Faith / Scripture / Spirituality

On Being Misunderstood

I’m just a soul whose intentions are good
Oh Lord please don’t let me be misunderstood

[Elvis Costello]

Being misunderstood, especially by somebody you care about, can be very frustrating. I remember that the first time I asked Margie to go out resulted in a huge misunderstanding.

It happened like this—at least this is how I remember it. We were both students at the University of Minnesota, and though the U is a huge school, we ended up in a few of the same first year classes together, and discovered we were both Christians. So, one day I asked Margie if she’d like to go the college group at my church next Sunday night. Now she thought I was asking her on a date, and though it turns out she wanted to go out with me, she didn’t want to appear too eager, so she told me she’d have to think about it. Which was fine—I said she could tell me the next day in class. Here’s where the misunderstanding came in. What she didn’t know, because I neglected to mention it because it seemed unimportant at the time, was that though I was sort of interested in her, too, what was really going on was that I had been elected vice-president of the college group, and the vice-president’s job was to invite new people to attend. The next day Margie told me she’d be happy to come, and I said, great, I’d arrange for someone to give her a ride. She got huffy, told me not to bother, and walked away. I was clueless—embarrassing to admit, but true—totally clueless. Let’s just say it took a while to get that sorted out, but thankfully we managed it.

Sometimes misunderstandings, even simple ones over ordinary things can fracture even close relationships, and sadly, they can show up even when we’ve taken care to speak and act as carefully as we possibly can. Sometimes misunderstandings even arise around the very things we hold most dear and believe most deeply. Which according to the Scriptures is what happened to St Paul when he spent some time discussing the Christian gospel and the biggest questions of life with some non-Christians during a visit to the Greek city of Athens.

It happened like this. About 20 years after the resurrection of Jesus, the apostle Paul spent some weeks traveling with some friends in Greece. It was not, as trips to Greece go, exactly what you’d call uneventful. One of the first places they visited, in Macedonia, which is a province in the northern part of the Grecian peninsula, was the city of Philippi. In Philippi, there was a remarkable young woman, a slave girl, who had the ability to tell fortunes, and whose masters were making a great deal of money by exploiting her gift. She followed Paul and his friends around, shouting, “These men are servants of he Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved” (Acts 16:17). Which was true, as far as that goes, but was probably annoying, too. And she didn’t just do this a few times, Luke says, but in a marvelous understatement, writes, “She kept this up for many days” (Acts 16:18). So Paul turned and in the name of Jesus commanded the evil spirits who were holding her in bondage to leave her, which they did. Not surprisingly, when they left they took with them her ability to tell fortunes, which made her masters mad, so they whipped up a crowd in the marketplace claiming that Paul and his friends were disturbing the peace, and so to restore calm the city magistrate threw them into jail. Which really didn’t work since that night, right around midnight, an earthquake hit Philippi, tearing the doors off the hinges in the prison, and loosening the chains that had been fastened to the walls. Which led to the jailor becoming a Christian, his whole family being baptized, and the next morning the magistrate asked Paul and Silas to please get out of town (Acts 16:16-40).

So Paul and his friends traveled about 60 miles south down the coast of Greece to a place called Thessalonica, where Paul led discussions in the Jewish synagogue, until after three weeks a few people became persuaded that Jesus was Lord and Savior and were converted. Which some of the Jews did not appreciate, so they “rounded up some bad characters from the marketplace,” Luke records, and got them all to shouting, “These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here” (Acts 17:5-6). Which was, as a matter of fact, true. “They are all defying Caesar’s decrees,” the mob yelled, “saying that there is another king, one called Jesus” (Acts 17:7). Which was only partially true, but it worked and before long a riot broke out. Paul and Silas were staying at the house of a man named Jason, who was forced to post a bond by the city officials, and as soon as night fell the Christians sent Paul and Silas away under cover of darkness to a neighboring town, about ten miles away, named Berea (Acts 17:1-9).

And it started all over again. St Paul led discussions in the synagogue each week, a number of people, both Jews and Greeks became Christians, but before long word got back to Thessalonica what was happening in Berea, so representatives from Thessalonica arrived to cause trouble, and so as soon as that started the believers escorted Paul down the coast to the city of Athens, where he waited for his companions, Silas and Timothy to join him (Acts 17:10-15).

Once again Paul followed the same pattern he had set in Berea, in Thessalonica, and in Philippi. “While Paul was waiting for them in Athens,” Luke tells us, “he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. 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). And once again things did not proceed exactly as smoothly as the apostle might have wished. This time, however, the problem was that his audience misunderstood what he was trying to say.

Misunderstood in Athens
We’re told about the misunderstanding in Acts 17:18 by Luke who recorded the story.

A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to dispute with him [Paul]. Some of them asked, ‘What is this babbler trying to say?’ Others remarked, ‘He seems to be advocating foreign gods.’ They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.

