In my last post, I suggested we ought to spend time with nonbelievers, even extending our friendship to them. But that doesn’t go over so well in all Christian crowds. Growing up, it seems the topic of every teen devotional was either abstaining from alcohol or choosing your friends wisely (so that we could abstain from alcohol). I’m not suggesting high school students need to be going to keg parties in order to witness concerning God’s kingdom. But I do believe having non-Christian friends can be wise — and Christlike.
To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling out to others:
“We played the flute for you,
and you did not dance;
we sang a dirge,
and you did not mourn.”
For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, “He has a demon.” The Son of man came eating and drinking, and they say, “Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and ‘sinners.'” But wisdom is proved right by her actions. — Matthew 11:16-19
“Wisdom is proved right by her actions.” The actions of John and Jesus were completely contrary to what religious culture would expect and require. But Jesus explains that the wisdom of an individual is not judged by appearances or even popular opinion. It is that individual’s actions, and the results of those actions, that demonstrate his wisdom or lack of it.
To be clear: Jesus never refers to himself as a “friend of tax collectors.” That is what others were saying about him. But we do know that he defends as wise his decision to spend time with that subset of people. Is it always wise for me to spend time with drunks and cheats? No, of course not. But if my ministry is going to look like that of Jesus’, I will discern when it is the right thing to do.
It might be suggested, “You can’t be friends with nonbelievers, because that is hating God.”
You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. — James 4:4
James is not writing about being friends with people in the world. He’s writing about being a friend of THE world — its way of thinking, its motivations, its goals and aspirations, its selfishness and pride. It is entirely possible to be friends with people in the world, without becoming a friend of the world. That’s what being salt is all about. We accept individuals as friends, and even enjoy our time together — but we reject those worldly ways in them. We exercise the wisdom Jesus spoke about, refuse to adopt or defend the ways of the world around us, and we especially don’t live like the world. Our sharing of the gospel requires that we live blatantly spiritual lives among these friends, not living our lives just as they do.
Christianity is largely
rarely about lines.
One of the keys to this entire conversation is how we view the people of the world. When we see individuals as IN or OUT, saved or lost, we have drawn a firm line — and it’s easy to suggest true friendships should somehow be constrained by this line. But when we see salvation as a process, and not a single point in time, we begin to see others as part of a larger story, as individuals on a journey. And that line of potential friendship begins to get very blurry. Christianity is largely about direction, rarely about lines.
When Jesus befriended “sinners,” they were forced by his lifestyle to make a decision. They could not remain the person they had been. They either would draw nearer to God, or they would live as they had, but forever with the knowledge of a better option. If I’m living the life to which God has called me, anyone who would desire to have a friendship with me is “worthy” of being called a friend. It goes back to that direction idea. There were some lepers healed by Jesus that didn’t want anything to do with him — and so, they never spoke to him again, not even to say thanks. I believe Jesus, though, would have gladly counted them friends if they’d returned — he would have seen and welcomed their life direction. No God-hater who full out hates God without question is ever going to want to be friends with me. But a God-hater who is secretly searching for a greater power might. No over-sexed, alcoholic frat boy who is happy and content with his life is ever going to want me as a friend. But if he’s questioning his meaning in a world that seems to have none, he might. I would offer these people my friendship. If they ever decide they don’t want any part of God, I believe they’ll withdraw it.
I worry that our aversion to extending friendship to nonbelievers stems from a fear that Christians are going to start hanging out in bars, drinking, dancing, cheating on taxes, and doing everything non-Christians do… because I’ve about had my fill of fearful Christianity — slippery slopes and concerns about what might happen down the road — how about we do what’s right, because it’s right? Will people abuse their freedoms? Yes. Will people excuse their disobedient lifestyles as being mission? Probably. But wisdom is proved right by her actions. If I minister as Jesus did, with wisdom and out of the empowering of the Holy Spirit, I will never slide an inch down that sinister slippery slope. Christ was friends with tax collectors and prostitutes, without ever once extorting money or paying for sex. I happen also to know he never even got drunk at their parties. Instead, they saw his lifestyle, and had a desire for their own lives to be changed. His friendship was, in essence, their salvation.