Words By Rebecca Neudorf
I grew up in church. I spent much of my childhood signed up for just about every program they came up with. I even went to a Christian school during my elementary years. Telling people I was a Christian was second nature to me because it was my life. I was never ashamed to tell people I was a Christian because the only people I knew were those that believed the same thing that I did. Yet now, at 26-years old, I have never been more ashamed to tell people that don’t believe in God, that I do.
I’ve recently had the revelation that a lot of people don’t believe the same thing I do. The topic of religion comes up in some facet, whether I am with believers or non-believers, as much as I try to avoid it. I don’t try to hide the fact that I love God, but I do want to spare the way other people automatically assume I am going to judge them or condemn them just because of my religious beliefs. As I understand it, Matthew 22:36-40 says that we are supposed to love God first and foremost, and then to love others second to that. But, how do I love someone that doesn’t believe the same thing as me?
I have a friend who we’ll call Ella. We met on a school trip years ago. We bonded quickly and eventually became really close friends. Over time, as we built trust, she confided in me that she had several run-ins with the law due to a long and complicated journey with so many types of drugs that to this day I still don’t know what they all were. Her story shattered something inside of me. I saw her differently. I immediately assumed I couldn’t hang out with her because of her past and how it could somehow turn me into a drug addict. I didn’t want to be known as someone who hung out with an addict, a person that had been to jail before. As a result, I judged her very harshly.
One day she came to me in tears and asked, “Why do you criticize me so much? You treat me like I am less than you because of my past and the mistakes I’ve made. Why do you think you’re better than me?” That gave me the biggest gut-check of my life. I began to re-evaluate how I acted and reacted towards other people. I started noticing that the words I thought were loving, were actually more condemning and judgmental.
She wanted to get out of doing drugs and thought by having a friend like me, I could be a positive reinforcement for the rough journey ahead…and I failed horribly. She was using drugs to numb herself to the world, and I was the loving equivalent of a reoccurring papercut. I made her feel even worse about herself. Rather than let her know that there is a God that loves her in her pain, sees her suffering, and made the most unconditional sacrifice to set her free from her bondage, all I did was continue to remind her that she was a reject and because of her mistakes, there was no hope for her future.
I knew that only Jesus could change hearts and minds, so that wasn’t my job. It was up to me, though, to show people how loving Jesus can be. Jesus came to heal and set people free, but He needed me to be the voice of truth to help her see it. I had no idea how to actually do that.
As common sense as it sounds, I had to remember that I am a sinner too even if my sin looked different than hers. Repentance saved me, and continues to save me daily, but there was a time when I didn’t know what repentance was. I needed someone else to lovingly accept me as I was and show me what God’s love looked like. Someone who was able to look past my own brokenness and let me know that I was still loved, accepted and valued. That’s when my life finally began to change.
So, how do we build a bridge to begin a relationship with someone who has a completely different belief system? Or someone who has a completely different past than we do? Sure, we can point them to the Bible and start quoting scripture, but all that does is diminish any chance of making a connection with somebody or being the light Jesus called us to be in Matthew 5:14.
Jesus openly defied the Pharisees but sat among the tax collectors and sinners. What does that say about what we should be doing? If we have been called to be like Jesus, and Jesus sat among the sinners, speaking the truth, in love, isn’t that what we should be doing too?
Rather than looking at someone whose mistakes look different than ours—someone who looks so wrecked and damaged it doesn’t look like God could love them—someone whose life choices openly contradict what the Bible says about relationships and marriage—we take the time to get to know somebody new and create a safe place where we can eventually share about our amazing Creator who has this love, grace and acceptance for each of us.