Dear Healed by Wounds,
Last night I had dinner with one of my coworkers. He is a practicing Hindu and, as you know, I am a practicing Christian. Eager to show that I knew something about Hinduism, I asked him how he could worship hundreds of millions of gods? Like, how did he know which god to pray to at any given moment?
He surprised me by saying he is part of a Bhakti sect of Hinduism and is devoted to his own personal god—which may or may not include many different manifestations, depending on where his journey takes him. While I sat there trying to work it all out, my friend asked me if it is true that I am part of a tribe of cannibals since I eat Jesus’ flesh and drink Jesus’ blood during communion at church. Whaaaat?!
—Saved by Grace
Dear Saved by Grace,
I’m sure you’ve heard it said, “You should never assume.” Generally speaking, this is true. For example, you might not want to assume the student driver slightly ahead of you has checked all the blind spots before moving into your lane. The saying carries a lot more weight, however, when it comes to assuming another person’s beliefs.
One of the worst things we can do when discussing beliefs with other people is to assume we already know what they believe. This is one of the first lessons I learned while mentoring under “Walks with God”. It seems like you and your friend both failed to recognize this important concept during your conversation.
You mentioned that you were eager to show your friend you know something about Hinduism. This is good. It shows initiative and that you want to get to know your friend more intimately. On the other hand, it can show arrogance if you do more telling than asking. We like to appear to our peers as being very knowledgeable. I wonder, though, who we are really impressing when we assume people’s belief systems.
Ask lots of questions
Should we then continue trying to pigeonhole people? No, I think most people like to talk about themselves. Give them that chance. Ask them questions. Find out what they believe, how they came to believe it and why they believe it. Maybe you’ll even get people thinking about something they haven’t given much prior thought to.
We risk a lot by assuming each other’s beliefs. At the very least, we risk misrepresenting each other. And each person in a conversation needs to be clearly represented. As I’ve said before, clear communication is the best kind of communication. I believe most people understand this, but few people practice it. Everyone gets it, but not everyone acts on it.
Be an active listener
Find out what your friend believes. You already found out the hard way that people of the same basic religion don’t share all the same beliefs. Moreover, even two people within a specific sect or denomination of a particular religion can differ on certain points. If you really want to know what a person believes, ask that person specifically.
I’m of the belief that if you put any two people together in a room, they will find something to disagree on—and sooner rather than later. I’m serious. Find me any two people, twins even, who on the outside seem very much the same. I’ll observe them in a closed environment and within just a few minutes of asking them some basic questions, I’ll come up with a list of things they disagree about that might even surprise them.
If you want to know what a friend from a different religion believes, don’t just read his holy book
By all means, study up on Hinduism in your spare time to get a better general understanding of your friend’s background. But don’t assume he holds to every doctrine you find in books. Starting with your general knowledge of your friend’s belief system, speak with him and ask him what he actually believes. You might find that he doesn’t always align with what you learn in the books.
Don’t just read the holy book he swears by either. Read books by people who have researched his religion objectively. By the way, not everybody who clings to a specific holy book has actually read it. Some people swear by a holy book they know very little about. You’ll find that their actual beliefs aren’t always “by the book”. This seems potentially dangerous to me.
The suggestions I’m making work with non-religious people, too. You might have an atheist friend that you assume believes certain things that he really doesn’t. It might turn out this friend leans more toward agnosticism than true atheism. Again, it’s always better to ask questions. This is not some grand competition where everybody has to know other people’s beliefs better than those people themselves!
Ideas have consequences
Know what other people believe because you have asked clear questions and received clear answers. There is no room for a murky middle ground when it comes to the war of ideas. Ideas have consequences. And beliefs are ideas. Adolf Hitler had some ideas.
Among other ludicrous beliefs, Hitler thought he was part of some kind of superior race. I don’t have to tell you how miserable the world has been ever since that “stroke of brilliance”. I can only imagine how things might have turned out if all those around him from the beginning had clearly understood Hitler’s belief system.
Anyway, make sure not to hold your newfound knowledge over your friend’s head. This isn’t supposed to be the time to show up your friend! This is the time for you to get to know him better.
It doesn’t even matter that you and your friend hold the same beliefs as long as you understand clearly what each other believe. You can practice tolerance when you understand each other’s position clearly without needing to agree on every point.
What your holy book says on the subject
Well, now it’s your turn to consider how well you know the Bible, your holy book. Do you swear by it because you know it very well? When somebody comes to test your knowledge of Christianity, will you be ready to give reasons for the hope within you? If not, will your faith be shaken?
I’ve been trying to encourage you to treat other people with fairness and kindness when your conversations with them cause them to defend their belief system—whether religious or not. Unfortunately, I can’t promise you that all people will treat you with fairness and kindness in this same regard. Know what you believe and study the Bible.
Proverbs 18:2 says this:
“A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion.” (ESV)
Refrain from telling others what they believe. Practice “the law of conversational sharing”, i.e. don’t start telling a person what you believe until you have already asked that person what he believes. Remember that most people won’t care what you know until they know that you care about them.
Asking people questions is good! Showing them you care about them is even better! Once you build a bridge to somebody’s heart, you will be in a better place to build a bridge to their head.
Besides asking people questions to learn what they believe, make sure you understand fully what you believe. Today, specifically, be ready to explain the meaning of “Good Friday” to anyone who asks. Be ready to give reasons for the hope that is within you.
Until next time, I am, and always will be, Healed by Wounds.