Today I had the distinct pleasure of having a spiritual conversation with a woman, in a shop, about the Gospel. The circumstances of what shop I was in when I met her and the particulars of her story are not relevant here. What is relevant, however, is the conversation we had, and how the Bible contradicted us both.
Yes, the Bible proved me wrong today.
I was not out looking to have a spiritual conversation with someone at the time. I had stepped out from the cafe in which I had been working, in order to move my car (which was in a 90-minute parking zone) stretch my legs, and do a little browsing of this particular shop.
This woman, whom I’ll call Elaine (not her real name) and I spoke for about forty minutes on the topic of the Gospel. She had some interest in the biblical book of Job, but she had never actually read that book. So I was able to explain the basic story arc of Job to her, and I used that as a jump-off point to explaining the Gospel. It was then that things got sticky.
Elaine told me she had heard the Gospel before, because her mother had taken her to mass every day when she was a child. Every single day! So we talked about that, and I soon understood that her understanding of the Gospel was really not how the Bible explains it. Here’s how I determined that:
I explained the Gospel like this: we (people) are not basically, pretty good little men and women, trying to do our best and slipping up every once in awhile. That’s not how the Bible describes us. Instead, we are actually better compared to rebels taking part in an attempted insurrection. We have banded together to oppose the king and try to take his throne. The king has come to us and said, “You rebels deserve to die for what you’ve done. But I’m going to put your punishment upon my own son. He’s going to die, and you’re going to be forgiven. All this because I love you.” God: the rightful king who loves and saves the rebels. What an incredible story, right? And the best part is, it’s true! That is precisely our relationship to God, and that’s what God has done for sinners like us. He sent His only-begotten Son, the Lord Jesus, to take our punishment upon Himself, so we may become the righteousness of God Himself. Up to the point I shared that, I had Elaine’s attention. She had loved the story of Job, with all its intrigue and majesty. But here is where I lost her.
She told me that sounded crazy.
In fact, I went further and said that the Bible itself actually calls that message foolishness. But it is foolishness only to those who are perishing. Why? Because those who are perishing are trusting in themselves to get by, and the message of the Gospel–the divine Son who comes to die for sinners–seems ludicrous to people who think they are good enough for God.
I continued on: the Gospel is great news because the King’s Son didn’t stay dead. He came back to life; He conquered death. He was raised “for our justification.” Everyone will be raised from the dead some day; some will go to be with God forever, and others will suffer forever in hell (I have learned recently to just go ahead and say what the Bible says, rather than worrying about offending people. Sometimes things that are true are offensive–but the great news that is the Gospel more than balances out the terrible news about the truth of hell’s existence).
It was when I started talking about hell that I lost her even more.
She couldn’t believe in a physical, literal hell. And that makes sense, because she thought she was good enough for God. No, she didn’t think she was perfect. but good enough. You don’t need a hell when folks are pretty much good enough. Oh, and she told me she likes the idea of reincarnation. Even after I explained that the traditional Hindu doctrine of reincarnation views it more as a curse than a blessing, she maintained her respect for the doctrine. So pretty much, anything to avoid the Gospel.
So by the end of our conversation (which, again, was really very enjoyable), I had explained how the Bible contradicted her positions (some of which, as far as I could tell, were constructed ad hoc as we spoke). But what I was not expecting was the way the Bible would contradict me, too.
As I left the shop, I thought about our conversation and grew frustrated. This lady had been nice. She had seemed genuinely interested in the Bible. At one point while I was recounting the story of Job, she had exclaimed, “This is what you should talk about this Sunday!” She was hanging with me until I explained the bad news about her condition and the great news about Jesus. I genuinely wanted her to understand her need for the Savior. Heck, I wanted to see her become convicted of her sin right then and there, to repent and throw her life into the waiting arms of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, to receive the Holy Spirit and begin her new life in the Kingdom of God. But none of that had happened. Instead, we both left the conversation in the same state as we began it. I, a committed Christian. She, a lapsed Roman Catholic with a hodgepodge of semi-spiritualist beliefs. I was frustrated. So I called my brother.
Well actually, I called my wife first. But she didn’t answer, so I called my brother and shared with him my frustration. What he said shut my mouth.
He said, basically, that maybe it was just my job to share the Good News with this woman, and she was never going to receive it. Perhaps, he said, I was just supposed to act like that old prophet, who warned the people of God’s impending wrath, all the while knowing that they were not going to listen.
I had conversed with Elaine in the hopes that I would see her give her life to Jesus, and enter the joy that I know so well. But it didn’t happen. Maybe someday it will, and our conversation today will have played a role. Maybe not.
But the results aren’t up to me.
The fact is, I had no right to be frustrated that my oh-so-eloquent explanation of the Gospel didn’t “work” with Elaine. The fact is, that it was never really about my oh-so-eloquent explanation at all. Unless the Lord opens Elaine’s eyes, the way He opened mine, she just plain won’t get it. That’s the power of sin on the human heart. And I know this, both from God’s word and from my own experience (news flash, Pastor Joel is a sinner).
So I was wrong to be frustrated, rather than to respond with prayer. And with thanksgiving to God that He allowed me the opportunity to convey the Good News at all. I wasn’t wrong to care about how she responded. But I was wrong to think that I could affect the outcome simply by trying hard.
At the end of the day (and of every Gospel conversation we have), the results–like everything else–are in the Lord’s hands. And seriously, in who else’s hands would I want them to be?