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Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective
The words of Jesus are blunt; unless we submit our lives, our being, to His control, we are not capable of being a Christian. We can pretend, we may think we are doing a great job on our own, but sooner or later something will happen and whatever is really in our heart will show up.
To take just one example: we read exhortations in the Bible about being humble and set about to make ourselves humble. It goes well; soon we think we have this down pat, we’re doing a much better job of being humble than most of the people around us. . .
Whoa! See the problem? We’ve become proud of our humility.
To become a Christian, we must admit that we have hopelessly messed up our life and cannot clean up the mess by ourselves. It’s pretty humbling isn’t it? That’s a good start in Christian life, the right start. However, as time goes on, we start thinking that we’ve got this figured out, we can complete the task of making ourselves Christian by our own understanding and will. When that doesn’t seem to be working out some folks wonder what the problem is. Others see that they have messed up again and turn to Jesus to make a new start.
Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. He has sent the Holy Spirit to help us do what we cannot do. We all know that the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy and peace. But we don’t always remember the other qualities, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness and temperance. Aren’t they a good description of humility?
It is the work of the Holy Spirit in our heart that makes us humble. Our own work on the outer man can’t do it. Our own work can’t do anything at all that will count in eternity.
Now unto him that is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy, to the only wise God our Saviour, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and ever. Amen. (Jude 24-25)
What are we doing, or not doing, that leaves our neighbours uninterested in our faith? Looking at myself, I recognize that I come from a family of opinionated and argumentative people. Some people enjoy a good argument, but it’s not the best way to share the gospel. A whole lot of people are wary of any conversation that threatens to turn into an argument.
Dale Carnegie’s most famous statement was: “You can make more friends in two months by being interested in them, than in two years by making them interested in you.” Some people accused him of being manipulative. Carnegie’s advice can be used in a manipulative way, but being interested in others is not a bad thing.
Can we apply that thought to the way we share the gospel? Isn’t loving our neighbours as ourselves one of the foundations of Christianity? I need to learn to be a better listener. How do I do that? Here are a few thoughts that have come to me.
• Ask questions that invite them to talk about themselves.
• Let the other person do most of the talking.
• Don’t find fault, but try to understand their point of view.
• Respect their opinions; even if we don’t agree, our goal is not to condemn them for things they honestly believe.
• Suggest a better way of seeing things in a way that appeals to their noble instincts.
• Tell our own struggles and experiences when they seem relevant.
• Listen to the other person and to the voice of the Holy Spirit.
• Be patient, let our attitude reveal a settled faith, rooted and grounded in the solid rock.
• Admit it when we make a mistake, or don’t know the answer to aquestion.
• Make the other person feel respected and valued.
A friend, thinking to reprove my affection for cats, told this little fable:
A dog, upon being given shelter, food and lots of affection, begins to worship his master, thinking to himself: “Wow! this man must be a god!”
A cat, upon receiving the same kind of treatment and affection, thinks to himself: “Wow! I must be a god!”
My reaction to the fable was the opposite of what was expected. “So, if I don’t want to get a swelled head and start thinking of myself as a god, I’m better off not having a dog. A cat will keep me humble.”
OK. Dogs and cats don’t have that kind of reasoning ability. But there is a distinct difference in their attitude towards humans. Dogs are dependent on people, having lost the hunting abilities of their wild kin, wolves and coyotes. Dogs who go rogue seem to kill for pleasure rather than because they need a meal..
Feral cats have remarkable survival skills; they are excellent hunters, stealthy and patient. Perhaps for this reason they are more independent in nature. There is reason to suspect that cats became domesticated of their own volition, way back when people began to farm. Stored crops attracted vermin that provided an abundant source of food for cats. A special relationship developed from there, with farmers providing protection for cats in return for services rendered.
However it happened, any cat owner will tell you that the cat believes he is the one in charge. In return he appropriates the best chair in the house, expects to be fed and groomed on his schedule and to be let in or out a dozen times in a day.
Yet he can be affectionate when it suits his mood and has a genius for cuteness, and appears to think he is taking care of us. My cat, who looks much like the one at the top of the page, gets a little antsy when it is time for me to go to bed. When I finally get under the covers, he lays down beside me until I am asleep, then gets up and goes somewhere else. At the first glimmer of dawn he come back to wake me up.
