When Christians share their faith with others—especially those of other faiths—our conversation sometimes begins with an unfortunate assumption: that we Christians have absorbed the message of Jesus and that non-Christians have not. That we are on the righteous side of God's ledger, and that Muslims and Jews are the sinners' side. We are near to God, and Buddhists and Hindus are far from God. Our conversation implicitly assumes that non-Christians need spiritual help and we do not so much. Non-Christians are lost, and we are not; people of other faiths need to hear the words of the gospel, and we do not.
We never say any of this in so many words—this is not the sort of thing that can be said at interfaith dialogues! But we Christians sometimes come across that way, and when we do, we are labeled arrogant and self-righteous. This puzzles us, because at such forums or in personal conversation with non-Christians, we usually work hard at being civil and kind. I suspect the problem in some cases is the above assumptions.
Let me suggest, in fact, that whenever we communicate to non-Christians that we have found it and that they have not, that we have been chosen and that they have not, that we are the apple of God's eye and that they are not—whenever we assume that stance, consciously or not, we are communicating something other than the gospel, the Good News.
Let us rehearse a core dimension of that gospel: All have sinned—including Christians—and fall short of God's glory (Rom. 3:23). And while we were sinners—all of us—Christ died for us, all of us (Rom. 5:6). And in Christ God was reconciling the world — Muslim, Jew, and Christian—to himself (2 Cor. 5:19). For God so loved the world — Sufi, Buddhist, Hindu, Wiccan, and Christian—that he gave his Son (John 3:16).
Last week in this column, I began to explore the question, How do we talk about our faith without making others feel denigrated or angry? For one, we can talk about our faith so that everyone feels equally denigrated and equally inflamed! So that everyone—even the Christian—feels addressed by the one who is both Judge and Father. So that everyone—even the Christian—recognizes his or her sinfulness. So that everyone—even the Christian—stands at the foot of the Cross, in desperate need of a savior.
If we can do that, a couple of remarkable things will happen. First, we will recognize afresh that we're not talking about our religion versus their religion, not about how we are right and they are wrong, not about how we are peaceful and they are violent, not about how we are righteous and they are not. We will see that we're not on opposites of a religious war, but allies in the foxhole of faith. We will realize that Christian and non-Christians alike are going to have to cover each other's backs, because all of us—Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian—are being assaulted by a divine judge with a whip of cords who looks at us with equal concern and says "hypocrites" and "blind fools."
At the same time, we will also see a merciful divine hand extended to all of us, like the hand that Jesus used to grab and raise up the lame man, the hand that touched the eyes of the blind and gave sight and cupped the ears of the deaf and restored hearing. That's when we all will hear afresh the invitation that comes to any who are weary and heavy laden, that there is a yoke that can give us rest and a peace that passes understanding.
We are tempted at this point to wonder, "But haven't we Christians accepted that invitation, and non-Christians have not? Doesn't that make a difference? Aren't we called to invite non-Christians to follow Christ?"
But of course! By grace through faith we have been made aware of God's global reconciling work in Christ, and those who know this reality are commissioned to share the message of Christ's reconciliation work with the whole world (2 Cor. 5:19).
Then again, is this not an invitation we Christians need to accept anew every morning? Is this not a gospel that shakes us to our core daily and yet raises us daily to new life? Is not today, once again, the day of salvation (2 Cor. 6:2)? Should we not preach this gospel as if we also need to hear and accept it daily? And if so, can we ever preach to others a gospel that does not apply equally to us?
Can we see, then, how if we preach this gospel, it will be nigh impossible for anyone to dodge the message by charging us with self-righteousness? And can we see why the only hope for civil and humble interreligious dialogue hinges, from our side, on our entering it with a firm grasp of this gospel? And can we see why when Christians enter into interreligious dialogue—especially in those contexts where evangelism is explicitly ruled out—that we cannot help but evangelize? That is, when asked what we believe, how can we not share this extraordinary Good News that affects everyone in the room?
Mark Galli is senior managing editor of Christianity Today, and author of Jesus Mean and Wild: The Unexpected Love of an Untamable God (Baker).
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Previous SoulWork columns include:
Blessed Are the Unoffended | How can Christians communicate what we believe without being denigrating or inflammatory? (November 18, 2010)
Hopeless Prayer | What the rescue of the Chilean miners didn't teach me. (October 13, 2010)
Holy Incarnation! | It may be impossible not to "demean God" since he mixed it up with sinners. (September 30, 2010)