In this series of posts, we’ve been focusing on the Lord’s desire for us to tell others about him and exploring the barriers that hinder us from doing so. Once we are clear about the Christ-centered message we are to speak to others, we still may hesitate to talk about it because of another significant barrier—fear. This overlaps with some of the matters we have discussed previously (such as this post on fear of difficult questions), but in today’s post I will concentrate on two other fears.
The first one is the fear of doing harm. Sometimes we are afraid our efforts to talk to others will do more damage than good. It is certainly possible for us to do harm in the name of Christ. Many have done so, and this makes our work harder. The solution to this, however, is not to abstain from speaking but to prepare ourselves to speak as we ought. That is what this whole series of posts is about.
In my mind there are two basic prerequisites for being prepared to tell others about Christ. One is to know the message we are supposed to communicate. The message is the good news that Jesus was crucified, raised from the dead, and thereby shown to be God’s Anointed Ruler who can save us (see more on this here). If we do not grasp this message, it is true that we are not prepared to tell others about Christ. So knowing the gospel is essential.
The other prerequisite for telling others about Christ is that we are making a sincere effort to live under the lordship of Christ ourselves. If we are not, we will indeed do much harm. One has to wonder why we would even consider recommending Christ to others if we are not following him ourselves.
This is not to say we have to be perfect. Scripture is clear that we will not be (1 John 1:8, 10). This creates a bit of a dilemma for us because we know we sin, and we know non-Christians can’t stand hypocrites. I don’t believe, however, that non-Christians expect perfection, but do insist on authenticity. Said differently, they don’t expect us to be perfect, but they do expect us to know we are not perfect. The appropriate attitude for us, then, is humility, just as the Scriptures teach us. We need to display openness, vulnerability, and even confession. It is the self-righteous, superior, blatantly hypocritical attitudes and behaviors that do so much harm.
So, if we know the message about Christ and are sincerely trying to follow him, we are not likely to do more harm than good. As we wrestle with this fear, we should also consider what harm we may do if we are not willing to speak to others. We may have the attitude that the Lord can use someone else to help people find him, and he may well do that. But we also need to remember that, when he was confronted with a crowd of needy people in his own day, the Lord made it clear that more workers are needed. Instead of thinking others can do it, we would do well to have the spirit of Isaiah who said, “Here am I, send me” (Isaiah 6:8).
The second kind of fear I want to address in this post is the fear of offending someone, along with the conflict, rejection, and hostility that could ensue. The potential of losing a friend is a another specific and personal aspect of this fear. These fears are not irrational, and we need to face them squarely.
It is helpful to distinguish between two very different matters that can offend people. It may be the gospel itself that offends people, and we’ll return to this below. But the other, very different matter that can be offensive is us! We need to understand clearly that sometimes people are not offended by the gospel but by our lifestyles, attitudes and manner. Sometimes they never even hear the gospel and make a decision about it because they are so put off by our actions or attitudes. In general, I am not shocked when someone rejects Christ, because Christ made it clear this would happen. What is utterly shocking to me, however, is when people reject Christ before they even really hear the message about him, because they are so offended by our un-Christlike actions.
This is why I said above that making a sincere effort to live according to Christ ourselves is prerequisite to telling others about him. Peter mentioned this when he was instructing us about outreach. Not only are we to be ready to give an answer for our hope, we are also to set apart Christ as Lord in our hearts and keep a good conscience (1 Peter 3:15-16). Doing these two things will lead to a way of life that unbelievers cannot reasonably criticize (v. 16). Paul, too, emphasizes the importance of our example in influencing others. His exhortation for us to make the most of every opportunity (Colossians 4:5b) is surrounded by a statement on the importance of living wisely (4:5a) and speaking graciously (4:6). Our actions and speech must match the message.
Another trait in us that can offend people and shut down the opportunity for them to hear the gospel is the manner in which we speak to them. Specifically, if we speak in a self-righteous, know-it-all or condescending manner, people are not likely to listen to our words.
Again, Peter’s divine guidance is important to remember. In addition to being ready to answer and backing it up with living well, he also instructs us to give our answer with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15-16). The manner in which we talk about the message matters. For more on the importance of these qualities see this post.
You may be familiar with the old research study about the comparative effect of our words, tone of voice, and body language in communication. It found that, when there is a contradiction among these three components, only 7% of the overall effect of the message is due to the words we say. The tone of our voice accounts for 38% of the impact of the message, and our body language accounts for 55%. While I don’t think it is an exact parallel, there is some correspondence between this communication study and our efforts to share the gospel. Words correspond to gospel, tone of voice corresponds to our manner of talking, and body language corresponds to our lifestyle. This gives us a helpful reminder that our message, manner, and way of life need to be consistent and deliver the same message.
If, then, we are sincerely seeking to follow Christ and speak to others about him gently and respectfully, we are not giving them any occasion to be offended by us. This clears the way for them to hear the message about Christ.
As indicated, however, not everyone will be open to hearing it. The parable of the sower makes this abundantly clear (Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23). The same is true in Acts, too, where we see many conversions (Acts 2:41; 8:12) but also see some apathy and a great deal of rejection and opposition (5:33; 13:44-45; 17:5-8). The gospel is the power of God for salvation but is also sometimes offensive to our flesh. This will sometimes lead people to reject and oppose or even persecute those who speak it.
Because of this, some Christians have watered down the message to make it easier for people to accept it. In a previous post, we noted that we sometimes say too little about the lordship of Christ and his desire to save us not only from the guilt of sin but also the practice of it. While emphasizing grace and removing the truth of the Lordship of Christ may indeed lead more people to accept the message, that is not the message we have been commissioned to speak. People may be less offended but God will be greatly offended. If we water down the gospel to the point that it does not give offense, we also eliminate the possibility for it to have life-changing power. “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).
We should also be aware that we simply cannot avoid offending people in a world like ours. People get offended at the drop of a hat. Refusing to tell others about Christ or watering down the message may eliminate some occasion for offense, but we should not be deceived into thinking other matters will not offend them.
A much better approach than avoiding talking about Christ or watering down the message about him is to honor Christ by telling others, even though there is a risk that some will find him and his message offensive. That is clearly what God wants us to do (Acts 18:9-10), what Christ himself did (Mark 14:60-65), and what his followers did in Acts (4:23-31). Since we know some people will oppose the message, it takes courage to do this. But remember, courage is not the absence of fear. It is the willingness to do what is right regardless of the consequences.
God can bolster our courage in several ways. We know that Christ is with us, specifically as we seek to make disciples (Matthew 28:20). We have the Spirit of God inside us who empowers us to speak boldly in spite of threats (Acts 1:8; 4:23-31). We know that God affirms those who continue to speak for him in spite of danger (Acts 18:9-10). And we have the example of Jesus himself who suffered for doing good and handled it by entrusting himself to God (1 Peter 2:19-23; 4:12-19). Contemplating these things can strengthen us against a fear of rejection.
The right thing to do is prepare ourselves to speak the message of Christ and back it up with godly words, deeds, and manner of speaking. Then, when God gives us the opportunity, we speak. Sometimes we will share the joy of people coming to the Lord. Other times, we may indeed face opposition. In those times, we go back to our brothers and sisters for support, encouragement and prayer—not that we will be spared persecution, but that we will have the boldness to continue to speak (Acts 4:23-31). This is the will of the One we have embraced as Lord.