“Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in Heaven” (Matthew 5:16).
“And all the other prisoners were listening to them” (Acts 16:25).
You’ve been put on the spot.
Someone is challenging you, daring you, cursing you, or slandering you. You squirm. Nothing about this is pleasant. You try to think of an appropriate response.
Before you act, I have a suggestion.
You should always keep in mind one huge factor: Your response to your heckler is less for them than for the spectators standing nearby, observing this little conflict. They’re watching you. They want to see how you react, if you can take it, if you will respond in the flesh or show yourself to be a genuine Christian.
Unfair, you say? Maybe so, in some ways. But in another, this creates an opportunity for the Holy Spirit to do something everlasting.
All He needs is a willing Christian, someone who can (ahem) “take a licking and keep on ticking.” He needs someone who understands the wisdom of Luke 6:27–“loving your enemy, doing good to those who hate you, blessing those who curse you.”
The Godly have a built-in audience for this. The world has bought tickets to the show that is you.
They’re always watching.
Outsiders wonder if you are for real, if the Gospel really works, if Christ is among you and alive today.
They hear our talk, see our churches, know our claims, and wonder if this could be real.
The way you answer the attacker, your response to your slanderer, is not for that one. We should assume nothing you say is going to change his mind. Your response is for the audience.
Take a lesson from the stand-up comic. His response to the heckler in the audience is not to teach anything to the rude interrupter. Even though the comic addresses the heckler, it’s all for the audience. (Comedians have been known to hire actors to attend their performances and do their worst, to provide a target for their best zingers.)
We respond to the individual, but we must never forget the world is watching.
This, doubtless, was a huge element in how God reached Saul of Tarsus. As the crowd was stoning Stephen to death and venting their rage upon him, this gentle soul responded in love. “They were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God…. While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit….Lord, do not hold this sin against them'” (Acts 7:54-60).
Meanwhile, we read, “The witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul” (7:58).
Saul was watching. He was taking it all in.
What he saw that day never left him. He was never able to get out of his mind the image of the dying Stephen who lived and died as Jesus had, loving and giving and forgiving.
Saul was captured by the unforgettable display of Christlikeness in this first Christian martyr.
The world looks for any excuse to mark us off its list and dismiss our faith as just another religion. When we reflect the same trendy ways as the rest of the world, when we speak the same silly slang we pick up from the movies, and when we live by the same low ethical standards as those making no claim to following Jesus, we have lost the race before it starts.
Here and there, however, the world sees in the rare believer something it cannot explain away and is unable to erase from its collective mind. When that happens, the game forever changes. Many are drawn to Jesus and will live forever.
When Paul and Silas were hastily arrested and unjustly beaten, the Philippian jailer locked them in the deepest part of his prison and left them to handle their own pain. To our amazement and the consternation of everyone in the place, along about midnight these two champions for Christ began praying and singing hymns of praise to the Lord. “And the other prisoners were listening to them” (Acts 16:25).
They’re always listening.
When the church at Jerusalem was being threatened by internal division from the unequal distribution of food to the widows, the surrounding community sat up and took notice. No one said a thing, but they all watched. Would this little band of Jesus-followers survive, or would they self-destruct under the weight of their amazing diversity? (Note: Remember that the church was composed of converts “from every nation under heaven”–Acts 2:5.)
When the church moved quickly to settle the dispute, and did so in a beautiful fashion, outsiders were impressed. “The word continued to spread, the number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7). That’s how we know they were watching. This last group would have been among the first to criticize and find fault and certainly the last to join the Christians had they been ordinary or hypocritical. But when they saw such unity and harmony in action, they were sold. Those Christ-followers were genuine, the real deal.
The Apostle Paul said, “It seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like men condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to men” (I Corinthians 4:9).
He was right, but the spectacle continues to this day.
We are on stage; the audience is the outside world.
God will allow His most faithful ones to go through trials in order to demonstrate to the world that Jesus is alive and present in your life.
We have to know this and cooperate with Him if the process is to work. This is why “the apostles rejoiced that they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name” (Acts 5:41).
They knew what God was doing.
God will allow persecution to come and believers to be hauled into court in order to get the gospel to the segment of the community that insulates itself from Christians. God’s children have to know this–it’s in Matthew 10:16ff–and be prepared for it if the process is to work. You are in court “as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles” (Matthew 10:18).
God will allow His people to suffer unemployment, sickness, heartache, and a thousand other indignities in order to make a statement to the watching world that Christ is alive and the gospel is real.
Christians have to know this and be prepared. “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom” (Acts 14:22).
Christians have to be willing to be used of God to reach the lost.
Even when times are hard and Christ seems absent, Christ-followers know He is on the job and at work in these situations.
That night in the Philippian jail, Paul and Silas could have played the “Why me, Lord?” card had they wished. I fear that I would have. “Lord, where are you? You sent us here, but look how we’ve been treated. And now, our backs are open wounds and we have been locked into this prison without even due process. Why me, Lord?”
But, these champions trusted God even when He seemed absent and life was closing in on them. As a result, God used them in amazing ways.
Let’s give the world something worth seeing, something it cannot explain away.
The Apostle Peter told the early church, “Dear friends, I urge you as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires which war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day He visits us” (I Peter 2:12).
Later, Peter told Christian women to take care in how they adorn themselves lest they look just like the superficial, godless tarts of the day. “Your beauty should be that of the inner self,” he said, “the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit.” You should let them “see the purity and reverence of your lives” (I Peter 3:1ff.)
Give them something surprising, something they did not expect and cannot explain away.
Give them Jesus.
I waited patiently on the Lord and He inclined to me, and heard my cry.
He also brought me up out of the horrible pit, out of the miry clay, and set my feet upon a rock, and established my steps.
He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear, and will trust in the Lord. (Psalm 40:1-3).
That’s the plan.