The fourth of six things that I am learning from Colossians is that I need to reconsider how I relate to unbelievers. Paul tells the Colossians, “Conduct yourselves wisely toward outsiders, making the most of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer every one” (Col 4:5-6). For as long as I can remember, I have struggled with sharing my faith with non-believers. People will ask me what I do for a living and I tell them I am a professor; when they ask of what, I say of ‘ancient Judaism and Christianity.’ I don’t say “Bible” or “New Testament” or “Theology” or even “Religion”–unless I am speaking with someone I know is religious. I made the decision a while back not to wear my identity on my sleeve as a way to make others feel comfortable as well as to focus on living the gospel, not wearing a title. It is true that people often change their tone a little when they find out I’m a Bible professor, as well as when they learn I am an associate minister for a church; I don’t know if I’m overly sensitive (about this–I do know I’m overly sensitive generally), but I think that people become a little more defensive, a little more on guard. As to living the gospel, I do that some time; but very often I just hide, hoping not have to show my real identity.
But this cannot do. In Christ I believe are all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (2:3) and Christ is indeed my glory (1:27, 3:4). When I am speaking to a fellow believer or when I am teaching or preaching at church, I am bold to say how much I love Jesus (as well as how much I am wholly unworthy of him). Yet Christ is not just a treasure for those who believe in him; he isn’t just Lord of the church. He is the cosmic Lord; all things come to be through him, hold together in him, and exist toward him. His claim is total and his value is universal; no one escapes his gracious dominion.
Which of course is a little bit of a difficult conversation starter (even with many believers). So what to do? Paul’s instruction here is, be wise. The wisdom of Christ is not the wisdom of this world; as Paul describes it in 1st Corinthians, and as it’s glimpsed in Colossians in Christ’s radical vulnerability, the Christ’s wisdom looks foolish to this world. So I can’t put on airs of worldly wisdom; I must practice the wisdom of Christ, bold yet vulnerable love, lavish yet purposeful love. “Must” isn’t right here; I can practice this wisdom, because Christ loves me this way.
Next Paul says, ‘redeem the time’ - capitalize on the time I have. My head is too much in the clouds or too much on where I’m going; I don’t see that my real vocation is to the moment, to the people in my life right now and to the opportunities to glorify God to them through word and deed. I definitely worry too much and that too is incompatible with the gift of the present moment.
Third, Paul says “let your speech be gracious.” Gracious here is the same word that is usually translated “thankfulness” or “with gratitude” in Col 3:16 (see NRSV and NIV, respectively). I remember a former philosophy teacher of mine, a good man whom I respect very much. He and I would talk a lot about religion; he tends toward non-theistic eastern religion and yet he was very respectful and interested in my own religious views. Since he’s a philosopher of religion, he interacts with lots of believers and he once told me that he found it odd how much so many Christians sounded like used car sales people; they are pushing hard to sell something they themselves seem to have deep, unspoken reservations about. I’ve wondered about this; to the extent that he’s right, I think part of the problem is that people don’t trust God’s grace. Many speak the gospel more out of fear or obligation than out of a sense of gratitude for what God has done. I wonder if what Paul means by ‘gracious speech’ is speech rooted not in desperately trying to convince people I’m right but in a recognition that God is God and his love is for us humans regardless whether I or anyone else accepts it.
I don’t want to step on people’s toes or push myself on others; but the God I believe in is great and luminous and worthy of praise. I have no excuse not to recognize these things freely to his glory and to the benefit of those I know. That’s part of the reason why I’m blogging right now.