When I was in high school there was a period of time when I was given the nickname “Flanders.” Ned Flanders is the overtly Christian character on The Simpsons. Aside from being the left-handed owner of “The Leftorium” and the son of beatnik hippies, he is mainly known for his Christianity.
A short perusal through my sophomore yearbook will demonstrate that I, too, was mainly known for my faith. Some memorable comments include, “What Would Satan Do?” and “May God be with you! Have a Holy summer. You know you kind of remind me of young Jesus! Well maybe it’s just bad lighting. P.S. The Bible lies!”
Other comments are still ambiguous to me today whether or not they were sarcastic: “Austin, Jesus rocks! Kevin,” or “You are a true Christian (yeah!) Have a great summer!”
At the end of that year, I was amazed at how many of the comments had to do with my faith. For better or for worse, people in my public high school knew me because they knew I was a Christian.
This was probably the case because I was extremely vocal about my Christian faith. My youth pastors were great at encouraging my friends and I to boldly proclaim the Good News of Jesus’ love to everybody we knew. So I did my best to take a stand for my faith.
I remember giving a eulogy about Jesus in my speech class or being the one student to tell my biology teacher that evolution was wrong. I remember giving a persuasive speech in class about abstinence and leading a class discussion on Michael Behe’s theory of irreducible complexity and how it disproves evolution.
It got to the point where one student muttered, “Great, not another God speech again,” as I got ready to talk in my speech class. I can also remember friends from the wrestling team who knew I never swore tried to get me to drop the F bomb in class while working on a group project.
“It’s just one word, Flanders. Come on. Just say it!”
I won’t say whether I succumbed to peer pressure or not…
About seven years after these events I found myself in seminary in New Jersey. In some ways both situations felt similar. I knew that I was surrounded by a large diversity of thought concerning God, politics, morals, and just about anything else. However, there was one major difference. In high school I was in a secular environment while in seminary I was in a Christian environment.
In high school I knew that no matter what people at school might think, I always had my Christian friends who would agree with me. In Princeton, my Christian friends were the ones who disagreed with me about most things.
So it didn’t take me very long to learn to be silent about my beliefs in order to feel like I was part of a Christian community. It was ironic that in a community maintaining unity as a primary concern, I felt more alone than during any other time of my life. I would listen to casual conversations where people would claim, “Man, I would love to meet somebody who actually believes X or Y because I would just give them a total earful.” Walking alongside them, I kept my mouth shut because I believed exactly what that person was describing.
At lunch one day I asked somebody if they had heard anything about the local PCA church, one that comes from a more conservative background than the PCUSA, which is Princeton’s official denomination.
“The PCA? They’re a bunch of ___holes! Why would you want to go to a PCA church?” was the response I received.
So during my time at Princeton I lost the bite I had when I was in high school. Not only did I lose it, but I developed an aversion to confrontation. I almost felt like a chameleon, a master of hiding my true beliefs.
Fast forwarding a few more years, just last Sunday I preached a sermon from one of my favorite passages in Acts. In chapter 4, Peter and John are taken to the Jewish leaders and they are told that they must stop telling people about Jesus.
Just weeks after this same group of leaders conspired to kill Jesus, Peter and John don’t back down. In fact, they get increasingly bold about their faith. In Acts 4:19-20 they explain that they can’t help but proclaim what they’ve seen and heard.
The conversation these men have amazes me!
In just about two months, Peter moves from denying Christ to defending him. While Jesus was being tried by these very same men Peter was outside, too afraid to even admit knowing Jesus. Talk about a transformation!
Apparently the Jewish leaders were also amazed.
The text explains that they were astonished when they realized that Peter and John were just ordinary, unskilled men who were able to hold their ground with the most educated religious leaders around.
This passage has always been an encouragement to me.
Throughout the years it has motivated me to be bold in my proclamation of God’s truth, regardless of the outcome. The people in Acts continually face opposition, yet they seem to thrive on it, blazing forward in their spread of Christianity. I want to have that same passion. I want my faith to be one that excites me so much that I can’t help but tell others about it.
But there’s a tension.
When I was in high school I was sometimes too bold. I made a girl cry while trying to prove a point to her. I felt horrible because I really want what I thought was best for her. It took me quite a long time to muster enough courage to apologize, and I still think about ways I could have communicated with more love.
So how do we balance this? How do we maintain the apostles’ no-holds-barred attitude of evangelism while not going overboard in our passion, steamrolling all dissenters?
Is it possible to have a balance?
I’ve struggled with this for years and I hate to say that I haven’t settled this yet.
While I don’t have a definitive answer, I am reminded of something that Peter says years later in one of his letters to Christians who are being persecuted for their faith.
In 1 Peter 3:15-16, Peter urges Christians to always be prepared to give an answer for the hope that they have, but to do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against their good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.
Peter understands this tension. He knows that not everybody will be eager to hear the message he proclaims. But he also knows that he needs to continue proclaiming the truth he’s experienced in Christ, no matter what.
I find hope in Peter’s story. If Peter, the guy who was too eager about everything, the guy who cut off a man’s ear in misdirected anger, the guy who acted like a coward when it counted most, can figure this out, can figure out how to boldly proclaim the Gospel with an unflagging love for others, maybe we can too.
What do you think?