Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
- Matthew 28:18-20
“The desire for a surefire, foolproof approach to sharing faith is understandable – if only because there are people whom we love so much that we wish them to come to faith decisively, people we love, for whom anything short of success will seem a heartbreaking failure. That is only natural. But as we shall see repeatedly, we live in a fallen world in which any thoughts are thinkable, any arguments are arguable and any doubts are dubitable. In other words, there are people for whom no amount of evidence will ever establish any claim if they have determined to deny the claim no matter what.”
- Os Guinness, Fool’s Talk – Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion
Before I get started with this extremely serious topic, I need to get an old story out of my system, a true story. I hope you have a laugh. If you graduated from Texas A&M, do not take offense. Simply add this story to your next volume of Texas Aggie jokes. For those in-laws who are Aggie fans, consider this a definite gentle poke in the ribs. For those not interested in an old Army story, you can skip past the shaded paragraphs, but you’ll miss getting your ribs tickled.
When I was in the Engineer Officer Basic Course, we studied the basics of everything that a young engineering officer might face in the US Army. One of those things was minefields. We learned how to lay out a minefield. We learned how to set mines and plant them. We learned how to boobytrap mines to make clearing a minefield difficult. We learned how to detect mines laid by others. And we learned how to clear a minefield. The last two lessons bring me to my story.
A young Army Captain was teaching the mine detecting and clearing class. He was not exactly “politically correct,” not even for the late 1970s standard. He had told some jokes that were off color and might be offensive to certain ethnic groups. As he picked up the standard military issue mine detector, he thought better of it and put the detector aside. He asked, “Does anyone here know how a Texas Aggie detects mines?” The class said they did not know. The Captain then placed his index fingers in his ears and stomped the floor of the raised lecture platform in the classroom with his combat boots, making a horrible noise. The class erupted in laughter, except for one young Second Lieutenant. He stood at attention, and barked “Sir! I am a Texas Aggie! I am proud of my school. I will place any Aggie against any other school graduate and the Aggie will come out on top, every time, doing anything. That includes West Pointers! If you continue to make fun of Texas A&M, I will have no other option than to report your behavior as unbecoming of an officer to your commanding officer.” The Captain smirked and said in a sinister tone, “We’ll see about that, Lieutenant. Now take your seat, so I can train you in something that they do not cover at your precious Texas Agricultural and Mechanical.” He then, very professionally, taught the class on how to detect mines and how to clear them.
That afternoon, we went to a minefield to clear it. The mines had only a primer with no additional explosives. If you were not holding the primer at the time and it went off, it would not cause serious injury – maybe, but there was an occasional boobytrapped mine that had a small charge, half pound of TNT for each boobytrap. The boobytrap charge was safely hidden in the trees so that everyone would be scared senseless if it went off accidentally, but no one would be hurt. We were paired off to work as two-man teams. I got the Aggie, because no one wanted to be teamed with him, especially after what had happened that morning. I thought, “Oh, Joy!” The Aggie was given the mine detector. I got the bayonet. I would probe for the detected mine, jobs assigned by our instructor. The minefield was divided into lanes before we got there, for instruction and grading purposes. Each lane had been divided by string. The person with the detector went forward, swinging the detector back and forth, until he detected a mine. He would point to the spot, no words spoken. The prober, the guy with the bayonet, would place the bayonet on his up-turned palm, blade extending beyond his fingers. He would rest the handle between the two large muscles of the hand near the wrist. Using his thumb muscle to press the bayonet handle against the other muscle, no grip beyond that, he probed the ground to carefully define where the mine was. The idea is that if you stick the bayonet into the ground and you hit something solid, like the mine, the bayonet would slip from your grip. The prober, once the edges of the mine were marked, could then disarm the mine if he also determined that the mine was not boobytrapped. The Aggie found a mine and pointed.
I was down on my hands and knees carefully defining the edges of the mine, surprised at how effective the technique was. While I was doing this, the Aggie was supposed to stand at a safe distance behind me, in case I screwed up. He could resume once I had finished. One problem, the Aggie had not believed the technique that I was using would work, still miffed at the instructor, trying to find fault in everything the instructor said. Without me noticing, the Aggie had stepped ahead of where our lane had been cleared to get a better look, amazed that the technique worked.
