Moody magazine published this article of mine back in 2001, and I believe it’s still relevant, so I’m sharing it with you today.
“If I just can’t accept this faith of yours, will you still like me?”
To hear Barbara, the self-confident businesswoman, speak those words stunned me, but her fear was real. “The only other ‘Christians’ I’ve ever known were strictly out to proselytize. If I didn’t convert, they were no longer interested in me.”
Barbara is a spiritual woman; so spiritual, in fact, that she embraced polytheism. Any god, any spiritual entity or experience, any philosophy, Barbara willingly welcomed. She refused to be limited to just one religion, one god or one way to gain admittance into whatever lies beyond this life (or lives). She dabbled in the occult, believed in reincarnation and tried to choose whatever good she found in the various religions she investigated.
However, when Barbara’s mother died, she turned for prayer and comfort to Vivian and me, the two Christians who worked for her. We prayed for her and with her, and we shared verses about the peace of God that could be hers. On her return from bereavement leave, Barbara called the two of us into her office. “Your god,” she said, “answers prayer.”
“He can be your God too.” And so, after more than a year of friendship, we had the opportunity to explain the true gospel to Barbara. We knew it would likely be the first of many conversations we would have with her concerning the reality of Jesus Christ, but it was a start.
From this experience, I’ve come to realize that I can impact the lives of others for Jesus Christ as I befriend them and invest time in them.
It was the respect we had shown Barbara during the previous year that let her feel safe in turning to us for prayer and strength in her time of trauma. In our earlier conversations, we had made clear what we believed, but we never belittled her wide range of spiritual interest. We didn’t recoil in horror when she spoke of out-of-body experiences or communicating with the dead. Like Jesus dealing with the woman at the well in John 4, we allowed her to tell us her life story without condemnation. When she actually asked what we thought, we told her what we believed to be the biblical view and asked her to consider the God of the Bible.
A week after we shared Jesus with Barbara, the question came about our unconditional acceptance of her. It was important to Barbara that we accepted her just as she was and would still want her as a friend even if she never believed like us. She wanted to feel secure in her value as a person, not as a conversion statistic. We didn’t push her to “convert.” We simply enjoyed our time with her and allowed Jesus to love her through us in the same way he had loved Nicodemus, the rich young ruler and the others who came to him with questions. Jesus never pushed people beyond what they were ready to accept. He even let them walk away (Mark 10:22).
Paul Little, in his book How to Give Away Your Faith, says: “Unfortunately, many non-Christians today are suspicious of all Christians because of a previous contact with a religious person who had ulterior motives. Some non-Christians refuse to listen to a single word about our Lord until they’re sure we’ll be their friends regardless—even if they reject Jesus Christ. We must love each person for himself.” In Luke 15:2, the religious folk actually grumbled about Jesus’ friendships with sinners saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Some of my lost friends actually look and behave “lost.” That makes some of my Christian friends uncomfortable. But I hope my friendships with lost people mean I’m beginning to look like Jesus.
Barbara needed to clarify our acceptance at this point because our relationship had entered new territory. She had basically asked us to share our beliefs with her, and we had eagerly done so. Now she had to know that it was still okay to have heard our “spiel” but not yet want to receive Christ. Barbara wanted to be assured that we were not rushing her through the investigative process in order to get another notch on our belt or star in our crown.
People like Barbara are common in our world today. We can no longer expect our neighbors or coworkers to have the same basic world view that we have. It’s not safe to assume their belief in a single deity (or any deity), in heaven, hell or an afterlife, or in any set of moral principles. Many people have their own life philosophy, and they may not be waiting for us to show them “the way.” But all of us want to know that we are valued just as we are, not for what we could be when someone is finished changing us.
As believers in Christ, we know we have the words that lead to eternal life, but reaching people first means earning the right to be heard. Jesus was a careful listener, and when He spoke, He used the knowledge he gained from listening to meet people where they were. With both Nicodemus (John 3) and the Samaritan woman (John 4), Jesus listened to their questions and tailored His message accordingly. As we listen, we get to know people just as they are. In Lifestyle Evangelism, Joe Aldrich says, “If you want to build redemptive friendships, be friendly. Be a good listener. Discover and discuss your neighbor’s interests rather than your own.”
What makes them tick? What do they care passionately about? What are their experiences? When people know these things about us, we are more likely to feel understood. And so we try to extend this same courtesy to others. As Vivian and I got to know Barbara and showed respect for her, she then felt safe to open up and share her own needs and fears.
For Barbara, it was important that we knew what she believed about spiritual things. She wanted us to hear about the experiences she had had as she pursued alternative religions.
We needed to know her past, for her willingness to believe was tied up in her social conscience. For instance, she didn’t want to consider any belief that would, in her mind, invalidate her dedication to the women’s movement. We assured her that our goal wasn’t to change her lifestyle. Our desire is to introduce her to Jesus Christ; it’s His responsibility to change her heart as He sees fit and through that her attitudes and actions.
