Thursday, 11 March 2010

Thinking Thursday: Look Both Ways

I was flicking through a magazine recently when a title caught my eye in an advert for gospel leaflets. It was called “Look Both Ways”. I have no idea what the leaflet was about, but the title struck me as very appropriate for the message we bring. When we first begin to talk to people of other faiths (or no faith) it soon becomes apparent that arguing and telling them they are going to hell doesn’t work. No one can be forced to believe something, or stop believing in something. Being antagonistic does not persuade them to listen to us. We need a gentler approach. Peter told us to answer people “with gentleness and respect” (1 Pet.3: 15b). The best way is not to try to dictate to people what they should believe, just to ask that before they make a decision, they ‘Look Both Ways’. The phrase I usually use is to ask them to make an informed decision.

People are usually much more receptive to this suggestion, believing that their faith will stand up under scrutiny. If we can keep their minds open, a bit of research will often open their eyes too.

When I began to think about God and religion in my teens, two smart young men knocked at my door and began to talk to me about the love of God and the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. They began to teach me and my family, and with little or no religious background to compare it with, it all sounded really Christian. The result was that my whole family joined the Mormon Church.

Once in, we had no reason to look elsewhere because we believed we had found the truth. It was 18 years later that I was willing to read the book of Romans without any preconceptions – and I discovered grace. Like most other faiths, Mormonism teaches salvation by works. To discover the grace of God when I was already deeply concerned about my failure to keep all the commandments, all the time, was a shock. I began to ‘Look Both Ways’. And then I gradually discovered all the other things in the Bible that were different in Mormonism.

Yet during those 18 years I had had many arguments with Christians and Jehovah’s Witnesses, and I had always defended my faith. I was not prepared to believe that my faith, which was so precious to me, could be so wrong. I had to find it out for myself.

This is no longer a Christian country and people do not grow up with a grounding in Christian teaching or a knowledge of the Bible. A Jehovah’s Witness at my door the other day complained that their work is harder these days because people have no Bible and cannot discuss faith with them. When someone begins to consider spiritual things they are not equipped to make sound judgements. There is a great need for people who will show them the alternatives and teach them to investigate and weigh up before they commit themselves.

In the years since I became a Christian, I have found over and over again that Christianity is the only faith that stands up under scrutiny. Becoming a Christian is not an intellectual exercise, but it does make intellectual sense.

Once someone has recognised their hunger for God and begun to look in the wrong place, it is not necessary to bombard them with great arguments – and possibly drive them away. That way you can sometimes win the battle but lose the war. It is up to us as Christians to gain their trust and encourage them to investigate further. Then you can give them some appropriate information and ask them to ‘Look Both Ways’.

This provokes the question “What ‘appropriate information’ do we give them?” If we are going to ask people to ‘Look Both Ways’ we have to be able to present the alternative. It is a sad fact that many Christians, having looked to Christ for their salvation, never look any further. I am amazed at the number of ignorant Christians who can’t explain what they believe or why they believe it. Not only does study deepen our understanding, it deepens our faith and our relationship with God. And how can we proclaim the Good News if we don’t know what it is? “How can they hear without someone preaching to them?” (Rom.10: 14) Many Christians don’t share their faith because they are afraid they won’t be able to answer questions. “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” (1 Pet.3: 15)

Another part of that preparation can be learning to look at things from their perspective. Find out what they believe and why. Find out what concerns them and what sort of questions they would ask. Then prepare yourself so you know how to answer them and address their concerns from the Bible. In my work over the years as a Christian trying to reach out to Mormons I have been amazed at the development of my own faith as I have sought answers to their questions. ‘Look Both Ways’ benefits us as well.

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