There is an urge within all true Christians to let their “light so shine before others that they may see your good deeds and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). This is good and commendable. For many, however, this has resulted in an ardent desire to be seen as good, never to be misunderstood, and never to be labelled as evil.
For many—myself included—to be seen as a bad guy, despite having the best intentions and having a clear conscience before God as to one’s conduct toward others, is a particularly agonising trial. When we are placed in this sort of scenario, we are hurt, and feel as if something is amiss. We worry about our “testimony” and may even feel a sense of guilt about having misrepresented Christ and his church. It feels wrong, and we wonder what we could have done. We ardently desire to be seen as righteous, even if our enemies hate us for it.
And yet, as we examine the testimony of Scripture, we see that the word warns us to expect precisely the sort of situation I have described above—the sort of situation that feels so wrong to us: ““Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:11–12). According to Jesus, not only should we expect that people will utter all kinds of “evil” against us falsely, but we are to rejoice, because this is par for the course for the faithful. “For so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
Indeed, the same thing happened to our Lord himself: “The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds” (Matthew 11:19). We know Jesus was a good man: a perfect man, the best who ever lived. But many of his contemporaries thought him an evil man, one of the worst! We lose sight of that fact because we know the whole story. We know who the good guys were and who the bad guys were. But imagine it from the perspective of Jesus’ disciples at the time.
The most respected religious leaders—and don’t think of the pope; think closer to home of some names you might respect within the church—were convinced that Jesus was a law-breaker and a blasphemer. Consider, for example, this exchange:
On a Sabbath, while he was going through the grainfields, his disciples plucked and ate some heads of grain, rubbing them in their hands. But some of the Pharisees said, “Why are you doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath?” And Jesus answered them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and took and ate the bread of the Presence, which is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those with him?” And he said to them, “The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”
Imagine that! But given our desire to be seen as the good guys, I can picture some Christians today saying to Jesus, “But, Lord, surely this isn’t a very good testimony to have to unbelievers? Perhaps you should dial it back a bit on the Sabbath-breaking so that we don’t cause unbelievers to scoff at the church!”
And then Jesus was actually crucified on the charge of blasphemy (Matthew 26:65)! Not only was Jesus called many things, which we would consider to be a bad testimony before the world, but he continued to do them, and often without much, if any, defence of his actions.
So how do we reconcile that with passages like the one I quoted at the beginning of this article (Matthew 5:16) or Romans 2:24, which speaks of “the name of God” being “blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you”—a description, I am sure, that none of us wants to have applied to our lives.
The answer lies in the truth: the truth of the matter before God. Ultimately, Christians are to “be holy, for I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16). The only opinion that should matter to us, ultimately, is God’s. Herein lies the joy and peace that the gospel can bring in light of slander and opposition. “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31). Many can be against us, but ultimately if we have God’s smile, it doesn’t matter.
I think that the church in our day, having enjoyed relative peace in the West for so long now, has become dangerously naïve about the nature of evil and persecution. Evil is not primarily a matter of intention (perhaps more about the overemphasis we place on intention in another article), nor is persecution always something that comes out and openly defies God in an open and explicit manner. Evil is subtle. The devil is the father of lies (John 8:44) and is often disguised as an angel of light (2 Corinthians 11:14). Do you think that the Communist Party in China doesn’t have “good reasons” why they require churches to be registered, etc.? Do you think that laws forbidding parents to use the rod of discipline are not couched in phrases directly referencing the “best interests” of the child? Do you think that evil men always wear trench coats and are covered in body piercings?
We, the church, are to live before God, our master. God alone is our master before whom we stand or fall (Romans 14:4). We are never called to be holy as the world is holy. We are called to be holy for God is holy. The whole problem is that the world is not holy. But the world doesn’t know or accept this. “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!” (Isaiah 5:20).
I believe that, with all the best intentions in the world, we Christians are far too concerned about what the world thinks. This is the reason for the seeker-sensitive churches and programs we see all around us. We are far too concerned about trying to make the gospel more palatable to the world. We are far too concerned about trying to defend God to his enemies. But, in our concern, we are pandering to a broken and twisted system.
The world wants us to believe that the murder of babies is reproductive health and that saying boys are biologically male is hate speech. The world’s ideas of right and wrong are completely out of whack. So why are we so concerned about seeming to be good in the eyes of the world? The gospel is foolishness to those who are perishing. (1 Corinthians 1:18). No amount of gentle and persuasive reasoning can make it seem otherwise. Only the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit can do that.
We should be far less concerned about whether the world thinks we are right or wrong, and more concerned about whether God thinks we are right or wrong. The only sort of testimony that we need to have before the world is one of holiness and righteousness as defined by God.
The issue with testimony at the end of the day is not whether someone could possibly take something you say or do the wrong way. The issue with testimony is whether or not we are accurately portraying Christ, accurately imaging God to the world: the same world who crucified Christ for blasphemy, and the same Christ who wasn’t overly concerned about being misunderstood. Jesus didn’t bother so much about being called a glutton and a drunkard. He didn’t worry so much about being called a blasphemer and a Sabbath-breaker because he knew it wasn’t true. Jesus was here to accomplish a mission. He didn’t come to vindicate the goodness of God in the eyes of the world. He came to vindicate God’s goodness in reality (Romans 3:25).
We need to be okay with being misunderstood. We need to obey God, trusting in the power of God to accomplish what we cannot. It doesn’t matter if the world calls you unloving for insisting that marriage is between one natural man and one natural woman for life. It doesn’t matter if the world calls you evil for refusing to use someone’s foolish “preferred pronouns.” It doesn’t matter whether the world calls you selfish for choosing to bring up children in these dark days. It doesn’t matter whether people think gathering to worship is irresponsible in times of pandemic. None of it matters. Obedience matters, and all true believers will display the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. They will keep displaying those fruits whether or not the world recognises it.
Hell will be filled with multitudes who, for all eternity, will refuse to repent because they believe they are right and God is wrong. Our mission is not to convince the world that we are right but, in obedience and dependence on God’s Spirit, to make disciples of all nations, teaching them to obey all that God has commanded.
So don’t be pig-headed about it, but go out there and stop worrying about what the world thinks. We need not attempt to be wiser than God. Live for an audience of one and trust God to vindicate and uphold you. Our faith, expressed in works of obedience, is the victory that overcomes the world!