What is it like to be the only Christian in a non-Christian environment?
A new Christ follower came to our house, distressed. “Sometimes I feel like I’m going to explode if I don’t get away,” he told me. Family members were ambivalent at best and antagonistic at worst to his newfound faith. They told him church was a waste of time and questioned the number of hours and the distance he traveled in order to go to an out-of-town meeting. “I don’t want to go home,” he confided “and walk right back into it.”
I understood. It wasn’t that anyone was forbidding him to attend church functions. Nor did his family outright reject Christianity. I grew up with that tension from several family members. There was always that sneer, a raised eyebrow, a taunt in the tone. Embedded in the words were the not so subtle invitation to take part in activities they knew I didn’t care for and the mocking of how I held different beliefs. Tension grew when particularly controversial topics came up.
A friend who currently works at a public university echoed the same frustration. “Even to remain silent is not acceptable,” she said.
Sometimes it happens between two believers.
We assume everyone believes like we do and is in love with the Lord as much as we are. Then the other person shows a different side of their faith walk and we feel like something has shifted, causing us to be at two different levels with a crack down the middle. And the tension returns.
I felt this at times after my eye surgery that gave me better than ever vision. Suddenly I was seeing so many new things. Excited at the beauty of the world I was discovering and what it told me about God, I became perplexed when some people weren’t as enthralled about sunsets, stars, and birds in midflight as I was. What’s wrong with their gratitude-meter? I thought more than once.
I needed to be patient, recognizing that all of us are on different levels at any given time. And while I might currently have a greater appreciation for God’s creation, that other person might be far ahead of me in other faith aspects and character maturity.
In the moment, it can be hard to stay strong when you think others don’t see as you see. How can you stand firm but stay gracious in a faith-challenged environment? Even more so, how can you influence and encourage them before they dissuade and discourage you? Let me share ten ways you can stay strong among a group of unbelievers.
1. Remember your purpose.
God has placed you where you are to influence those around you. Yes, your Christian maturity is important. It would be nice to dwell with like-minded people who share your value system, who accept you and your beliefs, and who wouldn’t mind spending long hours talking about the Lord with you. But God calls us to be workers in His harvest field, not guests at His banqueting table. The feasting will come later. Right now, your job is to shine the light of Jesus in darkened places.
2. Let go of the need to please others.
If you don’t believe as they believe, there will be tension. They will disapprove. If they were willing to accept your belief, they would be more open to embracing God’s gift of grace. But if their hearts are hardened, you won’t get their approval. And yet, there is something hard-wired into us that doesn’t want to displease anyone. Standing up for your beliefs, even quietly and graciously, sets you up for kickback. We want other people to be happy with us.
The apostle John tells about some private believers he knew. They put their faith in Jesus but they didn’t talk out load about it “for they loved praise from men more than praise for God (John 12:43). In contrast, Jesus tells us that our soul’s standing with God is far more important than any thing we might gain in the world (Mt 16:26), including the approval of those around us.
3. Drop the expectations.
You cannot expect non-Christians to believe or behave like Christians. You value Christian fellowship; they see it as a waste of time. You see God in creation; their starting point is one based on evolutionary theory. Why should they stop using foul language? They see nothing wrong with it. Instead of being surprised by aberrant behavior, expect that that is how they will act. Be surprised when they do show kindness, honesty, or fairness.
When I accepted the truth that a family member was not going to live by my Christian standards, my stress level dropped significantly. I felt liberated. I was no longer tense, judging his every action. He was acting exactly as someone who didn’t accept the Lordship of Christ. His actions shouted how much he needed the unconditional love and grace of Jesus.
Acceptance does not mean you condone their behavior. It doesn’t mean you are giving up on them or saying there is more than one way to Christ either. It’s simply accepting that someone won’t act like a Christian until they are convinced of the reality of a God who is both Lord and Savior.
4. Don’t set yourself up.
In our zeal to sway others to our side, we can often throw in our own little comments that will stir up resentment and animosity. It’s easy to become defensive. If someone says, “Wow, you were at church a long time,” we don’t need to go into a ten minutes description of how wonderful it was and they should have been there too. Simply say, “Yeah, I guess I was there a long time.” Then redirect the conversation, “How was your evening?”
5. Stay connected with other believers.
Satan loves to pick at the lone burning coal. If you can’t meet with believers, connect online, start a Facebook group, continue to listen to radio and podcast resources, or read your favorite inspirational blog. Time with believers will fortify you for the time you spend with non-believers.
6. Be responsible for your own faith growth.
While we need other believers, we also need to become strong enough so that if we are separated from our faith community, we can become self-sustaining. This was a challenge for many of us during the COVID-19 shutdown. Without church community events, we had to find other ways to keep feeding our souls. Find ways to stay in the Word and prayer. Don’t wait for other believers to check on you; instead, initiate connection with them.
7. Pray constantly.
If you face hostility from family or co-workers, be in a constant mindset of prayer before, during, and after each encounter. Pray for God’s peace, that the Holy Spirit will give you the right words, for a gracious, unconditional loving attitude, and for ways to serve the other person in Jesus’ name.
8. Check your motives:
Are you causing tension in your family because you are choosing your faith over family or because you want the freedom to do your own thing? Are you going to church events to worship God and grow in your faith, or are you using church events to escape bad situations? God wants you to do the right thing for the right reason.
9. Choose your battles.
Being with God’s people is important, but there may be situations where it is best for you to stick around for a family event. You may think every church event is important, but your family may be hurt that you choose a church social event over a family birthday celebration. Grace is messy. The lines waver and the circumstances are different every time. If you do choose to miss a church event in lieu of family, explain quietly to a trustworthy believer why you won’t be there and ask them to pray you through. If other believers criticize, be patient – they don’t completely know your situation.
One day, a believer came to me to explain why she hadn’t been at our ladies’ Bible study. Thursdays were her day to help a friend with shopping. My friend is doing the Lord’s work by serving her neighbor and I know she studies at home. She is worshipping and following Jesus as much as I am, just in a different way.
10. Don’t let go of your faith.
You may never see the change you want to see in those you live or work with. They may continue to taunt, bait, and mock you. You may not win them, but you never know who else is watching and who might be influenced by your faithfulness, graciousness, and unconditional love. Keep your eyes on Jesus, forgive yourself as He forgives you when you stumble, keep being real, and keep pushing forward. Then, leave the results and the salvation of those you love in God’s hands. He cares about those you love even more than you do and He is working to influence them to come to Him in ways you may not be able to see.
Who are you at odds with regarding your faith in Jesus? Add their name to your personal prayer list. Pray for them every day. Pray that God give you ideas of how you can demonstrate God’s love and mercy to them.
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