The Athenians misunderstood St Paul’s message, and reacted in two ways
The first reaction was an ad hominem attack, calling Paul a “babbler.” The word in the original is actually a Greek word that means “seed-picker,” and was used to describe birds that scavenge for food by picking up bits of seed from the vegetation that litters the ground. The Greek playwright Aristophanes, for example, used it to describe the rook in his comedy, The Birds. The Greeks also applied the term to beggars—to those we might call the homeless—who lived off whatever they could scavenge from the trash. And in Athens, a city devoted to learning, discussion, and ideas, it was used as a slang-word, the ultimate put-down for a teacher who had nothing original to offer, but who picked up bits and pieces of knowledge from others and then tried to pass the conglomeration off as their own philosophy. Calling Paul a “babbler,” a “seed-picker,” was an insult of utter disdain, dismissing him as a being little more than an intellectual parrot, a lite-weight thinker recycling second rate and worn out ideas.

In the face of that ad hominem attack, St Paul graciously acted as if he hadn’t heard it at all. He must have heard it, however, since he was alone at the time, and so in all probability was the one who told Luke what they had said about him.

The second way the Athenians reacted to what Paul was saying was to conclude he was trying to introduce new gods for them to worship. “They said this,” Luke tells us, “because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection” (Acts 17:18).

To see how this misunderstanding could occur—how Paul’s talking about Jesus and the resurrection could be misunderstood as discussing new gods—we need help understanding the Greek in which the discussion occurred. The 4th century John Chrysostom preached on this text, and pointed out that in the Greek, the word for resurrection, anastasin, is feminine. It’s where we get the woman’s name, Anastasia—like in the animated movie. Apparently the Athenians misunderstood Paul to be talking about a male god, Jesus, and his female consort, Anastasia. After all, the Greek gods and goddesses came in pairs—such as Zeus and Hera, or Hades, the god of the underworld, and his consort, Persephone. Given that cultural and religious context, it’s easy to see how easily they could misunderstand what Paul was saying.

There is something else worth noting. John Stott points out that both times Paul spent time among non-Christians who were pagans—in Lystra in Acts 14 and in Athens in Acts 17—a similar thing happened.

It is interesting that both Paul’s speeches to pagans in the [book of] Acts seem to have been occasioned by a misunderstanding. The Athenians imagine two new gods, while the Lystrans think they are seeing two old ones! Could Luke be warning his readers of ways in which pagans misunderstand?

That’s possible, but one thing is certain: as we live among people who do not share our deepest convictions and values, and as more of them are attracted to neo-pagan beliefs and practices, we should not be surprised if we are misunderstood as well.

A postmodern misunderstanding
I would argue that the Christian gospel is being misunderstood today by our unbelieving neighbors and colleagues, and misunderstood rather badly. Like the pagans in Athens and Lystra, those among whom we live and work have heard and seen something of what we stand for, but the conclusion they’ve drawn is a misunderstanding of what the Scriptures actually teach. This misunderstanding is widespread and a formidable barrier to people’s willingness to seriously consider the Christian gospel. This misunderstanding is relatively simple to identify and can be summarized like this: To a remarkable degree the postmodern generation sees Christianity, particularly evangelical Christianity, as a markedly inferior moral system.

Many, if not most evangelicals are convinced that our postmodern world is, by and large, relativistic. Thus, we expect most of our neighbors and coworkers to be relativists, and so we often try to talk to them about how relativism is not a sufficient basis for morality and ethics. We defend the notion of moral absolutes, pointing out that relativism is self-defeating, since if everything is relative, so is the statement that everything is relative, which means relativism undercuts its own argument. The trouble with this line of reasoning is that in most instances it is entirely ineffective. The argument that sounds so powerful in church seems to fall on deaf ears in the public square.

There are several reasons for this, but I’ll mention one important one here. It is usually not helpful to approach our postmodern friends simply as relativists, for the simple reason that the vast majority of them hold very strong moral notions. Consider the movie The Matrix (1999) for example: few movies better capture a postmodern consciousness, yet the plot is finely absolute—Cypher is a traitor without debate, end of discussion. If we listen with care to our postmodern world the objection they have to our faith is that it represents such an inferior moral system. Please understand: I am not saying that relativism is an issue the church can ignore. I am arguing it is a mistake for Christians to imagine that most of the non-Christians we speak to are morally ambiguous, for they are not. Many are convinced we are morally inferior.

Think of it from their perspective. What system of morality would forbid two men or two women who truly love one another from expressing their love physically? Answer: an inferior one. What religion forbids one gender from serving its highest sacrament simply because they were born a woman? Answer: a misogynist one. What God would open the ground under the tents of entire families and swallow them up—including infants, mind you—merely because the fathers of those families had raised questions about the competency of the nation’s leadership, and then do it in such a way that his holy book records that everyone heard their screams as they were crushed when the ground closed back over them (Numbers 16)? What sort of environmental responsibility can a religion have if its God is on record ordering his people to hamstring the horses of their defeated enemies (Joshua 11)? What system of morality breeds a people that tend to be, by and large, rather negative and disapproving, and usually more quick to disagree than to agree? What system of morality insists that a moral Buddhist who is faithful to his wife is damned and utterly without hope, while Christian celebrities who leave their spouses for someone else can go on selling books or CDs in Christian bookstores?

