Saul of Tarsus grew up in a box; a box labelled PHARISEE. His father was a Pharisee and no doubt taught Saul the rules of the box from infancy. In his youth, he studied under Gamaliel in Jerusalem. Saul was intimately acquainted with every corner of the Pharisee box and believed that God only loved those who dwelt in that box.
After Saul of Tarsus met Jesus on the road to Damascus and became Paul the apostle, he was finished with boxes. Nevertheless, he still understood those who lived in boxes and could not see over the top of their own box. This is the meaning of his famous statement in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23:
For though I be free from all men, yet have I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more. And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law; to them that are without law, as without law, (being not without law to God, but under the law to Christ,) that I might gain them that are without law. To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. And this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I might be partaker thereof with you.”
I don’t think Paul was saying he had become a chameleon who could blend into a box of any size and shape, with any shade of meaning. I believe he meant that he could relate to the people dwelling in all those boxes, the way they saw the world and their fears of stepping out of their own little boxes. His goal was to help them see that they were prisoners in their boxes and to bring news of salvation in a way that answered their fears.
We have all been raised in a box of some kind. Some have religious labels, some have labels that claim to be nonreligious or even antireligious. Nevertheless, every box has a fixed system of beliefs, a way of seeing the world and a doctrine of what makes life meaningful. Anarchists, radical environmentalists, street gangs, young people hooked on social media, all are in boxes, none of them feel free to walk away from their box and the other people in it.
When someone in one of those boxes meets Jesus and is set free from the box he or she has been living in, that person usually has a good idea of how to reach out to others in the box that he came from. But where are the people like Paul who can reach out to people in any kind of box?
This is a problem among evangelical Christians today. Most of them have grown up in a box labelled EVANGELICAL CHRISTIAN and find it very difficult to find words to relate to people who have come from other boxes. They try to welcome such people with a seeker friendly worship style and an accommodation to almost any kind of lifestyle. Yet many of these people never feel like they really belong in the Evangelical box.
I’m afraid that too often we forget that before speaking seeker-friendly words, we need to open our hearts to understand what people are going through in their life, what they are feeling, what is causing them pain. If others feel from us that we can understand, at least in part, their pain, they are more likely to believe we can help them find relief for that pain.
There is only one source for that relief, Jesus Christ, only one way to find it, and that way is narrow. Those who choose that way must renounce everything that will hinder them on that way and seek to live in the very centre of the will of God the Father. That is the way of a blessed and fulfilling life, but we cannot convince anyone of that with glib answers. If we sound like a telemarketer who has to read her whole script, despite the objections raised or questions asked, most people will just hang up on us.
How can we become like Paul, “all things to all men?” It starts when we realize that growing up in a certain box did not make us better people than those in other boxes. There would have been no need for Jesus to come if salvation were possible through living in a certain box.
Paul makes a remarkable statement in Philippians 3:8, where he compares the advantages of the box he used to live in to a pile of manure. Once he saw that, it was not a stumbling block to him to approach the manure piles where others were living.