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Friday, June 02, 2017

Too Hot to Handle: Why I Don’t Share My Faith

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Tom: I’ve just finished wading through a list of reasons why Christians don’t share their faith. Here’s what Daniel Darling says keeps him from spilling what he knows about the person of Christ to a needy world:
  1. We don’t share our faith because we don’t realize we have a mission
  2. We don’t share our faith because we misunderstand our mission
  3. We don’t share our faith because we misunderstand the Holy Spirit’s mission
  4. We don’t share our faith because we misunderstand what it means to be a friend of the world
  5. We don’t share our faith because we are ashamed of our identity
Immanuel Can, when I fail to share my faith, it is usually because I’m scared of messing up my next line. So I overthink it, and suddenly the conversation is over and I’ve gotten nowhere significant.

Immanuel Can: Hmmm … I think I find myself most challenged by not knowing the point at which the person I’m talking to really is.

People have different backgrounds, experiences and assumptions, and they are disposed in different ways with respect to hearing and understanding what you say. Many people have already started thinking about Christ a bit, and practically everyone I’ve ever met will admit to having spent some time contemplating the existence of God. Everybody, it seems, has a consciousness of personal shortcoming if not of outright sin, and some have a fear of judgment as well. But to find that person where he/she is on that continuum is usually difficult, even with a protracted conversation.

Hardened Unbelievers

Tom: It sounds like you’re still sharing your faith, but just trying to work out how best to do it. I have had experiences where I would never have considered opening my mouth, because I presumed the person, given their behavior, was so hardened to the idea of Christ that there was … forgive me … no point in bothering. And then they said something that demonstrated they were much more open than I ever imagined — like “I know if I died tonight, I’d go straight to hell” — and completely meant it.

Other than that, if I had to say what holds me back, it’s often a failure to really grasp the grace of God; that he loves my friend far more than I do.

IC: Hardened people … or people who seem hardened anyway … that’s a tough one to read. I’m sure such people probably exist: it’s just that they’re often indistinguishable from those who are angry and resistant because they are actually under conviction of sin and fear of judgment. But a person who senses that his/her real position before God is not good, and thus reacts with anger, is actually much closer to salvation than someone who is simply indifferent to the whole concept of God.

So I guess if I falter at the point of talking to “hardened-seeming” people then I probably miss some key opportunities to reach out.

Tom: Yeah, I find that an apparently hardened person makes it a lot easier to justify letting them change the subject. I’m back to my original issue.

Misunderstanding the Mission

But let’s consider Daniel Darling’s list momentarily. Do you think any Christian fails to realize we have a mission? That concept would seem fairly fundamental …

IC: Yes, I think some do. Many people have a stunted or diminished sense of mission, or have killed it off altogether.

Mass evangelism has dulled a lot of people to their responsibility to share the gospel. Then some have bought into the idea that sharing one’s faith is a matter for experts, or even for paid clerical staff or a televangelist. It’s stopped being personal with them. Others realize they have some responsibility to share their faith, but their guilt about failing to do it is muted by the comforting belief that the pros have primary responsibility. Even more think it’s a church responsibility, not a personal one: so as long as their church is “preaching the gospel” on a Sunday, they think they’re covered.

But the mission is personal. The Great Commission was issued to the disciples — all disciples — and at a time when there were no pros, no mass campaigns, and (most importantly) no church yet. Pentecost happened later, and the Great Commission was never reissued to it.

Tom: Could we say then that most Christians do recognize there is a mission, but don’t really grasp the extent to which naming the name of Christ obliges them to participate in it on a personal level? And, perhaps, that the efforts of the so-called ‘pros’ do not address the Great Commission at all?

IC: I think you’ve put that well.

Friendship with the World

I find Darling’s fourth point interesting. If I take it correctly, he’s pointing out that there are two types of “friend”: 1) the kind that is focused on staying on comfortable terms with you at any cost, and 2) the kind that seeks your best interests even to the point of risking losing those comfortable terms with you. The first is really a false friend, and the second is a true one. So being a true friend of the world would mean telling people what they need to know for salvation, and being a false friend would be staying on comfortable terms with the world at the expense of letting them go to hell. Is this how Mr. Darling would interpret his point? Because if he does, I like it.

