Have you noticed, like me, that far too often we get the proverbial “cart before the horse” in our areas of influence? This is especially true of how we treat outsiders to our family and faith. As Brene Brown stresses to us, “A deep sense of love and belonging is an irreducible need of all people. We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong. When those needs are not met, we don’t function as we were meant to. We break. We fall apart. We numb. We ache. We hurt others. We get sick.” How do we become more Christlike in this vital arena of liberally offering “belonging” to the dear souls we teach, preach, counsel, and even parent? Scott Sauls, in his book Gentle Answer, provides the following thoughts built squarely upon the biblical accounts of Jesus’ ministry:
It is important to recognize that when Jesus tells Zacchaeus to come down from the tree, Zacchaeus is still a crook. He is, as Tolstoy has said, still walking along the road drunkenly, stumbling from side to side. This movement of Jesus toward Zacchaeus—before Zacchaeus does anything good or does anything for Jesus—is another feature of Christ that sets him apart from every other religious leader, philosopher, politician, or self-help guru. Jesus—like the Christian faith he came to establish—says to Zacchaeus and to every other person, “You belong even before you come to believe.”
We see this dynamic also in Jesus’ interaction with the woman caught in the act of adultery. Before he says to her that she must leave her life of sin, he first assures her that as far as he is concerned, she is not condemned. “Neither do I condemn you,” Jesus says, “go, and from now on sin no more” (Jn. 8:11). If you reverse the order of these two sentences, if you say, “Leave your sin” before you will consider saying, “Neither do I condemn you,” then you have ceased to speak the language of Christ, and you have ceased to reflect the heart of Christ. With Christ and with Christ-attuned Christians, belonging comes before believing.
This pattern in consistent through Scripture, in both Old and New Testaments. Before God gives the Ten Commandments to the people of Israel, he says to them, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Ex. 20:2). In his letter to the church at Rome, the apostle Paul does not say that our repentance leads God to be kind to us. Instead, Paul writes that it is God’s kindness that lead us to repent (Ro. 2:4).
In his first letter to the church at Corinth, which is by far the most confrontational “leave your life of sin” letter in the New Testament, Paul first assures the Corinthian believers of their already established identity as God’s beloved children, calling them “sanctified” and “saints” and recipients of God’s grace and peace. He gives thanks for them, affirms his love for them, and reminds them that in Christ, God will sustain and keep them to the end, “guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Co. 1:1-9). Then and only then does Paul begin to address the many sins and errors in their midst, including adultery, frivolous lawsuits, partisan rivalries, name dropping, neglecting the poor, sexual immorality, and the like.
He does what the theologians call putting the indicatives (statements about WHO we are by virtue of WHOSE we are in Christ) before the imperatives (statements about what we must become, and how we must now live, in light of who and whose we are).
For many this idea of putting indicatives before imperatives-offering love and acceptance instead of distance and punishment-comes across as scandalous. Responding to sin and selfishness with a gentle answer instead of retribution and shames seems offensive to those who are prone to separate the world into the good people and the bad people as opposed to the PROUD people and the HUMBLE people.
In the light of the above truths, would you be willing to admit where your pride is the real hindrance in your influence. “Only by pride cometh contention” (Pr. 13:10), a statement that applies not only to the relationship between us and God but others and the God we pompously claim to represent before them. Pride that refuses to let others belong before they believe. Pride that forgets that we ourselves only have relationship with God because He let us belong long before we believed.
As one writer put it, “Not belonging is a terrible feeling. It feels awkward and it hurts, as if you were wearing someone else’s shoes.” Here are a few practical takeaways to help those we lead avoid this often unnecessary sensation:
- Lose the contrived hoops through which you want every potential convert to jump before you will extend the full offer of God’s grace and mercy.
- Let the newbie believer, despite their immaturities, begin to practically participate and serve in the body of Christ. (There are obviously some restrictions on this as it relates to “the novice,” but there is much that they can do with minimal prerequisites.)
- Instead of micromanaging their every move, give room for you child/grandchild to begin to exercise their own faith and initiative.
- Refuse to write off the older individual with well entrenched habits and notoriety; choose to believe-often before they do-God can still transform and use them. (Be the Ananias/Barnabas to the infamous but seeking “Sauls” in your community.)
- Let the emerging young leaders in your ministry circles have a seat at the table of influence long before they have “payed their dues” to you or others already seated at the same table. (I just had a couple of high-profile, seasoned leaders generously do this for a new ministry initiative for our family, and it was a huge encouragement!)
- Trust the Holy Spirit to ignite/mature the faith of those around you while you primarily focus your attention and energies not upon “vetting” others but making them feel welcome in your home, church, and community.
- Admit that much of the faithlessness in your day has less to do with the unbelievers’ “issues” and much more to do with your reluctance to receive them “as Christ also received us to the glory of God” (Ro. 15:7).
Ro 5:6-8 “For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die: yet peradventure for a good man some would even dare to die. But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”
Sauls, Scott. A Gentle Answer (pp. 17-18). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.