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Do we Understand that we Represent Jesus to Others?

 

All the passages below are taken from Lee Strobel’s book, “God’s Outrageous Claims,” which was published in 1997 by Zondervan.

 

Cartoon buffoon Homer Simpson hadn’t seen his born-again neighbor Maude Flanders for a while.

Frankly, I’m not so sure he missed her. The incessantly sunny demeanor of Maude and her husband, Ned, clearly annoys him. The sugarcoated perkiness of their kids only accentuates the devilish delinquency of Homer’s own infamous spike-haired son, Ban. And the Flanders’s platitude-spouting faith seems hopelessly irrelevant to the Simpson clan, which is barely muddling through the daunting realities of everyday life.

Even so, when Homer saw Maude in her backyard, he greeted her warmly. “I haven’t seen you around in a couple of weeks,” he said.

“Where have you been?”

“Oh,” Maude replied cheerily “I’ve been away at a Bible camp---learning how to be more judgmental.”

Zing!

I could imagine millions of viewers around the country erupting in laughter and whispering under their breath, “Amen!”

Because unfortunately, that’s what a lot of people think about Christians these days. If you look at Homer’s Bible-thumping neighbors you see a faith that’s rigid and superficial, pushy and moralistic, saccharine and out of sync with reality. And when I was a spiritual skeptic, that was the way I used to stereotype Christians, too. As Sheldon Vanauken said, “The best argument for Christianity is Christians: their joy, their certainty, their completeness. But the strongest argument against Christianity is also Christians---when they are somber and joyless, when they are self-righteous and smug in complacent consecration, when they are narrow and repressive, then Christianity a thousand deaths.”

Annie Dillard is equally blunt. “What a pity,” she said, “that so hard on the heels of Christ come the Christians.” Then there’s William Hart, who ranked Jesus third (after Muhammad and Sir Isaac Newton) in his book on the top one hundred most influential people in history; saying, “On his own merits Jesus would definitely be the most influential person ever. The problem is his followers. They have done a relatively very poor job of carrying out his message.”

Jesus must have known what was going to happen. And yet that didn’t stop him from declaring one of his most outrageous claims of all.

 

GOD’S MARKETING CHALLENGE

It happened on a hillside outside Capernaum. Jesus had just amazed a crowd by announcing mind-boggling news: the very people who thought they would never be eligible to get into God’s kingdom are invited in---not because of their goodness but on the basis of his.

And Jesus wanted this life-transforming and eternity-altering message to be communicated around the globe and down through history. But how? What was his approach going to be?

That’s when Jesus unveiled his strategic---and seemingly outrageous---plan. In effect, he said to his followers, “You are my marketing strategy. You are the means by which my message will be spread in your family, your neighborhood, your workplace, and your school. You’ll do it by being salt and light. That’s Plan A. And friends, this had better work, because there is no Plan B.”

Now, Jesus clearly used the metaphors of salt and light in a positive sense. He was telling people to be like salt---by living a life that causes others to thirst for God, that spices up the world, and that retards the moral decay of society. And just as light exposes and attracts, Jesus was saying, “I want you to live the kind of life that illuminates my truth for people, that shines my compassion into dark places of hopelessness and despair, and that draws people toward me---because I, ultimately, am the light of life.”

What an outlandish idea---that frail and fallible, timid and tongue-tied, insecure and inconsistent people like you and me would be the main purveyors of the monumental news that can change people’s eternal destinations. It was a high-stakes strategy. And the results have been . . . well, let’s admit it: a bit mixed. Because even though Jesus used the images of salt and light positively, some Christians have managed to turn them into negative metaphors.

 

SALT THAT STINGS, LIGHT THAT GLARES

If you’ve ever gotten salt in a wound, you know how much it hurts, if you put too much salt on your food, you quickly spit it out. And excessive light can be bad as well, like when you’re driving down a two-lane highway and the glare from an oncoming car’s high beams causes you to recoil and avert your eyes.

In a similar way, the problem with some Christians is that even though they have good intentions, they inadvertently repel people from God’s kingdom instead of attracting them. At least, I found that to be true when I was an atheist.

