The words “offended” and “offensive” carry a lot of weight, a lot of cultural currency, in our day and place. For most 21st century Americans, if someone tells you what you just said was “offensive,” the conversation stops, your heart speeds up, your palms get a little sweaty. You just did something terrible, and you’re about to be the office/family/neighborhood pariah. If you don’t apologize or walk it back quickly and rightly, you will be culturally radioactive. Contaminated. An untouchable numbskull. A brute, a dolt.
We’re told in John 3 about Jesus’ coming in to the world that “this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.”
People often hate good things. We are often offended by the light because we don’t want our sinful deeds and loves exposed.
So the fact that something is offensive does not mean it is wrong. The problem, the malfunction, can lie within the one being offended.
How can you know if this is the case?
1) When what is offending him or her is good, beautiful, and true.
If it offends me that Jesus Christ is the rightful King of the Universe, and that I am morally obligated to bend my knees before Him and be joyful about it, then the problem is with me. If it offends me that there is only one God and that He deserves and is worthy of all the worship in the universe, the problem is with me. If it offends me that the new Heaven and new Earth will be filled with forgiven, faithful saints of all races and all languages, there is something wrong in me.
There are times where I am offended by forgiveness. The fact that I am told by Christ to repeatedly forgive those who wrong me, and that if I refuse I might be displaying that I never knew Him or that at the very least I am not resting in His forgiveness, is at times an offense to my bitterness. The problem isn’t with forgiveness, or with God for commanding it.
Antibiotics are offensive to bacteria; good and healthy things are often offensive to bad, damaged, or mutated ones. Mercy is offensive to my grudge-holding, forgiveness offensive to my desire to gossip, worship offensive to my desire to idolize people or things because I still have sin lurking in my heart.
God has told us that many things are good which, at one time or another, in one place or another, have offended people:
-That the Gospel is for Gentiles, too.
-That divorce (apart from extreme circumstances) is sinful and against the will of God.
-That He will resurrect the all the bodies of believers in Jesus who have died.
-That wives should submit to their husbands and not teach or have authority over men in churches.
-That men should sacrifice for and lead their wives in love and holiness.
-That it is sinful and harmful for men to pursue sex and romance with other men, and for women to do so with other women.
-That it is good and beautiful for a man to pursue sex and romance with one woman in faithfulness and marriage.
-That Christ-followers have a responsibility to live like Christ-followers, and to not commit sexual sins, be drunkards, be given to much anger, etc.
Each of the things in this tiny, impossibly limited list are offensive to some people. But spoken and lived the way God commands and teaches them in His Son and His Word, they are wonderful, life-giving, God-honoring truths. If a good thing is offensive, the problem is, in some form or fashion, with the one being offended. Christians can and should address such people and situations with mercy, but also should understand that altering the Word is not an option. God’s Word is wonderfully true. It is beautiful, accurate, and the most reliable source of knowledge and goodness there is.
2) When the person has a long or regular history of being offended.
This one is different from the above one in that it is not universally true. Number 1 is always true: if a good thing offends someone, something is definitely wrong in his or her heart, soul, or body. But this second marker is not necessarily true, not always the case. Someone could be regularly offended in a legitimate way by something truly wicked, nasty, or evil. That said, in a workplace or a family there are often people who feel slighted, wronged, or become outraged at virtually anything. Being told by such a person that what you have said is offensive is still a bit scary, but it usually becomes more and more difficult to take the person seriously. If they really are unreasonably thin-skinned, then I think that’s actually okay.
Again, address such a person mercifully, and remember that those of us who know Christ are commanded not repay evil for evil (Romans 12:17) and are to turn the other cheek when slapped (Matthew 5:38, and being told you have just said something offensive in the middle of Thanksgiving dinner can feel like a slap). But if he is unable to give family or co-workers or friends the benefit of the doubt, if he is unable to forgive words he perceives as wrong or careless (whether they truly are or not), then there is a wrinkle in his own heart that needs to be ironed out.
3) If the person is only ever offended by things that (relatively speaking) impact him or her.
