I’m someone who thinks about communication a fair amount. Now you might be unsurprised by that. I write, I speak, but I often sit in church and I think, “How are the words that are being said from the pulpit or the stage right now, how are they connecting with someone who’s been a Christian for 30 years, not been a Christian at all, or is a new Christian?”
When I talk with other people I try to reflect on those conversations and say, “Now how did they seem to understand this point when I made it? Or how did they understand what this other person said?” All of this to hopefully further the cause of Christ, because I want to communicate as clearly as possible, and I hope you do too.
There are a few different aspects of communication. For communication to take place there must be two people, someone doing the speaking or communicating and the person then receiving the communication. But then there’s the content of the communication. That’s really important. Christianity has a definite content to our communication. We have the truths laid down in scripture, of the Gospel, and of our Christian worldview, and the things we’ve worked out from that also.
There’s another aspect to communication, and that’s what I want to talk about today. That’s how we communicate, the tone with which we communicate. We talk all about content on this podcast, and we should. Oftentimes we as Christians are not as equipped in conversation as we should be to communicate the right content in response to the questions or objections of our non-Christian friends, neighbors, coworkers, or what have you. Let’s talk about our tone and how we communicate today.
How we communicate matters
To do that we’re going to go to what may be a familiar passage, 1 Peter 3:15, which says,
“Set Christ apart as lord in your hearts and always be ready to give an answer to everyone who asks about the hope you possess. Yet, do it with courtesy and respect, keeping a good conscience so that those who slander your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame when they accuse you. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if God wills it, than for doing evil. Because Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, to bring you to God.”
There’s a lot there. It doesn’t just say “be prepared to give an answer.” That’s often easy for some of us more left-brained people. It says do that with “courtesy and respect, keeping a good conscience.”
Now some of you may do better with the courtesy and respect part of things but not so much with the give an answer sort of things. But you see, this verse doesn’t present those as two options for the choosing based on my preference. It says I’m supposed to have content to my communication. I’m supposed to communicate certain truths, certain answers when people ask about my hope in Christ. But I should do that in a certain way, in a certain manner. I should do it with courtesy and respect in a way that doesn’t damage my conscience.
Some people have all the right answers to all of the questions that could ever be asked, let’s say, and they answer those questions in such a way so that Christianity does not look beautiful and appealing, that Christ does not look like a perfect, pure savior. What they end up doing is making Christianity look ugly, because of how they communicate what should be beautiful truths. They do it in such a way that it tarnishes their message.
We should not want that to happen, so we should ask ourselves, when we’re communicating, or when we reflect back on having communicated, did my communication there testify to the greatness and beauty of Christ or did it detract from it? Obviously, this is going to be sort of a sliding scale. You could do this better or worse.
We must be clear
Also, along with how we communicate—doing it with love and respect and courtesy and those sorts of things—we also need to try and be clear. We need to realize that the culture today is trying to look for any excuse in some areas to hop on Christians, to say that they’re bigots or hateful or that sort of thing. We need to be careful in how we communicate. I also think it’s fair to hold people to account for what we have said.
For example, there’s a case in front of the Supreme Court about a baker’s right to decide what events he makes certain cakes for. Now the other side has claimed that he is discriminating against gays because he won’t make a wedding cake for their same-sex ceremony. And he’s saying, “No, I serve gay customers all the time. I just don’t make all cakes for every event.” You see here, there’s a nuance there that’s important. Yes, he refused to serve gay customers in one case, but it wasn’t because they were gay. It was because of the event the cake was for, the celebration of something he thought was sinful. It also happens that this guy, Jack, doesn’t make cakes for adult-themed parties either.
He’s consistent here in not making all cakes for every event, but he will serve every customer, every type of customer. That’s important. We need to be able to communicate that in a clear way because often the offense that people are taking is an offense at something that is not actually present.
Now I do think people would still be offended, some of them, by his refusal to make a cake for a same-sex ceremony, but nonetheless, you can’t actually say and be faithful and truthful to the evidence that he is refusing to serve gay customers. That is not true. But here is where the rub is for some people like myself, and maybe like you.
Clarity doesn’t make the message agreeable
I have this default disposition to think if I simply explain something well enough, people will agree with me. My wife can testify to this. Sometimes she’ll say, “You just said that,” and I’m like yeah, and I have to realize, oh, I’m explaining it again because I think implicitly, if I just explained it well enough, people will agree with me. There’s a certain pride, I think, and hubris there, or there can be. But often we have to realize that sometimes, no matter how well we communicate the truths of the Gospel, the truths of Christianity, they will not be appreciated by society.
In fact, there are some truths that you can never say palatably enough for them to be accepted. We must swallow that tough pill. We must be comfortable with that hard truth or we will shy away from those encounters or think we did something wrong. No, it just so happens that sometimes the ideas themselves are offensive, not just the manner that they could be communicated in, that they will be rejected.
For instance, we can articulate clearly about Jack and his Masterpiece Cake Shop, that he doesn’t make cakes for every event, but he will serve every customer and every type of customer. That will not be enough for people even if they understand that distinction. Just to clarify, many people do not understand that distinction about Jack. But nonetheless, even if they did, it may still be off-putting.
For instance, the idea that God punishes people in hell for their sins is off-putting to people, so we could try and articulate that better. The reason God punishes people is not so much they don’t believe in him but because of their sin. He’s not obligated to offer them a pardon. In fact, if Jesus never came to earth, God would still have been just in punishing sin in hell. Like any just judge, it would actually be wrong for him not to punish crimes. We can try and articulate that well, but you know what? That’s still going to be off-putting.
