Discernment / Ordinary Life / The Skill

Babylon Series: Part 1 On Being Offended in a Pagan World

There is much to offend Christians in postmodern culture, and, needless to say, much offense is taken. In February I gave a workshop on being discerning at the movies. During the question and answer time someone asked whether I had seen Good Will Hunting, a film that had only recently appeared in theaters. I had not, I said. The questioner said she had gone to see it with her husband and another couple, but they had almost walked out of the theater because of the language. She explained how offended they were, and was uncomfortable describing the offensive dialogue they had been subjected to. The film had been highly recommended, but they felt personally assaulted as they watched it.

The offense experienced in such situations can be profound, a sense of violation so visceral as to be akin to pain. It is far from pleasant to feel you have been made “dirty” by the incivility and immorality of philistines who should know better than to celebrate things that in an earlier age would be ignored, or censured. It is bad enough to live in a society in which both manners and morals have slipped; it is an indignity to have one’s face rubbed in it. We simply want to enjoy a good movie with dear friends, only to end up offended by the film, angry at Hollywood, and disgusted with ourselves. And to make matters worse, we shelled out good money for the experience.

Indeed, there is much to offend Christians in postmodern culture, and much offense is taken. So much so, in fact, that the issue is worth examining a bit more closely. Some questions come to mind: Does Christian faithfulness in a pluralistic society necessarily include taking offense at unchristian behavior? Does a growing revulsion for sin accompany a growing love for God and his Word? If I am not offended by the dialogue in Good Will Hunting, am I being less faithful or am I less attuned to the holiness of God? Or to turn the question around: Is being offended by the actions or language of unbelievers a sign of spiritual maturity? And can taking offense ever become a barrier to the gospel?

If raising these questions seems strange, it might be because taking offense seems so “natural” a phenomenon as to be simply “obvious.” We rarely plan for it; offense simply happens. Besides, sin is offensive to God, and should be to us. Enough said.

But is it? After all, the Christian belief in the Fall means that our natures are fallen—we are sinners—which means that our “natural” reactions can not and must not be necessarily trusted. As we are known to repeat at Ransom, being reactionary is not identical to being discerning. The believer’s standard for being in the world but not of it must not be what seems natural to us, but what God has revealed in his Word.

A Text to Examine: Paul in Athens
The story that Luke records for us in Acts 17 is a good place to begin our study be-cause in Athens Paul found himself surrounded by people who did not share his deepest convictions. And there was much in Athens to assault a Christian’s sensibilities. Thus, we can examine the text to see whether Paul was “offended” by what confronted him in that pagan city.

Ancient Athens was a profoundly idolatrous place, and visiting the city affected the apostle Paul deeply. “While Paul was… in Athens,” Luke writes in Acts 17:16, “he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.” The New King James Version translates it as “his spirit was provoked within him.” Other versions render it “exasperated” (NEB), “strongly moved” (RSV), or “deeply troubled” (NLT). The Greek word in the text is paroxyno, which might ring a bell since the English word “paroxysm” is derived from it. It “originally had medical associations,” John Stott says, “and was used of a seizure or epileptic fit.” It is not surprising, then, that J. B. Phillips described Paul as “exasperated beyond endurance” in his translation of the passage.

Notice too that Luke is quite specific about what had so distressed the apostle. It was the idolatry of the pagan Athenians that Paul found so troubling. When Luke says Athens was “full of idols,” he uses a Greek adjective found nowhere else in the New Testament, and which could be translated, John Stott says, as literally “smothered” or “swamped” with them. Many of the idols and shrines were elegantly made by skilled artists, and filled Athens to the point that Xenophon spoke of the city as “one great altar, one great sacrifice.” Historian E. M. Blaiklock notes that the city’s great gold and ivory statue of Athena had a gleaming spear-point which could be seen 40 miles away. “Elsewhere” in the city, Dr. Stott says, “there were images of Apollo, the city’s patron, of Jupiter, Venus, Mercury, Bacchus, Neptune, Diana, and Aesculapius. The whole Greek pantheon was there, all the gods of Olympus. And they were beautiful.” But many were also what most Christians—and social conservatives—would define as pornographic today. The herms which adorned the city wall, Dr. Blaiklock says, for example, were “roughly fashioned with phallic attributes,” and “stood as protecting talismans at every entrance in the city.”

Certainly it is not unreasonable, then, to take Paul’s experience in Athens as recorded in Acts 17 as an appropriate passage to examine the question of taking offense in a pagan world. The myriad shrines and blatant idolatry—some of the most public examples being overtly sensual in nature—are clearly antithetical to a Christian mind and sensibility. Little wonder that Paul was “greatly distressed” by the experience.