It was probably most important, though, for us to understand that a distrust of “Christianity” was something she was raised with. Her father had been disillusioned by a less-than-upright clergyman. Bitterness toward the church had filled her father’s life, and she had absorbed it. We would have totally lost our effectiveness with her if we had sought to defend the church. We just expressed sorrow that she and those she loved had been hurt. No defense; we just listened in love.
The unchurched person is unlikely to look to us for the answers, even in times of crisis, if we have not lived our daily Christianity before them in an honest and nonjudgmental way. Barbara saw me just as I am. She knew my struggles with anger and discouragement, but also knew my faith provided the strength to go on.
For years I had been afraid to share my faith with people who had seen me blow it, figuring they would think me a hypocrite. But now I’ve come to realize that seeing my failures shows others that there’s room at the cross for them. We don’t have to be perfect to become a Christian; it’s not an exclusive club reserved only for saints. Our God welcomes sinners with open arms, and I’m meant to be Exhibit A. Like the heroes of the faith described in Hebrews 11, many of whom had unsavory times in their lives, I want my life to be an example for Barbara and others of the Christ whose “power is made perfect in weakness” (II Corinthians 12:9).
“Identifying with sinners,” however, is not an excuse for not living a life that reflects Christ. People need to see my sin, but they also need to see my repentance and the ways that knowing Jesus has changed my life. Gandhi once said that if Christians lived according to their faith, there would be no more Hindus left in India. We need to live out our faith before our world. Jesus said to “let your light shine before men that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). If I’m going to be a lighthouse for him, I need to keep the “glass” clean by accessing His power and strength described in Philippians 4:13.
And so, Vivian and I also were vocal about the way God answered prayer in big and small ways. On one occasion, I explained how God helped me find a designer skirt at a bargain basement price. Barbara jokingly responded, “So that’s why there’s war in Bosnia, because God is busy worrying about your clothes.” We laughed together, but I knew Barbara was observing my life and interacting with my faith and with the concept of a personal god.
If we want those around us to be interested in Christ, they need to see us just as we are. It doesn’t help others if we choose to be private people, keeping our victories and failures to ourselves. While we don’t need to burden people by exposing our every sin of word, deed and thought, we do need to be transparent enough for people to know that we’re normal—and being changed by God. We want to show the world that our faith is a natural part of our everyday lives, that Jesus impacts our daily living. We are imperfect people, and as we acknowledge that we can explain how Jesus is at work to make us more like Himself. Who of us wants an irrelevant or out-of-touch savior?
In our too-busy world, it is easy to choose not to get involved with people. My life is so complicated that I don’t want to take on the burdens of others. Yet the whole point of the good Samaritan story was that anyone God brings into my life is “my neighbor,” and God desires me to love my neighbor as I love myself (Luke 10:27). I must choose to get involved and reach out to those around me. My own plans and goals are not an excuse for ignoring the needs of others. I pray for eyes to see “my neighbors” and also that I’ll take the time to meet their needs at whatever level.
As “good stewards” we sometimes make judgments about which people are likely prospects and invest our time only in them. Another Christian, who had previously worked with Barbara, later told us she had originally written her off. “Her beliefs just seemed so out-there and she was so hostile to Christianity, I can honestly say I didn’t even bother to pray for her. I figured there wasn’t a chance she would come to Christ.”
Like the faithful servants in Matthew 25, we often want to invest our talents where we believe we’ll see a good return. But the obedient servants in Matthew 22 were instructed to “go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you can find,” both good and bad.
Only God knows whose life He’s working in. My job is to be a good neighbor to everyone who comes across my path, hopeless-looking case or not. My guess is that the priest and the Levite who avoided the injured man in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10) weren’t hard-hearted men. They were just busy people who decided the man was too far gone to be worth their efforts. I don’t want to make the same erroneous decision about someone’s spiritual state.
Thankfully, God asks only that I talk about the good news with others; its not my job to convert them. I’m just to love the neighbors God brings into my path, listen to them and share Christ with them. I am not responsible for their ultimate acceptance or rejection of the gospel. I am responsible to continue to accept them and love them for as long as God allows them in my life.
Today, two years later, Barbara continues to gingerly pick her way toward faith in Christ. None of us work together anymore, but at Barbara’s request we meet once a month to share prayer requests and lessons learned. She breathlessly recounts each spiritual discovery. Our ongoing acceptance, attentiveness, authenticity and availability are providing Barbara with both the resting places and the helping hands she needs to continue this journey to the arms of the Savior.
I invited Barbara to read and approve the article before I submitted it to the magazine. After it was published, this is the note I received from her:
Your article is wonderful! I am honored by your love and I am so excited to be—in a small way—an instrument of God. How much we have both grown in God these four years. How courageous of you to open yourself and share our story. I’m excited that our experience will encourage others to follow their way toward faith in Christ and keep others on their path—as you do for me. I ponder that last step every day.