Writing to Strangers for the Savior
Why do we write? Perhaps more precisely, For whom do we write? This question might be easier to answer for preachers putting pen to paper on a weekly basis: they write for God himself, to proclaim the truth, to expand the kingdom by delivering God’s Word unvarnished to a world in the throes of deception. But for those of us outside of the pulpit, the answer isn’t always so obvious. If it is, it doesn’t stay long at the forefront of our mind.
This is a reminder: If you are a Christian writer, you write for the Son of God. Jesus is your boss. What does that mean? At first glance, it might pose a problem to the writing industry: Jesus never put quill to parchment. The Word never inscribed his words on a physical surface, save his tracings in the dirt before an angry mob (John 8)—right?
In one sense, this may be true. But in another sense, it’s misleading. What is writing, after all? Writing, in a broad sense, is merely marking the world with your presence. It is a system of symbolized communication that externalizes our thoughts and emotions, inscribing them on a service, or pixelating them on a computer screen. Writing draws the inside to the outside; it places thought, sentiment, and argument on a canvas to be viewed by the wider world. And it tells the world that we are here.
This concept should not be so foreign to us, for the triune God everywhere tells us that he is here. He has condescended to accommodate us with revelation, in nature and Scripture. That revelation always and everywhere utters the divine claim: God is here. Just think of Psalm 19:1–4:
The heavens declare the glory of God,and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard. Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.
God reveals himself in a way that makes his presence inescapable. All of creation, it seems, cannot be muted in its witness to the ever-present God.
But this ever-present God is also omnipotent. He has revealed to his creatures what they can receive in a manner in which they can receive it. In theological terms, we say that he has accommodated us. And his most profound accommodation was not some part of nature, or even the words of Scripture, but his own Son come in the flesh: the eternal Word spoken to us and for us. And this is related to the concept of writing.
The incarnation is, in a sense, divine writing on the canvas of human history. In Jesus, God does not just mark his presence in the world; rather, he is fully present. Jesus is the flesh-and-blood manifestation of God’s presence. As Isaiah put it, he is Immanuel: the with-us God. Let me put it differently. If the eternal Son of God is the spoken Word of the Father (John 1:1), uttered in the power of the Holy Spirit, then Jesus Christ might be thought of as the written Word of God, infused with the life-giving Spirit as he walked through the Mediterranean world. And it is precisely at this point (the incarnation) that Christian writers need to pay close attention.
The craft of writing is a call to accommodate. When God wrote Jesus Christ into time, he also, as it turns out, gave us a paradigm for our own written communication. A vital part of writing as a craft lies in a sense of accommodation, a sense of drawing near to meet the needs of readers, to give them what they need in the manner in which they need it.
What’s more, the writer accommodates and serves not just readers with whom he is familiar, but strangers. And in a far greater sense, Jesus was also a servant to strangers. Though Jesus did help and serve those who were closest to him with unparalleled humility (cf. John 13:1–17), a majority of those whom he healed and ministered to were not his personal friends or acquaintances. They were blind commoners (Mark 8:22–25), wandering lepers (Matt. 8:1–4), imperial servants (Matt. 8:5–13), ailing women (Luke 8:43–48), and a host of other “nameless” persons. They were strangers who had no idea that the Son of God would cross paths with them. Though God knew every detail of these people’s lives—including when and where they would encounter his Son—they knew little of him. They were, in the fullest sense of the word, beneficiaries. Without any foresight, they received the written Word of the Father in the power of the Holy Ghost. This was the norm, not the exception. Jesus truly was the greatest servant to strangers.
Christian writers should bear this in mind for the obvious reason that Paul tells us we are to be conformed to Christ’s image (Rom 8:29). That image is, among other things, an image of servitude. Christ was a servant to strangers. In an analogous sense, Christian writers should be servants to strangers as well.
Now, for most writers this is nothing novel. Even minimally experienced authors know that most of their readers will be those whom they have never met. We type words and send them off to the vast market of communication, now largely on the web, but still in the print publications that circulate within our various theological circles. People whom you have never known will see how you have marked the world with your presence. They will gain access to your thoughts and perhaps see something of your heart, despite the fact that they know little or nothing about you. That has remarkable implications for the Christian writer. Here are just a few of them.