Basically, there were four kinds of Christians that caused me to recoil from the faith. If you’re a spiritual seeker, see if you can relate to any of these. And if you’re a Christian, ask yourself honestly whether you might fit into one of these categories.

First, there were in-your-face Christians. An example was a guy I used to pass on a street corner as I walked to my office at the Chicago Tribune. He would shout into a bullhorn that distorted his words so much that I couldn’t even tell what he was saying. But he was angrily waving a Bible in the air, so I got the idea. And I would say to myself, “if that’s Christianity, count me out!”

Recently I came across a manual of detailed instructions on how Christians can hook up a loudspeaker to their car so they can take their preaching on the road. You’ve heard of drive-by shootings? Well, these are drive-by shoutings!

The guide offered such helpful advice as this: “The faster your car’s speed, the shorter your sermon should be.” It even provided sample lines to use. For example, if you see a car stopped at a traffic light, you’re supposed to declare, “Pull over right now and ask Jesus to save your soul!”

When an in-your-face Christian would shove propaganda into my hand as I walked down the street, I would cram it into the next trash bin. When a Bible-toting couple rang my doorbell, I’d pretend I wasn’t home.

These people were always anxious to launch into a spiritual discussion at the most inopportune time. For instance, I would be squeezing between the rows at a crowded movie theater, looking for an empty seat. “Is that seat saved?” I’d ask the person next to it.

“No, it’s not,” he’d bellow as he pointed menacingly at me. “But the real question is, Are you saved?”

I’ll tell you what: I’d scurry for a seat on the other side of the place! The bottom line is that I resented strangers who would try to push themselves, uninvited, into something as personal as my spiritual beliefs.

I also was repulsed by greeting-card Christians, whose understanding of their faith was so shallow that they could only talk about it in the kind of simpleminded clichés you find on Christmas cards. I’d ask them a million-dollar question about Christianity and they’d give me a twenty-five-cent answer---or no response at all. To them, Christianity was emotional, not rational. That would put me off, because I’d think, “How can they believe something that they’ve obviously never thought through?”

In addition, holier-than-thou Christians repelled me. Smug and self-righteous, they painted themselves as being much better than they really were, and tarred people like me as being much worse than we really were, as if every social problem in America stemmed from the fact that everyone didn’t agree with them one hundred percent. That angered me.

These Christians had an us-versus-them mentality. The believers were the good guys, and they were supposed to stay away from bad guys like me. I got the idea that if I were to venture into one of their churches, people would frantically whisper behind my back, “Look out! It’s one of those hell-bound pagans! Quick lock up the valuables! Gather the children! Protect the women.” I mean, that’s a turnoff.

The other folks who chased me away from the faith were cosmetic Christians. They had a skin-deep spirituality that looked pretty good on the outside but didn’t penetrate deep enough to change their behavior and attitudes.

Like the journalist who was one of the most unscrupulous reporters in Chicago but who let everybody know what a churchgoing family man he was. Or the politician who proudly publicized his church affiliation during election years but who was a vicious backstabber behind closed doors. Or the police officer who was the most racist individual I knew but who never missed a Sunday service.

Frankly, I don’t think anything repulses people like the hypocrisy of cosmetic Christians.

Fortunately, these four kinds of Christians weren’t the only ones I encountered during my years as a skeptic. I also met Christ followers named Ron, David, Linda, and Jerry whose saltiness made me thirsty to learn about the Jesus they seemed to know so well.

What did they do differently? How did they embody Jesus’ metaphors of salt and light in twentieth-century terms? Let me answer those questions by telling you the stories about how the Holy Spirit used their character and attitudes to pull me---gently but powerfully---toward Jesus.

 

A COSTLY CHRISTIANITY

Ron was salt and light to me for this reason: he lived out his faith, even when it cost him.

I met Ron while I was a Tribune reporter covering the criminal courts building, a squat, gloomy facility adjacent to the Cook County jail, on Chicago’s west side. Day after day I watched a steady stream of defendants---most of them clearly guilty---desperately trying to exploit every loophole to avoid the punishment they deserved. Everybody was looking to cut a deal, to hoodwink the jury, to fool the judge, to beat the rap---anything but take responsibility for what they had done.

Then in walked Ron, who turned everything upside down. Let me give you some background about him.

