Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Some Unsolicited Advice

Several years ago I was walking downtown with a friend when some teenagers outside the grand old institutional church building on the corner enthusiastically accosted us to take some Christian literature from them and read it. After we politely extricated ourselves, my friend asked me “Why do they do that?”

Her thought was that this was a little bit inappropriate for members of our once-polite society, as if the act of sharing a gospel tract on the street were more than a minor intrusion.

That question gave me a chance to explain why Christians have historically tended to encourage friends, family, total strangers and even enemies to be saved from the wrath to come: because who wants to see anyone else die in ignorance? It would be like knowing the bridge is out but deciding not to bother posting a sign. Yes, we are commanded to preach the gospel, and that should be reason enough to do it, but surely love should make us all the more eager.

Loving Intrusions

But I’ve been thinking a little more about my friend’s initial reaction lately. When you think about it, the act of telling someone they need to do things differently is so commonplace as to be ubiquitous. We all do it all the time. My friend does it to me all the time, precisely because she is my friend and is concerned about my welfare. So, according to her, I need to get more sleep, should be taking fish oil for my aching knees, should be feeding my cat home cooked meals and ought to be putting away more for my retirement.

I put up with her unsolicited opinions about my life partly because we are friends, partly because many times her suggestions have turned out useful, and partly because turnabout is fair play, and I know I cannot possibly avoid doing precisely the same thing to her. In the course of conversation we invariably make recommendations to one another about what we ought to be doing to achieve the best possible results. There is a perfectly logical reason such advice is rarely solicited: we usually don’t know we need it, or else we underestimate quite how badly.

But this is what caring people do for each other: we intrude a little here and there, but love and familiarity generally make these intrusions acceptable. My friend has never once told me to shut my trap when I offered her advice, and I have never told her she ought to shut hers.

The expression of unsolicited opinions of one sort or another is part and parcel of everyday human interaction. The individual who never offers an unsolicited opinion is a rare bird indeed.

Intrusions and Relationships

So then, my friend’s real objection was not to unsolicited opinions in principle, but to unsolicited advice offered by people with whom she has not established a personal relationship. And let’s concede there is a certain legitimacy to her concern. I mean, how do you know that a man or woman who accosts you on the street has your best interests at heart? For that matter, how do you know anything about them? They may have an agenda, or they may be clueless about the thing they are recommending. For that matter, they may be mentally ill, a mischief-maker or a sociopath. You have no way of knowing with whom you are dealing, or of evaluating the message they are passing on.

I suppose there is a lesson there, in that in order to share the gospel effectively it helps to be able to appeal to some existing bond. And common bonds are not so common these days. Peter could address the crowd at Pentecost as “brothers” because he knew that for the most part his audience shared with him a history, a commitment to a belief in Messianic Judaism and a desire to please God. Few such bonds exist broadly across our multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-religious and multi-irreligious societies today.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t try to share the gospel with people from other backgrounds, cultures and religious histories. But we should hardly be surprised if from time to time perfect strangers respond with a dismissive “What do you care?” It’s a sensible question. If somebody I don’t know walks up to me with unsolicited advice about what I should believe, I’d probably feel the same way.

In short, if you want to get a hearing these days, you need to be able to build a relationship at something approaching the speed of light.

Building Relationships Fast

Now, con men and salespeople are good at building relationships, even if they do it on a foundation of lies or sales patter. They succeed in convincing a mark of their goodwill because they are either naturally charismatic or well-practiced at deception. Sometimes it’s both. Christians won’t get much mileage out of imitating that strategy.

But it strikes me that the most appealing messages are the ones delivered by enthusiastic messengers. This is actually quite reasonable: nobody wants to hear what you are offering if it doesn’t look like you are having a good time.

This was driven home to me rather forcibly the other evening when I sat through all but the last two minutes of this 13-minute YouTube video. Thirteen minutes is actually not that long, but it felt like forever in this case. The video preserves for posterity an argument made before an Oxford Union Society event by Carol Adams, a seventy-something feminist animal rights activist, about why we should all stop eating meat.

A Dose of Misogyny

Supposing you can steel yourself to sit through her hectoring for as long as I did, you will not find Carol’s concerns are limited to your health. Actually, I suspect your personal health — probably even your survival — is very far down her list of priorities. She said not a word about how meat is bad for us. Instead, she reeled off a series of unsupported and unsupportable assertions like “The assumption that the best protein comes from dead corpses is a racist belief”, “Burgers come with a dose of misogyny”, “When all else fails, meat-eaters assume that animals are not our equals”, “Meat-eaters, like anti-abortionists, have forgotten that one quality of non-existence is not having awareness about existence”, “To say you care about animals is considered a sign of weakness in a world still committed to the gender binary”, “Twenty-first century animal eating requires our participation in a new colonialism” and “Meat-eating is also one of the ways gender-based structures of oppression are perpetuated.”

Now, anyone who can cram colonialism, racism, unsettled masculinity, transphobia, abortion rights, white supremacy and the evil patriarchy into a few minutes on a completely unrelated subject is (1) manically obsessive, (2) totally unconcerned about things like logic, evidence and rationality, (3) plain loony, or possibly all three at the same time. I was amazed at the sheer hubris of what she was attempting, as was her audience, if the waves of uncontrollable snickering her speech produced are any indication.

Joy Gone Missing

But what impressed me most about this woman was not so much her insane arguments or complete disregard for all the normal conventions of debate, but the unrelenting joylessness of her presentation. It hit me that this dogged bleakness is a characteristic feature not just of leftist lecturers in general, but of many people determined to change the way you think and behave. They are definitely not having a good time (picture Greta Thunberg here), and they want you to know it. Their worldview is making them angry and sad, and they will never be happy unless you change to accommodate them.

Actually, that’s not true: they will never be happy even if you do change. Accommodate the messengers of wokeness in one area and you will immediately be presented with a list of all the other ways you are failing the world. Carol and her ilk are the most miserable witnesses to their version of the truth that I have ever encountered.

Guess what? That doesn’t build relationships fast, or at all. It doesn’t persuade anyone who is not already persuaded.

Good News and Appropriate Messaging

Christians have a message with one or two bleak aspects of its own: after all, judgment is coming and the world needs to repent. But repentance is possible, and judgment need not come. Christ has already served your sentence for you if only you will accept it.

Moreover, there is nothing coercive about the gospel. It comes as good news. It comes as a plea. It even comes as a commandment. But refuse the gospel, and nobody is going to disemploy you, silence you, jail you or prevent you from going to the store. The long-term consequences of rejecting Christ are severe and inevitable — much more so than the consequences of eating meat — but we do not force, intimidate, threaten or coerce people into converting. God is not interested in that kind of relationship.

Most of all, the message we bring to the world comes from a joyful people, or at least a people who should be characterized by joy. We have a message the merest hint of which has made babies leap in the womb, a joy durable enough to thrive and grow in the face of persecution and rejection, a joy that inspires men to sing hymns in jail, a joy inexpressible and full of glory.

The world is full of men and women with dyspeptic faces dispensing unsolicited advice. We have some unsolicited advice for the world too, but let us never deliver it without letting the blessedness of the gospel transform our manner and the love of Christ enable us to show the world we really mean it.

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