As Christians, we are called to live as holy—set apart—people. But being “set apart” doesn’t mean that we should remove ourselves from society. Rather, we are set apart by living in step with the Spirit instead of in step with the world, even as we live, physically, among the people of the world.
So does that mean that God is only concerned with the activities of believers, or does He work with and through non-believers also? Can God speak to us through non-believers or otherwise use them to carry out His plans?
God can and does work through non-believers in different ways. As Christians, we are encouraged to engage with non-believers not only for the sake of witnessing to them but for our own edification as well.
Interacting with Non-Believers
Through our work, our schools, neighborhoods, and even families, we are in constant contact with non-believers. And as Christians, it is important that we remain mindful not only of our actions but also of the fact that God often puts specific people—even non-believers—into our lives for a purpose.
The Bible is full of examples where God worked or spoke through non-believers. Let’s examine a few as we prepare to apply some basic principles to our own interactions.
Non-Believers in the Bible
Even though the Bible is the story of God’s activity in and through His people, He regularly worked through non-believers to achieve His purposes.
The Exodus is the story of God’s people being rescued from oppression by the non-believing Egyptians. Even though Moses is the primary human figure in the book, God worked through several non-believing Egyptians to aid the work that He was doing through Moses:
- God hardened Pharaoh’s heart (Exodus 9:12). This may seem like a harsh way for God to use Pharaoh, but we must remember that Pharaoh was already under God’s judgment. So he closed Pharaoh’s heart off to hearing Moses’ plea so that God could be glorified in Israel’s rescue.
- Pharaoh’s magicians performed signs (Exodus 7:8-13). Every sign that Moses and Aaron performed through the Spirit was imitated by Pharaoh’s magicians. Their actions ensured that Pharaoh would remain closed off to hearing Moses’ plea.
- The Egyptian people gave gifts to the Israelites (Exodus 3:21-22). God instructed the Israelite women to ask their Egyptian neighbors for gold, silver, and clothing for their journey. God made the Egyptians ‘favorably disposed’ to respond generously.
After Judah had spent 70 years in exile in Babylon, the Babylonians were conquered by the Persians. God promptly worked through their new leader:
In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfill the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah, the Lord moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia to make a proclamation throughout his realm and also to put it in writing.Ezra 1:1
The decree from Cyrus permitted the Jews to return to Jerusalem and begin rebuilding their home. A previous prophecy delivered through Isaiah—long before Cyrus even existed—specifically said that the Lord would use Cyrus in this manner.
“This is what the Lord says—
your Redeemer, who formed you in the womb:
I am the Lord,
the Maker of all things…
who says of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd
and will accomplish all that I please;Isaiah 44:24a, 28a
Pilate and His Wife
Perhaps the best example of God working through non-believers is Jesus’ crucifixion at the hands of Rome. Jesus was born specifically to buy our salvation through his suffering and death, which could not have been accomplished without the people—even the entire regime—that engineered his crucifixion.
Pilate is the primary catalyst in the crucifixion and the face of Rome’s involvement. But Matthew recounts a moment where God spoke quite directly through Pilate’s wife:
While Pilate was sitting on the judge’s seat, his wife sent him this message: “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him.”Matthew 27:19
Pilate, of course, ignored his wife’s request (thus fulfilling his role in God’s plan). Nevertheless, this proclamation of innocence that God delivered through his wife stands as a powerful testimony to the truth of the gospel.
As you read through scripture, you are bound to encounter more occasions when God worked through non-believers. Many of the conquering armies, emissaries from neighboring nations, and witnesses to the miracles of Jesus were themselves unbelievers who played important roles in God’s plan for humanity.
Non-Believers among Us
Now that we’ve spent some time with a few Biblical examples. Can God work through non-believers in the same ways today as He did in the Bible?
Sometimes He does. But more often, the work that God does through non-believers is more “ordinary,” yet equally vital to our faith journeys.
Non-Believers Ask Good Questions
For those of us who have been Christians for a long time—especially if we grew up going to church—the stories and teachings of scripture are very familiar to us.
By contrast, non-believers without the same background are bound to have questions about stories and practices that may seem strange to them, even if they are common knowledge to us.
In this way, non-believers give us a fresh perspective on understanding our salvation and faith.
Non-Believers Help Us to Articulate Our Faith
When we encounter the questions of non-believers, we ought to be prepared to respond:
Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.1 Peter 3:15
For many of us, explaining our faith in understandable terms, or answering specific questions about the Bible and Christian life do not come easily.
Yet, as Christ’s ambassadors, we are called to be witnesses to the world and share the gospel. Non-believers give us an opportunity to exercise our faith by sharing our faith.
Non-Believers Hold Us Accountable
Even people who are unfamiliar with the teachings of the Bible have some sense of what is expected of Christians. Generally, they know that we strive for kindness, compassion, and sexual purity, to name a few examples.
And they are watching us.
Some non-believers might want to “catch” Christians in sin for malicious reasons. Others simply want to see that our faith is indeed making a difference. In either situation, when we live according to God’s grace, people notice. And when we fail to live up to God’s grace they notice—and might even say something.
In this way, non-believers hold us accountable to the witness of our lives. This is perhaps the most powerful way in which God uses them today, while simultaneously being the best opportunity for non-believers to become believers themselves.
Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.1 Peter 2:12