When People Become Abstract Problems

by Ben Hein

I’ll never forget a conversation I had a few years back with a group of Christians. I had been attending some atheist and freethinker groups for a couple of years, and I was continually impressed by the kinds of honest relationships and communities my friends in these groups were forming. I longed to see something like that happen except with Christians leading the effort. Since many of these group meetings I had attended were in “neutral” places like breweries or coffee shops, I was praying about whether I too could start such a group in a neutral territory like a brewery.

When I shared this prayer request with the group of Christians, one of them antagonistically shot back: Well what are you going to do once all these bar people are coming to your church!?

Yikes! (Note: This dear friend is now one of my biggest supporters of ministry in uncomfortable places!)

I was shocked. How could a professing Christian have such a strong view toward people they hadn’t even met? Looking back on that experience now, I’ve come to see how often I have similar reactions. It is so easy for us to deal with people in the abstract rather than as actual people, isn’t it? Some might call this othering – labeling and treating other people as being intrinsically different and therefore unrelatable to ourselves.

It is so easy for us to deal with people in the abstract rather than as actual people, isn’t it? Click To Tweet

This is often our first reaction when we encounter an issue or problem which we haven’t thought about critically yet. Having been raised in a culturally progressive home, I still react strongly to views held by lifelong cultural conservatives. I have to be careful not to react before thinking about these differing views critically and thoroughly.

In my own denomination (Presbyterian Church in America), we are currently wrestling through issues concerning how to minister to the LGBTQ+ community, how to navigate “social justice”, and how to empower women in leadership. Many of the debates I witness come down to changes in semantics and methodology: what is the language and terminology we feel comfortable using? Those who seem most flexible and willing to adapt methods and terminology are, from what I can tell, those who have strong friendships with people whom our decisions would most deeply affect. In most cases (not all), those who have the most rigid views are those who have the fewest relationships with the people our decisions would affect.

I imagine this was a common problem for the Apostle Paul in his own ministry. Having been called by God to minister to the Gentile (non-Jewish) people, Paul regularly encountered issues the other apostles (like Peter, James, and John) did not have to deal with. This is why his letters are filled with issues such as food and drink, circumcision, and false teachers who try to undermine the gospel and the message of justification by faith alone.

Paul records one example for us of how he dealt with this problem. In the second chapter of Galatians, we read of how Paul finally went to Jerusalem to see the other apostles after ministering in Gentile regions for 14 years (Galatians 2:1). He had been facing opponents for some time who were denying that acceptance with God could really come simply by faith in Jesus Christ alone. These opponents were basically saying, “Not all Jews need to become Christians, but all Christians must become like Jews.” They were insisting that Gentile converts to Christianity would need to keep all of the ceremonial laws (circumcision, dietary restrictions, etc.) in order to really be accepted by God.

These were issues that the apostles in Jerusalem were largely shielded from. They were ministering to a primarily Jewish audience, so they were not regularly confronted with the kinds of issues that Paul was – or at least not nearly to the same degree.

I love how Paul handled this trip to Jerusalem. He needed to meet with the other apostles so that his gospel would be approved and the views of his opponents would be refuted. So what does he do? He brings with him Titus, a Greek man (Galatians 2:3), a real flesh-and-blood uncircumcised Christian. The “false brothers” (Galatians 2:4) would have insisted that Titus would need to be circumcised and live according to other Jewish rituals in order to really be saved. By bringing Titus along, Paul was ensuring that the Jerusalem meeting would not be an abstract discussion.

Rather than dealing with our sin from afar in judgment, he puts on flesh-and-blood and deals with our sin in his own person. In his flesh he dies as one of us, in his deity he dies for all of us. Click To Tweet

During this Advent season we are reminded that God did not deal with us in the abstract. We are not an abstract dilemma or problem for God to solve. We are flesh-and-blood people whom He dearly loves. Rather than dealing with our sin from afar in judgment, he puts on flesh-and-blood and deals with our sin in his own person.

So Christians, of all people, have every motivation not to look at people in the abstract. Our instinct should not be to shelter ourselves from a broken and hurting world with our strong opinions, but to go out into the world, wading into the messy lives of people all around us.

If this is what Jesus did for us, surely we can go and do the same for others.

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