The Two Most Disarming Words

For a number of years a friend of mine named Craig Detweiler has been taking his communications students from Biola University and Pepperdine University to the Sundance festival of independent films.  One year the festival featured a sold-out showing of a film scathing in its portrayal of American evangelicals.  The film tells the story of a white-bread suburban family killed in a car wreck on the way to a Southern Baptist church meeting.  Upon their arrival in heaven a tattooed Jesus dispatches them again to earth, this time stripped of original sin, and they celebrate their new shamelessness by walking around naked and doing things that shock their friends and neighbors.  Eventually at a Bible study the Christian community hatches a plan to give the family an apple pie laced with poison, sending them promptly back to heaven.

According to Craig, the audience laughed uproariously throughout the film, relishing the depiction of Christians as repressed, intolerant, even homicidal.  The director enjoyed a standing ovation and then fielded questions from the audience.  Someone asked if any conservative Christians had seen it.  “I’m ready for that fight,” the director replied.

I’ll let Craig relate what happened next, as reported in his book A Purple State of Mind:

I struggled to compose my words.  My voice cracked slightly.  I eked out, “Jay, thank you for this film.  As a native of North Carolina, a fellow filmmaker, and an evangelical Christian…”

I never use the word evangelical.  It is so loaded with negative baggage that I usually attempt to distance myself from such associations.  But in this instance, it seemed quite right.  I was speaking for my community, responding to a particular stance we’d staked out for ourselves.  Jay stepped back, ready for that fight.  He tensed up, preparing to launch a counterattack.  The crowd sensed that things were about to get ugly.  My next words caught them off guard:

“Jay, I apologize for anything ever done to you in the name of God.”

The entire tenor in the room shifted.  Audience members turned around.  “Did I hear that correctly?”  They craned their necks.  “Who said that?”  Jay fumbled for words, not knowing how to respond.  He was ready to be attacked.  He was not prepared for an apology.  He offered a modest, “Thank you.”  The audience was literally disarmed….

Audience members approached me afterward with hugs.  A lesbian couple thanked me.  Gay men kissed me.  One person said, “If that is true, I might consider giving Christianity another chance.”  Tears were shed far and wide.  All it took were two little words: “I apologize.”

My students leaped at the occasion, talking to the cast and crew, inviting them to join us for further conversation.  Our “enemies” became fast friends, joining us for lunch.  The cast came to our class the next day, answering questions for an hour.  An actor admitted how scared he was to enter our church meeting place.  Onstage, he confided, “Coming into this building, my heart was beating more than at any audition I’ve ever had.”  The producer said, “This was the most significant moment of our week.”   A simple apology set off a series of conversations and exchanges about our faith and how we live it.

In the years since, Craig and his students have hosted the cast and crew of other movies that touch on spiritual themes, including some that mock Christians.  The writer of Higher Ground reported, “I was invited to speak at their rented church for a Q and A and it was honestly the most moving experience I can remember in a long time.  They were the antithesis of judgment…”  Experiences such as these help convince me that the approach of admitting our errors, besides being most true to a gospel of grace, is also most effective at expressing who we are.  Propaganda turns people off; humbly admitting mistakes disarms.  Far from claiming to have it all together, Christians regularly confess that we do not.  After all, Jesus said he came for the sick and not the well, for sinners and not for saints.

Leadership magazine reported on four complaints heard from spiritual seekers.  You don’t listen to me.  You judge me.  Your faith confuses me.  You talk about what’s wrong instead of making it right.  Pondering those complaints, it occurs to me that Christians often fail to communicate to others because we ignore basic principles in relationship.  Jesus, Paul, and John, and James each stressed one principle above all others: Love God and love your neighbor.  By not listening, by judging, by speaking lofty words that don’t translate into action, we deter a thirsty world from the Living Water that can truly satisfy.


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22 Responses to The Two Most Disarming Words

  1. Stephen MacLeod says:

    So often when I read your stories and your books something leaps right out at me.. Nothing so scary but so often your books contain great discoveries that cause me stop and find myself blessed. Keep writing Philip Yancy.

  2. Michelle says:

    Dear Philip, your books have been my lifeline since my wrenching away from ministry just over 3 years ago. Of all the experiences in my life that could’ve and should’ve put me on anti-depressants and at the very least, earned me a place on the psychologist’s couch, only my experience of total rejection and judgement by the people that I considered spiritual parents did. I grew up in the charismatic environment, the name-it, claim-it, frame-it variety. Right now, I am simply breathing in the Grace of God and keeping things simple. Jesus died for my sin, He is the Son of God, and God loves me. That is all I am capable of. The rest, well, I hope that one day it will all turn out alright. Until then, I will keep trusting in Him to lead me, and will keep reading your books. They ask the hard questions, and bring comfort in the most trying of circumstances. I am glad you still believe. Kind regards, Michelle

    It sounds like a most painful way to nourish spiritual growth but you’ve done it. You have hit bottom, and grace, like light, only comes in through cracks. Bless you, and thank you for the encouragement.

