I have been impressed over the last few years about the need for Christians to be gracious, always, when addressing people, especially people who do not believe in Christ. Maybe I have been so impressed because of the many examples on social media in which people “defending” Christ or Christian values are anything but gracious.
The direction from Scripture is clear. The following two passages are instructions on how Christ followers should relate to outsiders:
“Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” Col. 4:5-6 (ESV)
“[A]lways being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.” 1 Pet. 3:15-16 (ESV)
I believe God wants is to take these instructions to heart!
I have seen so many examples of ungracious responses from people purporting to defend the Christian faith and values that it seems to me we are failing generally on this point. We seem to be failing to put on Christ and to display his character to the world, and our failure is having an impact. It’s just not a good one!
When people display godly character in their conversations they really shine. When we aren’t gracious, “seasoned with salt”, gentle and respectful, we risk eclipsing the message of the Gospel by our demeanor. The world needs to see Jesus lifted up, but we may be blocking their view.
Assuming that God is serious about the way we should respond to outsiders who don’t know Christ, what does it mean to be gracious? What does it mean to season our speech with salt? What does it mean to provide a defense with gentleness and respect?
I think we can all imagine what it means to be gracious. Someone who is gracious is welcoming, considerate and kind. Thinking of that reminds me that unbelievers are not our enemies. They are the lost sheep Jesus seeks to find.
Our enemies are principalities and powers. Our enemies are spirits, ways of thinking, philosophies, worldviews, cultural attitudes and assumptions – not people. God loves the people we meet, and He is as concerned for them as He is for us.
The Greek word translated as “gracious” in Colossians 4:6 above is χάρις, ιτος, ἡ (charis), meaning grace, kindness. It comes from xáris, meaning favorable towards, inclined or favorably disposed to, leaning towards to share a benefit.
Thus, being gracious toward outsiders is very much like being a gracious host. A gracious host is “inclined toward” her guests. She “leans toward” them to share benefits with them.
A gracious host is thoughtful and considerate, making guests comfortable, tending to their needs, listening in conversation and being authentically interested in what the guest has to say. This is how we should act toward outsiders, making the most of every opportunity, being gracious in our speech.
How about “seasoned with salt”? What does that mean? It is a metaphor, of course. The Greek word translated “seasoned” is ἀρτύω (artuó). It means to make ready, to season (food). In usage, it is translated “to arrange, to make ready, to season or to flavor”.
In the context of the prior sentence that focuses on “making the most of every opportunity”, and the subsequent phrase – “so that you will know how you ought to answer each person” – being “seasoned” suggests being prepared and ready. It suggests that we should anticipate opportunities and be thoughtful about how to answer the people we encounter.
That preparation is essentially the focus of apologetics.
1 Peter 3:15 highlighted above speaks of “being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you”. The word translated “defense” is ἀπολογία, ας, ἡ (apologia), which means “speech in defense”. It means a “well-reasoned reply; a thought-out response”. It doesn’t mean apologizing (as some might suppose), but defending with argument, as in a court of law.
This image of a court of law may be where we go wrong: we have a certain picture in our minds that is fed by popular culture of what it means to make an argument in court. We think of passionate, argumentative, defiant defenders of truth in the face of hostile judges and resistant jurors, and we imagine this is what it is like to defend the faith.
As an attorney, I can tell you that the best and most effective attorneys in actual courtrooms around the country are gracious and seasoned. They are not fiery and defiant; they are gracious, speak with integrity, and are well-prepared.
Importantly, they show respect, including respect for the process, for the judge, for witnesses, for opposing counsel and even for opposing parties. They listen. They offer well-reasoned appeals of law and facts with respect, integrity and grace – they are not emotional, defiant and “in your face” like the lawyers on television.
I recall a time when my son was very defiant and disrespectful to me. I challenged him on it. His response was that I argue with judges, and that was all he was doing. I told him, “If I argued with judges the way you are arguing with me, they would through me in jail for contempt of court!”
How we address people, how we treat people as we speak to them, counts as much or more as what we actually say.
One of the most compelling trials I have ever witnessed involved my father, who was a very good trial attorney, and another equally adept trial attorney. They really put on a show, but it was nothing like what you might see on TV. They were gentlemen. they were supremely well-prepared and well-spoken. The stakes were quite high, but the entire process was a show of respect for the people involved, the judge, the law and, above all, the truth.
When we yell, people can’t hear what we are saying. When we are brash and uncaring about the feelings of the people we speak with, they are not likely to receive what we say no matter how much truth we speak.
