Something I often have to teach my students is that you can’t argue someone into submission.
You can present the best evidence you have in your essay, I tell them. You can offer them all the proof that you’ve been able to gather, and you can present it in a compelling way that makes sense and that is appealing to your audience. You can address their counter-arguments and offer rebuttals and be mindful of your tone and your word choice.
You can do all of those things. And even then, your audience might not agree with your point.
It’s a concept that my students struggle with throughout the term. Most of them have the idea that if only you have enough evidence, you can bludgeon people to death with the sheer rightness of your argument. If and when someone doesn’t agree with them, they seem to think the answer is simply to write more, to say more, to show more. They believe firmly that if they can just find the key to saying something the right way, that their audience will automatically agree with them.
But that’s not always the case. And it certainly isn’t for Christians.
A lot of us tend to approach evangelism as though we are – with apologies to Lee Strobel here – lawyers making a life-or-death case for Christ. We have this idea that if only we can convince people with the right combination of arguments and words and ideas that their life has a lack that only Jesus can fill, we’ll “win” and they’ll convert. Like the students in my class, we have this idea that if people aren’t listening to us, it just means that we need to make our argument differently, or better, or perhaps more vocally.
If we’re not careful, in this process, we’ll forget to leave room for God to work.
I think often of Zacchaeus, who was so desperate to see Jesus that he climbed up a tree for a better view. When Jesus comes to the spot, He says:
Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.
Not only does Zacchaeus come down, he welcomes Jesus and then essentially immediately converts, giving half his possessions to the poor and offering to pay back for times what he has stolen from others. Zacchaeus was a man looking to be converted; it is evident that God had already been working on his heart. Jesus’ invitation was extended to a man who was, I believe, long prepared to accept it.
It is undoubtedly our job to extend a version of the invitation that our Lord made. Come, we offer, and see Jesus. But in the end, no matter how compelling our arguments or how much we try to illustrate the importance of Jesus to others, we can’t make someone climb down from the tree if they are unwilling. And we have to disabuse ourselves of the notion that if we only phrase things in the right way, or find the right combination of evidence, or keep hammering the point home, we’ll get them to do so. Zacchaeus didn’t come down because someone shook him out of the tree or set fire to the bottom of it; he came down because God had prepared his heart for the invitation.
Sometimes sharing Christ means leaving space for God to work.
Because sharing Christ isn’t about us, or our arguments. The best and most intellectually or spiritually or emotionally airtight argument for Christ in the world is meaningless if God isn’t also involved, doing the quiet and unseen work that He does to prepare hearts for His presence. If the Gospel could have been accomplished and spread by human effort alone we’d never have needed Jesus or the Holy Spirit at all. Yes, we’re there to invite, to explain, to demonstrate the nature of who God is and what He did. But we can’t discount that God is also at work, and we have to allow time and patience and space for God to work.
Sure, sometimes it’s necessary to share Christ through a debate, through an argument, through a carefully cultivated list of this or that. In some cases, a non-believer does convert when a believer “wins” them over through a compelling presentation of or argument for the Gospel. But just as often as not, a non-believer might hear our argument and shrug. Or disagree. Or say, “I’m not ready” or “I really don’t want to hear this right now.”
And in those cases, sharing Christ means listening. Leaving space. Loving. Serving. Building friendships and relationships regardless of whether or not someone seems prepared to accept Christ or not. Being ready always with the invitation, being ready always with warmth and welcome, being open, being willing, being present. Because God is at work – perhaps not even through us! – in other ways, through other means, and He is doing things in people’s hearts that we cannot comprehend or imagine.
I believe Zacchaeus got up in that tree because he was waiting for something to happen. He wanted something to happen. His heart was open – and an open heart is necessary for people to come to Christ. The trick, of course, is that the open heart is also something that we can’t always create or control through our arguments and our efforts. In the same way that my students can’t always bludgeon people into submission with a carefully-crafted argument, we can’t force a heart to open to Jesus. Only God can do that.
So let’s give God space and time to work. Sometimes sharing Christ means making an invitation, and then simply lingering at the base of the tree for as long as it takes.
And that’s okay.