You Winsome You Lose Some

Danny Steinmeyer

The Call to Winsomeness

If you’re like me, you have heard the evangelical calls for “winsomeness” in our witness. But what does it mean to be “winsome” in the first place? My theology professor in college taught us that, “theology is the business of defining your terms.” “Winsome” means, “generally pleasing and engaging often because of a child-like charm and innocence.” Another dictionary says, “sweetly or innocently charming.” 

The picture that is painted for us is of a neutral world or of a world that has been the victim of mean and cranky “negative Nellies,” and it’s the fault of those sour-puss Fundamentalists. It seems we’re always trying to escape the dark shadow of those “dern Fundamentalists.” Anyway, the diagnosis inside our camp is that we are not effectively winning the world to Christ, in part, because we don’t smile enough and because we’re presenting a negative vision for the world by our ever-growing list of things that we are against (insert frown or scowl). The remedy for our supposed evangelical crankiness is the charm of child-like innocence and sweetness. Perhaps you’ve heard the refrain from some of your local pastors (or politicians), “We need to be known for what we are FOR, not what we are AGAINST.” It’s a modern proverb that resonates with many and is the go-to play for a winsome evangelical witness. But is this the play that God is running? Is this the persona that God wants to be known for?

The Prominence of the Negative

I am currently preaching through the book of Exodus, and I’ve told our people that we may never leave the Law in chapter 20 (I’m kidding, but I am taking my sweet time). It is wonderful, and we are growing in our worshipful understanding of God and His relationship to us. Before preaching through Exodus, I preached through the book of 1 Corinthians. And in these two books, a huge bright billboard is shining in the face of the winsomeness narrative. In Exodus, when God gives the Law to Israel, He puts on a tremendous show of holy awesomeness. The ground is quaking, there is a loud sound of a trumpet blast, the mountain is covered in a cloud of thick smoke filled with lightning flashes, and when God speaks, His voice is literally thunderous. We forget that the 10 Commandments were first delivered by the fearful voice of God before they were written by the finger of God. And when He delivers the Word of His Law, 8 of the 10 are presented in the negative.

For those of you in Rio Linda, that means 80% of the Law is about what not to do. God’s holiness agenda for His people starts with, “You shall have NO,” and continues with seven “You shall NOTs.” The 4th and 5th commandments are the only two presented and written on stone tablets in the positive, but even the 4th commandment includes what Israel is not to do, namely, to do any work on the Sabbath. Apparently, God wasn’t worried about a lack of winsomeness or positivity on the community survey. And if evangelicals weren’t so antinomian, you might get the impression of a “bait and switch” strategy, but I digress.

But in case you think God flips the script in the New Testament where God’s people are known for the positive quality of love, 1 Corinthians 13 should clear things up for you. Starting in verse 4, we have the description of what love is like in action. You probably have it memorized. Did you realize that love is described 7 times positively, but did you notice that love is also known for what it is not in 9 different ways? You remember the song, “They’ll Know We Are Christians By Our Love,” right? Yes and amen. By my homeschool math, however, that would mean that over 50% of our loving witness is described as what we are against and what we don’t do. Christians love by saying, “NO” to jealousy, bragging, arrogance, rudeness, selfishness, revenge, keeping a record of wrongs, rejoicing in unrighteousness, and failing.

So then, it turns out that God and the Apostle Paul did not present a dominant positive message of child-like cheerfulness. They couched the majority of their great messages of love in the language of “NOT.” They apparently missed the meeting about the importance of winsomeness, smiling, and being known for what we are for, not what we are against.

A Gospel Issue – The Necessity of Negativity

Over and over again in Scripture, God’s approach to the world of sinners is with a negative message of judgment. To Egypt, God revealed Himself and His greatness with severe judgment upon Egypt in the form of 10 plagues. All of them were negative for the Egyptians, but all of them showed God’s greatness and superiority over the puny Egyptian gods. Jonah comes to mind with the message He received from the Lord. Apparently, it could be summed up in one message of negativity, “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” (Jonah 3:4) When we come to the New Testament, what was the message of Peter on Pentecost in Acts 2? “You crucified Jesus the Lord and Christ.” (2:23, 36) 

The messaging, the imaging, the branding – may be delivered in negativity, but if there is ever to be good news, there must first be bad. The gospel of Christ only becomes good news to those who are first made miserable and mournful over the bad news. God is angry with the wicked every day (Ps. 7:11). God is against the sinner who abides under the just condemnation and coming judgment of God. For the world, it is all bad news. For Egypt, it was loss, devastation, and death. For Nineveh, the message was coming judgment. For the Jews, it was guilt for crucifying their Messiah. But the good and positive news is that God is gracious to save guilty sinners from His wrath when they own their negative record before Him, and they repent from the heart. If we don’t preach the hard message of sin and judgment, there will be no awakening, revival, or reformation. The good news is only good when the negative news is really negative. Therefore, there is no gospel without negativity first. And to the praise of God’s glorious grace, some Egyptians left Egypt and joined with the people of God. The people of Nineveh repented and God spared them from His judgment. And at Pentecost, over 3,000 people cried out and repented, and they all received mercy from the Lord. 

Our Brand

The Christian witness in the world is that we have come to join the family of God by grace in Christ where we are now against what our Father is against, and we are for what He is for. We preach the message of sin. We are anti-abortion. We are anti-homosexuality. We are anti-mutilating children, etc. We are against, against, against. The beauty of all 10 commandments and the descriptions of love in action is that they are all to be flipped over and viewed in their opposite as well.

You see, when we are against the murder of the unborn, that means we are for preserving and protecting life. It means when we are against homosexuality, we are for God’s design for marriage between a man and a woman. When we are against mutilating children, we are for the flourishing of boys and girls made in God’s image. When we are against rudeness, we are for politeness. When we fight against evil, we are simultaneously upholding what is good and pleasing to God. We are at odds with a culture that is under judgment, and we need to get over being concerned with how we think the world sees us. We live our lives cheerfully among the saints. We are joyful. We laugh, we sing, we enjoy God’s good gifts, and we delight in one another. We are happy in the Lord. But when it comes to the culture and the issue of its negativity towards God, we do not share winsomeness. We speak the truth in love which means we are against everything and every thought raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are for repentance and faith that leads to obedience in love. 

You see…negativity can really be positive when God’s truth is in it.

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