(Today’s guest post comes from a good friend of mine, Nathan Traver. In addition to being an awesome husband, a fantastic dad, and a real handyman, Nathan holds a Bachelors in Cross-Cultural Ministry, a Masters in Urban and Intercultural Studies, has several years of experience working with teenagers from low-income households in Cincinnati, Ohio, and recently took on the role of Youth Minister at Central Park Christian Church in Topeka, KS. Needless to say, when it comes to being intentional with how we communicate the gospel in a given context, his is a voice worth listening to. So, without further ado…)1
They say that 93% of communication is non-verbal. That means only 7% has to do with our words. The other 93% is broken down like this: 38% is communicated through vocal elements, and 55% through non-verbal elements (hand gestures, facial expressions, etc). I remember having a lot of conversations as a newly wed about what I communicate through my “tone.” I can remember situations where I wasn’t angry, not even mildly frustrated and my wife would get angry. The problem, as we worked through it, was not my words, but the tone in which I delivered them.
The tone of our words carries a lot of weight. They can create feelings inside people that we are not wishing to communicate. These tones can come across intentionally or unintentionally by the words we choose to use in certain situations and the way we deliver them.
For example, if I wanted to communicate to someone that they are doing something incorrectly and wanted to offer my assistance out of compassion and a desire to see someone learn something new to better themselves, the way I phrased and delivered my words would greatly contribute to the desired reaction I want from the person (to admit the difficulty and accept the guidance or assistance).
If I said for example, “you’re doing that wrong, let me show you how it’s done.” I communicate with my words exactly what I’m intending, but does my word choice communicate respect for the person’s efforts and offer gentle assistance?
If I phrased it this way, even my three year old would respond, “I can do it myself.”
My tone communicates that I’m thinking the person is incapable, and I am superior and can therefore show the way. It’s disrespectful.
Now, if that is my intention. I would want to keep using those words, but if I genuinely care for the person and desire for their growth and maturity, I would want to find a different tone.
If I were to say, “It looks like you’re having some difficulty with that. Would you like some help?” My tone would communicate my desire to help, by letting the person decide for himself or herself if the assistance is warranted.
For my three year old it usually results in a few more seconds of futile effort followed by, “Daddy, can you help me?” (of course, that all depends on how stubborn she is feeling at the time)
The phrasing of our words and the choice of words we use to describe our need for salvation can communicate disrespect or respect, devalue or lift up, belittle or empower.
Lets take a look at one phrase in particular:
“Jesus took the death you deserve.”
This statement is true. Jesus most certainly took the punishment ascribed as the end consequence of our sinfulness.
However, what does it communicate? For those in the church, the words have lost its punch. For those in denominations and faith traditions that have historically scared people to salvation, it most certainly makes sense.
Yet, for those outside the church, what do we communicate with our tone?
Well, what other phrases come to mind when you hear the word “deserve”?
“You’ll get what you deserve!” is the first that comes to my mind.
“He’ll get what’s coming to him,” is another.
The tone communicates, to me, the idea that a person is blatantly disregarding all authority. He or she is purposefully hurting or manipulating others for their own gain. These phrases are something we would say to a bully or about a bully. The kind of phrasing we would say if someone wounded us and wanted nothing more than for that person to get punched in the face.
So I hear, “You deserved to be punched in the face, you hurtful, despicable human trash. But hey, Jesus got punched in your place!”
First of all, this is horrible theology. It brings up tons of questions, like who’s doing the punching? To which the church would respond, God, which brings up other questions like why does God punch his own Son in the face? How does Jesus getting punched in the face take away the fact that I deserve to be punched? How is this just?
So what we are really saying is “God wants to punch you in the face because you’re horrible and worthless, but Jesus took your punch in the face instead!
Punching an innocent person in the place of a guilty one doesn’t make sense. For more on that read this and the six other subsequent articles.
Anyway, back to tone.
Using “Jesus took the death you deserve” would be a great phrase if we wanted to communicate to people who kill babies and molest people, but most people think they are “pretty good.” This tone, I believe, puts people on the defense against the very God we are trying to get them to trust. Why trust a God who wants to punish me?
What if we said, “Jesus took the death you earned?”
How does this phrase change the tone?
First, it makes us ask the question, how did I earn death? Which points us to the choices we have made, not to an angry Zeus-like God who wants to strike us down.
This tone causes introspection, which is necessary for a person to come to Jesus. The Holy Spirit speaks in our minds and souls. Introspection happens in the mind and soul. This tone sets someone up to listen to the Spirit.
Even if a person wants to defend their actions, it still makes them think about what they’ve done and sets us up to tell them the story of how God gave us a choice, life or death and we chose death and how his Son came down as a man, chose life, took our death to the cross and offers us his life instead of the death we chose.
This tone sets up God as the rescuer to a people helplessly trapped in our bad choices. This tone sets up a God who values his creation enough to save them. This tone highlights our responsibility to our bad choices and a remedy to erase them.
Which is better:
“You’ll get what you deserve unless you come to Jesus.”
“You earned this death, but Jesus can take it from you and give you life.”
I think I’ll choose the latter. It highlights the consequences for my actions without devaluing my value in God’s eyes. It speaks truth without making God out to be my enemy. It makes God into my hero, not my executioner whose hand is only redirected toward the real hero, Jesus.
Will people still reject it? Probably, but at least now it’s good news.
1: If you'd like more ado, just let me know. I could talk about this guy all day!