The question to ask, then, as we seek to learn from and apply the text to ourselves is this: Was Paul’s “distress” comparable to the modern Christian’s “offense” at the behavior of unbelievers? Or to put it another way: Was the apostle’s experience in Athens parallel to my friend’s reaction to the foul language in Good Will Hunting? Paul’s faithful witness in Athens is a model of spiritual maturity in a pagan and pluralistic culture, and is worth a closer look.

Paul’s Distress Versus our Offense
There are three reasons why I conclude that Paul’s “distress” over the idolatry in Athens is profoundly dissimilar to a modern Christian’s “offense” at the behavior of unbelievers.

The first difference between Paul’s “distress” and our “offense” is that his distress led him to engage the culture of Athens, while our offense tends to lead to withdrawal. “While Paul was… in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols,” Luke reports. But notice what Paul did as a result of that distress. “So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there “ (Acts 17:16-17). Furthermore, not only did he not withdraw from the idolaters of Athens, he did not withdraw from the distressing idolatry. When Paul was invited to speak to them at the Areopagus he said he had “walked around and looked carefully” at their idols and shrines (17:23), and then went on to quote one of their pagan thinkers (17:28). In effect, he thoughtfully immersed himself in the surrounding, “distressing” culture. The Greek poet which Paul read and quoted in Athens was actually writing an extended paean of praise to Zeus. Yet this rank idolatry—to a Christian sensibility, blasphemy—did not deter the apostle.

In contrast, the deep sense of personal “offense” felt by modern believers usually leads them to pull back, to walk out of the movie, to throw away the book, to withdraw into the Christian subculture. Dis-cernment means, by definition, intentionally engaging the surrounding culture, actively engaging the literature and art of an un-believing world in which we are called to live as salt and light. Much of that literature and art may, of course, offend Christian sensibilities, but that is hardly surprising in a fallen world. The lifestyle, choices, art, and conversation of unbelievers who are sexually immoral, greedy swindlers, or actively idolatrous will likely offend Christian sensibilities, but Paul explicitly commands us not to separate ourselves from them (1 Corinthians 5:9-13). Trying to do that, he says, would require us “to leave this world” he says (vs. 10). “I have written you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people,” he tells them, “not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters” (vs. 9-10, emphasis added). To claim we will obey the apostle’s instruction to “associate” with the person while refusing to countenance their literature merely reveals how unbiblical is our view of both friendship and art. It also reveals our disobedience to the biblical injunction to imitate Paul’s example. “I urge you,” he writes in 1 Corinthians 4:16, “to imitate me.”

When an offended Christian withdraws from the surrounding culture he is not only distancing himself from the apostolic model and teaching, he is also distancing himself from Christ. The Incarnation represents the greatest and most startling immersion into a fallen world that can possibly be imagined. In fact, it is so radical that it is beyond our ability to imagine. When the Second Person of the Trinity took on flesh, he also took on human culture. He immersed himself in the surrounding culture, a fallen culture in a fallen world. John R. W. Stott’s explanation of the meaning of the Incarnation is worth reflecting on with care:

There was no aloofness about Jesus. He never kept his distance, even from sinners. He did not share the Pharisees’ false fear of contamination. He fraternized with dropouts and was criticized for it. “This man receives sinners and eats with them,” people scoffed. “Friend of swindlers and sinners, that’s what he is,” they sneered. They hoped to ruin his reputation by this whispering campaign, but they succeeded only in enhancing it. The nickname they thought dishonorable was one of supreme honor. If Jesus were not the friend of sinners, he could be no friend of mine—or yours. So he touched untouchable lepers and allowed prostitutes to touch him. He shrank from nobody. He offered friendship, understanding, acceptance, love.

Life in a fallen world, particularly in a pluralistic culture in which we are surrounded by those who do not share our deepest convictions, will not necessarily be pleasant. Much will “distress” our Christian sensibilities. Our calling in such a setting, however, is not to withdraw but to engage. We do not need to pull back in fear, because Christ is risen from the dead, and he has promised to never leave nor forsake his covenant people. Listen again to Rev. Stott:

We do not follow in the footsteps of Jesus if we develop a ghetto mentality, if we withdraw from the world into our evangelical monasteries (though we do not call them that, and they have no walls)… What we are called to is not “arm’s length evangelism,” but “incarnational evangelism.” This means that we have to listen before we speak, for, “if one gives answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame” (Proverbs 18:13). We have to struggle to enter the other person’s thought world, however alien it may be to our own… We have to respect his integrity as a person, and his convictions, however contrary they may seem to us to be. In a word, we must feel the pain of his alienation and weep the tears of his lostness, just as Jesus wept over the blind folly of Jerusalem’s impenitence.

