Down To Earth Discipleship    .    Getting real with issues facing young Christians today
Chapter 9
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9. Witness - what and to whom?

  • Christian character is seen in lifestyle and relationships, not religiosity.
  • How we show our values in the workplace is important.

God desires his people to express his character. Progressively, and often falteringly on our part, he enables this by the work of his Holy Spirit in the lives of those who become his disciples. Christian character is seen in lifestyle and relationships, not in religiosity and ritual. Ultimately, we need to be witnesses to God's love and grace, not merely to abstract decency, morality, Christian lifestyle, or rules. Sin must be understood as a relational problem, not an individualistic moral one. Repentance needs to come out of the heart in response to perceiving God's grace, not be demanded as just part of a process.

Even worship without love and justice is displeasing to God and calls into question the reality of faith. God's people reflecting his character revealed in Jesus is the fundamental aspect of witnessing to his love and grace. So the starting point is our quality of life - every aspect of it. Our set of life priorities needs to make clear our discipleship of Jesus. Or is our Christian commitment simply superimposed on a normal worldly lifestyle accommodating of hedonism and consumerism?

Integral to living according to God's law of faith and love is helping other people to come to know and love God for themselves. The eternal salvation which flows from this is every person's greatest need (whether they are aware of it or not). Because God is in himself innately lovable, being the source of all goodness and joy, helping people to love him is essentially a matter of revealing the truth about his nature to them. This revelation of the truth of God's nature can take many forms - words, actions, relationships - but however it comes it can be regarded as witness to Christ. Witness, then, is that crucial aspect of love which aims to help people towards a real and personal relationship with God through revealing his nature to them.

In the workplace it is important to be conscientious, but never so task-centred that we don't have time to help and serve colleagues, or are seen not to be approachable. Both here and if one is going to a new social setting it is important to let your standards be known early. This is not by way of any boasting or Bible-bashing, but simply to nail your colours to the mast, quietly letting others know what sort of standards you have so that you are less likely to compromise them with other people watching. Correspondingly, if you do allow your standards to slip you can easily find yourself in a situation where you feel embarrassed to be calling yourself a Christian, even if you do want to be open about your faith. This is because your life witness has been below what you and others would expect of Christian standards. Therefore it is safest to let people know where you stand early on, so that the scope for temptation is curtailed.

We should aim to show a lifestyle that is engaging but controlled. The first major area requiring control is in our attitude to others whom we do not find at all congenial. Socially we can avoid such people, but in work-based environments we cannot. It is very easy to be preoccupied with their faults or disagreeable idiosyncrasies rather that making a big effort to identify the positive things about them and focus on those, especially in conversations with friends. This calls for humility, and for a rejection of what might be seen as our right to take offence or pass judgment on their intellectual or social skills or their attitude. In fact it often happens that when we do focus on positives, and don't let ourselves be drawn into articulating negatives or screwed up with annoyance and indignation, that we find them a lot more agreeable and pleasant to work with. This is not simply the power of positive thinking, though that certainly comes into it. It's much more a matter of prayerfully and with self-discipline drawing on God's grace to transform the situation, and maybe also the person (as well as ourselves!).

Another aspect of witness is vocational competence, both in a work role and intellectually. If you have an economics or a science degree, say, it lends much support to your words about the things of God if you are credible in relation to your academic speciality. This means being able to articulate sensible thoughts about economics or science in relation to Christian worldview and values. In economics this would involve at least showing understanding of both wealth creation and ways to grapple with poverty, along with how welfare is funded and disbursed. In science it would involve showing understanding of how science has revealed so much of God's creation, provoking worship and enabling multiple technological benefits. See also chapter 12 on Forming a Christian Mind.

All this fits into our witness that we are part of a project where we are working to bring God's order to every situation so that in some measure God's creation can be renewed. Part of witness is in urging others to join that enterprise, seeing past the sin and corruption to affirm the goodness of God's creation, looking forward to the fulfilment of God's kingdom, and being wholehearted in working to effect God's purposes in this world.

