Sometimes people ask me, “Why are you a Christian?” I like to tell them that I am a Christian because Christianity is true. I say that for two reasons: First, people are often expecting some kind of a testimonial and I like to subvert expectations; and second, the reason I am still a Christian has little to do with my testimony. Notice I said, “still a Christian.” I actually started going to church because I experienced God as I was weeping in the bushes outside a hospital in downtown San Diego. Maybe I will share that story another day; the point is I started going to church almost immediately. While at church the pastor asked if anyone wanted to pray with him to receive Christ. I raised my hand and the rest is history.
Soon after I decided to follow Jesus I came across an argument for the truthfulness of Christianity as it relates to the resurrection of Christ. Some of those minimal facts are as follows: 1) Jesus died on the cross; 2) His tomb was found empty several days later; 3) His disciples gave eyewitness testimony claiming to see Jesus alive (and suffered for it). I realized that I needed to draw a conclusion that dealt fairly with these minimal facts; and ultimately I concluded that the best explanation for those facts was that Jesus did indeed come back from the dead.
More than that, I became excited with the minimal facts of the resurrection as an argument in and of itself. That is, I was surprised that there could be a rational way of looking at the evidence in order to assess one’s own belief in Jesus, and I wanted everyone else to have the chance to weigh the argument (and others) for themselves before dismissing Christianity. I quickly immersed myself in all things apologetics. As a matter of fact, when I decided to get my degree in Theology, I supplemented the class readings with my own apologetic-centric texts.
When I began studying apologetics I quickly realized two things: First, Christianity has spent two thousand years thinking about and addressing a wide range of topics. So there is a ton of information to absorb, which was a little daunting for me in the beginning. Second, not a lot of people know the answers that Christianity has given to various challenges by non-believers; and that simultaneously concerned and excited me in the sense that I immediately had the desire to tell everyone about the compelling aspects of my faith that they might not have considered. Once I got certain things down, like the Kalam Cosmological Argument or the Teleological Argument or the various historical views on Theodicy, I immediately wanted to proclaim them from the rooftops. Consequently, everyone that mentioned Christianity (and I do mean everyone) got an earful from me on those topics.
I was spiritually a young pup at this point in my walk with God and I, therefore, did not realize an important biblical principle with regard to engaging folks. It actually took me several years to realize this, and here it is: Not everyone deserves an answer.
At the outset this might seem controversial; that is, maybe I am advocating for Christians to refuse the Great Commission given by Jesus. Actually, I am not advocating for that. What I am saying is: We need to discern who is willing to hear the truth and who is not before we fully engage.
The Book of Proverbs is replete with warnings against dealing with mockers, scoffers, and fools:
- “He who corrects a scoffer gets dishonor for himself, and he who reproves a wicked man gets insults for himself” (Proverbs 9:7)
- “A scoffer does not love one who reproves him, he will not go to the wise” (Proverbs 15:12)
- “Do not speak in the hearing of a fool, for he will despise the wisdom of your words” (Proverbs 23:9)
What strikes me when I think about these passages, particularly about the last one, is that the scoffer, mocker, and fool is explicitly identified on the page but not so much in real life, at least not at first. So unless these folks walk around with a virtual sign around their neck advertising their disposition (and some surely do), we need to dip our toes into the water so to speak. But once we discover that we are dealing with these kinds of folks, we are not obliged to engage.
Jesus said, “Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces” (Matthew 7:6). I do not think Jesus’ words here simply apply to correction (as it comes out of that context in vv. 1-5) because, later, He gives His apostles the same principle command as it relates to the Gospel specifically: “Whoever does not receive you, nor heed your words, as you go out of that house or that city, shake the dust off your feet” (10:14). In other words, share the Gospel but if you encounter people that are not receptive move on. We are not obliged to persuade or convince those who would trample the Gospel under their feet.
More instructive than Jesus’ teaching in this regard is His own example; that is, Christ did not answer everyone who questioned Him. Consider the time the chief priests and the scribes questioned Jesus’ authority in the temple: “Tell us by what authority You are doing these things, or who is the one who gave You this authority” (Luke 20:2)? Now, it should be obvious that this is not a sincere question of authority. For, as Gamaliel indirectly points out later, in Acts 5:39, it could be the case that Jesus’ (and by extension His disciples’) good works are from God. Rather, I think it is clear that the chief priests and scribes came to pick a fight with Jesus. Notice how He responds: “I will also ask you a question, and you tell Me: Was the baptism of John from heaven or from men” (Luke 20:3)? The Bible says that the priests and scribes struggled to come up with an answer that was advantageous for their purposes; so they simply shrugged their shoulders and claimed ignorance, to which Jesus replied, “Nor will I tell you by what authority I do these things” (v. 8).
Now, if we did not know better, we might chide Jesus for missing an opportunity to share the Gospel with these priests and scribes; except I think He knew that they were not going to be receptive to His message and chose not to engage. We especially see Christ choosing not to engage some of his accusers when He is arrested. Take Herod for example: “Now Herod was very glad when he saw Jesus; for he had wanted to see Him for a long time, because he had been hearing about Him and was hoping to see some sign performed by Him. And he questioned Him at some length; but He answered him nothing” (Luke 23:8-9). Herod’s hope was not to determine whether Jesus was innocent or to receive any wisdom or truth but to watch Him perform a miracle. So, as with the priests and scribes, Jesus chose not to engage.
As I mentioned earlier I missed this important principle of choosing whom to engage and, thus, engaged everyone, including folks who were clearly antagonistic towards Christianity. And no matter what I said or did, even if my points went over flawlessly, these people would change the subject, resort to name-calling, deny the arguments anyway, or all of the above. Engaging these folks is exhausting and frustrating and altogether unproductive because it seems to me that a lot of them feed off the constant disputation, this adversarial back-and-forth that eventually leads to nowhere because they have already decided that nothing anyone says will change their mind.
Remember, Jesus said that He is the Shepherd that “calls his own sheep by name… and the sheep follow him because they know his voice” (John 10:3-4). Practically, a sheep that hears his Shepherd’s voice looks like someone willing to consider what we have to say without spewing venom in return, someone willing to ask genuine questions without resorting to intellectual dishonesty, in short, someone who is made willing by the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit convicting his heart (John 16:8). This requires a bit of a balancing act because, on the one hand, Paul tells us to make the most out of every opportunity (Colossians 4:5), but on the other Jesus (and Proverbs) distinguishes for us what true opportunities look like.
I know that I turned people off and strained friendships and other relationships when I first started out because I did not understand this important principle. And I have had to repent for being contentious and rude in my attempts to engage every single person. But I do see the wisdom in using discernment with whom to engage; and I pray that God grant us all the wisdom to distinguish between the sheep that hear their Shepherd’s voice and those that would seek to trample what is holy under their feet.