As Christians we live among people who do not share our deepest convictions and values. Many of our postmodern friends object to Christian faith and morality, however, not simply because they are committed to relativism, but because they see Christian morality as inferior to their own. This misunderstanding must be addressed if we wish to be faithful in commending the gospel to our non-Christian neighbors and friends.

So, we are being misunderstood and St Paul was misunderstood. That being the case, seeing how Paul responded—I’ll identify four things from the text of Acts 17—will provide insight into what Christian faithfulness looks like in such a situation.

Responding faithfully when misunderstood
1. Take comfort. After all, if even the apostle Paul was misunderstood by the unbelievers he talked with in Athens and in Lystra, we shouldn’t necessarily expect to fare any better. St Paul was an extraordinarily thoughtful man, well educated, and from what we can tell, an eloquent speaker. It is a wonderful grace that this story is recorded in the Scriptures.

This is especially important because we aren’t just dealing with minor misunderstandings here, but about the most important issues of life and death. It’s one thing to be misunderstood about where or when to meet someone for lunch, it’s quite another to discover that our neighbor thinks we worship two gods, named Jesus and Anastasia. Or that they think our morality is so markedly inferior as to not be worth serious consideration. “There is no worse lie,” William James wrote in his Varieties of Religious Experience, “than a truth misunderstood by those who hear it.”

So we can take comfort that we are not alone, and that part of the reality of living in this broken world is that sometimes we’ll be misunderstood no matter how hard we try to be clear in what we say. What’s more, we can take even more comfort from the fact that God is at work in this sad world calling out a people to himself and even when the misunderstanding turns out to be our fault, his gracious purposes in history will not be thwarted. That doesn’t mean we aren’t responsible to communicate clearly, for we are called to be faithful. It does mean we can learn to laugh at ourselves, and to wonder at the fact that God chooses, in his infinite grace, to use the likes of us.

2. See misunderstandings as opportunities. Rather than withdrawing from or reacting to the Athenians, Paul engaged them thoughtfully. If we were to read with care what he said to them in Athens after the misunderstanding arose, we would discover he carefully sorted out the misunderstanding (Acts 17:31), while winsomely raising issues that prompted questions and further discussion (Acts 17:32).

That may not seem like much, but it is. To be honest, I find it far easier to simply react. For one thing, I don’t respond well to people who don’t listen, and I usually figure they’re not really trying very hard, so why should I? I am busy—busy enough that I resent having to figure out an answer to the notion that Christianity represents an inferior system of morality. The whole criticism is slightly offensive.

For the Christians such a reaction may seem natural and even appealing but it is wicked. We are called to be faithful, not reactionary. Faithful to engage those who misunderstand us; faithful to do the hard work of finding honest answers to honest questions; and faithful to see how being misunderstood can be, by God’s grace, transformed into an opportunity for further discussion.

3. Listen. And then listen some more. Francis Schaeffer was fond of saying that if he had an hour to talk with someone, he’d spend 55 minutes asking questions and listening, and five minutes trying to say one creative, intriguing thing that might touch them. That’s what Paul did in Athens, too. Luke reports he walked around examining their idols and religious shrines (Acts 17:16, 22-23), he read their religious books well enough to understand and quote them (17:28), and day by day he engaged them in conversation (17:17).

It is hard to listen. It is far harder to listen than to talk. To be honest I always prefer what I say to what you say—even before you say it. Once again for the Christian what feels so natural is simply wicked. We will not even be aware of the misunderstandings our unbelieving friends hold about Christianity unless we are willing to be quiet, to ask questions, to listen, and then to listen some more.

4. Be people of grace. What is amazing as we read this entire text (Acts 17) is that Paul never seemed to be put off by the reactions of unbelievers to his faith. If they started a riot, he kept on discussing with whoever would discuss. If they threw him in jail, he kept on discussing with whoever would discuss. If they asked him to leave town, he kept on discussing with whoever would discuss. If they misunderstood, he kept on discussing with whoever would discuss. And when they launched an ad hominem attack—which is always a cheap tactic—he graciously acted as if he hadn’t even heard it. What they said, that he was a mere seed-picker, an unoriginal thinker, wasn’t true and it sullied his public reputation in a town where being a thinker meant a great deal. Still, he demonstrated grace, granting forgiveness to people who had not asked for it. No wonder that wherever he went, Paul found plenty of people who were willing to sit and talk with him. Like his Lord, Paul treated every person as deeply significant and therefore worth listening to. He did not regurgitate memorized presentations, but always tried to address issues his listeners were concerned about with a winsome creativity that prompted questions and discussion. Such gracious conversation is always deeply attractive in our impersonal, busy, and deeply broken world.

It was attractive in Athens when St Paul visited so many centuries ago, and it remains attractive in our postmodern world. And it’s precisely the sort of conversation that is required if misunderstandings are to be discussed, examined, and resolved.




James quoted in The Oxford Dictionary of Modern Quotations; information on the meaning of “babbler,” and the misunderstanding about “foreign gods” from John Stott in The Spirit, The Church and the World (InterVarsity Press; 1990) p. 282.