At this point, the Captain sounded an airhorn and called for everyone to come to attention, a signal that we had a potentially unsafe condition. The Captain barked, “Everyone, take notice that the proud Texas Aggie, who is better than any other officer in the entire United States Army, is now standing in the middle of a portion of this minefield that has not been cleared. He has endangered the life of his superior officer and teammate.” (I was a First Lieutenant at the time, but the old saying is that there is no rank among lieutenants – but, in practice, it counts as a superior rank upon someone else’s convenience.) The Captain, loving every second of the incident, continued, “And depending upon how much explosive power there is in the mine, his stupid blunder may have cost the lives of half of this class.” At this point, to prove his point, the Captain stepped on a boobytrap. There was a loud explosion in the trees, fifty yards away, and a few tiny branches crashed to the ground, and the birds flew off. The Captain had everyone’s attention. The Aggie tried to talk, but the Captain reminded him that he was at attention and not allowed to say a word. That didn’t stop one of our classmates from asking, “Sir, do you have any more Aggie jokes?” If you were wondering, I dug around the mine, determined no boobytrap, placed a pin in the primer to ensure the mine was safe to handle (I then breathed for the first time in a long time.), and then dug the mine out of the ground – no further incident.
But we often use the term ‘minefield’ when referring to the situation that Os Guinness describes in the quote above, people who respond to our Christianity with anger. If you spend much time sharing your faith with others, you are going to eventually find someone who will argue that the sky is purple with pink polka dots, just to let you know that whatever cogent argument you may present, they aren’t buying it.
I love Guinness’ use of the word ‘dubitable.’ I cannot remember which fictional detective used the opposite, in adverb form, as his catchphrase when the case was solved, “indubitably” – without a doubt. Sherlock Holmes, maybe? Or maybe Poirot, exercising his little grey cells. But, with many of these non-believers who are determined to never waiver, they have few doubts. They are indubitable. The Christian trying to witness may have more doubts than they do, but even without doubts, the non-believer still has no answers. The answers are found in a God that they refuse to believe in.
But I’d like to focus on the believer at this point – the believer who is or is not sharing their faith. I am sure that others could characterize believers in totally different ways than what I will attempt, but our friend from north of the border, Dave Peever, of Live 4 Him, hopefully convalescing well after one surgery and preparing for a second (at the time this was written), wrote a couple of weeks ago about the concept of ‘if we loved people, we’d tell them about Jesus.’ With just a few words, he made my point.
I agree, and I fall short in telling people all the time. Within a year of becoming a Christian, I joined a Lay Witness Mission Team and travelled to churches within a three-hour radius, telling people how I loved Jesus. I was never a featured speaker in those days, at first being a teen-ager and with a horrible case of a fear of public speaking, glossophobia. But I readily shared one-on-one. I used the engineering study hall at the university as my private witnessing room when I first went to college. A year or two later, I had too much homework to prowl the room, or was that an excuse? Yet, I cannot conceive of any truly born-again Christian that does not have the desire to do as Jesus commanded in the Scripture above.
Yet, it is a minefield when the person that you are sharing the Gospel with is your boy or girlfriend, your spouse, your parent, or your child. Especially a minefield when this loved one has proven to have boobytraps laid to prevent the conversation, or sidetrack or derail the conversation.
Bill Bright, co-founder of what is now called Cru, wrote that he witnessed to his father, who then went to a revival. His father went forward every night thinking that a religious experience was all that he needed, but on the last night of the revival, he truly accepted Jesus, and he became a new man. Bill Bright’s girlfriend loved the change in Bill, but she was a good girl, not feeling the need for a change. It was much harder for her to accept Jesus. Yet, in Bill Bright’s book, neither of these two people flew into a rage. Family members did not refuse to speak for years afterwards, or ever.