Tom: I actually like your point better than his, though his is not bad. His point might be summed up, in his words, as “it’s hard to love people from a distance”. In other words, the person who is really fulfilling the Great Commission is happy to expose himself to people who don’t know the Lord, not just cloister himself or herself with other believers who simply reiterate what he or she already believes.

But being a true friend means exactly what you say it means. It may cost you the external trappings of friendship, and even an association you truly enjoy for a period of time, in service of that which is eternal and lasting.

I want to see my friends in heaven, regardless of whether that puts my comfort zone in jeopardy in this life.

IC: Yes, at my best that is precisely how I feel. As Shakespeare wrote, “… a man may smile and smile and be a villain”. As often as I forget that my reputation, approval or benefits are never nearly so important as the salvation of my friends’ souls, that is just how often I am a false friend.

When you think about it, when I do that I’m smiling at them, soaking up their favors, basking in their hospitality and maybe even devouring their dinner, and all the while between my gritted teeth I may as well be muttering “Go to hell”. How can that be friendship?

What About Nice People?

But here’s another tough one: what about people who are such naturally nice people that you almost feel it’s hard to believe that they could ever feel any need any salvation? What about those who are generally clean, decent, kind, charitable, loyal and open-hearted people — the kind that everyone admires, the kind you wish almost everyone would be — and consequently, you can hardly imagine how to begin to talk to them about things like sin and judgment?

Tom: Oh yeah. I hear you. What about when they’re nicer than you are; when they are kinder than you are; when they display character qualities that appear to be closer to the fruit of the Spirit than you do yourself?

I have run into that. It is very daunting. It’s very convicting. On the other hand, we all start in different places, and we need to recognize that no matter how much further along the road a friend may seem to be morally or behaviorally, neither of those things buys him or her an ounce of credit with God.

The question is always what they think of the Lord Jesus Christ.

IC: Yes.

What people don’t often realize is that “Am I a nice person?” is a different question from “Do I have a real relationship with God?”

There are a great many nice people in this world who have never done a thing for me. They do not know who I am, and perhaps have no reason even to care that I exist. The first question does nothing to answer the second one. A person may very well be nice by every measurement I can find, and still have absolutely zero connection to God. And without a relationship to God (who is, after all, the ultimate source of all life) they will not live forever. Death will claim us all unless we connect to the Source of eternal life: the evil and the nice alike; because there simply is no other source of life.

Tom: Which is a point often missed; people generally proceed from the default assumption that you’re kinda automatically going to heaven unless you manage to do something terrible to disqualify yourself, whereas the truth of the matter is that we are all on our way to a lost eternity apart from becoming reconciled to God. We are already separated from him by our very natures, not just by the few particularly awful choices we have made.

Ashamed of the Gospel

How about his fifth point: Do you think Christians generally are ashamed of our identity? Are believers too afraid not to be liked?

IC: Ashamed? Maybe; but I really hope we aren’t. We’ve no reason to be, and it’s a very insulting thing to the Lord for us to allow it. Personally, I pray I might be spared sinking so low. Still, at times, perhaps I’m guilty of that. Not wanting to be is no guarantee that we’re not.

Actually, it’s quite hard to separate our own motives sometimes. We can be 20% uncertain of how to start, 30% convinced it takes a professional to witness, 40% scared for our physical well-being and 10% ashamed all at once. We can also be ashamed of different things: we can be ashamed of being Christians or ashamed of our lack of words, or ashamed of upsetting a valued friend … and so on. If we have to examine all our own motives minutely, I don’t think we’re going to reach out very often.

At some point, regardless of how we feel, we have to get in touch with the fact that it’s a commandment for us to share our faith. We may not always do it well, or in a timely way, or with conviction; in fact, I guarantee that every person who has ever shared his or her faith has come short of the ideal in some way. But at the end of the day, I think we have to trust the Spirit of God to give us as much discernment, timing, insight, consistency of life, and verbal clarity as we need for each particular moment.

At the end of the day, I think we sometimes have to just blend our theology with Nike, and “Just do it”.

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