On a different tack, and in the context of the first part of this book, we need to show that we have as full and positive a view of sex as anyone else and that we enjoy our sexuality without indulging it. Sadly, much Christian witness suggests a ghettoish avoidance of any sexual excitement. Perhaps for some that is the only way to stay on track, but hopefully for most some measure of self control will enable us to be seen living full and not depauperate social lives.

Among friends who are essentially hedonist, we need to give some thought to how we can applaud the good things they enjoy - as being given by God - while drawing attention to the way they enjoy them and any selfishness of lifestyle - which is not necessarily part of hedonism. Simply being negative is both unduly off-putting and risks conveying the impression we see sex, socialising and other particular pleasures as sinful in themselves. A classical killjoy approach. The considerate hedonist, whose behaviour is far from Christian moral standards, may well be much closer to understanding and accepting God's grace than the self-righteous and moralistic "Christian" religious person.

With regard to the hedonism of socialising, food, drink, etc. or other pleasures which are not intrinsically wrong, the issue is moderation and how it may detract from other priorities such as relationships and other pursuits. With sex the same may apply, but the presenting issue is usually the context - it would be hard to "have too much of it" with a marriage partner!

A guy in his 20s may be a positive example of using his sexuality to drive his social engagement in a considerate and generous way, operating without much restraint as his biology and emotions might suggest. How should we react? To a large extent we can rejoice to see it. However, without the constraints of wisdom (built into a Christian approach which eschews sex before marriage) he has a significant challenge in pursuing the main aspects of a feasibility study for a life partner. He is operating in disregard for the designed and appropriate context of commitment for sexual intimacy. Properly evaluating the long-term prospects of relationships tends to be submerged by the enjoyment of sexual indulgence. Immediate rewards don't actually help towards gaining the long-term prize.

However, in many ways his approach - with a healthy openness - is more estimable than that of some Christians who toe the line legally but deny God's gift by avoiding any kind of sexually-charged relationship. But for the absence of any priority on constraint, he is functioning - as an unmarried person - more in line with God's design than many uptight Christians who are staying well out of temptation's way. That doesn't make promiscuity right, but perhaps it helps us gently question what is wrong rather than appearing to be negative about sex itself. The issue with full sexual expression in a steady relationship is not that a person (or two) is doing something intrinsically wrong, like stealing, lying, violence or indulging greed, envy or pride. Nor is it using something good to excess. It is that this sexual indulgence is occurring outside its proper relationship context of lifelong commitment. Of course, hedonism certainly isn't holiness, but neither is asceticism which arises from aversion to what God has created good.

A related problem is how we understand and talk about 'love'. For the Christian sex is but a small though significant part of their understanding of love. For many others the 'L' word is hardly used outside a family context without it having some sexual connotation. Words like 'affection' do not have the implication of commitment and belonging in friendship, let alone the proactive aspects of agape. While talking as a Christian about love is unlikely to be misunderstood, it can sometimes sound odd in sexualised society.

The most conspicuous, though by no means only, manifestation of Christian witness is evangelism, in which the Gospel message - concerning God's gracious sending of his Son to die to purchase salvation for sinful humankind - is explained to non-believers to help them choose for themselves how they wish to respond to God's claim on their lives. This presupposes that they have moved from apathy to being reflective on the major issues and meaning of life.

It is then very important that as Christians we are always ready to share the message of our faith with those we know and love - though, naturally, only when the time is appropriate and sensitively. It can be tempting to try to avoid this often uncomfortable aspect of Christian discipleship, and even to produce theologies which redefine it into something empty so that we feel justified in neglecting it. But a faithful Christian must boldly face up to his or her duties in this area, and be preparing him- or herself for this sacred task.