Here’s another example. The concept of what an evangelical has been in the news a lot recently. Maybe it’s just my social circles, but there has been a lot of conversation about it. Because we’re told evangelicals elected Donald Trump, the person who has bragged about sexually assaulting women, the person who doesn’t seem to have a moral compass, it’s said. It’s also said that 85% of evangelicals voted for Roy Moore. There was that whole controversy and scandal around him. The question becomes what are evangelicals and who gets to say?
I have, with some of my friends, tried to contend for what an evangelical should be, someone who is committed to the Gospel and the infallibility of scripture, and the necessity of the cross and these certain things, which historically, in one form or another, have defined evangelicals.
But you know what, there’s another aspect to that. I’ve had to realize that it doesn’t matter how well we can articulate this, it will still be offensive to some people. Now the fact of the matter is, defining what an evangelical is is actually a very hard task, and I don’t think there’s one definition. We may say that there’s something it should mean or that it used to mean, but the fact of the matter is, it means something different today. Perhaps we’ll talk more about that in the future.
What I had to realize is there are caricatures out there of what an evangelical is. What that doesn’t mean is, if I just explained what we are well enough, that those people would somehow be okay with it. Because the people who are not Christians and are offended by Christians voting for someone like Roy Moore or Donald Trump would still be offended by the exclusive claim of the Gospel that there is salvation in no other name. They would still be offended by scripture’s proclamation that correct sexual intercourse is only between one man and one woman for one lifetime. They would be offended because we affirm that God created everything, not a naturalistic, unguided process. The offense is still present. If it’s not one thing it will be another. So we must communicate with grace and humility and courtesy and respect like the 1 Peter passage says, but we must also be prepared that no matter how well we communicate, it will not be accepted by our culture.
Tolerance and acceptance are culture’s highest virtues, and this often affects us as Christians implicitly. Kind of like a frog in a pot of slowly warming water, we become accustomed to this idea that we should be courteous and respectful of all ideas. But no! This verse says we should be courteous and respectful of all people. People deserve respect because they are created in the image of good. All people are equally valuable. But there are some really stupid ideas. The trouble for the Christian oftentimes is to take a stand on those ideas and communicate truth in a gracious way in the face of some ideas that are just utterly preposterous.
Now there are some ideas out there that we must grapple with, but nonetheless, how we communicate really matters. But what we communicate also really matters. We must have both of those.
As this passage says, it shouldn’t surprise us when people disagree with us. Because, what is Peter saying here? “Do this communication with courtesy and respect. Keep a good conscience.” Why? “So that those who slander your conduct in Christ may be put to shame.” That shame may not come in this lifetime, by the way. That may be shame before the judgment seat of Christ. But nonetheless, he even says you can have the right answers, you can give an answer for the hope you possess, you can do it with courtesy and respect, you can keep a good conscience, but beware they will still slander your conduct in Christ. They will still accuse you. He goes on to say, “It’s better to suffer for doing good.” That’s directly tied to this idea that even when we give an answer, even when we are courteous, even when we are loving, even when we are accepting of people, even if it’s not ideas, we will still suffer for doing the good.
In 2018, we must be prepared for that. We must take account. We must count the costs of what fidelity to Christ may end up exacting from us, of the relationships that may be harmed. In spite of our loving nature and communication, the content may be offensive in and of itself. It may cost us a job. You may realize, I cannot work here, or you may be fired for your Christian convictions. Thankfully, in this country, still, the law is generally on the side of the Christian, though that’s not as black and white as it used to be, when it comes to being fired for religious claims.
Nonetheless, we may pay intangible costs. We may be alienated in our neighborhood, all sorts of things. You may be ostracized at your school. You must count the costs because this time on earth will be brief. It really is. It seems like eternity to us but Paul says it is momentary. This affliction we feel now may feel heavy, but Paul says it is light. What he does say, also, is that eternity is long, and the weight of glory that is prepared for us, because of how we live now, if we live in fidelity to Christ, is great. It is weighty. Our suffering here is light, even if it’s for doing good. Even if it’s for communicating with courtesy and respect, our suffering, and suffering may still occur, is light.
When we have an eternal perspective, when we have a Gospel perspective on how we communicate and aren’t naïve, thinking that if I just say it well enough, if I just say it nice enough, if I post it on Instagram with flowers around it, people will just accept it and they’ll agree with me, or they won’t be mean. No, that is likely not going to be the case. We still endeavor to communicate the grace that is found in the cross in a gracious way, but we do it understanding that the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians. The cross is a stumbling block. It is an offense.
Our job is to not add offense to it, to not add a stumbling block to it, to not make it seem more foolish to the world than it is. Be not mistaken, the cross is the wisdom of God. It just appears foolish to a world who has not has their eyes opened by the Spirit.
All of that to say, in 2018, let us count the costs of what fidelity to Christ may end up costing us. But for many of us, it might not cost us anything, yet. Let’s still contend for the truthfulness of the Gospel, that content aspect, but let’s do it with courtesy and respect. Let’s keep a good conscience. Let’s make the Gospel seem beautiful as it is. It doesn’t need our help, but all too often we detract from the natural beauty and glory that it is seen to have when it’s accurately presented through people who love God and are committed to lifting high his name and the Gospel.
I hope this has been encouraging to you. It’s been encouraging to me. I need to be reminded of these things. It’s easy for me to fall back into communicating truths and forgetting that there’s a person on the other end of that. How we communicate is sometimes as important as the actual message we communicating.
I will talk with you next week on Unapologetic.