By God’s grace may we seek a godly maturity that will allow us to shed our tendency to withdraw from the surrounding culture when “offended” by the behavior of sinners. Instead, may we imitate Paul’s “distress” which produced the opposite reaction, causing him to engage the culture of a fallen world. In this way we will honor the Lord Christ who took on flesh and culture in a sinful world, so that offensive sinners—like us—could be redeemed.

Second, being “offended” by the behavior and/or culture of unbelievers makes it difficult for us to creatively find points of contact and agreement, as Paul’s “distress” moved him to find in the idolatrous culture of Athens. The apostle not only thoughtfully engaged the culture and unbelievers of Athens, he unabashedly identified areas of agreement which he could exploit for the sake of the gospel. More specifically, he found two points of contact in Athenian culture.

First, his examination of the shrines and idols of Athens uncovered an altar which he identified as an altar to the true God. “Men of Athens,” he said as he began his message. “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. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.” Now, would Christians offended by the behavior of sinners see this pagan altar as Paul saw it? Or would we find the idols, shrines, and herms such an assault on our sensibilities that it would not occur to us that a pagan altar could be identified as an altar to the God of Scripture? (Would we even “walk around and look carefully” enough to notice the altar in the first place?)

The sense of “offense” is like a personal assault, and precisely because it is so personal, it tends to deflect our attention away from faithfulness to our own sense of hurt. The hurt and offense may be in the form of disappointment and betrayal at what is happening to our culture. It may come because, like the Pharisees, we imagine that holiness is separation from sinners, and that being with them dirties us with guilt by association. It may be a sense of revulsion when we see sinners not only enjoying their wickedness but actively encouraging others to enjoy it as well. Regardless of the dynamic involved, can we really justify allowing the behavior of sinners to so offend us that we shrink back from understanding, loving, and befriending them for the sake of the gospel? Where would we be if Christ shrank back from us?

The language in Good Will Hunting is indeed rough, but it is also realistic. The sort of people depicted in the film talk that way, whether we like it or not. When Mrs. Schaeffer heard of the discomfort and offense expressed by my questioner she asked, “Do these people not know any non-Christians? Do they not befriend any unbelievers? Do they really not know that this is how people talk?”

To be personally offended by the behavior of sinners is to forget or discount the horror of our own sin. It is also to allow a personal reaction—a deeply felt one—to arise at a time when faithfulness and discernment is crucial. The altars of Athens must not be ignored because we find idolatry offensive, they must be used as points of contact for the gospel. To use another modern example, What Dreams May Come portrays an unbiblical understanding of heaven, hell, and reincarnation, yet the film can be used to engage unbelievers in a thoughtful discussion of just those topics. To allow the mistaken message of such a film to so offend us that we miss identifying it as a point of contact is to allow our personal feelings to undercut our service. The same is true of Good Will Hunting. A remarkable film about relationships and meaning in life, it is very worth discussing.

The second point of contact or agreement the apostle Paul found in Athens was in the writings of the Greek poet he quoted. “God… is not far from each one of us,” he told the Athenians. “‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring’” (Acts 17:27-28). Paul includes two quotations here, the first from Epimenides (6th century B.C.), and the second from Arastus, a 3rd century Stoic author (who may have been quoting an earlier philosopher named Cleanthes).

What is striking here, however, is that though Paul quoted Arastus approvingly, agreeing with him, Arastus was clearly referring to Zeus. Think about it: Paul’s approach was creative, and for that reason, amazingly powerful. The artifacts and ideas of his audience’s pagan culture and religion was creatively (mis)applied by Paul to the truth concerning Jesus Christ. It is the subversive nature of this tactic that lends its power: an assumption of their world and life view (we are Zeus’s offspring) was suddenly revealed as untrue, not via challenge, argument, or debate, but through agreement, so that what was simply obvious to them was assigned a radical new meaning (not Zeus but God who raised Jesus from the dead). Paul was willing to agree with the Stoic poet, even though Arastus was writing about Zeus. Are we willing to go on record agreeing with, say, Woody Allen or Carl Sagan or Shirley MacLaine or even with a foul-mouthed character in Good Will Hunting?

Sin is offensive, but if any barrier occurs in our interaction with unbelievers, it should be the offense of the cross, not our being offended by sinners who act naturally, which is to say, sinfully. By God’s grace may we grow so that our “distress” over a lost world causes us, like Paul in Athens, to identify points of contact and agreement in the surrounding culture for the sake of the gospel. Allowing the offensiveness of sin to deter us from finding a creative opening for the gospel is a luxury we simply can not afford. If we invest emotional energy in being offended at sin, may it be over our own.