  3. Dianne McCallister, MD says:

    In the 1990′s, after almost 10 years with the title of physician, a moment of ‘forgiveness’ occurred on a Sunday afternoon at a Service Of Relinquishment which a patients family called and asked me to participate in, along with another colleague on the case. We stood at the bedside of a patient which all the medical science we could bring to bear was unable to change. The surprise for us was when the prayer asked that my colleague and I be given the grace to move beyond/ heal from this experience so we could take care of others that were sick. It was the first time in my career that anyone had acknowledged aloud that we, the physicians, might have an emotional stake in the situation. Many times I was at the bedside with a feeling that we had failed. It was liberating to be recognized in, and ‘forgiven’ for, my inability to cure.
    Out of that moment of grace, my career has changed. I am now moved in an administrative role, based on my call to be a physician to the physicians. With the support of my CEO, and the help of Lumunos, (formerly called Faith at Work), we have created a program of holistic health for physicians at our faith-based Denver hospital. The simple concept of the program is to allow a place for physicians to listen to one another – and be listened to. This experience seems to open up a crack in their 70-80 hour weeks that allows grace, and a reconnection with their calling to helping others, shine in.
    The results are real – lives changed, hospital staff noticing a change in collegiality with physicians, and a grace filled approach to helping those physicians who get off-center is moving into our hospital culture. We still have room to grow and improve, but the change is real and palpable. Listening and forgiving – each other and ourselves – does open the door to a new reality.
    In reading an article this month in the New York Times, “Physicians Have Feelings Too”, while serendipitously also reading What’s So Amazing About Grace, I am drawn to the notion that the idea of rehumanizing people – in our case, physicians, is a key concept to our program. Many physicians feel trapped in a healthcare environment that is changing, and in a role that sets them up to unrealistic expectations from themselves, and from our society. By listening to one another, and themselves, this program is freeing them to create a new reality for themselves, their colleagues and their patients; by apologizing for their humanity, and accepting the grace that is given by listening, they are more free to give to their patients.
    Thank you for your deep thinking, which is helping us shape our program for physicians.

    I am so glad to hear that Faith at Work is still going–I used to read their magazine faithfully–and that people like you are working to “humanize” medicine. My ten years writing with Dr. Paul Brand deeply affected my thinking, and my appreciation for what you now do. Thank you for this note.

  4. pooben naidoo says:

    Dear Mr Yancey

    I can only affirm this lesson by the life of Nelson Mandela who enabled reconcialation in south africa by creating the space for all people oppressed and oppressors to apologize for the excesses, suffering and humilation that we all endured during Apartheid.The basis of apologizing comes from sincerity,humility and love that intuits our common divinty. Your work is inspirational. thanks.

  5. mihaela says:

    Thank you Mr. Yancey. Yes, Jesus offended only the religious people. God’s lovers They never feel offended by Him. Thank you Mr Yancey for ALL you have written through the years. You are a blessing.

  6. Aster Dibaba says:

    Mr. Yancey,you have no idea how long I have been trying to get any information as to how I could get in touch with you.I was introduced to your books by my brother, who is now with his Lord.There are few of your books I have not read yet, I will find them and I will read them.I am a first generation American,I love this country,I am very thankful to God, for those Missionaries, that came to my country and introduced me to my Lord Jesus Christ.I could never say enough thank yous, for what they did for my little village,If that was not so,I would only be beggar, I am crippled from having polio at 8months old.But God saw me way out there and paid the price, not only for my soul,but also gave me a heart that only He could fix.Right now, I am burdened for my fellow Christians in this country.Where is God,when Christians, blast one anther in front of the whole world,just so they get to .be elected to an office,

  7. Paul Hinman says:

    Response to Mary Miller
    A year ago my wife and I joined the ranks of “the walking wounded from our traditional churches.” Although we have been married for 38 years and raised 5 children in a combined family, because we had divorce in our past, we were categorized as adulterers with no chance of redress.
    Our culture needs more ministries like yours that practice love, kindness, freedom, and GRACE. Because we were unable to find grace in church, we left. I
    have reluctantly come to the same conclusion as the Barna Group, that the traditional church is “Unchristian.” You can have my pew, second row, piano side.
    And if you need a witness, yes they do shoot their wounded, and no I won’t hold my breath until I get an apology. Minister gone AWOL

  8. John Little says:

    Great story about relating to those with sensitivity to the mindset of others. I remember in college, on an Applachian Trail, my friends of Christians and myself were asked if we wanted a beer at our campsite. I, as the “spokesperson” said “No thanks, we’re Christians.” The thought of that night still bothers me after 30 years. I would love to meet those humans who heard me utter those words. We need to be sensitive and human regarding the feelings and attitudes we portray which often reflect on the Lord Jesus.