When he was eight years old, Ron threw a hammer at somebody’s head and ended up in juvenile court. That was his first of many encounters with the law. Later he dropped out of school, got mixed up with drugs, and rose to second-in-command of the Belaires, a vicious street gang that terrorized parts of Chicago in the 1960s and l970s.

He got into big-time trouble when he was twenty-one. A rival gang called the Palmer Street Gaylords brutally assaulted one of Ron’s friends, and Ron vowed revenge. He borrowed a gun and went hunting for Bob, who had led the Gaylord attack.

It didn’t take long for Ron to track down half a dozen Gaylords as they were emerging from a tavern. Although Bob wasn’t among them, his brother Gary was. A plot quickly formed in Ron’s depraved mind: he decided to murder Gary, and then when Bob showed up at his brother’s funeral, Ron would ambush him too. That way he’d kill two Gaylords.

So Ron jumped out of hiding, thrust the gun into Gary’s chest, shouted, “Belaires!”---and pulled the trigger.

Click

The gun misfired. Now Ron was standing in front of six very angry Gaylords. As they began to come after him, Ron pointed the gun in the air and pulled the trigger again. This time it went off, sending the Gaylords scattering.

Ron started chasing Gary down the sidewalk, shooting at him as they ran. Finally one of the bullets found its mark, tearing into Gary’s back and lodging next to his liver. Gary collapsed face-first on the pavement.

Ron came up to him and flipped him over. “Don’t shoot me, man!” Gary pleaded. “Don’t shoot me again! Don’t kill me!”

But without an ounce of compassion or a moment of hesitation, Ron shoved the gun in Gary’s face and pulled the trigger.

Click!

This time the gun was empty.

A siren wailed in the distance. Ron escaped the police, but they promptly issued a warrant for his arrest on a charge of attempted murder. With Ron’s extensive criminal record, a conviction would undoubtedly mean twenty years in the penitentiary.

Ron couldn’t stomach that. He and his girlfriend fled to Canada, then migrated west and ended up in Portland, Oregon, where Ron got his first legitimate job, working in a metal shop. By divine coincidence, his coworkers were Christians, and through their influence Ron finally received Jesus as the forgiver of his sins and leader of his life.

With that, his values and character began to change. His girlfriend became a Christian, too, and they got married. They had a little girl named Olivia. Ron became a model employee, an active church participant, and a well-respected member of the community.

But something kept gnawing at him. Even though he bad been reconciled with God, he hadn’t been reconciled with society. There was still a warrant out for his arrest. And although the police had stopped looking for him and he probably could have spent the rest of his life in Oregon without getting caught, he felt that the only honest thing to do would be to give himself up and face the possibility of twenty years in prison, away from his family.

Otherwise, he said, he’d be living a lie. And as a Christian, he decided that simply wasn’t an option.

I was there when Ron appeared in criminal court. Amazingly, unlike the other defendants, who were trying to wiggle off the hook, Ron looked into the judge’s eyes and said, “I’m guilty. I did it. I’m responsible. If I need to go to prison, that’s OK. But I’ve become a Christian, and the right thing to do is to admit what I’ve done and to ask for forgiveness. What I did was wrong, plain and simple, and I’m sorry I really am.”

I was blown away! This was not cosmetic Christianity. When somebody takes a costly step like that, you know it must be prompted by a faith that has radically transformed him or her from deep inside.

And that attracted me toward Christianity. Why? Because we are living in wishy-washy times, when the national motto might as well be, “take the easy way out.” So when people say, “I’m going to do something not because it’s convenient or easy but because it’s right,” that intrigues and even inspires others. It causes people to respect them for the depth of their faith. We used to call those kind of people “heroes.”

I was so intrigued by what Ron did that he didn’t have to approach me to talk about his faith. I asked him about it. And when he told me how Jesus had changed him from a street gang leader into a Christ follower, he had my complete attention, and he had a special kind of credibility. Both his example and his words made a lasting impression on me.

So if you want to know what it means to be salt and light, here’s one answer: live out your faith even when you have to pay a price. Because when you take your faith that seriously, others who are watching will begin to take it seriously, too.

