We All Believe Something [10-11-20]


I think the biggest atheist cliché is, "We'd all be better off without religion." On the plus side, while the no religion/agnostic/atheist demographic is growing, it's not rapidly growing toward a majority. On the other plus side, most Americans self-identify as Christians. But even within those numbers, there remains a difference between what people claim and how they live. In other words, many people who say they're Christians have beliefs and practices that casts a shadow over that claim.


Would the world be better off without religion? That's a rising claim from unbelievers. Do you have an opinion about what you think is the stupidest pop song ever written? I have lots of opinions on lots of things. Just ask me. But the clear winner is my opinion that "Imagine" by John Lennon is the stupidest song ever written. Did you catch at the start of the quarantine last spring all those celebrities who put together a montage singing "Imagine"? Good grief. Here's how hard-core judgmental I am about that song. Any Christian who likes and/or sings that song needs to

reexamine what they believe and why.


Is religion bad? Over the past several years, I've talked with people about how to answer a friend or family member who is a rabid atheist. What should I say to them? How do I respond? We're not talking about the live-and-let-live brand of unbelievers. We're talking about people for whom atheism is their passion. They approach their atheism with an almost…dare I say it…religious fervor.


Here's an example.


In a popular TED talk from about ten years ago, a leading light in the new atheism movement was praising the enthusiasm he saw in black churches. Congregants enthusiastically responded with "Thank you Jesus…thank you Christ…thank you Savior." Things like that. {Side note - would it kill you to do that once-in-a-while?} Anyway - and I'm not making this up - he suggested that atheists respond to lectures on atheism and the dangers of religion with shouts of "Thank you Plato…thank you Shakespeare…thank you Jane Austen!" Now, I don't know anything about Jane Austen - because I'm a guy - but when I looked her up, I discovered that she was a woman who had a deep and abiding faith in Jesus. Oh the irony.


Then, several years later, an article in The Atlantic magazine tried to make the point that British stories for young readers are better than American literature because they aren't rooted to Christianity. The author claimed "The Lord of the Rings" and "The Chronicles of Narnia" were stories shaped by paganism. She also cited the "Harry Potter" series by J.K. Rowling as another example. What's funny is that while many conservative, evangelical types spent a season or two riled up over the magic and supposed paganism in "Harry Potter," while in reality J.K. Rowling holds a fragile grasp on her Christian faith, Christianity influenced the trajectory of the story. She didn't want to say anything about that for fear of giving the ending away. Ironically, when Madeleine L'Engle's "A Wrinkle in Time" was turned into a movie, it was stripped of much of its Christian roots. It was a box office flop.


I could go on. Before directly addressing how to speak with someone who

has a visceral reaction to Christianity, here's a framework with which to

begin:

To say that religion is bad for you {after citing legitimate harmful abuses by people claiming to be religious} is like saying drugs are bad for you without distinguishing cocaine from life-saving medication.

In general, religious faith has a positive impact on health and happiness. That's always a good thing to remember.


So, what about answering strong objections to the Christian faith? We owe it to skeptics to engage them in conversation about what we believe. And I think establishing demeanor is really important.


In Matthew 11:2-11, Jesus has an interaction that speaks to us in how we speak to others:

Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds concerning John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings' houses. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written,

“‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face,     who will prepare your way before you.’

Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he."


This is such an encouraging passage. While John the Baptist was not angry or antagonistic, he still had doubts about Jesus. So we can learn a thing or two from Matthew 11.


Remember, Jesus and John were cousins. John was less than a year older

than Jesus. John was the first to publicly proclaim Jesus' identity. But here, evidently, he has found himself in a place of deep disappointment that led to questioning Jesus. While not antagonistic toward Jesus, John struggled with doubt. After all that had happened, John still had questions about Jesus. Could that describe some of the people you know?


Did you notice what Jesus didn't do when John's people came to him? Right…he didn't get mad. However you choose to respond if God gives you an opportunity to talk to a skeptic, learn from Jesus. There's no reason to get angry or hostile or confrontational. If you are secure in your walk with Jesus Christ, even antagonism from another person should not stir you up. You know who you are in Christ. That sets your attitude.