A helpful model for personal evangelism to friends and colleagues is 'peeling the onion'. This involves allowing, and assisting, conversation to move from worldview to deeper levels of a person's beliefs and identity through talking about behavior, choices and values. These levels are sometimes represented as:
- human commonalities, shared worldview - the starting point of contact and conversation
- shared values
- behavioural patterns
- personal choices
- internalized values
- core beliefs - where basic change can occur

It is essential to establish warmth and goodwill from rapport at the level of worldview and then exploring and affirming shared values before challenging a person's philosophy of life, their other views and mindset. Our discussion with them is filtered through these existing belief systems and runs up against a likely sense of self-sufficiency. Talking core beliefs with non-believers involves disagreement, and disagreement can be unpleasant. It is therefore crucial to have established a warm relationship robust enough to bear the stresses of dispute. This is also a mindset issue for us: we need to be ready to listen earnestly and freely embrace people, living the good news with an open heart. Having a right attitude and approach will also help create opportunities for witness. Facts and information are almost irrelevant in getting people to listen - but obviously necessary when they are listening.

In line with 'peeling the onion' above, some more specific questions to raise might be:
1. Did this wonderful world just happen by chance, or does it more plausibly indicate the hand of a creator?
2. How do you account for all the suffering, bloodshed and evil in the world, and how does it relate to what is in your own heart?
3. What epitomises the best of being human for you? Especially in relationships?
4. Is God interested in the mess that we so often experience, and those good things, and if so what is he doing about the tension between them? Is Jesus the key to understanding that?
5. How can you get on board with God's purposes and become part of the solution?

In terms of apologetics and answering people's questions, a big problem is the reductionist worldview that is currently dominant and based on a false notion of science which means people fail to see what is, to Christians, obvious. We should pray for a time when it is not incredible or counter-cultural to see God's hand in creation and in the discoveries of science. In the meantime, there are perhaps three key questions to raise with a person struggling with this issue to help lead them towards God:
- Is it more credible that there is a God who created the world in all its intricacy, and humankind in his image to operate in it, or that it is all there just by chance?
- How can one know anything about this God? (pointing to creation, Jesus, and Jewish history leading to Jesus)
- Do you want to be connected with him?

Another major issue for apologetics is God's judgment. This needs to be approached carefully to avoid activating caricatured concepts. Maybe raise the question of how much violence and injustice there is in the world, and agree how good it will be to have God sort this out in the fullness of time. And so to point out that that judgment must also have implications for where we are in our own lives and relationship, or lack of it, with Him. So need to establish that relationship and accept his forgiveness, understanding that we are primarily rebels, not victims, so repentance is vital. Furthermore, at the personal level, stress that God does not force himself on anyone, and if individuals choose to leave him out of their lives and reject his grace, his judgment will be in allowing that, eternally.

It ought to go without saying that the most important aspect of evangelism, and all witness, is prayer - that humble recognition of God's sovereign power. If we are not praying about our witness, asking God to go before us, with us and after us, to prepare, to guide, and convict, then we are not only making things difficult for ourselves, but we are in danger of acting outside God's will and doing more harm than good. We do well to remember it is the Holy Spirit who converts people, not us.

Some Christians tell that, when witnessing, they find words which are clearly not theirs, or a way of explaining something which they could never have thought of themselves. Or perhaps a Bible verse pops into their head which if they tried to think of otherwise they would never be able to do so. This is such a clear indication of how God works through us, rather than us simply working for God - which would make witness more about us. It is God working through what we are saying and doing that changes someone.

For many people, considering the gospel and the claims of Christ on their lives is only a remote possibility until they have first become reflective and able or willing to evaluate their own actions and motives. This may not happen without some external cause which brings them up short and provokes a rethink about life and its meaning or purpose.

The commission for Christians is to make disciples, not simply to seek 'decisions'. There needs to be follow-through and ongoing engagement, leading to a new Christian knowing the fullness of God by his Holy Spirit.

