Perhaps the fear of being offensive has been woven into every society throughout the ages, but it seems to be overwhelmingly prevalent in our culture today. Social mores can serve as healthy cues on what is okay, or not okay, to do in life. As human beings, we naturally observe the often intangible, yet very evident, responses that our choices provoke in the culture around us. If we get the proverbial thumbs-down, we tend to back away from the path we're on. If we get a thumbs-up, we walk down that path a little further.
But what happens when social mores are all out of whack? What happens when we get a thumbs-down for doing the right thing and a thumbs-up for doing the wrong thing? What if we start looking for approval from a flawed and fickle culture, rather than from a perfect and steadfast God? Social mores are good when we are being too loud at a movie theater and receive the inevitable dirty looks telling us to quiet down. However, social mores can be destructive when we attempt to speak honestly and truthfully and get shushed with the same fierce harshness that we receive at the movie theater for talking too loudly. No one likes to be shushed. Unfortunately, there is a lot of that going around these days. For people who follow Christ's controversial teachings, the shushing never seems to end.
Whenever we face a negative backlash to our actions, it causes us to pause or even retreat. If we have any reflective qualities at all, we wonder, "Perhaps what I am doing is wrong. Why else would it be so upsetting to so many people? Why else would I be getting all these thumbs-downs?" When it comes to sharing our faith, the backlash is undeniable; the gospel is not only counterintuitive but absolutely countercultural. So we find ourselves in a tough spot. Do we advance or retreat? Do we finally take the big cultural hint that our views are not welcome and pipe down already? Or do we move through this world littered with broken eggshells and endure the pain of being offensive, as well as being on the outside of the cool inner circle called popular culture?
The Scriptures are clear that retreating is not an option for Jesus followers. If anyone knew how hard it was to be countercultural, it was the early Christians. They didn't risk merely offending someone or not fitting in. They risked their very lives. If retreating is not an option, we simply cannot avoid being offensive. Jesus said that He did not come to bring peace but to bring a sword, to have mother turn against daughter and father against son (if that's what it came to). His goal was not to have everyone fit in and get along. His goal was to overturn spiritual kingdoms, guide people to truth, and transform people's hearts. The Jews wanted Him to fight against Rome, but Jesus was fighting against something much bigger—evil itself. Evil in the world. Evil in our hearts. When Jesus said He was bringing a sword, He was alluding to the reality that the gospel is disruptive to our lives and plans, and that surrendering our souls to Him will not come without conflict.
So, it has to be okay to be offensive on some level. This radical teaching from Scripture can be very upsetting, disruptive, and unsettling. If we are able and willing to follow this teaching, the reward will be unquantifiable, and the peace we find from being in right relationship with our Creator will be worth all that we give up in the process. But the path to getting there is arduous to say the least. When we walk alongside our friends in this spiritual journey, some tension and discomfort simply comes with the territory.
The point where we part ways with the Spirit of God, the same God who knows this radical transformation won't come without a fight, is when we slip into being insulting on top of being offensive, and being patronizing on top of being bold. We often shell out platitudes rather than acknowledging the depth of people's struggles. And we get being discerning mixed up with being condemning. As a result, we come off as smug and self-righteous. It's easier to do than we realize. This has been, and still is, a huge blind spot in the church. As much of a blind spot as it is, I'm convinced that there's a movement within the church that desperately wants to get this right. Here's how we do that.
The way out of being insulting starts with self-awareness. We need to be honest with ourselves about our own struggles to stay true to God. We need to be aware of the darkness inside our souls that is endlessly trying to gain territory and snuff out the light. When we sit in this uncomfortable and vulnerable truth about ourselves, it's almost impossible to come off as smug or self-righteous. People pick up on how humble or arrogant we are, and arrogance is what creates the true stench of being insulting. If we model ourselves after the tax collector in the parable in Luke 18:9-14, we will be on our way.
Shelling out platitudes comes more from a fear of not knowing all the answers than from smugness. When we don't understand why things are the way they are, it leaves an uncomfortable gap in our psyches. We want to fill that gap with answers. The answers aren't there, so we go to our second-runner-up option—platitudes. You know the ones . . . God won't give you more than you can handle. When God closes one door, He opens a window. You can always have another baby. Ouch. We aren't trying to be mean or to trivialize someone else's pain, but it sure can come off that way. It's not that these sentiments aren't true. It's that we need to honor the whole journey, not just the final conclusion. If we can tolerate that uncomfortable gap where there are no easy answers, then we can give the gifts that others really long for—empathy, understanding, and solidarity. Platitudes never helped anyone. Empathy helps everyone.