“Do not despise the words of the prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil.” — 1 Thessalonians 5:20-21, NRSV
I got asked to write on the following topic, which I think is actually quite a helpful one. Here is the exact wording I received when I reached out for topics:
“Apathy, Atheism. How the scripture addresses these topics, and your perspective on what we as Christians can do against the rising tide.”
I’m going to tie apathy under the umbrella of atheism in this piece, not because atheists have no passion or some other ridiculous claim, but because if one is religiously apathetic, they may as well not believe in God. Further, dealing well with either group requires the same essential tools. So let’s take a look!
If there is one thing the Scriptures teach us, it is that we are not called to spend our lives pointing at the beliefs (or lack thereof) of others. Instead, we are called to “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). How we Christians live our lives does have an impact on whether or not people decide to embrace the Gospel of Jesus. If we live lives of light, life, compassion, and humility, the Gospel shines through us in a way that is more attractive. Conversely, if we live lives that are small-minded, proud, and unkind, we put a basket over that light and push others away from the Gospel.
One of the interesting trends I see among Christians is the tendency to lose all sense of compassion and humility when engaging with atheists. Granted, many atheists I’ve had conversations with had a similar pompous disregard for the faithful, but many also were just curious about why I believed. As a Christian, I feel I should only address how the faithful handle difficult conversations, as our performance can either make room for or choke out the Gospel. That said, everyone (regardless of belief) can benefit from a dose of humility, which I have found to be the biggest help in representing one’s self and beliefs well.
Humility is the foundation of God and the Christian faith. As we read in Philippians 2:6-7, Jesus, “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” If God is so humble, how can we not be?
The truth is, atheism as a position has much to teach us Christians. That’s right. The faithless can teach the faithful, particularly when it comes to humbly acknowledging that we don’t have all of the answers. We can also learn what it means to do what is right just because it is right, and not because we are afraid of hell or desire heaven. There is also still much that we can learn about our world and about our relationships with God, but all of these things hinge on our openness to them. Whether one is atheist or Christian, they should never just accept things because an authority said it, and they should also never walk through this world convinced that they possess the entirety of life’s truths. This is Paul’s exhortation in the Scripture that kicked off this post.
We are encouraged to “test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil.” Once again, it is up to us to shun evil behavior (in this case, the sheer hubris of pretending to have everything figured out) and embrace the good (the humility to listen graciously and seriously, addressing the concerns and questions of our brothers and sisters with hearts of love, and not condescension or false piety). Further, we should “test everything” by taking seriously the claims made by others, showing that we are humble at heart and willing to learn (which is only helpful if we actually learn to be humble at heart and willing to learn).
When we embrace humility and show it through our interactions with others, ESPECIALLY those with whom we disagree, we leave the door open for further conversation that could lead to the acceptance of the Gospel. It is important to note, however, that people can tell when we just want to convert them to our way of thinking, so this humility must be sincere, and the conversation must be rooted in love, and nothing else. Now, are we always going to have these conversations with humble and gracious people? No, of course not, but we are only responsible for how we live in this world, and if we forget that, WE are to blame for the hindrance of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Now, I know there is some concern that too much humility and openness can lead to a loss of faith, and I get that. It’s important to note that humbleness, and open ear, and an open heart are not just characteristics for dialogue, but characteristics that were exemplified by Christ. Our faithfulness should be the driving force behind our living in a way that welcomes others, and if that is the case, we cannot lose that faith by practicing it. Living as Christ lived is the cornerstone of Christian faith and practice. Therefore, if you find a religious doctrine of yours being challenged and you change your mind about it (i.e. the role of God in suffering or evolution), don’t feel like you have shunned your faith. As long as Christ’s humility and love are deliberately evident in you, and as long as you still confess that God’s nature was revealed in the flesh of Christ, you are in the “Christian clear,” so to speak.
I know there may have been an expectation that I was going to give some broad, missionary advice for how to deal with atheists, but the truth is that no technique that comes across as evangelism as we know it today is going to help. Christians have a lot of issues we need to address within ourselves before we go trying to change others, and atheism (not to mention other philosophical stances, worldviews, and religions) can serve to teach us what good witnessing is and is not. Listen to the stories of an atheist friend or colleague. How has the Church treated them? How have you treated them? Until we get that figured out on the level of every individual believer, there is no way to globally stop the shift away from a Church that has gotten it wrong far too often. There is hope, but we will all have to work to realize it!
Peace be with you!