Fifty-five years ago I bought Gordon Lightfoot’s first LP record. Most of the songs were ones he wrote. One, The Pride of Man, was written by Hamilton Camp. The song is based on Biblical prophecies of the fall of Babylon. Every stanza ends with the line “Oh God, the pride of man, broken in the dust again.”
That pretty much describes our situation during this pandemic. My plans, your plans, the plans of people much more important than you and me, they are all broken in the dust. Everything has changed.
Can we accept that? I want to go out, work, visit, shop, go to a coffee shop. It is hard to abandon all those plans for however long this situation may last. Is that an indication that my pride isn’t broken in the dust yet?
The Bible says a lot about our need of humility, but it also warns of the danger of voluntary humility. Voluntary humility is something produced by my own will. Voluntary comes from French, volonté is the French word for will.
It doesn’t work for me to make myself humble by the strength of my own will. Why not? Because, if I can make myself humble, I am going to think that I am doing a much better job of it than you are. I won’t say it, but I will have this smug feeling that I’ve got the hang of this humility thing. That’s the opposite of humility.
What I see in the Bible is the instruction to submit. “Humble yourself in the sight of the Lord.” “Humbles yourself therefore under the mighty had of God.” James is very straightforward: “God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble.
submit yourselves therefore to God.” “Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake.”
I don’t want to submit, I want to do this humble thing by myself, my own way. Therein lies the problem. My pride needs to be broken in the dust.
I fight to retain my freedom, but I don’t know what freedom is until I give up fighting and submit. Them I find my heart and mind aligned with the plans God has for me.
“Oh God, the pride of man, broken in the dust again.” That’s a good thing. May we allow this season of confinement to bring us down to earth where we can think more of others than of ourselves.
These are two of my recent reads, with titles that seem to need a little explanation. Randy Newman’s book, Questioning Evangelism, is not about questioning the value of evangelism, which might be your first impression. Rather, he is advocating asking questions as a means of evangelism.
Forty-five years ago, Tom Skinner published a book entitled If Christ is the Answer, What are the Questions? His theme was that we are not helping anyone find salvation if we prattle on with ready-made answers but don’t know what are the pressing questions of the person to whom we are speaking. Randy Newman takes us down that same road, with suggestions of how to deal with some of the pressing questions of our day.
Yes, Nazis had a conscience. Adolf Hitler was a powerful evangelist for his cause and inspired the masses of the German Volk to believe in his promise of renewed purpose, purity and hope. He proposed himself as the role model of revived German manhood. And yes, he had a hidden agenda. For many years he said very little about his belief that the Jews were the main obstacle to the promised renewal of the German Volk, only dropping hints here and there to reassure those who believed as he did that he was still heading in the right direction.
By the time he got around to putting his final solution into action, he had the German people solidly behind him. When he spoke to a crowd, often for an hour or more, he was very adept at reading their mood and leading them to believe that he alone could bring the renewal for which they longed. In the end, the majority had fully bought into the belief that the only right thing to do was to eliminate those people whom Hitler told them were the obstacle to realizing their dream.
The Nazi Conscience is a chilling book; Claudia Koonz has thoroughly researched the Nazi era and brings to life evidence of how the well-educated German Volk reacted to a charismatic leader who offered them hope.
Why am I juxtaposing these two books, so different in their message? For one thing, I’m not so sure that they are so different. Both books lead me to question the trustworthiness of charismatic leaders who work on people’s emotions. Both books are implicit warnings about having a hidden agenda.
If we are going to share the gospel we need to get to know the people around us, understand their deep questions and longings. We should make sure we understand them before we leap in with an answer. A few thoughtful and considerate questions might help us to understand and lead them to look at things a little differently. That will often be the most appropriate starting point for us.
We should not be looking for the approval of people who think like we do, rather we should try to introduce a new thought to someone who has never looked at things quite that way before. To do that, we need to speak plain English. Slogans and religious jargon that are readily understood by people within our circle are meaningless to those outside that circle.