Have you ever met someone who was greatly offended by the idea that the Bible says men should honor their wives as the weaker vessel? I have. And the person I’m thinking of was a man. Admittedly there’s some overlap with number one, here, but allow me a bit of space to explain the nature of this sort of offense.
It wasn’t that wives should submit to their husbands that bothered this man, it was that I told him (lovingly, I think) that he shouldn’t say mean-spirited things about his ex-wife. That the way a man treated women, the way a man spoke about the mother of his children and the wife of his youth, mattered to God. That same man was offended when I told him at a different point that the Gospel was for all races, and that one of the first Gentiles who believed and was baptized in the book of Acts was an Ethiopian.
He was offended because what I was telling him would hinder his bitterness toward his ex-wife and his anger towards African Americans.
This man, a man whom I befriended and care about and tried to share Christ with on numerous occasions, was offended, but not by violence, poverty, oppression, or wickedness that harmed other people. It was almost exclusively hurtful things done or spoken against him that he was offended by.
This third barometer can work even with actual sins committed against us, not just the Word of God being pressed against our twisted hearts. If I am only ever offended by slander when it’s done against me, then even though slander is a sin against God I am revealing that there is something wrong within me. If I am only ever bothered by deceit when I’m the one being lied to, I am not healthily hoping for righteousness and a good world.
If my heart is in line with the God of Scripture, the God of Jesus Christ, I should be offended by:
-The murder of infants in their mothers’ wombs
-Famine and poverty all over the world
-Abuse of the weak, fatherless, widow, or foreigner
-Idolatry in my own heart
-Rampant sin among people claiming to know Jesus Christ
Again, that’s a very limited list, there, but it demonstrates concerns that should be on the hearts of those who love what God loves and hate what God hates.
What we are offended by reveals a great deal about ourselves. It is an open, indisputable display of what we value. What thing, person, relationship, or idea we treasure, prize, and find our identity in. Do I prize my reputation? I’ll be offended when it is tarnished. Do I treasure my political views and political identity? I’ll be frustrated when they are assaulted. Do I value my children? I’ll feel an irritation when something comes against them. Whether it’s a good thing or sin, a beautiful thing we should love (though we perhaps might love too much) or an evil thing we shouldn’t love at all, our hearts’ treasures are very often revealed by what offends us.
I’ll close with an anecdote. I was sitting with a genuinely Jesus-loving, Jesus-following young man a few weeks ago. He was talking about a manger scene here in the Cincinnati area that had received quite a bit of notoriety this past Christmas. The owner of a home in one of our eastern city suburbs, I would imagine for shock value or (less likely) out of a misguided sense of harmless fun decided to put up a mock manger scene in which the “characters” were horrific zombies. The young man was telling me about this, and I was just listening to him, not particularly moved in one direction or the other. Towards the end of his description I was probably getting my aresenal of opinions ready, backed up by the first applicable Scripture I could think of, ready to pounce with a position and defend it with rhetoric. But then he did something that was, quite honestly, beautifully refreshing to a flawed and often false man like me.
As he finished telling about the crib in this mocking manger scene, the place where normally a little statue or a doll representing the baby Jesus Christ would be, but had in this man’s creation been replaced by a gory zombie replica, his face stiffened. His eyes flickered that serious combination of sadness and anger you get when you’re genuinely mad at some nasty violation of goodness in the world. When something awful and wrong has been done, and you want it to stop. Then he said, plainly and with no pretense, “That’s my God.”
He wasn’t debating whether such a thing should be legal or restricted. He wasn’t arguing the moral decay of a country that might be the cause of such behavior. Such debates and dialogues have places, but they weren’t the sort of thing that was spilling from his heart and prompting the authentic, visceral anguish in him as he sat across the table from me. They weren’t what I find so refreshing in this memory.
He simply treasured the King, Jesus Christ, and so it offended him to see Him mocked.
I love that imperfect, still-being-sanctified young man’s heart. I love it. I want to emulate it.
His offense revealed what He loved. And in this case the problem was not with him, because he loved, he adored, the thing most worthy of that affection in the entire universe.
His offense was noble because his treasure was true.