There is a danger also, in being prepared to give a response, that we become apologetic robots spitting out answers with no personal connection with the people we meet. Perhaps, that is why Paul emphasis being gracious, first. Being gracious is to be focused on the needs and consideration of the other person.
When I think of that trial I described above, I recall that the attorneys did not memorize laws and facts and regurgitate them. They engaged the witnesses, the judge and the whole courtroom in a dialogue. They knew the facts and laws that applied to them so well that their presentations were natural and unrehearsed.
The phrase, “seasoned with salt”, alludes to the words of Jesus that we should be salt and light to the world. Salt, of course, is a preservative and a flavor enhancer. To be effective, salt must be in close contact with food. It must have connection with the food to flavor it and preserve it. We need to connect with people if we are going to be effective apologists.
Too much salt, though, makes food unpalatable. Maybe that is why Paul said our speech should seasoned with salt. Seasoning brings out the flavor of steak, but dumping all the salt in the saltshaker on a steak overpowers and ruins the flavor. Seasoning requires moderation and a delicate touch.
It’s interesting to me to consider that salt has a taste of its own, but salt used as seasoning brings out the flavor of the object of the seasoning. When used in appropriate amounts, we don’t taste the salt; we taste more of the steak. Too much salt, and all we taste is salt and no steak.
This brings me back to the idea of being gracious and leaning into the people we meet. God is intimately interested in them. Just as he intimately knows you. God’s desire, ultimately, is to bring out the flavor in them that has been uniquely created in them by Him!
It isn’t about you. It’s about God and His desire to reach people. When we follow Jesus, truly, we become servants of all. The greatest shall be the least. We must decrease, and He must increase in us if we are going to be truly effective in this effort. The “objects” of our seasoning are not us – it’s God and them.
Finally, Peter emphasizes the need to “defend” the hope that is in us with “gentleness and respect”. I see people popularly putting emphasis on defending, but glossing over the gentleness and respect part.
I put the word, “defend”, in quotation marks because I don’t think Peter is actually telling us to defend the faith, like a warrior in a Crusade. I believe he has a different image in mind.
I don’t believe this is what Peter means because Jesus was Peter’s example. Jesus told Peter to put away the sword in the garden when the soldiers came to take him away. Peter witnessed Jesus led like a lamb to the slaughter as Jesus remained true to the purpose for which God became incarnate in hm.
Peter assumes in the context of this call to be prepared to give well thought-out reasons for the hope we have within us that we might be slandered and reviled. In the very next verse, he tells us to “[keep] a clear conscience, so that those who slander you may be put to shame by your good behavior in Christ….” Why does he say that?
For one thing, Peter’s times were much different than ours. Christians were not popular. They had no political, social or cultural clout. They were despised, ignored and sometimes persecuted. They didn’t have almost 2000 years of influence like we have before us.
They came from a place of weakness, but they knew God’s grace was sufficient for them, and His power is perfected in weakness. (2 Cor. 12:9) We don’t have that “advantage”. As a consequence, I believe we are naturally inclined to rely on our own strength and the strength of Christianity in western world that has been so influenced by it.
These times are changing, though. Christianity is loosing its favor (and flavor) in the western world. Much of the western world might already be called accurately “post-Christian”. Our job may even be tougher, in some ways, because so many people are “inoculated” with Christianity – having had too little of the real thing to “catch it”, but having just enough that they have developed a resistance to it.
These factors are all the more reason for us to be careful in how we approach others – not in a false sense of strength, but in humility and weakness, letting the love of Christ shine and allowing room for the Holy Spirit to do His work in the hearts of the people we have connection with.
Peter emphasizes that our “good behavior” will put them to shame when they revile and slander us. (1 Peter 3:16) Our gentleness and respect and good conscience is what will win the day – not our defense, but how we “defend” the hope we have within us is the ultimate key.
I will end by suggesting John Lennox as a person who represents the principles I see in Colossians 4:5 and 1 Peter 3:15-16. In the following interchange, John Lennox is very pointed in his statements, but he is gracious in his delivery and demeanor. We don’t have to sacrifice truth to be gracious and kind.
Finally, I will leave you with Mary Jo Sharp, who is the subject of my previous article. She was an atheist who became a believer. When she looked into it and read the Bible, it made sense to her. She made a commitment to Christ, but she almost ran away from the faith when she began to meet Christians who were not very Christ-like. Her story is important for all of us in emphasizing the fact that we represent Jesus to the World!