1. We should be open to correction and temperate in the defense of our ideas. The duty of the Christian writer is to enlighten understanding and foster constructive dialogue in a way that reflects Christ. Christ is the Word for us, and we live in an ever-healing dialogue with his Holy Spirit. Analogously, we should offer words for others leading to constructive conversation and self-reflection. The bit that is hard for us to swallow is the fact that this demands humiliation on our part. Christian writers are not high and mighty royalty who “descend” to speak with peon readers. Rather, Christian writers should expect and embrace their own rejection, scorn, criticism, and even mockery. The greatest difference between us and Christ is that many of the slings and arrows that come our way at the hands of strangers are well deserved. Christ’s humiliation and abjection was unjust; ours, on the contrary, is not. We are often guilty, even in subtle ways, of the crimes with which strangers (our readers) charge us.
This does not mean that we should recoil from writing, because God has a history of using the unholy to do what is holy. Our written words have a power endowed and upheld by God himself. Though we will often misuse words because of indwelling sin, God will still wield them to deliver hope, conviction, peace, and clarity for those he has prepared to receive them. And what’s more, God will also use the criticisms of strangers to move us along the road of sanctification. Criticism hurts, but God often uses it to heal. It’s just not the sort of medicine a Christian author looks forward to taking.
But we do not have a choice in this. There is simply no room for bravado and self-protection for writers conforming to the image of a crucified savior. I myself am immediately drawn to self-defense when someone critiques what I’ve written. “No, they’ve misunderstood me!” “They have different presuppositions. If they had mine, they’d know I was right.” “They haven’t read X or Y yet. Once they do, they’ll come to see the light.” Oh, the ego...One of the most important things I learned as a writer came from a small book by J. I. Packer entitled Weakness Is the Way. Late in the book, Packer confesses that he approaches every action in his life with a healthy sense of self-doubt. That is the way sinners saved by grace should approach everything. And if J. I. Packer can do that, then I think there’s more than enough room for developing writers to do so. We cannot enter the communicative marketplace with pride; we must enter, at every moment, with meekness.
2. Christian writers are called to be circumspect, for we do not know who will handle the words we craft. Engaging with strangers in conversation is enjoyable and entertaining precisely because we have no awareness of their history, their current struggles, their aspirations. They are walking question marks. But dialogue turns the question mark into a person; it unpacks, moment by moment, the concrete life and experience of another. And as we speak more with strangers, we learn what to be sensitive to, what kinds of humor they prefer, what sources of authority they hold.
We do not have this luxury of dialogue in writing. The writer has only one speaking part in the scene with the reader. That is all the more reason to get the part right. And getting the part “right” always means being careful in your reasoning, judgments, and evaluations. All of this is linked to word choice. When I write for counseling, I find myself avoiding the words “understand,” “realize,” and “consider”—not because there are any inherent faults in these words but because I know that readers of prose in the counseling genre are looking for solutions that apply to the heart, not just the head. Using words that connote cognition are not often effective in the sorts of messages that I have delivered.
Circumspection can be practiced in a variety of ways, not just through attention to word choice. In fact, circumspection can be practiced in a beautiful way within the body of Christ. Are you unsure as to whether your writing is eloquent, persuasive, coherent? Here’s an idea: let someone else read it, and then brace yourself for the first point: being open to correction.
Christian writers can always do a better job of relying on the body of Christ to craft their messages. We need other perspectives to show us how and where we can be more careful. Perspectives are always rooted in persons, so there is an element of community that should be vital to Christian authors. As I often tell students, “Good writing only happens in community.” That is not the most efficient way to write something, I’ll admit, but I believe it is the best way to serve strangers.
3. Christian authors have one primary audience: the Trinitarian God of Scripture. We all write for a secondary audience. Surely, we must account for that demographic before we start typing. But not many of us stop to think of the primary audience we have in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
One thought that truly humbles me as an author came when I was ruminating on Revelation 4:10. The twenty-four elders here are pictured as casting their crowns before the throne of God. They give all of their glory and honor to him. I imagined what it would be like to stand before the throne of God at the end of my life and fill a box with everything I’ve ever written—purged of my own sin. Pushing that box toward the throne of the eternal Father, Son, and Holy Spirit...It makes me feel small, but not in a negative sense. Feeling small is a good thing if you are, in fact, small. And every Christian author, no matter how prolific or poetic, is small in the presence of the Trinity.
And consider this: It is the Trinity who is Lord of all strangers. Writing prayerfully for the Triune God puts us in a better position to write for those whom he knows intimately. Our readers are strangers to us, but they are children to God.
I struggle to have confidence in myself as a writer. Perhaps you do too; so we continue to work hard to improve our eloquence and accuracy. But in the midst of that hard work, we must never forget that the greatest words we will ever write will be footnotes to the greatest Word that was ever written. That Word was a servant of strangers. Our words, at their very best, should reflect the accommodation and servitude that God has shown to us by writing his Son into redemptive history.