Maybe the Sheep and Goats folks have it right, or at least have a safer approach. Who are they? They are the ones who never mention Jesus at all, but they help the unfortunate in the community as Jesus said to do in the Parable of the Sheep and Goats, Matthew 25:31-46. First of all, their activities spread good will, but when you remain mute, does it spread God’s love? In comparison of this to those who openly share their faith, the Scripture above is a command by Jesus to us. The parable of the Sheep and Goats is a parable, an illustration pointing to a means of showing God’s love and acting out the greatest commandment, second edition, to love others. The first edition is to love God (Matthew 22:36-40). For many of the Sheep and Goats folks, they remain mute and keep serving soup at the soup kitchen so that they will never be asked to share their faith.
(Note: Guinness warns that we live in an age that focuses on technique, how-to, and procedure. Loving someone is replaced by feeding someone. Transformed from a subjective concept into an objective thing to do. But it can become things to do in order to get into Heaven in the minds of the doers, for those who have not accepted Jesus. That won’t work.)
So, maybe there is a third method. Of course, we can look to the Guinness quote to find that regardless of the method chosen, there is no failsafe, foolproof ‘method.’ What about those who say, “Judge not, lest ye be judged (Matthew 7:1).” After all, isn’t broaching the topic of salvation ‘judging’ the listener as being unsaved? This is the reason why they keep a wide birth of the minefield altogether, never going there. When it is family, the minefield can blow up. They might find a mine like the Aggie and cause a chain reaction that will destroy the family. Besides, the person in question is a good person, maybe a better person than the believer is. They don’t go to church, but maybe they have their reasons. Maybe God was kidding when He said that we had to believe in Him. Right? Umm. Wrong.
But who is judging here? If I approach someone to share the Gospel, I do not start the conversation with, “Hey, you! Yes, you, the one who is going to Hell…” If you do, that kind of ends the conversation. I know. I haven’t said those words, but in frustration with a close friend, I came close once, or maybe more often. No, I first start the conversation so that the protective barriers can start to come down. I get them talking. I answer questions. When it is safe to proceed, I start asking questions, usually piggy backing off their comments. When it gets around to Romans 3:23 (we are sinners) and Romans 6:23 (sinners die), we’ve been talking for a while. If it is a loved one who resides in the minefield, we may have talked for years by that point. Those statements about sin are not directed to the person that I am talking to, just in general. No accusation, although I screw up on occasion in my wording, the biggest screw up is to remain silent.
And, although modern evangelists will tell you that mentioning ‘sin’ will harm someone’s self-esteem and is a big turn-off preferring other methods of nudging close to the topic, I do not imagine that we are much different than people in the time of Mark Twain.
It seems that Mark Twain, the humorist, was also a practical joker. He sent ten of his friends an identical anonymous telegram. The telegram contained six words, “Flee at once – all is discovered.” As the story goes, by daybreak the next day, all ten friends had left town without leaving a forwarding address. Yes, we know we are not perfect. We may not have done something requiring a life on the run, but we just don’t like talking about it. (Story modified from Robert Wolgemuth’s book, Lies Men Believe)
Yet, the person who uses Matthew 7:1 to never witness to another person is also judging, while claiming that the evangelist is the only one judging. In fact, the mute ‘non-judging’ believer, who says that he does not wish to offend, is saying, “You may be a loved one of mine, but you are not significant enough for me to share the Gospel with you. I am going to sit here patiently and watch you go to Hell, all on your own.”
Sometimes, we gain enough wisdom to know that we are beating a dead horse. We pray someone else comes along, for they have quit listening. In the meantime, we live a life as Guinness describes: “a heartbreaking failure.” Maybe not in God’s eyes, but in our own as we pray for the lost.
Who is the one who has judged? We cannot simply serve soup as an excuse for not sharing the Gospel. We cannot watch our loved ones go to Hell in fear that we might be considered ‘judging’ them. We may not be the one who will guide them toward faith, because they see our weaknesses too easily. Yet, can we sit by idly? But, in Christian Love, we need to do; we need to say; and we need to be. In so ‘living’, we fulfill God’s Great Commission to spread the Gospel and teach them to obey, for we ourselves can only do what we do in obedience through the power of Him who is in us – even if it means placing our index fingers in our ears and stomping our way through the minefield, figuratively.
Soli Deo Gloria. Only to God be the Glory.