By Maggie Ulmer –
People come to faith in all kinds of ways. God will use anything and everything if it permits him access to the human heart. I know of a young man raised in a Christian family who adopted the moral and ethical frameworks of Christianity, yet he remained largely untouched by conviction in the existence of God until he read C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. Something about Lewis’ arguments broke down the internal intellectual structure he had made against God. The young man was consumed with deep certainty that there was, in fact, a God – and Jesus Christ was this God. Another woman I know came to faith because she finally allowed a Christian friend to pray for her, and she experienced supernatural assurance of God’s love for her, which led her to accept Christ as her Lord. The common element in these two instances, and I would argue in most cases, is an honest openness to truth.
Some of us actively research the claims of Jesus, like Lee Strobel famously does in The Case for Christ, and some of us seem to trip into a life of faith, but every follower of Jesus has a moment of encounter like Moses. We see something strange, decide to investigate, and then realize we’re standing on holy ground. As a result of his willingness to “go and see,” every part of Moses’ life is changed and he became the executor of God’s deliverance of the Hebrews from bondage. An inverse refrain, “Come and see,” is spoken throughout the Gospel of John as the disciples are gathered to Christ, with the same transformative intention. The invitation is an appeal to see, just as Moses did, and perceive the unfolding reality of Jesus. The divine grace that prepares the human heart to respond to Christ is “prevenient” or “preventing” grace. John Wesley describes these first moments of spiritual awareness as “the first wish to please God, the first dawn of light concerning his will … All these imply some tendency toward life; some degree of salvation; the beginning of a deliverance from a blind, unfeeling heart, quite insensible of God and the things of God” (“On Working Out Our Own Salvation”).
It’s hard to say why some see and some don’t. The Parable of the Sower illuminates the reality that the seeds of the gospel land on a variety of soils both prepared and unprepared to receive the good news. Many encountered Christ during his ministry but missed the truth of who he was. At the end of chapter 9 in the Gospel of Luke, Christ describes the cost of a life given to him; we see there are those Christ calls to follow him but they seem to hesitate, asking to tend to family matters before they do so. Christ’s response is definite, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62).
We shouldn’t read this statement as a permanent rejection of those who don’t “get it” the first time; it’s not that at all. Christ is simply saying that those who constantly meditate on the past, and on what is left behind, will miss the revelation happening before them. Those people are not yet ready to serve the purposes of God, but they could be, if they would turn and see the strangeness of Jesus. There are also those who claim to seek the truth of God but in reality have already decided what they believe for one reason or another, and in essence choose to remain in error. C.S. Lewis refers to this type of person as one who “has lost his intellectual virginity” (God in the Dock). Someone who has lost his or her intellectual virginity intentionally evades reason, sound argument, and evidence in an effort to protect a preferred intellectual narrative. Unfortunately this type of behavior among believers is sometimes coddled in the church. Kind-hearted ministry leaders will often cite the Parable of the Lost Sheep as a rationale for excusing this kind of mental dishonesty. But sheep who are in the church know exactly where their earthly and heavenly shepherds are. They aren’t lost; they’re in rebellion.
It’s tempting to be dismissive of those who reject God or find the teachings of Christianity primitive, and certainly there is no need to pour good teaching into those who delight in defiance and make mockery of faith. But what do we do when we love people who are unbelieving and perhaps even hostile to faith? How do we tell them that we long for them to know how desperately they are loved by the Lord, even as they reject him?
My own father was an avowed secular humanist. Over many years of debate and discussion with my spiritual step-mother, he became a barely tolerant and often lapsing agnostic. My own whole-hearted embrace of orthodox Christianity baffled him. He was a reader of Bultmann, Dawkins, Kant, Sartre, and others. When I was quite new in my faith, about 14, he once told me he felt my practice of Christianity was probably a harmless intellectual exploration and that it would make me a better person – after all, if one were to boil the whole of the Christian philosophy down to a phrase it would be, “Be nice.” I don’t share these things to malign my father. I love and admire him even in the midst of my profound frustration with him. Our many conversations over the years contributed to my ability to give a defense of my hope in Christ, and my daughterly love for him helped me do so (most of the time) kindly.
That being said, our skirmishes over faith weren’t always without injury. I remember losing my temper after one particularly contentious debate. I was a young woman and unable to answer one of his rebukes of Christianity. I felt confused and ashamed, as if I’d failed at something of great importance. In prayer that evening the Lord made very clear to me how badly I misunderstood my role as a witnessing Christian in my father’s life. The Lord showed me I could not convert my dad, or anyone else for that matter, by winning an argument. Furthermore, I would never win an argument to which my father had already determined the conclusion. I was devastated and felt completely helpless. But this moment illuminated two things that drove me to my knees on behalf of my father and in thanksgiving of God’s lovingkindness. First and most importantly, I remembered I did not save myself. I am not a Christian because I had the power or the cognitive insight to reveal God to myself, nor was my faith the result of being convinced by another human being. Without the prevenient grace of God I would not even be capable of understanding my need for him. The grace that prepared me to receive the come-and-see invitation was ultimately the result and work of God himself, and I should have no expectation of being able to accomplish that work in someone else. Second, I understood that if God was correcting me, that must mean he would teach me the better way to witness to my dad and others who struggle in doubt and reject faith. The Lord showed me that the best approach includes steadfast prayer for the hearts of unbelievers and simple, gentle invitations rooted in humble remembrance of my own rescue. Constant abiding in the presence of Christ creates the opportunity to extend his invitation to others. It may sound silly, but I remind myself often that I am someone’s burning-bush, and so are you! We carry the Spirit of God in us; we are purified but not burned up. We are a strange sight in this cacophony of powers and principalities. What a privilege it is to invite someone onto the holy ground of our transformed lives!