Beyond evangelism, though by no means neglecting it, our whole lives as Christians are, at their best, witnesses to the truth about God's nature. By living a life of love out of a heart of faith we reveal the character of the God who is calling all people to know and love him, and so bear witness to Christ. This witness enables those who encounter us to see in action both the love of God for us, and also the goodness and wisdom of the law which he inspires and enables his worshippers to follow. Fortunately that doesn't mean we have to be perfect, but we should try to be consistent and authentic, emulating Jesus' servant attitude.

In our everyday life this witness can manifest itself in many, and often mundane, ways. One of the keys to effective whole-life witness is learning to discern the secret glory hidden in little acts of love.59 How often does one hear: "There were some Christians . I watched them over many months they had something I didn't have"? Would people later comment in that way if they watched us? In The Message Eugene Petersen renders a well-known passage as: "Don't become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You'll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognise what he wants from you and quickly respond to it."60

Another aspect of witness, already mentioned, is how we show our values in the workplace. There is no room for bad work attitudes, shoddy workmanship, being unreliable, expecting things on the cheap, being slow to pay bills, or being generally inconsiderate. The fact is that every Christian is continually a witness to Christ. The only question is: are we a good or bad witness?61

As Christians we can and should be missionaries seven days a week - not necessarily in some far-off developing country but in our workplaces. Finding out how God would like to use us in our current situation is crucial. If we approach a new walk of life or a new situation without the attitude of finding out what it is God wants us to do in it, then we will most likely miss the whole point of him leading us into it. We may see a new job as simply a job, but God sees it more widely, in some sense as a mission field, and we need to be able to share that vision. Witness is an aspect of our ministry in one sense, but more basically it is how we display Christ's character to others as a result of what he, through his Holy Spirit, has been doing in us.

One mundane but practical aspect of witness in a culture of consumerism is avoidance of waste, especially as popular attention is devoted to sustainable development. Waste is an ethical, not primarily a resources issue. It is an insult to the Creator. More faithful stewardship of any resource is to use it efficiently and avoid wasting it. This goes beyond economics to ethics and how we demonstrate the notion of "enough". It relates to how we use energy and resources as consumers, and prefer durable and repairable goods to throwaways - though ethics and economic stewardship need to balance out somewhere. Sometimes the ethics of waste are in one sense subsumed by advocacy of living more simply. But beyond concern with levels of consumption that may be unjustified, or with lost or misused resources that benefit no-one, is the more fundamental affront to the bountiful Creator, and corresponding poor witness.

In conclusion, the Christian witness of faith and love should find its expression in every aspect of our lives. One way of understanding all the guidance in this book is as enabling practical witness to Christ through every part of life. Although evangelism as a deliberate activity ought never to be neglected, witnessing to God's truth is something that can come to permeate the whole of life so that it becomes inseparable from it. This is the high ideal which Jesus himself set, manifesting in his own person the reality of God's kingdom rule come to earth. It is an ideal to which all Christians are called, however imperfectly, to aspire.

ch 9 Discussion questions:
How much do you think God's character is seen in your life by others?
In particular, how are you perceived in the workplace or where you spend most time outside home?
How do you cope with colleagues who are a real pain?
What are the main challenges of witnessing into a hedonist culture?
How do you go about affirming shared values with friends?
Does the gospel of personal salvation through faith in Jesus resonate positively with your friends, or does it also need a kingdom vision and purpose to capture their imagination?
How do you witness to a positive and joyful view of your sexuality? How do you point to questions of context without coming across as repressed or weird?
How do you talk about love? How do you show it ?
Where do you find it hardest to share the gospel? How do you choose whom to broach this with? How much does prayer come into it?
How do you witness to values contra consumerism?

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59 See C. S. Lewis' famous essay, The Weight of Glory.

60 The Message, Rom 12:2.

61 From Peter Kentley, OnWatch bulletin 14/5/06.