There are days when the troubles of this world can no doubt be overwhelming. Almost everyday it seems we are confronted with more glaring evidence of our cultural descent: an increasing lack of civility, the celebration of licentiousness and immorality, the expanding indifference toward the weak and infirmed (or outright cruelty), and the growing disdain for religion and prudence. Admittedly these conditions can cause one to become angry toward those who willingly contribute to this current of contemporary thought and action.
In addition, there are the ever-strengthening influences from every manner of philosophy and ideology opposing the Christian life and worldview, while the church seems to be less and less capable of defending itself against these encroaching enemies. I grieve as I read or hear about the endless personal suffering both here and around the world. Almost daily I meet someone who is personally struggling with serious trials or suffering from severe loss and devastating heartbreak. In general the world is groaning. This makes me stop and reflect upon what I am doing. Does my work matter? Of course, when I ask this question, I do so from a purely selfish standpoint; this is when I have to pause and reflect upon precisely what it is that I am doing and for whom.
One of the unfortunate tendencies associated with speaking apologetically is that you can begin think that the kingdom of God will advance on the weight of intellectual arguments. While scripture clearly teaches that we are to be prepared to give an answer for the hope that lies within us (see 1 Peter 3:15), I must continually be reminded of Christ’s commandment to love my neighbor. If this genuine love of neighbor is not at the heart of my apologetic efforts, then I am nothing more than a “clanging cymbal”-an animated noisemaker!
I must remind myself to look beyond the opposing ideologies and see the person-a person made in the image of God, a person for whom Christ died, a person who is in bondage to sin and that liar of liars, Satan. I confess that I do not always do this well and I sometimes err on the side of argumentation rather than love.
As I speak to Christian audiences around the country, I am often asked for “effective arguments” to refute this particular philosophy or that mind-set that stands in opposition to the reception of the gospel. These are well-intended Christians who are earnestly trying to equip themselves in order to present the most effective witness. However, I sometimes sense that we may be more interested in merely winning arguments; thus we may wield apologetics as martial arts-and this I do not want to contribute to.
The beginning of our apologetic arguments and philosophical discourse must include an equal, if not greater, commitment to forming a sincere and meaningful relationship with that person. Recall the great apologetic passage referenced above. Peter says to be prepared to give an answer or defense to anyone who asks you why you have hope. Clearly, Peter isn’t referring to a stranger you meet on the street but rather someone with whom you already have a relationship. For only a person who actually knows you would come to see this real, living “hope.” Here the apologetic approach is responsive, not assertive, and the response will generally only come at the invitation of a friend.
Granted this is not always easy; it can be very taxing to be in relationship with a person who opposes everything you believe in but this, nonetheless, is what we are called to do. This is the measure of one’s love for one’s neighbor; are we [am I] willing to endeavor through all of the challenges, disagreements, and difficulties for the sake of another? Doesn’t this require that I stop thinking of myself and instead think of others, allowing Christ his proper position in my life as Lord and King? Aren’t we called to present our bodies-the entirety of our being-as living sacrifices? Yes, I am. Let’s face it, this is where it gets tough to follow Christ, when he leads us into relationships with those who do not submit to Christ.
Beyond every ideology, beyond every worldview, is a person who ultimately desires the same thing that we all desire-to be loved. This is the terrible reality that flows from sin: broken fellowship-we have severed our relationship with God, ourselves, each other, and the rest of creation. In truth, every aspect of human suffering in the world is attributable to this broken fellowship. We suffer from our severed relationship with God, which has eternal consequences, but we also suffer in the present as a result of imperfect relationships with others because either we can’t shed our own emotional baggage and inhibitions or they can’t shed theirs. Sin has produced a formidable barrier to truly loving one another without fear.
It is this condition that Christ came to remedy-and thus restore us to full fellowship with God, ourselves, and each other. It is the reconciliation of humanity to God and each other that Christians must demonstrate to the world. This means that we genuinely seek to love people unreservedly and without conditions. Unfortunately, too often many Christians confuse acceptance of the person with approval of either their mistaken religious notions or lifestyle, and therefore justify avoiding these altogether.
However, Jesus attacked this false notion in the parable of the Good Samaritan. In speaking to the Pharisees-who were very conservative in both their doctrinal beliefs and practices-Jesus exposed their hypocrisy for passing by the dying man without getting involved, lest they approve his lifestyle and religion. The problem with the Pharisees is one all too common among many conservative Christians today. The desire to stand for the truth, to reject ungodliness in both religious doctrine and practice, leads them to confuse the acceptance of people with the approval of their beliefs and actions. How tragic.
I will continue to seek knowledge and understanding in an effort to grow in my relationship with the Lord and to be a compelling witness for the gospel, but above all, I pray that my desire to know never exceeds my desire to love my neighbor. It is with the overwhelming love of Christ that we must engage the culture and look beyond ideologies to see the person that God in his providence has placed in our path. May we love those people in the way that Christ first loved us; let this be what motivates our desire to “give an answer.” This is the best and most biblical apologetic!