Probably one of the best things I’ve ever heard on how to relate to people honestly was from the movie, The Big Kahuna (1999) starring Kevin Spacey and Danny DeVito. I saw clips from the movie several years ago and they have stuck with me ever since. The movie takes place in a hotel room and involves three salesmen working in the Midwest. Spacey and DeVito are longtime friends and they have taken on a newcomer, "Bob." Bob is an idealistic Christian and he spends a good bit of his time trying to evangelize people. Spacey calls him on what he is doing and says that he lacks integrity for evangelizing on the job. After a blow-up between Spacey and Bob, DeVito confronts Bob about what honesty and character is. It is insightful and really spoke to me about my motives in my interactions with people. Do I care for people because of who they are, or because of what I can get from them?
For my more sensitive readers, there is one inappropriate word in the clip spoken in context. Sorry to expose you to that, but I felt that the truth of what was said here far outweighed any offense that may be given.
A few years ago, I travelled through Europe. I made a decision, thinking about what DeVito said, to not lay my hands on a conversation and try and steer it in a spiritual direction. I resolved to deal with people as people, not as evangelism projects. It was amazing. In spite of myself, I actually ended up getting into about 10 spiritual conversations with people. On several occasions, I ended up talking to people for hours about life and the conversation inevitably turned to God. I had determined to just be a human being, not a pastor or an evangelist. It was very freeing.
One time, I was hiking along the coast of Italy with a guy and he began comparing me to the guys that he had partied with the night before. He told me that I was much calmer and more peaceful than they were. Why? he asked. That was the perfect opportunity to tell him that my peace came from Christ. I actually decided not to. I just told him that I didn’t feel the need to talk all the time – that I was pretty content as I was. I had nothing to prove. Instead of thinking that I had missed an opportunity, I trusted God to do with that conversation what he wanted. We ended up spending the entire day together and we talked a good deal about relationships, life, goals, and the future. He ended up asking me how I knew that my wife was the right one for me and I told him that I prayed and God told me. Intrigued, he asked me all about how I could receive guidance from God in issues like that and I was able to tell him what a relationship with God was like and how it worked. We talked a great deal about knowing God as he asked me question after question. Because I entered a relationship with this guy and saw him as a person instead of a project, God used the whole thing in the way that He wanted and far more came out of it than I ever could have created myself. I have continued to try and minister this way.
I’ve found it much harder to have relationships with people like this since I’ve been a pastor. There always seems to be this religious barrier up between me and those outside the church, like they think I’m going to assault them with Bibles or force them under the water against their will in some type of extreme baptism ritual. The fact that as soon as people find out I’m a pastor I see them visibly recoil has probably been the hardest part of being a pastor for me. It is not that I don’t want to be rejected. It is that I hate the barriers that artificially seem to go up between me and other people. It takes a while to get them down as I have a lot of work to do to convince people that I am just a normal person desperately in need of God’s grace and love just as they are.
When I think about it, DeVito was right on the character issue as well. We don’t really have character until we can admit that we’ve blown it and that we were wrong about things. It is the regret and the desire to change that puts us in touch with our weaknesses and hopefully, connects us with our true source of life and power, Jesus. IF we humble ourselves and look to Him. I think that so many of us as Christians feel like we have to maintain our own righteousness, so we can never admit a mistake or be real with people who are alienated from God. That makes us look pretty plastic because we aren’t fooling anyone. Everyone can clearly see that we are not perfect. Why do we continue with the charade?
The times that God’s life and power have flowed through me the most were times that I just cared about people and was myself. Religion always seems to get in the way. Religion teaches us to see people as projects to "win to Christ" or "reach" because religion is all about climbing the ladder to God. We have to show how we’re further up the ladder than other people because our identity is based on where we are on the ladder. If we have our doctrine straight and we are in the club, so to speak, we feel better about ourselves, especially in relation to others. This kind of religion kills. But instead of falling into this trap, what if we got our identity from Christ and were free to just take an interest in people for who they were? What if we cared about people because they were made in God’s image? All people have desires, dreams, hopes, and fears. They all have families, jobs, and most just want to live a good life and make some small difference in the world. I know that we are all born sinful, but our doctrine of original sin should not cause us to despise people to the point that we do not deal with them as the human beings that they are. Jesus was the holiest man that ever lived – He was God and Man. Yet, He caused prostitutes, tax collectors, and "sinners" to be at ease in His presence. How? I really believe that He treated people with respect and that love flowed through Him. He didn’t have to rank Himself on the ladder in relation to others because He knew who His Father was and as a consequence, knew who He was as well. He brought the Kingdom of God with Him and people were drawn to the love and healing that He gave.
So, what I have found is that when I see people as people and not as commodities that I can use for my benefit, then I am much more likely to express the love of Christ to them in a way that speaks to their heart. Often, this happens more effectively when I do not have some grand plan, but rather, when I am just friends with people for the sake of being friends. God seems to move mightily through loving, respectful friendship. If you had to ask me, I never thought I’d get this kind of wisdom from Danny DeVito. He’s not a very "religious" source, is he? Who knew? I guess that God teaches us in all kinds of ways if we would just be quiet long enough to listen.