Friday, March 29, 2019

Our Words and God's Light

As I have noted on a few occasions, Christian education is a careful balancing act. Everyone is going to have an emphasis, but lean on it too hard and you are likely to miss important truths of the faith. Or even if you know them yourself, you might not repeat them as often as you should.

Our Words Have Limits

For me, the emphasis tends to be on the rational and philosophical aspects of Christianity. I have my reasons, of course. We are often told our faith is antiquated and superstitious. It is important to be able to show otherwise. The risk I run, though, is in suggesting that the truths of God can be discovered by bare human reason. That isn’t true, either.

The problem is, the Bible can be treated like literature. It is possible to read it but then take nothing from it. Or, to put it another way, to take worthless things from it. It becomes “an example of the development and evolution of piety in a particular Ancient Near Eastern culture,” rather than being the word of life. People have read it for curiosity rather than transformation, and it does them no real good as a result.

I would love to be able to get every person who reads Scripture to do so with the right heart, but there is no way to do that. Partly that is because I cannot put their hearts in the right place. More importantly, it is because they have to be drawn to it. True understanding of God’s word only comes about as He gives insight into it through His Spirit.

Perhaps it is ironic, but I can only explain that by referring to Scripture. In Ps. 36:9, David says, “By means of your light we see light.” That has a few meanings, one of which is that we can only see as far as God allows. If our hearts are not open to His light, then He is not going to shine there. When we realize we are groping in the dark, our only hope is for Him to illuminate the way out of it.

Paul shows another angle on it in 1 Cor. 1:18–2:16 and in 2 Cor. 2:14–3:18. I cannot possibly go over his every allusion here, but I do recommend reading these passages on your own and asking any questions that might arise from them. His primary point is that people can hear the same message differently. To someone who does not believe and is not ready to do so, the gospel is “the aroma of death,” “a stumbling block,” “foolishness,” and “veiled.” They cannot see because they do not wish to see, and God does not reveal what they will not accept. The message makes no sense to them.

What this all means, then, is that you cannot persuade someone into belief. Your categories will just be too different. To Christians, the message of the cross is one of love and wisdom. To those outside, it only looks like cruelty and stupidity. That God could become a human, die as a sacrifice, and come back to life is the message that gives us hope. A soul unready to receive it hears only madness. They are wrong to do so, but they cannot help it. They do not have the Spirit to help them evaluate the full meaning.

Our Words Have Value

That being said, we still have to tell them. You do not know what impact your words could have, what seed they could plant for the Lord to germinate (1 Cor. 3:6). We cannot talk anyone into heaven as though it is our sole responsibility to do so, but we can talk and hope God shows the way. That is how He accomplishes the expansion of His kingdom (Rom. 10:8–17).

So that is the balance. I cannot think philosophical arguments and references to history will automatically stop all challenges to our faith or logically convince someone to become a Christian. The problem is much deeper than misinformation. It is a heart issue that ultimately has to be broken down by God. I have to stay aware of that fact. But I also have to keep sharing those arguments and references because they are true. No matter how people might receive them, they need to be told. The gospel has to be shared.

And sadly, the opposite error is going on in growing numbers. Many Christians of older eras have complained of their own weakness in speaking of their faith. But now there is a growing trend of Christians who think their faith should not be spoken of. According to a recent Barna study, almost half of Millennial believers feel it is wrong to directly evangelize to people of other religions.

This, in some ways, might be an overreaction to the idea I have shared here. The thinking goes, if God needs to open someone’s heart to understand His word, what point is there in me talking about it? Then, of course, there is the matter of appearing “judgmental” and “small-minded.” Christians are being told by our culture that it is wrong to try to convince people to be as we are. But that is exactly what our Savior asks us to do. Who should we listen to? The answer should be obvious, but a lot of people are not thinking it through.

Sometimes, witnessing is about responding to curiosity. Other times, however, it requires us to step up and say something even when no one is asking. We don’t know the hearts of others or where they are with God. It is not our job to figure that out before saying something. Tact is one thing, but silence is another. Silence is death. We must not embrace it out of a misguided politeness or a too passive spirituality. People need to hear the truth that will change their lives. Only God can make that happen, we have to remember. But we cannot be silent in the meantime. Our effectiveness relies on keeping both of these things in mind.

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