A popular saying in our day says : “be the change you want to see in the world.” That’s good advice, as long as we don’t think that we have attained to a higher level of understanding and need to help others to climb up to our level.
Another danger is to think that other people’s sins are worse than ours. We can’t help them if we only want to talk about how horrible their sins are and never admit, seem quite oblivious to, our own sins. Our task is to point people to the Creator and the Saviour, not to ourselves.
Sometimes we hear it said that the people around us are not interested in the gospel. Could the real problem be that we are not interested in the people around us? Randy Newman ends his book on a hopeful note:
I believe that the soil in which we now plant gospel seeds is better fertilized. Plausibility structures are being rebuilt. Assumptions are more favourably disposed in our direction. And the notion that faith is relevant to all of life is no longer considered nonsense. The opportunities for evangelistic fruit might be about to increase dramatically.
Questioning Evangelism, Engaging People’s Hearts the Way Jesus Did, © 2014, 2017 by Randy Newman. Published by Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids MI, The quote above is from page 259.
The Nazi Conscience, © 2003 by Claudia Koontz. Published by The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA
A church leader once told me “We have never seen it happen that a church would begin to drift away from the truth and then recover itself. When you see a church begin to drift, it’s time to get out and start over again.”
I have observed a lot of getting out and starting again over the years. Some people have given up on the whole idea of church and just meet at home with a few family or friends.
Where is Jesus in all of this? When Jesus said “upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it,” He meant it. Why are many people today so ready to believe that the gates of hell have prevailed against the church?
The rock is Jesus Himself, not Peter, not the words that Peter spoke. This is made plain when we consider other verses:
1 Corinthians 3:11: For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ.
Isaiah 28:16: Therefore thus saith the Lord GOD, Behold, I lay in Zion for a foundation a stone, a tried stone, a precious corner stone, a sure foundation: he that believeth shall not make haste.
Acts 4:11: This is the stone which was set at nought of you builders, which is become the head of the corner.
The New Testament portrays the church as a building or temple with Jesus as the foundation or corner stone, or as a body, of which Jesus is the head.
Jesus is the architect, the foundation and the builder of the church. Nowhere in the Bible do we read that we mere mortals are called upon to build the church, nor that we are capable of doing so.
People are running to and fro today, trying to find a church that fits their concept of what the church should be. Time after time they are disappointed.
I have been there and done that. After many such disappointments, I began to understand that while I had been searching for a church that fit my design, Jesus had been searching for people like me that He could form and shape to fit into the church that He has designed.
A little humility is in order here. We may be born again and be doing our best to live a life that conforms to our idea of what a Christian should be. But is our idea the same as Jesus’ idea? Just being willing to ask that question might break through our pride and stubbornness and allow Jesus to lead us to something far better than we could attain by our own efforts.
Canadian politics just became much more interesting. Maxime Bernier has withdrawn from the Conservative Party, of which he almost became leader, to found a new political party. He is speaking up about issues that others want to avoid talking about and this has raised a storm of criticism. Perhaps he is starting a movement at just the opportune moment to bring the country back to the principles that unite us. Or perhaps his movement will fizzle out and just be a footnote in history. In either case the next few months promise to be interesting for political observers.
However, for those of us who are Christians, we must remember one thing: in politics we must remain spectators, not participants. Politics is a dirty business and no one who engages in politics, however pure his intentions, can avoid becoming soiled. Politics is he art of the compromise, but a compromise is seldom reached before a lot of grime and slime is slung about. Christians cannot win at such a game, unless they cease speaking and acting like Christians.
In the church we must be participants, not mere spectators. If we think the purpose of the church is to provide spiritual entertainment, we will be disappointed. But if we are looking for something to do that is meaningful and fulfilling, the church has a place for us. It may not be highly visible, but if that’s what we want we should ask ourselves if we understand what truly matters in life. There are people in the church who see things differently than we do. Listen to them, perhaps we have missed something. We should speak freely about the things that matter to us that they may have missed. We need to love them, and be lovable. Above all, follow the promoting of the Holy Spirit and trust that they are doing that too. When we are all led by the Holy Spirit the work we are doing will result in something far better than any one of us could have planned.