Caught Between Two Unbeliefs

man jumping
The people in my church knew we should evangelize. But it filled us with dread. We weren’t doing it because we didn’t know how. My church sent its people to training, and here’s the formula we learned:

  1. Initiate a conversation.
  2. Steer the conversation to a place where you can ask the Key Question: “In your personal opinion, what does it take for a person to get to heaven?”
  3. Listen patiently while the Subject rambles about the need to live a good life so God will be happy with you.
  4. When the Subject is done, ask: “Would you like to hear how the Bible answers that question?”
  5. Lay out the plan of salvation.
  6. Help the newly-convicted Subject pray “the sinner’s prayer.”
  7. Invite the Subject to church.

Armed with this formula, little bands of church folk went door-knocking on Sunday afternoons. We still dreaded it, of course, but we dreaded it a little less.

Did it work? I can only say that if this formula led someone to a lasting relationship with God, I would love to hear of it.

Years later, I lost my faith entirely and the tables turned. Good church people knew they should evangelize me, but I saw fear in their eyes. I’m a smart guy. I knew their apologetic arguments, and still I didn’t believe. I was a terrifying Subject.

A few stalwarts of doctrine — the articulate ones with seminary degrees — tried their hands on me and must have concluded I had lapsed into rebellion. (This was not quite true.)

The wiser ones among them asked me questions and saw that losing God had been a great grief to me. I had looked earnestly for God in the world but I had found no God, and I could not trust a God who is absent from His world.

The wisest of my friends only asked one thing of me: They asked me to watch and wait and listen so that, if God chose to speak, His words would fall on open ears. And if I listened for the rest of my life? What of it? Isn’t a listening life better than a life of bitterness?

Then my friends lived lives full of God’s fruit and invited me to live among them. And when I spoke, they listened. Even in their belief, they shared my grief over the vast swathes of the world that appear untouched by God. No one wielded Scripture against me, and no one tried to answer the questions that have no answer. They only offered one answer to the places where, to all appearances, God is not: They offered me a place where He is.

Did my friends feel helpless? I don’t know. I will ask them sometime.

For me, the answers are still not adequate. The disconnects are maddening. While God’s response to Job is profound, it still strikes me as an outrage.

So why do I now believe? Because people listened. They sat with me and shared the pain of being big enough to see that something is profoundly wrong and too small to see how, nonetheless, God has put it right.

Like a good medical team, they kept me talking. They modeled openness — the same kind of listening they had asked of me. They designed their questions to let me be heard, not to trap me into their conclusions about God.

They talked with me until I saw myself trapped by unbelief on both sides. I lacked the faith to believe that Jesus died and rose on the third day. But I also lacked the faith to believe that the universe happened on its own, that morals are something we invented for ourselves, and that my better nature has no source.

And then God did something. What did God do? I can only hope to live the answer to that question.

There’s a formula for selling cars but, as an evangelist, I am persuaded that the best you can hope for is to live with God, listen to the grief of a friend, speak patiently with him, pray, and watch for God to do something you’ll never fully understand.

photoMicah Harris grew up on a Texas ranch, then found his way to Washington, D.C., where he studies old books, writes novels and works as a consultant for the Department of Defense.

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