Monday, September 21, 2015

Turning Questions Around: What to Do When Being Verbally Pinned Down

I recently read a book that I am not going to recommend here right now, but that taught me something important (not that I didn't like the book, but there is material I liked and material I think is not endorseable, so I'll withhold citing it).

The book examines a controversial issue, and discusses the common practice of intellectual combatants to shut down an opponent. How do they do it? Simply put, you ask a question that requires the person to answer in a way that will make them look ridiculous, judgmental, close-minded, or all of the above. 

Example 1: A gay person asks a Christian, "So you believe that if I'm gay, I'm going to Hell?" What does the Christian say? If he says, "Yes," the discussion is over. If he says, "No," he feels like he's just denied the truth. 

Example 2: A skeptic asks a Calvinist, "So, you believe that God has already chosen the saved, so nothing I do changes anything, right?" The Calvinist can go hyper and say, "Right." Or, he can get all compassionate and say, "of course that's not true," but then proceed to get tied in knots over sovereignty.

In both cases, a questioner is trying to drive a person to say something that will be simple, straightforward, but marginalizing. It won't further conversation, but instead it will shut it down. But is there a way to face such things successfully?

I think the answer is yes, and we can learn it from Jesus. When people asked Jesus tough questions that might have seemed to demand yes or no answers, he often refused to play the game. Consider these questions Jesus was asked:

"Can a man divorce his wife for any reason at all?"
"Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?"
"Are you the One who was to come, or should we look for another?"
"By what authority are you doing these things?"
"Are you the king of the Jews?"

When these questions came to Jesus from various sources, Jesus didn't just give simple answers, but did something else. He turned the question into a discussion.

To the divorce question, he asked what the Law said and a discussion began. On the tax question, he avoided offending either Rome or Jewish tradition by going to the coin involved to make a point. To the disciples of John the Baptist, he pointed their eyes to all that was going on and encouraged careful comparison of his work to the Bible's expectations of Messiah. And Pilate was made to think about the source of the animosity toward Jesus.

He redirected the question and truth was discovered as a result. Could this help us? Perhaps it can. Let's look at our examples.

Example 1: A gay person asks a Christian, "So you believe that if I'm gay, I'm going to Hell?" We might answer: "I'm not the authority on who goes to Hell, that's God's right as Creator and Judge. What do you think God might use to decide who might go to Hell?"

Maybe you think that's wimping out, but I would suggest that in the case of someone who is already expecting me to judge them, an answer that turns the question back on them and asks them to reflect on eternal judgment just might open a door for gospel conversation.

Example 2: A skeptic asks a Calvinist, "So, you believe that God has already chosen the saved, so nothing I do changes anything, right?" As a Calvinist, when I get this question, I usually respond, "Do you feel free to ask that question?" It's a weak joke, but I then follow up with, "Are you concerned that you might not be free to seek God?" If a person is at all open to talking about the gospel, this question may well open that door.

Now, you may (like me) feel like it's hard to come up with winsome answers and feel like, when asked, you will probably just say, "uhhh..." But perhaps you can join me in thinking about some of the tough questions we face, and are going to face, and how we might use them to open up possible discussions instead of just telling someone the cold, hard truth. After all, our goal is to win people to Christ, not win one particular debate or argument. 

A final note: never lie, and never deny truth. But realize you don't have to always lead with the final blow.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Unworthy: When Feeling Bad Isn't So Bad

“So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.”  Luke 17:10

Do you have those days when you just don’t feel very good about yourself? I hope so, because I do. It’s not really a pity party or anything like that. It’s more that sense of not being where you wish you were in terms of maturity, or feeling like you should be better, farther along, stronger, more loving, more forgiving, less irritable, more mature, smarter, or wiser than you are at this point in time. I was feeling some of that yesterday morning. And when I think of all the blessings I have, all I’ve experienced, all of the grace and mercy I’ve experienced, and all the lessons I’ve supposedly learned (and even taught), I feel a strong sense of unworthiness of all those kindnesses. There are times when a sense of being unworthy of God’s goodness and grace becomes almost overpowering.
  • When you realize how much you take the goodness of God and others for granted.
  • When you recognize how blessed you are but you don’t feel particularly grateful.
  • When you sense the reality of sin’s consequences in your life but you don’t think about the offense of sin toward the One who died because of it.
  • When you find that you see others receive grace and wonder why, while at the same time needing grace and treating it as a right.
  • When you fall into “that sin” that has been such a challenge in your life right after deciding it was time to change.
  • When you realize that you have been judgmental toward people with obvious sin problems, but you have let your own socially acceptable or easily concealed sins go without a thought.
  • When you think about how long it’s been since you saw yourself as not good, not holy, and not right about almost everything.
These and many other circumstances may shake us and make us alarmingly aware of just how unworthy we are of God’s kindness toward us. And they probably should.
However, Jesus concludes a very sobering dialogue with his disciples about obedience with the statement above—those who have done everything they were supposed to do are not praiseworthy—in fact, they will see themselves as “unworthy servants” –unworthy of any praise or special treatment because all they have done is what they should have done anyway.
Now, there are at least two problems with this passage. First, we tend to think that when we’ve done what we are supposed to do, that we are demonstrating something good and praiseworthy in us. And in this context it just isn’t so. Second, if the people who did everything that they were commanded are “unworthy servants,” what does that make us, if we are doing less than what we are commanded?
The only answer I can come up with is “even more unworthy!” We can’t spiritualize this passage or make it say less than it does. Perfect obedience to all commands doesn’t make us “worthy” of the Master’s (God’s) praise. It only makes us properly obedient to the Master. We who don’t obey perfectly are even less praiseworthy and more “unworthy” of our position.
But at this very point we need to stop thinking about unworthiness and start thinking about grace and the message of the Gospel. Isn’t this the point? Isn’t it the truth we trust in that Christ Jesus came to save “sinners,” not worthy people? Feeling unworthy is actually in line with the truth, but it has no bearing on our standing before God.
am unworthy, and will be unworthy on my very best or worst days. But the worthy One, Jesus, has taken away my guilt, borne my punishment, and applied His perfect righteousness to me. He makes me His co-heir because He wants to, not because He owes me. Discovering my unworthiness ought not to be alarming but simply another “reality check” about me. And it makes the grace of Christ just that much more amazing.