Monday, July 14, 2008

Expectations on Unbelievers

Expectations. We all have them. We have them for ourselves and we have them for others. It has been my experience that often times within the context of human relationships, if there is ever any friction or tension between two people, it almost inevitably circles around the idea of unmet or unrealistic expectations.

I’ve been thinking about this lately, but in a little different context. It is my conviction that those of us who are Christians may sometimes place expectations on non-Christians that they are unable or incapable of meeting. Consider the following two Scripture passages:

“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” 1 Corinthians 1:18, NIV

“The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.” 1 Corinthians 2:14, NIV

What these two passages tell me is that within the unbelieving soul, there is absolutely no capacity to comprehend the deep truths of God without some form of illumination from the Holy Spirit. Now that’s not to say that non-Christians can’t comprehend the idea of God himself or contemplate spiritual things at some level, because surely they can.

In Romans 1:20, Paul said that “since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities--his eternal power and divine nature--have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.” And further, the writer of Ecclesiastes said that God has “set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end” (3:11).

So the idea of a God that exists and the concept of eternity are two things that all unbelievers should be able to ascertain according to the testimony of Scripture. Furthermore, the possession of a moral conscience (Romans 2:15) also testifies to the fact that even fallen humanity is still left with a basic capacity to know some measure of right from wrong.

But should we or can we expect more from them? If the above Scriptures are true, that the gospel message and the things of the Spirit are foolishness to the unbelieving soul, and that he or she cannot even understand these spiritual things because they lack the spiritual capacity to do so (because the Holy Spirit is not there enabling them to understand), then why in the world do we as Christians sometimes expect unbelievers to act and think like believers?

Ephesians 2:1 tells us that until one hears and receives the Gospel message by faith, they are for all intents and purposes to be regarded as spiritually dead. It is the Spirit who brings spiritual life to a soul (through faith in the Gospel). This is why Paul just a few verses later says,

“But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions--it is by grace you have been saved.” Ephesians 2:4-5, NIV

If you are a Christian and you read this, it ought to humble you to ponder the idea that God brought grace to your life and made you spiritually alive – you were once dead! But this still causes me to ask – do I consciously or subconsciously expect non-Christians to completely think and act like Christians when they have no spiritual capacity to do so? And then perhaps worse, do I inappropriately judge them for not being able to act like I think they should?

One thing is for sure, when it comes to the natural world, animals and even humans act according to their nature. We cannot expect a pig to act like a cat. Furthermore, we cannot expect someone with a totally depraved nature (which is what all of us are born with) to act like someone who has been given a totally new nature through faith in Christ. The contrast could not be clearer in Romans 8:8-9.

“Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God. You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you.”

I’ve been thinking through the ramifications of this -- and I wonder if I have been guilty on more than one occasion of expecting someone to act in a way that is contrary to their nature. Taking this further, as a pastor of a church, another thought comes to mind. If there are people in the church who are not growing at all spiritually, could it be true that I have wrongly assumed that they are Christians when in fact they are not, and I am expecting them to behave like they are?

I suppose this is why it is important to never assume anything. It also tells me that I should be proclaiming and living out the Gospel both outside and inside the church. But I shouldn’t expect someone who has not embraced the Gospel to act like they have. I’m going to spend some more time thinking about this because I think it has some clear implications for how I think about and treat nonbelievers, and for the expectations that I may unknowingly place on them.

Ponder it with me if you would. My love and compassion for them ought to increase, that’s for sure. They are trapped (enslaved) in sin, with no capacity to get out on their own. I suppose this is why Scripture says, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!" (Romans 10:15).
But until the good news is brought to them and believed, we should not expect someone who is “dead” to act like they are “alive.” And we should not assume that someone who claims to be “alive” actually is “alive” if they are still acting like they are “dead.”

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