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In high school, I lived in a city where I was by far in the minority as a Christian. In youth group, we were taught that we should pick someone who was not a Christian, and pray for them (by name) that they would be enlightened by the truth of the Gospel. We were taught that this was the loving thing to do. If we cared about our friends, we wouldn’t want them to spend eternity in Hell, and we were supposed to do what we needed to do to keep them from that terrible fate.
As an impressionable teen, it made sense to me. It seemed loving, kind, caring – all things I wanted to be. And then, the tables were turned on me. I had people tell me that they weren’t allowed to be friends with Christians. I received anonymous letters on my door from “concerned neighbors” who wanted me to know they were praying for me. They wanted me to see that I had been deceived, and that I was always welcome to join their religion.
All of a sudden, I was someone else’s project. And it hurt. I didn’t want to be someone’s project. I wanted to be a person, someone to get to know, someone to be seen for who I was.
When I graduated and moved away, I came to a place where I was in the majority. My college was a Christian college. Everyone in my dorm professed Christian faith. We prayed with each other and for each other. For the first time in years, I felt safe. No one was trying to convert me. No one was trying to get me to see how wrong I was. It felt like I was home.
And then God called me into ministry.
In a place where women were told they couldn’t do that. It wasn’t biblical. It went against God’s intentions for women, for families, for churches.
I started getting those concerned letters again – little notes to remind me that I hadn’t strayed too far away from God’s grace, but that I was getting dangerously close.
I wanted to try and put into words how this has affected me, but everything I’ve written falls terribly short. And so, I decided to write it as a letter to no one in particular about what happens when we make someone our “pet project” for religious conversion. If nothing else, I hope this will help all of us to think about how we treat people, how we interact with them, and what the goals of our friendships really are.
Dear Friend,
I got your message the other day. The one that said, “I just wanted you to know that I’ve been praying for you to see the error of your ways.”
And I had to fight back the tears.
Though you didn’t say the words out loud, it was almost as though you did. The words were some of the most painful words I’ve ever read. Painful because they say, “I care more about how you believe than about who you are.” Painful because you no longer view me as a person and a friend, but as your pet project.
I know that you and I disagree about a few things. I know that we don’t always see eye to eye, and I know you care about me and you worry about me. And I know that you mean well…at least I think you do.
But praying that God will manipulate me to believe the way you do doesn’t really seem to be about building up the body. It doesn’t really seem to be about being in relationship as members of the body of Christ. If I’m honest, it doesn’t really seem to be about me at all.
It’s about wanting the whole world to look like you do.
And it doesn’t. And it isn’t supposed to.
I understand that sometimes our friends and family get involved in things, and we have to speak hard truth into those situations. But we do it within the context of relationship. We do it when a person’s safety is involved. And we tread lightly and we do so in humility because we have to be mindful that our well-meaning intentions can end up doing far more harm than good.
But does that “I care about you too much to let you do this” extend to beliefs and wrestling and doctrine and vocation? Does the “I love you too much” clause of friendship apply to the way we interpret who can be leaders in the body of Christ? Does it apply to theological matters and ways we read Scripture?
Or is it possible that we can hold to diverse views and worship the same God? Is it possible that neither of us are completely right, and that we can learn from each other? Is it possible that the Incarnation of Jesus Christ modeled not only God’s radical desire for nearness to us, but also the way we ought to be radically near to one another?
Is it possible that the reason Paul used the imagery of the human body is because our theology should never become a mere cerebral exercise but should always be lived out in community, in relationship, in the way we live and move and have our being?
Is it possible that within our difference of opinion we will both arrive at a deeper understanding of the truth?
Is it possible that we can love each other and know each other without working to change each other?
I hope it is. Because I think the most dehumanizing thing we can ever do is make someone our project. Because people aren’t projects; they are people. People who feel and think and experience. People who love and want to be loved.
People who are on a journey and will finish the course much different from when they began it.
I know we don’t see eye to eye, and I don’t want to change your convictions. I just want you to see me. I want you to know me for who I am. I want to see and know you, too. And in that seeing and knowing, we can be companions along the difficult journey of faith.
Companions who may not always walk in unison but are moving in the same direction.
Friends along the journey as we seek to move in step with Christ.
I don’t want to be your project. I want to be your friend.