July 17, 2021 • Life for Leaders
Scripture—Acts 17:16, 22-23a (NIV)
While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. . . . Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.”
Listening to those with whom we disagree rather than being dismissive—and listening with the goal of understanding rather than merely arguing—can help us as we seek to understand and love those around us, and as we seek how better to live out and communicate the gospel in our world.
In yesterday’s devotion, we considered Paul’s sermon at the Areopagus (Acts 17:16-34). Paul starts that sermon by affirming the people of Athens, noting that they are “very religious.” Although it would have been tempting for him to ridicule or dismiss the Greeks and their pantheon of false gods, he found something about their culture he could affirm.
It’s easy to belittle those who have different religious, moral, or political views. In doing so, however, we build barriers that may prevent people from hearing us. Instead, we might follow Paul’s example, trying to understand those who hold different views, and looking for evidence of spiritual hunger, or wisdom, or for work God is already doing in their lives.
Today I want to share a personal example. Earlier this year I started a well-known book by a biologist with expertise in plant ecology. In addition to holding a Ph.D. from a well-respected university, the author is also a gifted writer. Although informed by scientific knowledge, the book did not read like a scientific text. It was full of both personal narrative and traditional indigenous wisdom. I found it beautifully written, informative, accessible, and moving.
The book also repeatedly expressed a negative opinion of Christianity. After a chapter or so I was tempted to put it down. Even when I continued, I found myself wanting to argue with the author about her criticisms of Christianity. Many of the points she found objectionable in her understanding of Christianity had more to do with American culture than the teachings of Christ.
However, I made a choice not merely to continue reading, but (to the best of my ability) to turn off my defensiveness. Instead of looking for ways to argue, or dismiss the author’s feelings, I would read the book seeking understanding. I’m very glad I did. As I noted already, the book was beautifully written: an example of well-informed narrative prose that could help me improve my own craft as a writer. I also learned about forest ecology, pond ecology, fungi, environmental history, and even edible plants. Had I refused to read the book because of the undercurrent of distaste for Christianity, I would have missed out on much it had to offer.
I would also have missed out on certain spiritual wisdom. Returning to Acts 17, one of the Athenian myths Paul learned about and referred to in his sermon was of an unknown god who forgave the people of Athens through the sacrifice of innocent sheep—and not because they somehow earned forgiveness through virtuous lives. That message, coming though it did from a pagan myth, sounds a lot like the gospel story of grace Paul was trying to convey! In fact, it may have been closer to the gospel than the attempts by many Jewish believers of Paul’s day to obtain salvation through the Law. Repeating (from yesterday) a quote from my friend David O’Hara’s sermon on Acts 17: “At the heart of [Athens] was already a sign to them of the love of wisdom, of human sin, of the bondage of law, and of the grace and healing of God.”
I found similar examples of wisdom in the book I read this year. The author spoke repeatedly of receiving bounty from the earth with an attitude of thankfulness; of the importance of generosity rather than hoarding; and of caring for creation rather than practicing exploitation and greed. The author put these ideas forth as indigenous wisdom, coming from native creation myths. Yet in many ways that wisdom is closer to Christian truth than the consumerism and materialism that is prevalent in our culture, and which too often finds its way into western Christianity—in much the same way that the Athenian story of the unknown god gets closer to the gospel than legalistic slavery to the Law. Not surprisingly, as he had done with the Greeks, God seems also to have been revealing himself to the peoples of North America through their own creation stories.
A final and perhaps most important reflection. Reading the book, I began to understand why the author had a negative opinion of Christianity. She was from a native people who had suffered tremendously at the hands of European Americans, often in the name of Christianity. The Christian church had been complicit in the horrible treatment of her family. What she had experienced of American Christianity exhibited little of love, or of the generosity and gratitude her native traditions had taught her to practice.
Though I grieve at her experience, I can’t blame her. Reading her book helped me know better how to understand and love others with similar experiences. It helped me to know how the Christian church in my country needs to repent of past (and present) actions. And ultimately—as I think was the case for Paul when he paid attention to Athenian culture—it helps me better know how to live and communicate the gospel in the world in which I live.
When somebody expresses a belief or idea that differs from yours on an issue you consider important—for example religious, moral, or political ideas—is your first instinct to argue with them? To stop listening? Or to try to understand them?
How do you feel when somebody whom you know has different beliefs than you takes the time to listen to you? Have you ever had an experience where you just listened to somebody else and sought to understand them? What happened?
Consider reading a book written by somebody with very different beliefs, or cultural experiences, or ethnic background than you have. Try to read the book in order to understand, rather than to mentally argue with different ideas.
Try that also with somebody you know personally—not just with a book.
Thank you, Lord, for how you make yourself known, revealing truth and wisdom in many places and many cultures throughout the world. Thank you especially for revealing yourself in the person of Jesus Christ, through whom we can know you more fully and personally.
Even as we thank you for what you have, we also confess the many times we have failed to listen to others, and repent of the ways our treatment of others has harmed the witness of the church.
Give me a deeper understanding of those around me that will enable me to build bridges rather than walls. Amen.
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Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project. Reflection on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: The Intellectual Damaris (Acts 17:17)
Matthew Dickerson’s books include works of spiritual theology and Christian apologetics as well as historical fiction, fantasy literature, explorations of the writings of C.S.Lewis and J.R.R.Tolkien, and books about trout fishing, fly fishing, rivers, and ecology. His recent books include: Disciple Making in a Culture of Power, Comfort, and Fear and The Voices of Rivers: Reflections on Places Wild and Almost Wild. He was a 2017 artist-in-residence at Glacier National Park. He lives in Vermont with his wife, dog, and cat, not far from three married sons, and is an active member of Memorial Baptist Church. Matthew is also a professor of computer science at Middlebury College in Vermont.