Walking The Fine Line


Whenever the same theme keeps popping up in my life again and again, I credit it to the Spirit trying to tell me something. I’m kind of a slow learner…I’ll often miss the message the first half dozen times.

But lately, for the first time in my life, the message is confusing me. Because it seems to contradict one I’ve been struggling to internalize for quite some time now.

In the Catholic Lectionary, these last few weeks leading up to Christ the King and the start of the new liturgical year on Advent 1, all the Scriptures focus on preparing for the second coming. They’re about judgment and forgiveness and what happens when we withhold what has been granted us. And they urge us to speak up and tell those around us when they’re screwing up.

Now, my family has a long and not-so-glorious tradition of telling it “like it is”…or at least, our perception of it. My own weakness in this area led to an estrangement of more than a year from one of my sisters. I’m a lousy liar. I can’t even withhold information—it all feels like dishonesty to me. And I’m less than competent at the little gentle misleading things we say to keep from hurting other people’s feelings, because I can’t even lie with my face. My expressions give away what I’m thinking, even if I manage to keep my mouth shut.

So naturally, I hurt people’s feelings sometimes. The only good thing I can say about it is that because of it I’m well practiced in apologizing, too.

I bring this up because it took me literally years to learn that I have to moderate my own rhetoric. I have to look for the other person’s point of view, because no situation is ever as black and white as I first perceive it to be. This is the origin of my whole philosophy about living in the middle. I’ve learned that absolute, unshakable certainty in the face of disagreement is a sign of self-righteousness, not Godliness. There are a few black and white issues in the world, but not nearly as many as we’d like to think. This goes for matters of politics, faith, interpersonal relationships…pretty much everything about human existence.

I have come to believe that words are not the most effective evangelizers—that walking around spouting religious language is the best way to alienate those you’re trying to convert. That action is the true evangelizing force in the world, and action involves humility—bearing with things you think are just plain wrong. That question, “What would Jesus do?” is a lot harder to answer than I used to think, watching it flash by on bracelets. Because Jesus hung out with a lot of people others thought were unclean and evil, and we don’t always hear him wagging his finger at them. I can’t help thinking that some of the time, he was just hanging out with them, loving them back to God without ever speaking a word.

This has been a hard lesson for me to learn, requiring unpleasant humility and lots of nights tossing and turning beneath unpleasant self-analysis. So when I hear homilists and Scripture readings exhorting me to tell my neighbor of his misdeeds, I tense up. I get the message. I do. It’s just that I don’t see how to do so without appearing, and indeed being, self-righteous. Which is inherently not a holy, Godlike attitude.

So how do I tell it like it is when I no longer feel that unshakable sense of certainty that I know how it is?

I suppose my hard-won philosophy is itself the answer here, too: God lies somewhere in the middle. But I have no idea how to make the rubber hit the road in this instance. How do you run the gauntlet between being a self-proclaimed mouthpiece of God and being nothing but an appeaser?

9 thoughts on “Walking The Fine Line

  1. How? You pray, read the Scriptures, listen to wise religious leaders, reflect, and do the best you can. And, learn from your mistakes. You seem to be doing that.

    I’m guilty of spouting off religious language to some extent. I do so to be clear with my interlocutors about where I stand. I’m not necessarily trying to evangelize them with my rhetoric, but to give them something to consider.

    • I went to talk to med students last week about life with Down syndrome. My goal is to change the way people view the condition, in the hopes that it will also change the way they present it to parents receiving a diagnosis, in the hopes that it will cause more of them to say, “Okay, maybe we can give this a try.” In that, it’s an unabashedly prolife, God-centered motivation. But I know I can’t go in there using prolife, pro-God language. I’ve found that faith rests well with reason, and that reason can lead people to faith. Some of us are called to evangelize the “weary a word that will rouse them.” I feel like my call is to reach a wider audience…some of whom are not necessarily ready to jump on the bandwagon. It’s a tough thing to do. But somebody’s got to try, right?

  2. I think you answered your own question…you live it, you show it. I also think you’re already doing it – through your writing. Perhaps you shouldn’t try to be a mouthpiece, rather you should just be. When you are living, being, doing, the work of God, you don’t have to say it.

    Do you know that song “Cry the Gospel”? Frankly, I don’t know all the words, but just the title of the song is enough for many hours of pondering. How does one “cry the gospel” or live like Jesus? None of it is black and white. None. There’s another song, a Barlow Girls song, “Grey,” that’s all about this. If you haven’t heard it, go look up the lyrics.

    I’m grateful I have parents that instilled in me that actions speak louder than words and being a Christian through my thoughts and actions is more important than evangelizing through words.

    • That’s a good song for this topic: “cry the Gospel with your life,” it says. Very appropriate. Still, there’s got to be a place for the verbal evaneglism, too… Then again, maybe it’s still evangelization, even if I’m not using the specific words. Points to ponder.

      • I guess I would agree if it’s a subtle verbal evangelism. Because I would suspect that most people don’t like to be told what to do or that they’re wrong. I would suggest that evangelism through sharing rather than bible-pushing is a goal. And learning to recognize when people are open to your thoughts/beliefs. Basically, are you doing it for you or for them? We may think that evangelizing is for them, but most of the time it’s just done in our own self-interest, so we can walk away knowing we’ve done our job.

        But of course, all of this is opinion. I’m not trying to push my ideas, I’m just in this for conversation and giving my brain a little workout. 🙂

  3. I don’t agree that evangelism must be verbal — but then I’m not ‘religious’, so maybe I don’t know what I’m on about :). I tend to go with the idea that you live the change that you want to see in the world.

  4. It’s such a difficult lesson, isn’t it Kathleen? I know, I’m a blurter, so I’ve learned the lesson the hard way, too. I think the key is in trying to act Godly, rather than relying on speech and rhetoric to convey a Godly message. “Actions speak louder than words,” as the cliche goes.

  5. Excellent post. Brings to mind 1Peter 4.11: “If anyone speaks, let him speak as the *oracles* of God. If anyone *ministers* [Gk. diakonea: servant], let him do it as with the ability which God supplies — that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belong the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen.”

    In these two actions, essentially all ministry of Believers to other Believers (at least) are covered: (1) Serving others through *speaking* and (2) serving others through *deaconing* (or servanthood.)

    The point Peter is making here is that whether *speaking* or *serving*, these are to ONLY be done through the Spirit of God — so that it is God Who winds up being glorified.

    Which throws the Light on the question about speaking “for God”: speak His words. (Or “deacons”, perform His actions.)

    See, we’re not talking about being a “self-proclaimed mouthpiece for God” — we’re talking about being a “God-proclaimed mouthpiece”. He’s telling us that we are to minister (serve) the needs of others by speaking, and that the words we speak are as “oracles” sharing God’s Own Words.

    This would seem an arrogant self-aggrandizing effort if Peter weren’t telling us to DO THIS.

    But how does one begin to *hear* the words God wants spoken to others?

    It’s like our faith: The way we begin to *hear* the words from God that we’re to speak to others as His “oracles” is two-fold: (1) Believe that God has commanded us to be such; and (2) trust that He will reward us with the very Words He’s promised to be on our lips.

    It’s a “faith” thing — much like the testimony of Enoch [Hebrews 11], which declares that Enoch was pleasing to God by virtue of his testimony, and so God took him directly to Heaven; and Enoch’s testimony was simple: (1) he believed God existed; and (2) that God rewards those who seek Him.

    Same thing is true for us today…

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