Relating to Unbelievers
Recently I received an email from a fellow believer in Christ who asked me the following excellent questions, which I received permission to share with my readers:
“I have unbelieving, unchurched, unbiblical friends and family, and am having a particularly difficult time knowing what to do lately.
“I know my real friends and family are my brothers and sisters in Christ, and light has no business with darkness, but I have some questions.
“Should I expect them to be judgemental and maybe even hateful at times?
“Should I expect them to be unforgiving at times?
“Should I accept things and just continue living a Christian life and keep ‘taking the high road?’
“Should I expect these relationships to fade if they remain in unbelief, and as my relationship to church members grows?
“At a certain point do I give up and move on, or do I persist in prayer and love for them, in spite of their frustration with my faith in Jesus Christ?”
These are the kinds of questions that I imagine many of us believers wrestle with from time to time, so I thought some might find my response to this fellow believer to be helpful. (I changed some minor details to guard this questioner’s identity.) My response was as follows:
“You ask some very good questions. When I think of how we are to relate to unbelievers in our lives, two passages of Scripture especially come to mind:
“But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” (Jesus Christ, in Luke 6:27, ESV)
“If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” (Romans 12:18, ESV)
“The example of Christ our Savior is the basis for these principles, because Jesus loved us, prayed for us, persevered with us, and even died for us, even though before our conversion we were stubborn, obnoxious, rebel sinners. Having experienced His amazing grace in our own lives, He wants us to show that same kind of grace to others. The kind of self-sacrificing love He showed to us even when we sinners abused and crucified Him, that’s the kind of love He wants us to mirror to those who treat us like enemies. (And sometimes even our unbelieving family members and “friends” can treat us like enemies because we confess Jesus.) It’s a tall order, and not something we can do in our own strength; but His grace can help us mirror His love to others, and by doing so we show ourselves to be peacemakers and sons of God (Matt. 5:9).
“Of course, this does not mean you have to “like” the unbelievers in your life who treat you nasty or look down on you just because you are a believer. Nor does it mean you have to hang out with them all the time, or that you can’t draw some reasonable boundaries to protect yourself from being mistreated or to limit the amount of time you spend with unbelievers in your life who treat you like trash due to your faith, or who are simply unedifying to be around. But I would encourage you to: (1) Continue to pray for them; (2) Don’t cut off ties with them unless it becomes absolutely necessary in order to maintain your emotional and spiritual well-being; and (3) Return good for their evil. When they give you grief, show them grace. Overcome evil with good, just like your Savior did.
“As believers I do think our best friendships and deepest relationships will usually be with our fellow believers. I think God intends it to be that way. But at the same time God doesn’t want us to withdraw from the world or cut off ties with unbelievers. It is a good thing to have meaningful connections, even friendships, with unbelievers, as much as it is possible to do so without compromising our faith. There is some truth in the cliche: “You are the only ‘Bible’ that some people will ever read.””
To the above advice I would add that we who confess Christ as our Lord should make sure that we are treating the unbelievers that God brings into our lives with dignity, love and respect. They too are fellow image bearers of God, and we are fellow sinners with them who are equally in need of a sinless Savior. We are not any better than them, and have no cause for looking down on them. Apart from God’s undeserved mercy at work in our lives we too would be unbelievers. If they treat us nasty simply because we confess the Lord Jesus Christ, that is one thing. But if they are unfriendly toward us because we have behaved in an unfriendly, disrespectful or unloving way toward them, then shame on us; we should not be surprised if they return the favor. The bottom line is this: “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” (Jesus Christ in Matthew 6:12, ESV)