Outside the pizza parlor last night I ran into someone who asked what our daughter’s up to now that she graduated from college.
“She’s overseas working with a Christian group,” I told him. “We’re flying over at Christmas to visit.”
“What’s she doing, some social work?”
“No, it’s principally evangelism.”
“I don’t get that,” he said. “Why do we travel to these countries and try to convince them our western religion is better than a religion they’ve followed for thousands of years?”
“Well, if one person says ‘I believe this’ and another says ‘I believe that’ and they …”
“Yeah, yeah,” he cut me off, “to each his own, I know.”
“She’s trying to reach out to women and students and build relationships with them, and then …”
He cut me off again. “I was at a funeral for one of my mom’s friends last month where the preacher talked about how the women had become a Christian before she died and was in heaven with Jesus now and the rest of us … well if we weren’t Christians too then we’re all going to hell.” He shook his head at the memory of that funeral sermon.
“That’s a hard message to hear at a funeral. The people who were there because of her probably weren’t expecting …”
“Yeah, yeah, like I said – to each his own.” Arms full of pizza, he waved over his shoulder. “Say hi to the family.”
An Old Conversation
I remember having this same conversation with a friend 30 years ago. I’d just become a Christian and was telling him about it over lunch at the university we were attending in England. I wasn’t evangelistic about it, just telling him what happened over the winter break.
“All of that’s fine, of course, as long as one doesn’t take it too seriously.”
I almost laughed. “How can you not take something like this seriously?”
“Yes, well,” he said as he bit into his sandwich, “I see what you mean.”
Not Understanding, or Not Understandable?
Getting back to my conversation outside the pizza parlor, what does it really mean to say that beliefs are fine as long as everyone lets everyone else believe what they want?
It could mean that we should allow everyone the freedom to follow their own conscience. That’s very First Amendment, with its guarantees of freedom of religion, freedom of speech and freedom of association.
Or it could mean something much different.
“I believe that Jesus is God,” one person might say, while another says “Jesus might have been wise, but he wasn’t God.” Not a bad conversation to have, right? It could lead to rich discussion.
But what if those same two people follow up their statements by agreeing that each of them has a valid belief?
I think it means neither of them actually believe anything about Jesus.
After all, what does it mean to say you believe something and yet also say the opposite belief is equally valid. It’s not like two people discussing whether a pepperoni pizza is better with or without mushrooms. It’s more like discussing whether the earth revolves around the sun or not.
That analogy soon breaks down, though, since most people today trust the science behind calculations of the earth’s orbit around the sun, and those who don’t accept the science are mainly written off as crackpots. When it comes to faith beliefs, the basis for those beliefs are not so universally accepted.
It’s easy for Christians to write off unbelievers as the unfortunate crackpots, the ones who just don’t get it. We see verses like these to support that:
The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” (Psalm 14:1.)
The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit. (1 Corinthians 2:14.)
Yet we also have verses like these to contend with:
The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities — his eternal power and divine nature — have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. (Romans 1:20.)
What are we to do then with people’s inability to understand and lack of excuse? Jesus said we are to be faithful in speaking the gospel and praying.
Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” (Matthew 9:35-38.)
It’s not our efforts that convince people, anyway. Not even those who walked with Jesus could take credit for their faith in him, as Jesus told Peter:
“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.” (Matthew 16:15-17.)
Peter is blessed not because he figured things out, but because God revealed these things to him. Jesus himself said so.
That’s why those conversations I had don’t get me riled. If someone discounts my beliefs, that’s not my problem. All I’m supposed to do is tell them what I believe. What they do with that is between them and God.