I had someone ask me recently how they should talk to an atheist who insists on saying things meant to provoke or insult.
My initial response was something like this: You are asking me what to say when that person says something insulting to faith or about your belief. How about, “I love you”?
I knew that was easier to offer as advice than to do, but I went on to say that I have always found it interesting how strongly some people feel compelled to react to the presence of faith around them. Based on my own pre-Christian experiences, I believe that in many cases the person is reacting defensively against the grace of God. Acting out in anger might just be the sign that God is getting a foothold and they are lashing out to try to drive grace away.
Upright heathens are by no means to be excluded from this earnest expectation: nay, perhaps something of it may at some times be found even in the vainest of men; who (although in the hurry of life they mistake vanity for liberty, and partly stifle, partly dissemble, their groans, yet) in their sober, quiet, sleepless, afflicted hours, pour forth many sighs in the ear of God.
Some of our sighs to God can look a lot spitting in God’s face.
It is not easy to be on the receiving end of these things, but I do think Christians should view vocal atheism as a sign of God’s grace at work stirring up souls.
Many atheists, of course, would reject what I just wrote. I understand that. I was once among their tribe. Part of being a Christian, though, is learning to tell the story of the world around us in terms of grace and God’s activity.
So maybe in addition to suggesting that my friend say “I love you” in the face of atheist insults, I should have added “God loves you, too.”