him – it didn’t make sense to him logically. Grace was not something he would ever thought of on his own. ‘How can they hear without someone preaching to them?’ rang very true to me that day.
It will not be easy to step towards people who don’t share your beliefs, who think you are odd, or perhaps even evil, for your faith in Christ. But how else can they hear?
A slow burn
It’s worth saying at this point that opportunities to speak openly about your faith may only come in the context of months of quiet witness, gently trying to start conversations about a church service or a Bible study, and often being shut down. Some of my atheist friends are very happy having a heated debate about Christianity, but my colleagues are clearly uncomfortable talking about spiritual beliefs, even those who are Muslim or Sikh or Hindu themselves. Christian witness may simply involve being a Christ-like friend, neighbour or colleague, waiting patiently for someone to be open to chat about deeper things – praying for opportunities and not shying away from them when they come. After a year of trying to draw alongside a very closed atheist colleague, one day she asked me over a coffee about why Christians marry, rather than live together. It was a long-awaited answer to prayer, and I had the opportunity to talk about the beauty of Christ’s love for and everlasting commitment to his own bride (the church), something that she had never heard of before and which clearly moved her. Other small opportunities like this may seem like they are few and far between, but we trust that the Lord is working powerfully behind the scenes, using our witness, jars of clay though we are, to bring people to him.
The Light of all mankind
Our temptation to retreat from those who are ‘Other’ to us stands in stark contrast to our Lord Jesus. He stepped forwards with love and compassion towards those who were ‘Other’ to him. He came into this world, with all of its sin and darkness and impurity and rejection of God, a world swhic is so ‘Other’ to his righteousness and light and purity and perfect unity with the Father. He died to save those who were far from him, who had no care for him. He died to save not only Jews, but also Gentiles. ‘There is no difference between Jew and Gentile – the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’’ (Romans 10:12-13). We could replace ‘Gentile’ with ‘Muslim’ or ‘Hindu’ or ‘Sikh’, or ‘politically radical’ or ‘left-liberal’ or ‘right fundamentalist’, or ‘staunch atheist’ or ‘apathetic agnostic’, or whatever people group seems most ‘Other’ to you. The same Lord is Lord of all, and if they call on the name of the Lord, they will be saved. Will you be the one who will bring them this good news?
Heavenly Father, in times when we fear approaching those who are different to us, remind us of the Spirit you have given us, a Spirit not of timidity but of power, love and self-discipline. Fill us with love for those who are different to us, who think differently to us. Help us step towards them with the good news of the gospel, as Jesus stepped towards us with his saving grace. May we be those of whom our non-Christian family, neighbours, colleagues, friends ultimately say ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’