“How can you possibly believe that?” The question from John1, a work colleague, took me aback. The arrows were flying fast and I felt I was caught without my armour. “I mean, how could a loving God possibly allow the suffering we see in our world? The rape and murder of even one innocent child is enough to convince me that God couldn’t possibly exist!”
I had started my job as a pilot with the Royal Flying Doctor Service of Australia a few months earlier but, as always, felt that my job was secondary to my calling—to introduce Jesus to my colleagues and friends. But I had run into some turbulence along the way. Despite having an Adventist education, attending church regularly and growing daily in my relationship with the Lord, somehow I always ended up frustrated in my conversations with intellectuals who didn’t share my faith.
My attempts to steer conversations toward spiritual themes were repeatedly thwarted, and in one sweeping remark a colleague could write off everything I had just said. I was getting discouraged.
It was not long after this conversation with my colleague that I began studying Christian apologetics. I was amazed to find that there are some simple strategies I could adopt when faced with questions like John’s. Of course, it is always the Holy Spirit who convicts and draws people closer to God. The strategies I describe are simply tools any of us can use in our efforts to cooperate with the leading of the Holy Spirit. These strategies are especially useful for interacting with people we are likely to meet again. Some variation may be necessary for one-off encounters.
1. Resist the urge to react defensively
When someone makes a sweeping statement like “God couldn’t possibly exist”, it’s very tempting to jump to His defence with a retort like, “But He does! I know He does!” or “There’s so much evidence that God exists—think about the complexity of creation!”
While well-meaning, these responses are not likely to convince an educated sceptic and while you are explaining yourself, your friend is probably preparing the next question to stump you, rather than carefully listening to your response. Don’t fall for the temptation to defend yourself; you have a much more important victory to win.
2. Ask questions
A far more powerful tactic is to ask gentle, sincere, yet searching questions. Most people are more interested in telling us what they think than listening to a discourse about what we think. A well-placed question can give you valuable insight into why your friend holds to her current position and can even help her to scrutinise her worldview.
Imagine a conversation like this. “Do you really believe the Bible?” your friend asks. “Everybody knows it’s just a book of fairy tales.”
It’s tempting to answer, “Yes, I do; it is the Word of God” or “The prophecies of Daniel prove the Bible is true”, but these answers are likely to attract a further sarcastic remark. What can you do now?
This is a situation where asking a question can help. Try something like this: “Wow, I am interested by your statement; it sounds like you have given this some thought. Do you mind if I ask why you have concluded that it is a bunch of fairy tales?” This question takes the focus from a supposed majority opinion to a personal one: “Why do you think . . .?” If he responds with “Everybody knows” or “Haven’t you read all the books . . .?”, politely but clearly redirect the burden of proof back to him. Respond by saying, “Can you give me a specific example?” Or alternatively, “Which scholar are you referring to? Why do you suspect his or her conclusions are reliable?”
The purpose of your questions is to glean additional information, clarify his view and place the burden of proof back onto him. It is your job to play jury, not defence. As Ellen White said so eloquently, “Truth is straight, plain, clear, and stands out boldly in its own defence; but it is not so with error. It is so winding and twisting that it needs a multitude of words to explain it in its crooked form.” [pullquote]
Don’t be disconcerted by impressive sounding yet vague assertions such as “everybody knows . . .” If you are genuinely out of your depth, try something like this: “Wow, you’ve made an interesting point. I’m not an expert on this topic but I want to do some research and get to the bottom of it. How does Thursday sound?” We become more credible when we openly admit our weak points, so that when we do make statements, there is more reason for our colleague to take us seriously.
As your friend answers your questions, listen carefully to what she says and possibly also to what she does not say. Many times a logical objection is merely a smokescreen for an emotional objection. For example, I’ve met a significant number of people who say they can’t believe in God for various logical reasons, but after conversing for a while, it is clear that the real issue is often disappointment because God didn’t heal a loved one or they were hurt by hypocrites in the church or other similar reasons.
Another of my colleagues professes to be atheist, but after many conversations, she finally revealed that the real reason for her dismissal of God was the premature death of her mother and her perception of God’s role in that loss. If you listen carefully you may be able to discern what your friend’s underlying objection is, and this is invaluable when you plan your next step.
4. Leave a “stone in their shoe”
Rather than trying to convert your friend to Christianity in one conversation, it is often more effective to simply “put a stone in their shoe”, as Gregory Koukl calls it.2 A stone in the shoe is something your friend can’t ignore—a piece of information that doesn’t fit with their current worldview or a question their current viewpoint doesn’t provide a satisfying answer for. As they cogitate, it will be uncomfortable, just like a stone in their shoe.
In one of our examples above, where we were asked about the Bible, now is the time you might say, “I’ve come across some evidence for the reliability of the Bible. I’d be interested to hear next time if you think my evidence will stand up to your scrutiny.” Alternatively, you might simply leave your friend with a question to ponder such as, “Earlier in our conversation I got the impression that you saw Jesus as a good man, a moral teacher perhaps, but not really a divine being. Do you think it’s possible to call Jesus a good moral teacher if he is a liar, or deluded? How would you process His divinity claims?” This type of “stone” forces your friend to re-evaluate the beliefs he currently holds. If he realises his worldview is not as solid as he first thought, he will at some point be required to make a weighty decision and he may even come to you for advice. This is when you can begin to share with him some of the reasons for your faith.
5. Remember to distinguish ideas from people
A final reminder is to make a distinction in the way we treat people as opposed to how we treat ideas. As Seventh-day Adventists, we believe people are made in God’s image and are the focus of His plan of salvation. This gives each and every person incredible value.
As Adventists, we also believe in objective truth, meaning that some ideas are inherently better than others. We live in a culture that claims all ideas are equal. Relativism is the flavour of the day, meaning that your ideas are good for you and my ideas are good for me. In all our interactions with people, we should clearly show that people are equal but ideas are not.
Reveal in your body language, in your tone of voice, words and actions, that you value your friend. Make it so warm and safe for her that she picks you as her first choice confidant. The ideas you share will then be stripped of emotional baggage and stand or fall on their merits, and both of you will see this happen without even trying!
You may wonder what happened with my colleague John, who was so concerned about the suffering he saw in the world. John and I have had many conversations over the course of the past nine years, ranging from suffering to homosexuality to the historicity of Jesus. He still wouldn’t consider himself a Christian—not yet anyway. Yet he has admitted to me privately that he prefers to cling to his views despite the evidence and logic, rather than because of it. This is an about-face from his initial fortress of beliefs and, hopefully, in the dark of night, he will allow the warmth of God’s love to infiltrate. I continue to pray for John regularly and I know the Holy Spirit is continuing to work on his heart. For some of our friends and colleagues, the road to belief may be a long and winding one. Yet we are assured that it is worth it in the end because all heaven will rejoice when just one sinner comes home.
Nathan Tasker lives in Port Augusta, South Australia, where he works for the Royal Flying Doctor Service of Australia.