  9. Kathy says:

    Remarkable story. What I find really telling is that when you scratch the surface of hostility or indifference with a disarming confession like this, you find an incredible, very tender hunger in people that responds immediately, sloughing off the hostility and the indifference as if they were so many false husks. It’s as if something deep within has been called forth. How often do we trample on this rather than draw it out? I wish more Christians would focus on how to recognize, arouse, and encourage this deep desire for grace/God rather than trampling on it by criticizing all the “wrong” ways in which it is expressed outside the safe boundaries of what passes for Christianity.

  10. Mary Miller says:

    We have been teaching grace to broken and despondent people for 30 years. Love, kindness, freedom and grace topple them from their own set of beliefs like so many 9 pins. Unfortunately, our ministry is mainly to the walking wounded from our traditional churches. As the saying goes, “The Christian church is the only army that shoots it’s own wounded.”

  11. Kelly Keith Dunn says:

    I did not grow up in church. My understanding of Christianity was that I would not fit in very well. The only thing I ever heard from “Christians” were angry words of condemnation – - that until I met real, authentic Christians. The difference was quite obvious from the very beginning. Their attractive winsome ways were enough for me to listen to what they were sharing. They earned a hearing from me. Long story short, I gave my wrecked and ruined life to Christ and have never been the same in the 32 years since. Today I share the good news with addicts and homeless men – what a privilege!

  12. Thanks Phillip. If we could only see the wounds behind the anger perhaps we could more often enter into meaningful dialogues with broken people.

  13. Nea L says:

    Philip, another thing that comes to mind as I read your post are the things we neglect to do for those in our care, those in our church communities. It is when members of our church communities are suffering the most – through loss, heartache, health crises, etc. – that we are called to reach out to them, to bring Christ to them. And yet so often we keep away out of fear. As one in ministry myself, I have fallen victim to ‘what will I say if I go and visit them’. We bring ourselves to our ministry, we bring our personal stories, our own hurts and vulnerabilities. Thus our fear often stems directly from our personal story and we’re unable to reach out because of those fears. We need to trust in God and just go and reach out to those in need. For it’s when we don’t that our community members can also be hurt.

  14. sebastiao carlos dos anjos. says:


  15. Bill Fleming says:

    Commentary here is pretty much superfluous. Great story. Great example.

  16. Lindsey G says:

    Great post! I can’t even compose my thoughts to figure out how to respond—
    yes, yes, and yes!

  17. Judy says:

    Thank you once again for an incredible learning experience. So many times we think we must defend until the end. I really enjoy your writings. I am currently reading “Prayer Does it Make a difference.” My husband is a Baptist Minister and just being in BC over the years I know we have been given the name below all names but in all fun I can say most times we have earned it. I remember when I first read “What’s so amazing about Grace” I bought several copies and mailed them to friends. I thought it was one of the best books I had ever read. One of the people I sent it to (another Baptist minister) has not spoken to us since. In this day and age when the religious are looking for signs to prove the power of God and the world is looking for something that agrees with their ideas to prove God it is so refreshing to know that the “simple gosepel” (no disrespect) has the power to confound.

  18. Kraig Dodge says:

    Great post! I just finished reading “What’s So Amazing About Grace” and this could have come right out of that book. I am convinced that we Christians need to change our ways to really mirror the way Christ approached the people around him. They missed the Messiah because they weren’t looking for they type of Messiah he was (is). If we can all be more like him — and apologize — they will truly see Christ through us. They aren’t looking for the disarmed, loving person who simply loves, not judges. That is what will get people to pay attention to Christ.

  19. Crystal Toegel says:

    Jesus offended only the “religious” people of his day. The woman who was caught in adultery, the woman who washed his feet, and others who were recipients of his violent grace were caught off guard by his love and acceptance. Good for Craig and his students for living grace that day at the screening. I applaud them.

  20. Don Albertson says:

    Thank you for all you have written through the years. How do we not judge and not condone at the same time. Is it as simple as “agree to disagree?”

  21. Lewis Codington says:

    No doubt we need to apologize more than we do. But Jesus and Paul offended people everywhere they went. It wasn’t their intention to do that, but the message they shared was nonetheless offensive to many people.

  22. Ellen H. says:

    Thanks Philip, for bringing this story to light. It’s more relevant and necessary now than ever! There’s nothing to lose and everything to gain by embracing humility and taking some ownership for the pushback we receive as Christians. I have no doubt that Craig’s gentle words opened many doors for that audience to see Jesus in a truer light. (He’s a good man – he was very encouraging to me during our LMCC film discussion series.)
    Miss you and Janet!

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