by Alex Duke; June 2, 2015
It’s the kind of image that takes your breath away, eliciting all sorts of panging emotions—aversion, compassion, and deep, deep sadness. It’s also the kind of image that will become a cultural lodestone for generations to come, like one of those classic Life magazine covers
It’s an image that crystallizes a national metamorphosis as much as a personal one. It’s proof of micro-evolution—of a man, a magazine, a world shedding its skin. It’s also an image that resists complacency. Once you’ve seen this magazine cover, you are without excuse. You are forced to choose: Are you now looking at a man or a woman?
The future tense gave room for breath, room for thoughts and prayers and well-postulated arguments. But that time’s gone now, so somewhere—and likely sometime soon—you will be asked, “Did you see that Vanity Fair cover? What did you think?”
Christians are called to give a reason for the hope we have in the gospel. We are expected to do so with gentleness and respect, with a clear conscience, so that the ones who are speaking maliciously of our good behavior in Christ would one day be ashamed of their slander (1 Pet. 3:15–16).
Working backward through these verses, we find a useful template for thinking through our response to culturally celebrated icons that stand in proud opposition to the hope we have in our Lord Jesus and his finished work in our place.
1. Expect disagreement at best, malice on average, downright hostility at worst.
Assuming you speak up anywhere other than the friendly confines of your church or Christian friend groups, you should expect to be found heartily disagreeable. Expect to be misrepresented and misunderstood. Perhaps even ostracized and belittled.
That weight you feel is the cross you’re called to bear. It’s been enjoyably light for so long, at least where I live, but that’s increasingly no longer the case. What once felt like floating through space will soon feel like walking below sea level.
But even in this new era, there is hope for the Christian. We can be confident that “those who speak maliciously against our good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander” (1 Pet. 3:16).
God will be mocked, and as his emissaries so will we, but not forever, and not with the slightest hint of ultimate victory. Yet our Lord’s unfolding plan is often surprising. After all, this same Peter wrote just a chapter earlier: “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation” (1 Pet. 2:12).
Our godly words and deeds will often be met with derision, but they will not always end that way. Here again, we embrace the future tense: a time when many present-day slanderers will exchange their shame for joy as they glorify God on and into eternity.
2. Whatever you say, make sure it’s true, gentle, and respectful.
Shortly after the Vanity Fair cover released, I saw two basic responses proliferate across the internet: undiluted praise and undiluted parody. Surely few of us were tempted by the former. But the latter carries some appeal. After all, these are strange times, and it’s right to want to disarm the unrelenting strangeness by giggling in its face, sneering at its narrative, and, eventually, meme-ing it to death.
But by God’s grace, let’s do better. Let’s not give in to a kind of deflective constitution that corners itself into being incapable of sincerity. Such a habit may win friends for a time, but in the end it will be shown for what it is, little more than cynicism with a smile. Instead, let’s “speak the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15). Let’s speak “with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience” (1 Pet. 3:16).
Part of speaking the truth in love means reminding ourselves that it’s unloving to stay silent as human beings—image bearers of God—languish in their sin.
So telling the truth means telling people that gender reassignment surgery is wrong, that it’s an affront to God’s good design. But telling the truth in love means saying so not via juvenile online jabs but over a meal or the phone, not through clenched teeth but sad eyes.
Telling the truth means telling the world what it just might already know: that no amount of surgical reconstructing or dexterous Photoshopping will re-make or beautify Bruce’s self-inflicted wounds on his way to becoming Caitlyn. But telling the truth in love means listening, really listening, when other Caitlyns tell you why their Bruces needed to go, why they always felt like impostors in their own skin until that skin was sovereignly rearranged and knit back together, fearfully and wonderfully made another way, their way.
Telling the truth means telling today’s prophets and pundits—those who call death “life,” who call tragedy “victory,” who are exclaiming “Peace! Peace!” when they should be crying “Ruin! Ruin!”—telling the truth to these people means begging them to lift their eyes and behold their Creator. It means begging them to put down their cameras and their scalpels and their keyboards and to recognize that with every flash of the bulb and stitch of the knife and stroke of the finger, they are more and more and more without excuse, just like those of us who’ve seen that Vanity Fair cover.
But what does it look like to tell this truth in love? Is it even possible?
3. Always remember: Jesus is Lord.
Peter tells these Christians, “But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Pet. 3:15).
This hope is everlasting, ever-increasing joy on a new earth with God our Father. This hope began with the forgiveness of sins, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the community of forgiven rebels in the church. This hope began with faith by hearing, and its final act will begin with joy by seeing. It began by being born again while still in our old bodies, and it will end with new and perfect and glorified bodies—our uniforms for eternity.
And in all this, our reason for hope is the same reason we can tell hard and unpopular truths in love: Jesus is Lord.
Alex Duke is the editorial manager for 9Marks. He lives in Louisville, Kentucky, with his wife, Melanie. You can follow him on Twitter.