That means different things for different people. For some, it might mean paying a professional price by refusing to cut ethical corners the way your boss or client wants you to. It might mean paying a social price by speaking up about your faith in the midst of a group that’s belittling Christianity. It might mean giving up some of your all-too-rare free time to reach out to a hurting neighbor. It might mean sacrificing your pride by asking someone for forgiveness.

It might mean forfeiting a valued possession because someone needs it more than you do. It might mean forgoing some profitability in your business to live a more balanced family life, which will send a message about your priorities to those around you. It might mean admitting to your boss that you’ve taken work supplies for personal use and saying you’d like to pay restitution.

Those are salty steps because they’re costly steps.

As for Ron, he fully expected to pay a hefty price by spending two decades behind bars. But ironically, the judge said he was so impressed by the way that God had changed Ron’s life that he didn’t think it was necessary to send him to prison. Instead, he concluded that Ron was no longer a danger to society and gave him probation. “Go home and be with your family,” he said.

The ruling amazed me. After court was adjourned; I rushed into the hallway to interview Ron. “What’s your reaction to what the Judge did?” I asked.

Ron faced me squarely and looked deep into my eyes. “What that judge did was show me grace---sort of like Jesus did,” Ron replied. “And Lee, can I tell you something? If you let him, God will show you grace, too. Don’t forget that.” Coming from a guy like Ron, that carried a lot of weight.

In the end, Ron walked out of my life as quickly as he had entered. But our brief encounter in that dingy courthouse eventually turned out to be a defining moment that helped make an eternal difference in my life.

 

A COMPASSIONATE CHRISTIANITY

This is how David gave me a glimpse of what Jesus is like: he didn’t just tell me that God loved me, but demonstrated it through his actions.

More than twenty years ago my wife, Leslie, gave birth to our first child, a daughter we named Alison Joy. Like all new parents, we were caught up in all the excitement and euphoria of the long anticipated event.

I remember calling relatives from the recovery room at the hospital “You know how most newborn babies are all wrinkled and ugly?” I would say. “Well, Alison’s not like that! She’s absolutely beautiful!”

Then, the following day, Leslie and I were waiting in her room for the nurses to bring Alison for her 1.00 p.m. feeding. But they didn’t come. Finally, just before we were going to see what was holding them up, there was a knock at the door. A contingent of glum-faced physicians filed in to give us news that made our hearts jump into our throats.

Something was terribly wrong with Alison. They weren’t sure what it was, but it was serious. She had already been transferred to the intensive care unit. They needed our signatures on legal documents to authorize an immediate spinal tap and other tests. We were told to prepare for the worst.

We burst into tears, sobbing from fear and sorrow. Why her? Why us? The next several days were a stomach-churning blur. It was agonizing to see our tiny daughter hooked up to machines, with an intravenous needle in her ankle and monitors whirring around her. It was especially bad for us, because when you don’t believe in God, there’s really nowhere to turn.

But in the midst of that horror, I remember very distinctly receiving a call on a hallway phone at the hospital late one afternoon. It was from David, a man I had known years earlier but hadn’t seen in a long time.

Now, you have to understand something. David was never a close friend. I’m not proud to say it, but the truth is that in the course of interacting with him over the years, I had lied to him, I had misled him, I had made fun of him, I had broken promises to him, and I had ruthlessly criticized his church and everything it stood for. But David was a serious Christian, and that’s why he was on the phone that day.

“I heard what’s going on with your little girl,” he said. “What can I do for you? Can I come down there and be with you for a while? Would you like to talk? Can I bring you anything? Can I run some errands for you? In the meantime I’ll be praying for your daughter and so will my friends at our church.”

I was thinking, “This is incredible! I can’t believe he’s willing to drop everything and travel sixty miles just to comfort me and serve me in this crisis. I can’t believe he’s going to spend time on his knees interceding with his God for my little girl. There’s no way in the world that I deserve that---especially from him.”

More than two decades later I could take you to the precise spot where I received that call. That’s how deeply it’s seared into my memory. And that’s the kind of impact that Christians have when they’re willing to go beyond mere words and put the love of Christ into action.

Jesus knew that, which is why he said, “Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”1 That’s what being light is all about.

