I had some things to say about that piece about proselytizing back on Friday—there was so much there that I couldn’t then, nor now, possibly comment on. But as I was pondering the lections for today, this paragraph struck me afresh:
By contrast, I believe that friendships need to be forged around some organic connection, some aspect of common ground and that shared values are essential for a close friendship, whereas befriending someone who’s different so you can deliberately try to change them–particularly if you plan to try to change something central to their identity–is objectification, and therefore unethical. In any case, no matter how you slice it, proselytizing is not the same as me telling a friend they should try my favorite sushi place or arguing that, for example, voting for Republicans is harmful and unethical.
Just to back up and explain what this is all about, a person writing for Religion Dispatches is incensed that someone writing in The Week waded into some political controversy involving various politicians criticizing each other about the place of religion in public life (I only skimmed that link, so it might be more than that). The writer in Religion Dispatches can hardly contain her rage over what feels like, to me, a fairly boring discussion of one of the oldest subjects that human people ever discuss. I think the word I’m looking for is “triggered.”
And that being so, the first thing the writer in Religion Dispatches does is jumble together all kinds of things. Ugly and ineffective efforts to save the lost under the heading “proselytization”—those bygone embarrassments where you went and handed out tracts and asked people if they knew they were going to hell—are exactly the same and just as wicked as meekly sharing your faith with someone of another religion over coffee, or worse, deliberately making friends with someone with an eye to telling them about Jesus, that awful “friendship evangelism” that is apparently the worst thing ever. She says that, as you can see above, amounts to “befriending someone who is different so you can deliberately change them—particularly if you plan to change something that is central to their identity.” She says it is “objectification.”
In terms of human relationships without factoring in something like, say, God, I very much agree that none of us should go around trying to “change” people. That way lies madness. Those kinds of efforts on the parts of other people have triggered me as well. For example, sometimes people come to church, look around, and immediately see what’s wrong with everyone and everything. This is awful, they think, and begin to try to bring some order, and get people to be the right kind of people, namely, more like them. The church, in a corporate sense, usually resists this kind of purifying fire by being obtuse and just not getting that they need to get their acts together and become better. Usually what happens is that the person who came in with so much zeal begins to really get to know people (this is literally how it’s supposed to work, incidentally) and starts praying all the prayers, and after a while forgets that it was everyone else who was so wrong in the dawning grief of discovering that he himself, or she, is a sinner. But the church has changed by the efforts of that person, and so has the person by the push back of the church, and so the whole thing is both dynamic and organic. Take a snapshot of the congregation at any moment in time and a few weeks later it won’t be the same congregation.
But that’s not the whole story. The greater and more pressing trouble is that all the people are together worshiping someone who is very different from all of them. So different, in fact, that they do often become confused and fall into the error of objectifying him or, rather, trying to make him more like them. I’m talking about God, in case you were wondering, the person who the Religion Dispatches writer doesn’t seem over-anxious to discuss. And he came, on purpose, to do just what she doesn’t want any of us to do. To use her own words, he came on purpose to change something central to our identity. What was it that he came to change? Rejection of and rebellion against him.
Oh no, I’m sure she would say, that’s not what I’m talking about. We are all free people. We can choose who and what we believe in. But just saying that heaps up our ruin. For we were made by God for himself to glorify him, and yet individually and corporately we all refuse to do that, and try to shove him out of his own world that he made for himself. Rejection of God is fundamental to human identity, so much so that no one even sees it. It’s called being spiritually blind, and spiritually dead, and having a throat that is an open grave and all that sort of thing. The only remedy is for God himself to come and—not asking politely if the dead person would like to live—making the dead person come alive.
But the image that God uses this morning in his own Scriptures is that of marriage. “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent,” he says, though, as we saw, the writer in Religion Dispatches is expressly forbidding him to speak to anyone, “and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not be quiet, until her righteousness goes forth as brightness, and her salvation as a burning torch.” Israel wondered about what sort of righteousness this might be, and thought that trying really hard to follow the Law would bring it about. They devoted themselves to becoming the sort of people that God required. But the more they tried, the further away they went from him.
See, that’s the trouble, whether you are trying to be a good person (as the writer in Religion Dispatches thinks you can only be by not telling other people about Jesus) or not trying to be a good person, either way, you can’t do it. Sin is so completely entwined around your soul—your desires, your will, your mind, your inclinations, your thought processes, everything—that all your identity markers and thoughts about yourself lead you away from him. It’s almost like, and just bear with me here, you work really hard to get ready for an important event that is supposed to make you happy for the rest of your life, you spend all your money, you use up all your time, and then, just at the critical moment when you should have had everything in place and everyone is waiting to see how you’ve done, you discover that you were an abject and total failure. You did not do what you were supposed to do, even though you tried really hard to do it. Who you were wasn’t enough, not only what you did and didn’t do.
It is to just such a person that God, coming himself across a vast distance to befriend us for the singular and astonishing purpose of changing us to be more like him, quietly arranged for all the shame and humiliation due to that very person to be turned into, well, to pick up the word again from Isaiah, rejoicing. “You shall no more be termed Forsaken,” he insists, “and your land shall no more be termed Desolate, but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married, for the Lord delights in your, and your land shall be married.”
To celebrate, the Lord Jesus turns the very substance of our humiliation into so much wine that to drink it all is not according to the recommendations of the Association of Doctors who know what is good for us.
And that is the Cup, the very thing that you go so haltingly up the aisle to drink out of in order to be changed. Not just to be made into a friend, which is such a rich and pleasant grace, but to be joined as in marriage to the Bridegroom who is enough, who does what we should have done.
So anyway, as I said on Friday, don’t worry about triggering any writers in Religion Dispatches. Go out and tell everyone about this God, and how you were once dead in sin, but that he came and turned all your sorrow into joy, all your death into life, all your failures into the crimson elixir of his grace. See you in church!