For many years after that last failed debate I did not bring up religion with my father. But I did pray for him. Not long before he died I sat next to his sick bed. He was no longer able to read, so I read aloud to him from a book he had become increasingly fascinated with, the book of Ruth. After reading the first chapter of Ruth to him for a third time he finally asked in exasperation, speaking of Ruth: “Why would she do that? Why would she leave everything she knows for her mother-in-law, who can’t give her anything?” I began to flounder for an answer when a childhood memory came to mind and, without fully understanding why, I asked him if he also remembered it.
When I was young, Dad took my sister and me on a camping trip up and down the Pacific Coast Highway when I was about 9 years old. My favorite parts of the trip were the times when we would drive at night. I sat in the front seat of the rambling Chevy conversion van and dad and I would talk about “serious things.” One such evening we drove with the windows down along the coast. I could hear the ocean and smell the salt mixed with the Monterey pine trees, the air was the perfect temperature, the sky was clear, and the stars and the moon were bright enough to throw shadows through the trees onto the road. In that moment I was overcome by a deep, and expansive love and I stuck my arms and head out the window of the moving van and shouted: “I love everything!” Upon flopping back into my seat I asked my dad: “Who is God?”
As I retold the story, Dad smiled. He admitted my question had caught him off guard and he remembered fumbling for an answer, not knowing what to say. Then I asked him if he remembered what happened the next day.
After getting a late start, Dad only drove a couple hours before pulling onto the shoulder of the highway near a scenic view of the ocean to make lunch. It wasn’t long after settling back into our seats to resume our journey that we realized the van was stuck. The combination of the soft sandy soil of coastal California, the early morning rain, and our parking location at the bottom of a steep incline meant the ground was saturated with moisture and gave no resistance to the spinning rear wheels of the van. No matter what Dad tried, he couldn’t get the van unstuck. At this point, with no motorists stopping to help, Dad was faced with the possibility of trekking down Route 1 with his young daughters in tow. I remember my Dad pounding the steering wheel and muttering under his breath; it was unusual for him to lose his cool. But no sooner had he done so than a battered, primer-white hatchback came zipping around the curving highway and pulled directly in front of us. The driver was a young man. He and Dad spoke for a few moments through Dad’s driver-side window.
I remember hearing the gloppy suction sound the stranger’s work boots made in the mud as he walked to the back of his car and proceeded to pull a heavy chain from the trunk to hook to the front of Dad’s Chevy. In a few moments we were free from the muddy shoulder. Disobeying Dad’s instructions to stay in the car while he spoke with our good-samaritan, I scrambled out of the van and stood next to my father while he profusely thanked the stranger. Dad took some cash out of his wallet and offered it to the man as a show of gratitude, but the young man waved his hand, turning the money down, and simply said, “Don’t thank me, thank Jesus Christ.”
Then the man looked at me and playfully tapped me on the nose, turned, got in his car and drove away.
The weight of what I was asking Dad to consider, that the God of the universe would answer the question of a nine-year-old girl, hung in the air between us. I had made that connection before this moment, but what I didn’t expect was that my father would begin to choke back tears and tell me that when we were stuck on the side of the road and he pounded the steering wheel with his fists, he had said a prayer. It was a short, defensive, angry prayer, but prayer nonetheless. “Well,” he asked, “where are you?”
My father did not know that our God is an incarnational God. A God who is with us. A God who does not require us to know all of the answers. A God who prepares a path to our hearts for himself even before we know him. A God who works through simple invitations. Dad believed he was alone and that he had to fix everything on his own, and that his value was of his own making. But something about that moment caused him to make the smallest appeal to the slightest possibility that there could, maybe, perhaps, be a God who could come rescue him and his daughters out of a ditch.
Why would God do that?
Why would a gentile sinner who has no place among God’s people cling to a woman who is rejecting her and say: “Where you go, I will go?” Why would the God of all creation who has no need for any of us, cling to us as we reject him and say, “ Where you go I will go?”
It’s a simple answer. It’s because he loves us.
Maggie Ulmer is Resource Director for Spirit & Truth Managing Editor of Firebrand, and one of the hosts of Plain Truth: A Holy Spirited Podcast. This article first appeared at Firebrand (firebrandmag.com) and is reprinted here by permission.