Christians forget that from time to time, but then periodically there’s a reminder. For instance, I was reading a book in which author Terry Muck described a letter written by a man who used to have absolutely no interest in spiritual matter.

He lived next door to a Christian, and they had a casual relationship---talks over the back fence, borrowing lawnmowers, stuff like that. Then the non-Christian’s wife was stricken with cancer, and she died three months later. Here’s part of a letter he wrote afterward:

I was in total despair I went through the funeral preparations and the service like I was in a trance. And after the service I went to the path along the river and walked all night. But I did not walk alone. My neighbor---afraid for me, I guess---stayed with me all night.

He did not speak; he did not even walk beside me. He just followed me. When the sun finally came up over the river, he came over to me and said, “Let’s go get some breakfast.”

I go to church now. My neighbor’s church. A religion that can produce the kind caring and love my neighbor showed me is something I want to find out more about. I want to be like that. I want to love and be loved like that for the rest of my life.2

 

If you want to be salt and light as Jesus envisioned, here’s how: extend his compassion to a neighbor or colleague or friend or stranger who’s in need. Instead of being frozen into inaction, just ask yourself, “What would Jesus do?”

Words evaporate quickly, but people remember a gentle act of servanthood forever. Few things are as salt savory or as gently illuminating as a simple act of kindness performed in the name of Jesus.

I can attest to that, because I’ll never forget David.

 

A CONSISTENT CHRISTLANITY

Of all the people who influenced me in my spiritual journey, Linda and Jerry were perhaps the most significant. They were salt and light to me in this way: they were real, even when they didn’t know they were being watched.

Years ago Linda and Jerry lived in the same condominium building as Leslie and I, and so we got to know each other pretty well. In fact, our daughter, Alison (who, incidentally, recovered fully from her still-mysterious illness at birth), became best friends with their daughter, Sara.

But what Linda and Jerry didn’t realize was how much we were scrutinizing their lifestyle at the time. They were up-front about the fact that they were Christians, and we were curious to see whether they were real. Do you know what I mean by that?

We wanted to see whether we could detect a holier-than-thou attitude toward those who didn’t subscribe to their theology. We wanted to see how they’d handle conflict in their marriage. We wanted to see whether they’d put on a Christian happy face and pretend they never got angry, worried, or frustrated.

We wanted to see whether they’d be truth tellers and whether they’d ask for forgiveness when they made a mistake. We wanted to see whether they’d hold a grudge if we did something to hurt them. We wanted to see if they were honest about the little things in life. We wanted to hear the comments they would make about people who weren’t around.

We watched over a long period of time, and guess what we found? We discovered that they weren’t perfect. But then again, they never claimed to be.

Primarily what we saw was a gentle spirit of acceptance toward us, a lot more humility than pride, a willingness to admit when they were wrong, an anxiousness to reconcile when there was conflict, a readiness to acknowledge the rough edges of their character and a sincere effort to smooth them out, a refusal to playact by pretending that the Christian life is always happy, an admission that they struggled with their faith from time to time, but most of all, undergirding everything, we saw an honest desire to become a little more like Jesus, bit by bit, as time went by.

In short, they were real. They were salt and light---and Leslie and I became citizens of God’s kingdom largely through their example.

Now, I don’t want to make you paranoid, but if you’re a Christ follower you need to know this: you are being watched. Your friends, neighbors, and acquaintances are scanning your life with their hypocrisy radar, because they want to know whether you’re authentic. And what they observe will either stymie or propel them in their spiritual journey.

So let me come straight out and ask you a question: What are they going to detect? Come on, be truthful. Can you honestly say that they will see someone who approaches life with integrity, like Linda and Jerry?

 

“YOU REPRESENT JESUS TO ME”

Maggie was an example of someone whose perspective on faith had been poisoned by inauthentic Christians. I met her several years ago after she ventured, very tentatively, into Willow Creek Community Church, her first visit to any religious institution since childhood. Slowly she became a spiritual seeker and she wrote me this troubling letter about her earlier experiences with Christians:

The Christianity I grew up with was so confusing to me even as a child. People said one thing but did another. They appeared very spiritual in public but were abusive in private. What they said and what they did never fit. There was such a discrepancy that I came to hate Christianity, and I did not want to be associated with a church.

