When I was in college at Texas A&M, once a semester a certain Tom Short would visit campus. Mr. Short travels from university campus to campus, attempting to evangelize.
A close friend and I would skip class to watch –and argue with–him. You see, he offended me. Not because he’s an evangelist, but because he spread a message too filled with fear, shame and condemnation to represent the Gospel. Once, after standing amongst the gathered crowd and going back and forth with Mr. Short for several minutes about what I perceived to be problems with his idea of God, a fellow student approached me and handed me a flyer for an atheist and agnostic student club. When I told the guy that I was a Christian, but that I didn’t believe that the visiting evangelist was doing a good job of representing what Christianity is about, he looked at me, confused. That’s what this kind of evangelism accomplishes for Christ–it turns people away by giving them an inaccurate image of our God and our faith.
A bit older and wiser, I realize now that my public protest about evangelism in the style of Mr. Short was more about self-expression and formation of personal identity than any real attempt to prevent the preacher from accomplishing his goals. There never was any need for me to speak against him, as his entire production was–as I’ll argue below–doomed by divine design. That seems a very harsh thing to say, and it is, so I hope you’ll bear with some explanation.
I don’t know whether Short’s preaching (or polemic, as was most often the case) ever caused anyone to say that he confessed Jesus Christ as his savior, but I doubt the authenticity of any such declaration (while admitting that only God knows such things). I’m not sure that fire and brimstone, accusatory evangelism has ever made a follower of Christ. Someone who confesses to be a Christian, probably, but not someone who has fallen in love with our Creator.
There’s something anemic about a theology that pressures people to make choices only to avoid hell. It reeks of predation on man’s cowardice, a use fear to coerce an admission of belief. The whole scheme is anologous to torture–give me what I want or suffer the consequences. Like torture (according to recent studies), the practice at best goads people to say anything to avoid suffering–in this case, eternally, we are told. Even secular values would condemn the person who confesses a certain belief (or who abandons a previously-confessed ideology) just to avoid punishment. So why does anyone think that threats are a viable way to share the Gospel truth?
This post isn’t about man, though. It’s about God. It’s about a God so gracious that such condemnatory evangelical practices are doomed to failure. You see, a relationship with God through Jesus Christ can only be entered into voluntarily–no amount of threat or shaming can cause a person to make a choice in his heart. Again, coercion might make someone say they’ve voluntarily chosen something, but it won’t change a person’s true desires.
Here we find a poetic justice. If God is love, and God’s ultimate desire for us is to have a deep and meaningful relationship with God, then it should follow that God wants nothing to do with coercion in the establishment of the relationship. That a person may only willingly enter into that relationship demonstrates a humility on God’s part in God’s willingness to preserve our free will in the hope of a genuine relationship, one that we may never choose to pursue.
The scriptures tell us that a person comes to believe in Jesus Christ’s divinity only through the action of the Holy Spirit and not through the actions of humans. Thank God for that! I don’t want to delve too deeply into pneumatology in this post, but I’d like to summarily comment that it seems to me that the Holy Spirit makes a way for us (call it preveneient grace if you like; we Methodists do) to choose to enter into a relationship with God based on our love for God’s character and creation.
Likewise, scholars of religion and mystical experience often describe a profound spiritual experience as one that changes one’s life but is by its very nature ineffable to others. That no one can “prove” God to us safeguards the opportunity to seek God out for ourselves, makes room for belief. After all, faith is a choice to believe in things that we cannot rationally prove or disprove.
So what does that mean for true evangelism, a sharing of the Gospel that is (I think) more in line with God’s intent for us? All we can do is try to reveal the person of Jesus Christ to others: through our own actions, through our words, through our sharing of the Gospel. It is not for us to make believers–God has ensured that a believer can only make himself. To be clear, this post is not a condemnation of evangelism–far from it–but only a stand against evangelism based in anything but love for fellow man and a desire to share the great joy of knowing Christ.
This reality reminds us of God’s deep love for us.God intends a personal relationship with each of us–a relationship so unique to each of us that we can’t even even reasonably communicate it to one another. We can only bask in the awesomeness of it side by side.
Here’s the beautiful truth about evangelism: the God of love has created the universe so that only by love may God be approached by the believer. This is not a comment about sin or salvation, not a theodicy or an aspersion against the unbeliever, only a realization of the beauty of a God who will not let us be successful is using ways other than God’s to bring people into faith.
So, the next time you hear a preacher full of fire asking you where you’ll go if you die today, don’t get angry, but remember the beauty of a God who has by the very nature of existence decreed that such an ungodly approach to the Gospel will never succeed.