(This is the second story of what it sounds like to share the gospel of allegiance to Jesus in real life. You can read the first one here.)
I was recently talking with a few of my friends in the neighborhood about life and faith. One of my friends appeared a little agitated and then blurted out, “I’ve been meaning to ask you about this. All this talk about God and what he is like and what he might want from us. Who’s to say God just doesn’t want me to be happy? If I enjoy going to strip clubs and seeing naked women why wouldn’t God be okay with that? Maybe your view of God is just too narrow, Gino. Maybe your God is no fun.”
Now, your first impulse here may be to deconstruct my friend’s remarks. But instead let’s pause and reflect on what a privilege it is to be included in these conversations in the first place.
In my neighborhood, faithfully following Jesus means inhabiting spaces of relationship with people who don’t always agree with me. It’s the same for you as you seek to be present with people and notice how God is at work among them.
The above question/accusation/interaction doesn’t come out of thin air. My friend and I had spent a lot of time up until this point getting to know each other. This was not our first conversation together, but this one stands out to me. Probably because it was the first time that he visibly demonstrated some frustration and spoke up in front of some other guys we were hanging out with.
Resisting the temptation to call out or hang out
While I am well versed in “the enemy making machine,” (as David Fitch puts it) I have learned to see opposition like this as an opportunity to seek the way of love. What I mean is that any response that simply seeks to “correct” my friend’s statement will typically either end the conversation or possibly escalate it into an “I’m right and you’re wrong” type of verbal tennis match.
Perhaps like you, I’m fairly adept at arguing with people I disagree with (we call that “Call Out”) or trying to placate them so we can avoid conflict (we call that “Hang Out”). But what I’m learning from Jesus to do instead is how to live in love with others (we call that “Call In”).
I recall with shame arguing with people when they would disagree with me about Jesus, only to feel a sense of pride that I could later tell my Christian clique that “I didn’t compromise the truth.” In the “battle” for people’s hearts and minds, I felt like the only way to win the “war” was to be okay with losing a few “battles” along the way, as long as the “truth” was told. But perhaps faithfulness to Jesus is less about winning intellectual battles and more about subverting the whole war altogether through love.
Calling in to love despite disagreement
Allegiance to Jesus looks like creating spaces for relationships where we call people into love regardless of agreement or not. Spaces where conversations like this occur are precious to me and only come with patience. I absolutely love that people speak to me plainly and without pretense; that they can be honest with their push-back and are willing to hear what I believe as well.
Because of the faithfulness of Jesus in the gospel, we are free to be patient in these relationships. In fact, I think that impatience is an indication of my faithlessness (“It’s up to me to make something happen in this person’s heart and mind”) as opposed to my patience demonstrating allegiance to Jesus (“Watch and wait for the Spirit’s work in this space”).
So what does sharing the gospel of allegiance sound like?
With all this context, let’s return to my friend’s push-back and question:
“Who’s to say God just doesn’t want me to be happy? If I enjoy going to strip clubs and seeing naked women why wouldn’t God be okay with that? Maybe your view of God is just too narrow, Gino. Maybe your God is no fun.”
My initial response was a question (I learned that from Jesus!): “I really appreciate you asking this. It’s a sincere question and I can see that you’re wrestling here. So let me ask you, are you saying that if God didn’t want you to go to strip clubs he would not be for your good?”
“I’m just saying,” he replied with a wry smile, “is why does God really care about if I want to look at naked women or not? Maybe I’m just appreciating his creation? How do you know that God doesn’t just want me to do whatever makes me happy?”
“Well, I think there may be a difference between appreciating God’s creation and objectifying women for our own enjoyment,” I replied. “In fact, the two are not compatible. I don’t think we could say we are appreciating God’s creation while we are using it for something it wasn’t intended for. I’m not going to go on a rant about the abuse of power and such right now but I can assure you that this isn’t as innocent as you might like to think or are probably aware of.”
“OK,” my friend said, “that could be true, but how do you that God doesn’t just want me to do what I want to be happy and that he really cares?”
“That’s such an important question!” I responded with a smile. “I can tell you what I believe and invite you to explore it with me. I know what God is like by looking at Jesus. I experience Jesus through participating in the life he invites us into, through prayer, by studying the written account of his work in the world, the Bible, and through the many traditions of the family of God throughout time. This is what gives me a basis for what God desires of me.
“I can sum it up for you: to love him and to love my neighbors. But here’s what I think maybe the difference between you and me—you tell me what you think. A lot of people tell each other that ‘You need to follow a god of your own understanding.’ I think that is helpful. But for you, are you following a god of your own understanding or a god of your own making? If your view of god never calls you to live into something different than you already are doing, is that a god worth following?”
It got silent. Almost uncomfortably so. Perhaps I said too much, I thought to myself. I do that too often.
But before my doubt and self-loathing gathered momentum in my head, my friend burst into a big smile. “Gino, I’ve never thought of that before in my life. If I only believe in a god that does exactly what I want him to, what kind of god is that? You’ve given me something to seriously think about. Thanks.”
As I’ve stated before, sharing the gospel is a process, and my friend and I are in the middle of it, together. I seek to “allegiantly” follow Jesus, my friend is learning with me as he figures if he should trust in his own faithfulness or in the faithfulness of Jesus. What a beautiful process! Good news for me, Jesus is faithful to both me and my friend regardless of how faithful we are to him. So, ultimately, this isn’t up to me (or my friend)!