In fact, Jesus includes in his answer a compliment. He commends the character and discerning nature of John. There's no offense and there's no anger. And then, rather than pushing back against John, Jesus invites him to think outside of his discouragement and instead focus on Jesus' activity. Instead of thinking about what he thought God should be doing, Jesus says

look at what God is actually doing. In other words, Jesus says to John,

focus on God's nature rather than your circumstances.


Here's why that's important. If we're honest with ourselves, we know we sometimes view God's nature through the lens of our circumstances rather than viewing our circumstances through the lens of God's nature. When life is good, it's easy to believe God is good. But when life hurts, it can be harder to still say God is good. I think some people push back against God because they're hurting or they've been hurt. There's some underlying pain or disappointment in life. But the gospel says faith can grow in the fertile soil of disappointment. All we have to do is turn our pain over to God.


Notice the encouraging way Jesus responded to John's questions. Let that be our attitude as well.


So, beyond tone and tenor, how do we witness to atheists? How do we talk to people about Jesus who aren't just skeptics, but skeptics with some level of hostility?


Here are four ways to witness to atheists.

1. Treat them with dignity and listen carefully.

We love those who disagree with us the same way we'd love anyone else. We return belligerence with kindness. We seek to understand them without getting offended. Who cares if they think you’re an ignoramus? Be gentle and kind. Dare I say…be winsome.


2. Be willing to address their "defeater beliefs."

Here's what that means. These are the folks who some call New Fundamentalist Atheists. Their atheism is almost a religion. They are as likely to be women as men. Their attitude is, "There is no God, and we hate him." They criticize all faith. They cling to science. And they argue since they can be moral without God, God is useless. The internet and social media are their favorite places to vent. Some are also influencers in media, entertainment, and academia.


The temptation is to out-argue these folks. Or to get them to read just one book by a renowned Christian author. Or listen to Pastor Richard's sermon from October 11. Something like that. Here we affirm the work of the Holy Spirit. As Jesus says in John 16:7-8, "Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment." God can use us to remove these defeater beliefs.


3. Recognize that atheists are believers.

One of the big defeater beliefs is that atheists have no beliefs. But what do you notice about that? They have faith that they have no faith. They have faith that faith is a waste of time. They believe in science. And they believe no one can prove God's existence. In a weird way, atheism is a system of belief.


4. Pursue their hearts through their heads.

While we shouldn't be arrogant or unnecessarily argumentative with our atheist friends or relatives, it's not unloving to stand firm on the rational superiority of the Christian faith. At many different levels, the atheist position don't make no sense. In the end, atheism isn't an intellectual problem. It's a heart problem. The way I see it, our goal isn't to defeat atheists in a debate. Our goal is to show them the glory and beauty of Jesus Christ in the hopes that some may be saved. We engage with atheists not to win an argument, but so that Christ might win them.


As we live our lives, contributing to our families and communities, God will give us opportunities to share our Christian worldview with unbelievers. Here's something to keep in mind. This can have a huge impact on people's attitudes and willingness to, at the least, not outright reject Christian claims to truth. It's Biblical, and something you might want to write down:

We Really Can Be Happy in All Circumstances.

As Paul says in Philippians 4:12-13, "I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me."


What a remarkable witness for unbelievers to see and hear such deep faith

in us. Our Christian faith leaves a far-reaching footprint. We possess a

wealth of counterintuitive wisdom for how best to thrive in a difficult and

challenging world. And in a world infected with sin and its ugly

manifestations all around us, we can point people to the only solution - Jesus Christ.


I leave you with some encouraging words. Never underestimate how God can use your Christian presence in people's lives:

You are not insignificant.

Someone drinks coffee out of their favorite mug that you gave them.

Someone read the book you recommended.

Someone heard the song on the radio that you once told them was so inspirational to you.

Someone smiled at the end of a hard day because they remembered the words of encouragement you shared with them.

Someone was kind to another person because you were kind to them.

Someone felt a little bit better about themselves because of a compliment you gave them.

Never think you don't have an influence on people.

In your obedience to Jesus Christ, you leave behind little traces of good will

that cannot be erased.

People need people who love Jesus.


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