Strangers in our Times (4)
Then Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, “Men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are very religious; for as I was passing through and considering the objects of your worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO THE UNKNOWN GOD.” Acts 17.22, 23
The Christian’s task
The Christian’s purpose in an age which regards us as strangers is neither to avoid the epithet by our silence, nor to harrumph against those who regard us strange.
Yet these seem to be the corners to which we have retreated in this secular age. We have all but left off wandering among unbelievers, engaging in conversation with a view to testifying and bearing witness to Jesus. And we readily vilify our secular age for being lost, without trying to understand the worldviews that keep people in a state of unbelief.
This is not what Jesus did, and it’s not what Paul did, either. The Christian’s task is neither to ignore the times nor to scorn them, but to understand our neighbors, their beliefs, fears, doubts, loves, and concerns, so that we might know how best to explain Christ and His Kingdom.
This requires that we build bridges with our unbelieving neighbors, and building bridges requires a helpful, affirming, patient, and edifying attitude.
The power of affirmation
Most of us respond positively to affirmation. We like to be around affirming people, whose company we find much more agreeable than those who are either always talking about themselves, making snide or critical comments, or gossiping about others.
Something in the human psyche responds positively to affirmation. B. F. Skinner constructed his entire psychological theory on observations of the ways people gravitate toward choices, situations, and people who “reward” them. While his behaviorist model has in large part been set aside, still, the power of reward which Skinner identified is undeniable. If we can learn to reward people with genuine and sincere affirmation, we may find that this will soften some of their hardness toward what they regard as our strange truth.
This is what Paul did in his opening remarks to the philosophers and men of Athens. Rather than begin at once to regale his audience with his testimony, or to unleash against them a torrent of Scriptures, or list and denounce all their sins and follies, he began where they were, affirming their interest in matters thoughtful and spiritual.
The people of our disenchanted age may not be especially religious, but if, through conversation, careful listening, and developing relationships, we can get to know them and understand their views, we will find something important to them which we can affirm, and which can serve as a bridge to more significant matters.
Paul commented on the religious interest of the Athenians, pointing out things that were true, and which the Athenians would have agreed to with satisfaction. He noted, first, that religion pervaded every aspect of their lives. He observed that they were “very religious.” In a later generation, Augustine outlined the complex and thoroughly religious life of the Romans of his day in City of God. These people had gods, rituals, and religious practices for just about anything you can imagine.
Roman and Greek religion was a curious combination of placating deities and manipulating them at one and the same time. So, if you wanted the favor of the gods in any part of your life, you needed to make sure that you were on the good side of whatever god was the overseer of that area, so that he or she would grant whatever you wished. You’d keep the god’s image on your mantle, drop a flower or coin at its roadside altar, speak kindly to its priest, and maybe even offer up a prayer from time to time.
And this, not to a few gods, but dozens, all day long. Paul observed this “very religious” lifestyle in Athens, but he did not rebuke his hearers; instead, he commented on what he’d observed. The Athenians certainly would have agreed.
Further, Paul demonstrated working familiarity with the details of Athenian religion, commenting both on the objects of their devotion and the practices they pursued in their religious lives. He didn’t dismiss their pantheon of deities and plethora of devotions; instead, he used these to affirm his audience’s interest in matters religious, in a sincere and loving manner. In the process, he built a bridge for the big frog he was about to ask them to swallow.
To the Athenians, it was clear this strange man understood and had some appreciation for their ways. This being so, they were willing to hear him out on his new and strange teaching.
Paul’s example is instructive to us: take people seriously, listen carefully, affirm where you can, and look to build a bridge to larger issues of truth and life. We can always find something interesting, good, amusing, or true about the ways and worldviews of the people God has put into our lives. But we need to observe carefully, and hold off judging, so that we might build bridges for relationships and conversation. This takes patience, but if we love those who consider our Gospel strange or foreign, we’ll go the extra mile to find something to affirm, and use that as a way of moving toward more affirming – albeit stranger and more demanding – matters still.
1. How would you summarize the worldviews of the unbelievers you know? What do they value? In what do they place their hopes? What do they most firmly believe?
2. What can you identify in those worldviews that is good or commendable? Why is it important to do this?
3. Can you see how these good and commendable things might provide a bridge for you to talk about the Gospel? Explain.
Next steps – Conversation: Think back over the conversations you’ve been having with your unsaved friends. What can you find to affirm? Go back to one or two of those folks with the following: “You know, I’ve been thinking about what you said about ________. I really appreciate your view on this, and I’d like to hear more.” Follow the conversation wherever the Lord takes it.
Do you understand the Gospel? Feel confident in proclaiming it? Our booklet, The Gospel of the Kingdom, can help you share the Good News with confidence. Order your copy by clicking here. While you’re at it, order a copy of Joy to Your World! and see how you can conduct a consistent witness of joy to the people God sends you to each week (click here).
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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.