Third, Paul’s “distress” was God-centered, while the “offense” felt by Christians is self-centered. We have already noted that Paul had a strong emotional reaction to his time in Athens. Since he was alone (Acts 17:16 says he was waiting for his Christian friends to arrive), we can assume he told Luke about it later, underscoring perhaps, both the depth of the paroxyno he experienced and the importance he assigned to it. John Stott helps us understand the passage correctly:

The clue to interpreting the nature of Paul’s emotion is that paroxyno is the verb which is regularly used in the LXX of the Holy One of Israel, and in particular (such is the consistency of Scripture) of his reaction to idolatry. Thus, when the Israelites made the golden calf at Mount Sinai, when later they were guilty of gross idolatry and immorality in relation to the Baal of Peor, and when the Northern Kingdom made another calf to worship in Samaria, they “provoked” the Lord God to anger. Indeed, he described Israel as “an obstinate people… who continually provoke me to my very face.” So Paul was “provoked” (RSV) by idolatry, and provoked to anger, grief, and indignation, just as God is himself, and for the same reason, namely for the honor and glory of his name.

Little wonder then, that as a result Paul engaged them thoughtfully, refusing to withdraw, finding points of contact in their culture and world view to provide a creative opening to help them understand the good news of Christ. “Luke does not say that Paul was indignant or offended,” John Calvin writes, “but describes his unusual heat of righteous anger, which whetted his zeal, so that he set about the work more fervently.” Paul’s distress was not self-centered, nor did he see the Athenian’s paganism as an assault on his sensibilities. Rather, he was filled with a righteous jealousy for God’s Name, for their idolatry was an assault on God’s divine glory. And compared to that, one’s own sensibilities are not really of much significance. As a result, Paul not only did not withdraw, he was more deeply motivated to understand and engage the Athenians and their idolatrous culture.

This deep distress, “this inward pain and horror, which moved Paul to share the good news with the idolaters of Athens,” John Stott writes, “should similarly move us.” Why should we be faithful in evangelism and mission? One answer is obedience, since we have been commanded to go and make disciples. John Stott argues, however, that obedience, though good, is an insufficient motivation.

Compassion is higher than obedience… namely love for people who do not know Jesus Christ, and who on that account are alienated, disoriented, and indeed lost. But the highest incentive of all is zeal or jealousy for the glory of Jesus Christ. God has promoted him to the supreme place of honor, in order that every knee and tongue should acknowledge his lordship. Whenever he is denied his rightful place in people’s lives, therefore, we should feel inwardly wounded, and jealous for his name. As Henry Martyn expressed it in Moslem Persia at the beginning of the last century, “I could not endure existence if Jesus was not glorified; it would be hell to me if he were to be always… dishonored.”
For these three reasons, then, the apostle Paul’s “distress” in Athens over their idolatry is not parallel to the “offense” many modern Christians experience when confronted by sin in a fallen world. First, while the sense of “offense” tends to make us withdraw from the surrounding culture and unbelievers, Paul’s “distress” caused him to engage the culture and unbelievers of Athens. Second, because we are so “of-fended” by the behavior and/or culture of unbelievers, it is difficult to find points of contact and agreement, as Paul’s “distress” moved him to find in the idolatrous culture of Athens. And finally, while the “offense” is self-centered, Paul’s “distress” was God-centered.

Godly self-discipline is required to thoughtfully engage a pagan culture. It doesn’t take effort to be put-off by the behavior of those who do not share our deepest convictions; it is very hard work to find winsome points of contact and agreement in order to express the gospel in ways that can be understood in a pluralistic culture. It is relatively easy to be offended by sin; it takes true spiritual maturity to be filled with a holy jealously for the glory of Christ’s name. May God grant his people the grace to know and live the difference.

But What About…?

Good questions can be raised about what I have written here—some good challenges can be raised, as well. What about Philippians 4:8, for example? There Paul tells us that “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” Does watching Good Will Hunting fulfill that command? And will not exposure to such things coarsen us, so that we become less sensitive to sin and holiness? What about the need for good people to “take a stand” for righteousness and civility in a society in which both seem to be in danger of extinction?


John R. W. Stott on Acts 17 from The Spirit, The Church, and The Word: The Message of Acts (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press; 1990) pp.277-280, 286
The Acts of the Apostles: An Historical Commentary by E. M. Blaiklock (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans; 1959) p. 137.