 

Can you see how cosmetic Christians had derailed her journey toward God? But she went on to explain that she had met some Christians at our church and even got involved in a small group of seekers that was led by a Christian couple. She wrote,

So when I came to Willow Creek and to my small group,

I needed gentleness. I needed to be able to ask any question.

I needed to have my questions taken seriously. I needed to be treated with respect and validated.

Most of all, I needed to see people whose actions match what they say. I am not looking for perfect, but I am looking for real. Integrity is the word that comes to mind. I need to hear real people talk about real life; and I need to know if God is---or can be---a part of real life.

Does he care about the wounds I have? Does he care that I need a place to live? Can I ever be a whole and healthy person? I have asked questions like these. And I have not been laughed at or ignored or invalidated. I have not been pushed or pressured in any way.

 

Then she added this:

I don’t understand the caring I’ve received. I don’t understand that the leaders don’t seem afraid of questions. They don’t say things like, “You just have to have faith” or “You need to pray more.” They don’t seem to be afraid to tell who they are. They seem genuine.

 

This young woman ended her letter with a beautiful poem she had written. It contains the heartfelt sentiments of a spiritual seeker toward those of us who are Christians. Read these words carefully, and as you do, imagine that this precious person is speaking directly to you. Because she is.

 

Do you know

do you understand

that you represent

Jesus to me?

 

Do you know

do you understand

that when you treat me with gentleness,

it raises the question in my mind

that maybe He is gentle, too.

Maybe He isn’t someone

who laughs when I am hurt.

 

Do you know

do you understand

that when you listen to my questions

and you don’t laugh,

I think, “What if Jesus is interested in me, too?”

 

Do you know

do you understand

that when I hear you talk about arguments

and conflict and scars from your past,

I think, “Maybe I am just a regular person

instead of a bad, no-good little girl

who deserves abuse.”

 

If you care,

I think maybe He cares---

and then there’s this flame of hope

that burns inside of me

and for a while

I am afraid to breathe

because it might go out.

 

Do you know

do you understand

that your words are His words?

Your face, His face

to someone like me?

 

Please, be who you say you are.

Please, God, don’t let this be another trick.

Please let this be real.

Please.

 

Do you know

do you understand

that you represent

Jesus to me?

 

Tears pooled in my eyes as I read that poem for the first time. I felt the sting of regret over times when I know spiritual seekers have looked at my life and not seen Jesus. I grieved for the times when my callousness or smugness or indifference may have slowed someone in their spiritual journey. And I resolved once more just to be genuine---with God and with others.

I felt that Maggie’s words were so powerful that I wanted to read them to our entire congregation. So I called her one evening to get her permission.

“Maggie, I loved your poem,” I told her. “Would it be all right if I read it at the services this weekend?”

“Oh, Lee,” she said, “haven’t you heard?”

My heart sank. What had happened now? Had she encountered someone who had been like salt that stung or light that glared? Had someone’s hypocrisy chased this young woman away from God once again?

“No, Maggie,” I replied with trepidation in my voice. “I haven’t heard. Tell me what happened.”

“No, you don’t understand---it’s good news,” she said. “A few nights ago I gave my life to Jesus!”

I almost jumped out of my chair. “Maggie, that’s terrific!” I exclaimed. “That’s the best news I’ve had in a long time. Tell me---what piece of evidence convinced you that the Bible is true? What fact did you uncover that finally established for you that the Resurrection was real?” After all, those were the kind of intellectual issues that played a big role in leading me to faith.

“No, it wasn’t like that for me,” she replied. “You see, I just met a whole bunch of people who were like Jesus to me.” She paused as if to shrug. “That’s all it took,” she said.

I sighed. What a lesson for someone like me, whose first instinct is to try to argue people into God’s kingdom with evidence and data and history and logic.

In fact, what a lesson for every Christian: all it took was some people who were salt and light to her---just as Jesus intended in his outrageous strategy that is still managing, after two thousand years, to change the world one life at a time. (59-73)

 

Notes

1. Matthew 5:16 (NIV)

2. Terry C. Muck, Those Other Religions in Your Neighborhood (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 150—51, emphasis added.

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