Well, for starters, it’s awfully insensitive. After all, aren’t these the people you’re trying to reach with the gospel? Offending them from the start isn’t exactly a plan to win friends and influence people… So the argument goes. Is it ever ok for Christians to refer to unbelievers as lost?
I’ve noticed this trend over the past several months. There’s a growing sensitivity to referring to non-believers as “lost” and the reasons have every appearance of being genuine. However, the whole sentiment is genuinely mistaken. If you’re interested in seeing lost people come to Christ, going nebulous on their spiritual state isn’t the best move. In fact, the more clarity the better.
Here’s something to think about: Social media has created a world where people are nastier to each other than ever before. We are used to hearing insults, name-calling, and smearing on a regular basis. Yet, we also live in a world where we are completely conflict avoidant in person. Do you bristle every time you hear somebody say something even slightly controversial? I do. As a society, we trash each other when we can hide behind an online avatar and we serially avoid confrontation face to face. Something isn’t working!
The problem is deeper than the loss of digital deportment. I would argue the problem is not that we’re afraid to speak hard words, the problem is we’re not used to hearing true words. It’s even more uncomfortable in our society today to listen to someone who claims to know the truth beyond any reasonable doubt than it is to listen to an insult. At least you can dismiss the insult. Maybe what invites the feelings of queasiness isn’t the general negativity of a term like “lost” but the boldness (and social faux pas) of making a judgment about someone else. I’m convinced this is truly the source of uneasiness.
As Christians, though, we’re in the business of truth claims. We absolutely have to make judgments about the world. We have no other option. At the core of our beliefs is a bloody cross where a perfect man died on behalf of the sins of those who weren’t just lost, but were in outright rebellion. The gospel is a set of judgments about the world and about humanity. As much as we might want to hedge the terms we use and the phrases we employ, there’s no getting around it.
Now, that’s not an excuse to gather up the Jerks for Jesus posse and go out to wreak syntactical havoc. We should follow the biblical protocol. Here are a few thoughts on using the term lost:
The terms we use are not determined by people’s feelings, but by the Word of God.
Let’s start with biblical language. When the Bible makes designations, provides us with terms, or gives us categories, let’s use them. Why try to outsmart the Holy Spirit? Just this week the Archbishop of Canterbury declared that since God is a spirit and spirits are not human beings with gender, then God cannot really be our Father. This would be a perfect example of the irrational end of allowing modern social preferences to dictate the way we talk about God. The point of revelation is that God has revealed himself to us. In his infinite wisdom, the way he has revealed himself to us is actually the best way for us to reveal him to other people.
But what about people who don’t know biblical terms? Shouldn’t we use terms they’re more familiar with? This is my main criticism of Jonathan Merritt’s new book, Speaking God From Scratch. It’s one thing to say that society doesn't’ understand Christian language; this much is true. But it’s another thing altogether to propose that Christians stop using certain words. If anything, we have a prime opportunity to reteach our culture the language of God.
Our choice of words ultimately comes down to this: Would we rather use God’s words or our words? I know that seems simplistic, but let’s resist the temptation to overcomplicate things. God gave us a written book for a reason. He knew it would be translated, debated, and paraphrased. But he also knew that faith comes by hearing, and hearing through the word of God. Speaking the words of God is still the best way to accomplish the will of God in the world.
Jesus uses the word lost for non-believers
We should generally feel comfortable using the terms that Jesus used. In Luke 19:10, Jesus makes a stunning (and extremely comforting) declaration, “The Son of Man came to seek and save the lost.” If you know you’re lost, there’s never been greater news in the history of the world. Jesus is remarkably consistent on this point. The word lost is used over 25 times in the gospels and many times by Jesus himself.
A few chapters earlier, in Luke 15, Jesus tells the most amazing series of parables about being lost: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. When you read back over these stories it’s easy to see why they’ve been some of the church’s favorites through the ages. There’s simply nothing like being found.
\What’s funny is many who object to using the term lost absolutely love these stories of the shepherd leaving the ninety-nine to go after the single lost sheep and the story of the prodigal son who comes home. You can’t have those stories with a shepherd who doesn’t believe the sheep is lost or with a father who doesn’t desire his son to come home.
Here’s the important question. In the parable of the prodigal son for example, would it have done any good for the son if a Christian had come along and told him he was fine just the way he was? Maybe that one’s unclear. Would it have been right for the good samaritan to pass by on the other side? Or better yet, to look up the symptoms on WebMD and make a judgment call about whether or not the man would find his own way back to health? Of course not.
Jesus’ teaching is unbelievably clear. He came to save sinners, to find the lost, to send out his disciples to share the gospel with the world. Our primary job is to continue that work.
The word lost is a uniquely chosen descriptor for non-believers.
Obviously, no one just up and decides to be lost. The beauty of the term, as Jesus uses it, is that people who are lost don’t usually know that they’re lost. Otherwise, they probably wouldn’t be lost. They believe they know where they’re going. And there’s another layer. Once you know you’re lost, it’s terrifying. The beauty of the term is that it causes us to feel compassion. Jesus was also fond of the term “sinners” but when he uses the word lost it opens up a deep well of compassion. The heart of the Savior is to seek out those who are lost. Our hearts should be moved by the thought of wandering, stumbling in the dark, and we should be moved to action for those who don’t know where they are or where they’re going.
The goal of referring to people as lost is that they might be found.
So, if you take even an ounce of pleasure in someone else’s lostness it’s time to spend some time thinking and praying through the stories of lostness that Jesus actually tells. After the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin, both times, Jesus reminds them, “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” The heart of God celebrates when someone who was lost is found.
Never forget what it felt like to be lost. Remind yourself of the feelings you had when you first became a Christian. God loves the moments when someone is found, it’s one of the deepest qualities of his character revealed to us in Christ. He left his station at the right hand of the Father so that he could come to “seek and save the lost.” We too should celebrate when Christ saves the lost. Part of the way we do that is accurately and compassionately talking about the nature of being outside of Christ. Apart from God we’re all desperately and hopelessly lost, but the greatest news of our lives is that God sought us out and in Christ, we have been found.
The Lost World
Jesus was never afraid to speak harsh words under two circumstances: when they were true and when he was commanded. For all the good press Jesus gets today, there are many times in the gospels that people depart from Jesus, because he said really hard things! After he told the crowds that no one could come to him unless the Father drew them people got pretty upset. Look at what happened next; “After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. So Jesus said to the twelve, ‘Do you want to go away as well?’ Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:67-69). It shouldn’t surprise us that the same things happen today. Sometimes people don’t want to be told they’re lost, and they don’t want to be found. That shouldn’t inspire us to agree with them.
In the end, the conversation comes down to two things: truth and humility. Will we say things that are true? Will we have the humility to acknowledge our condition before God. There’s nothing better in the world than those lines of Amazing Grace, “I once was lost, but now am found.” The angels rejoice over one sinner who repents, over one lost person who is found. None of that happens when you never know you’re lost.
Cole Feix is the founder of So We Speak and a regular writer. Follow him on Twitter, @cfeix7.
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