Answering Questions with Questions

I am just six chapters into the most recent book I am reading, and already I feel quite certain that I am one of the Lord’s “worst-ever” foot soldiers…an absolute, unqualified disaster in the cause of Christian evangelism. Jerram Barrs certainly has a way of slowly, methodically peeling away the layers of one’s own self-perception, particularly true for those of us who would greatly prefer to relax in the comfort of “knowing” that we are faithfully serving Jesus.

But are we really?

The book in question is Learning Evangelism from Jesus, and the author currently serves as Professor of Christian Studies and Contemporary Culture as well as the Resident Scholar of the Francis A. Schaeffer Institute at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis. Barrs once spoke at The Crossing, in Nov. of 2007, on the subject of “Harry Potter and the Triumph of Sacrificial Love.” Then, in the summer of 2009, I had the opportunity to sit in on one of Barrs’ Apologetics and Outreach classes at Covenant, and as a prospective grad student at Covenant had the privilege of sharing lunch with Barrs one-on-one. The net effect of this exposure – though admittedly slight – to the living person of Jerram Barrs is that I can actually “hear” his soft voice ringing in my head as I read his words; his presence in a room quietly commands that level of attention.

The upshot, to be quite honest, has been fairly unsettling.

It has also caused me to be particularly disturbed as I read passages in this book that challenge my own presuppositions. This is a nice, “Christianese” way of saying there are some things that he and I don’t yet see eye-to-eye on. If I was merely reading a book where my knowledge of the author was confined to the blurbs I can read on the book’s back cover, I might be able to push back on some of his ideas to greater effect. As it is, however, my personal exposure to Barrs and the high level of respect that I know all of The Crossing pastors have for him has caused me to read and absorb the impact of Jerram’s words with a similar level of respect. This leaves me with the fairly-settled conviction that if I find myself chafing at anything he says or writes, I am almost certainly in the wrong. Barrs’ ability to put his finger on pockets of resistance within my soul reveal my immaturity as a Christian, not his.

In the past several years, one of the things that I have found most difficult to accept when it comes to Christian evangelism lies within the realm of “sowing and much-delayed reaping.” Whenever I find myself talking to someone about Christ and His exclusive truth claims for all of humanity, I find that I still harbor an unrealistic expectation such that all I need to do is faithfully proclaim Christ and the person will (of course!) quite naturally respond in faith.

But it almost never works that way! When other people hear the Truth and choose instead to walk away, I am immediately inclined to think that I blew it, used the wrong words, did not focus in on the right passage of Scripture, or otherwise need to sharpen my apologetic skills somehow. Was I loving enough? Did I treat the person with enough respect? If so…what went wrong? I know this train of thought completely minimizes the work of the Holy Spirit in those interactions, but I still find myself asking these kinds of questions.

What I think Barrs’ book is helping me understand is that what “goes wrong” in those moments really is me, in a sense…my pre-loaded expectations went wrong. The mistakes lay in my own “evangelistic hubris” and accompanying failure to believe the Scriptural truths that no word of God ever returns void (Isaiah 55:10-11), the vast majority of people in the world will ultimately reject Jesus (Matthew 7:13-14), and some seeds we plant will be faithfully harvested by others (John 4:35-38), perhaps years – or even decades – from now. If we were to expand upon Jesus’ analogy of sowing and reaping, my own efforts at evangelism often make about as much sense as someone planting a seed with one hand and holding the sickle in the other, expecting to reap a bountiful harvest within the next 15 minutes or so. (Truly, as Tom Petty so succinctly put it, “The waiting is the hardest part…”)

In analyzing the story of the rich young ruler from Luke 18:18-30, Barrs points out that Jesus is (thankfully) far more patient than most of us when allowing His Word of Truth to sink in and do its work within the hard terrain of the human heart. The rich young ruler would appear to have everything going for himself, including a genuine respect and admiration for Jesus, and yet he is blind to the true condition of his own heart. As He so often does, Jesus responds to the young man’s question – “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” – with a question of His own, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments.” Barrs explains further (emphasis mine):

Jesus’ question is in itself a fascinating question, and again some Christians are troubled by it. Is Jesus denying that he is good? Of course not! The question is to help Jesus understand the heart and mind of this young man; and, even more, its purpose is to help the young man understand his own heart and mind. Jesus is eager to get him reflecting on what it means to be called “Good.” Jesus does not ask the young man directly, “Are you good?” or “Am I good?” Rather Jesus replies with a less direct question: “Why do you call me good?” Then Jesus explains his question with his first statement: “No one is good except God alone.” What is Jesus getting at here?

As Barrs goes on to explain, Jesus is most fully concerned with the heart of the person in front of Him, and He is content (for the time being) to challenge the assumptions that have been brought forth by the questioner. In contrast perhaps to the evangelical efforts we might wish to make, Jesus is wholly concerned with the person and not at all interested in “winning a theological debate” with anyone…though I think it goes without saying that He is fully able to win any and all arguments on the subject of the Person of God. (Or arguments in any other category, come to think of it.) In short, Jesus is fully able to set aside desire for recognition of His rightness and instead swing hard at the false foundations that this young man has used to build for himself an impressive self-righteousness.

If I am honest, I’d have to admit that many of my efforts to engage others with the truth claims of Christ have been more of a full-contact intellectual sport than any sort of sincere effort to bring the joy of knowing Jesus to another soul. More concerned with the precepts than the person, I have often fallen into the trap of seeking to win the argument and, in the process, lose the person. I have walked away from more than one conversation with the question haunting me: “Did you really show love to that person?” Barrs’ book is a much-needed corrective to my own mistakes in engaging others with the Person and work of Jesus, and I suspect it will deeply challenge any of us who tend to function with an “us vs. them” mentality.

Most of us – myself included – are not called to the fulltime ministry of evangelism, and so we often don’t think of ourselves as evangelists at all. For some, the word itself can conjure up all kinds of negative/unfortunate associations and images. So we go about our days, bumping into and interacting with scores of people, some of whom we may or may not ever see again. Contained within those interactions are multiple opportunities to influence others for Christ, whether we are at the McDonald’s drive-through, on a walk in downtown Columbia or taking notes at a particularly-boring weekly staff meeting. When we don’t think of ourselves as 24-hour evangelists for Jesus, though, we will completely miss these opportunities.

And we don’t need to run around town laying a full-blown gospel presentation on everyone we meet, either; that would actually be counterproductive. The gospel can move forward through our courteous driving, a calm demeanor when unjustly slighted, generous tipping at a restaurant with sub-par service, whatever. If I read Barrs correctly, he is saying that the most effective way we can learn evangelism from Jesus is to simply be interested in and engaged with other people – as He was. Whether our initial perceptions of other people are favorable or not, we should affirm them as image-bearers of the God we love and seek to interact with them in ways that one day might give us the opportunity to get into deeper conversations. Those deeper conversations might lead to the kinds of questions that reveal the misguided presuppositions of their heart, and open them up to the work of the Holy Spirit. First, though, we must earn the right to ask those questions.

It’s easy to shrug our shoulders and say that we (obviously) lack the resources available to Jesus. Certainly it’s true that we are just not up to the task of evangelizing as He did, responding well in every single encounter with another person. Scripture assures us, however, that if we ask with right motives – influencing others for Christ – God is faithful to those prayers, and the words will be given to us in that moment (Matthew 10:18-20).

Isaiah 55:10-11
“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven
and do not return there but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”

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