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Friday, October 28, 2011

The Struggle to Believe

NOTE: This is Part 2 of a true story about Ben & Kathy and their journey to Christ. If you haven't read Part 1, Listening-In On The Home Team Huddle, you can do so by clicking here.
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The sun was just starting to set as we pulled up to Ben & Kathy’s house. It had been a long drive across the western plains. The kids were tired and we had to get right back on the road the next morning, but tonight was going to be a special time with old friends.

After completing their tour of duty in the U.S. Marine Corps, Ben & Kathy returned to Ben’s home town in rural Nebraska, population 300, and we arranged to spend the night with them on our long trek across the country.

It had been 5 years since we last saw them; 6 years since we first met at the seminar.

We kept in touch as best we could over the years – that is, as best one could while living in Japan during the days before the internet – and this was our first chance to really catch-up.

The last time we saw them, they were getting ready to board a plane for their next duty assignment and Kathy’s parting words to me were: “Sorry, Bill, I just don’t buy it!”

We didn’t have to ask what she meant, we already knew. Kathy had always been completely candid with us, something we deeply appreciated, but we also knew that nothing would have pleased her more (or us) than to report on a last minute breakthrough in her journey toward Christ.

Kathy sincerely wanted to “believe” but, even after many hours investigating and discussing the claims of Christ together, still found “faith” difficult to embrace. We knew her well enough to know that her parting words were more a statement of painful regret than of stubborn resistance, and that she would gladly settle the matter, if only she could.

“That’s okay, we’ll keep praying……but we can still be friends, right?” I teased, as we watched them hand their tickets to the attendant and head down the walkway.

It was hard to see them go. Our role in their lives had come to a screeching halt and we couldn’t help but feel a bit melancholy as we waved good-bye.

I knew the road to faith was a process, sometimes even a tedious one, and though we had high hopes that it would all come together for Kathy before departing, it was not to be.

If success in evangelism is measured solely by whether or not a person “prays the prayer,” than this could easily have been viewed as a great disappointment. However, if success is measured by obstacles removed in a person’s journey toward Christ – seeing a person move one step closer to Him in the process – than we have every reason to rejoice, and rejoice we did!

When Ben & Kathy first identified themselves to me and asked to continue attending my 12-week evangelism class without alerting the others in the group to their “true identity,” I feared it would do more harm than good, but I was wrong.

Week after week they faithfully showed up to listen-in as we grappled with our “less than stellar” attitudes toward people who did not share our beliefs, and plotted our often “manipulative” strategies on how to win people like Kathy to Christ.

Occasionally they even heard a heartfelt admission of regret by a few in the group who felt they were not living up to what they professed to believe or were simply not making the effort necessary to relate to the people around them in meaningful ways.

The vulnerability that some people showed actually turned out to be quite refreshing to Kathy. I didn’t know it at the time, but she had been “verbally assaulted” a number of times in the past by overly zealous Christians. If she wasn’t willing to see it their way, which was most of the time, her questions and comments were often viewed as an affront, making heartfelt interaction all but impossible. Hearing some people in the class express disapproval for this kind of behavior restored some credibility in Kathy’s eyes, which was definitely a step in the right direction.

Though it turned out better than expected, the evangelism class was obviously not the most suitable vehicle to meet their needs. When it was all over we invited them, and another couple like them, to read the Bible with us in our home, and they accepted.

Our goal was to create a “non-religious” environment where it was “safe” to wrestle with unbelief; where it was safe to ask outlandish questions; and where it was safe to have an opinion different than mine, even if it was offensive.

This was not about winning an argument or introducing people to a set of beliefs; this was about introducing them to a person, the person of Jesus Christ; and, as is true in any relationship, involved personal discovery and time, not just the conveying of cold, hard facts.

As such, we focused on reading and discussing each passage with two simple questions in mind as a springboard: 
1) Who is Jesus, both from His own perspective and from the perspective of the people in each story?
2) What can we learn from Him and His teaching about ourselves, about life, and about living?
Rather than seeking to “cover the material,” the intent was simply to ponder the claims of Christ along with them, as learners ourselves. Having no church background or Bible knowledge whatsoever, it was all particularly new to Kathy. Even if we were only able to scratch the surface, or they failed to grasp the obvious, our intent was simply to trust the Spirit of God, to take the Word of God, to reveal the Son of God to each person; in His timing and at a pace appropriate for them.

In an environment like that, it didn’t take long to build genuine trust, making it increasingly possible to open up our lives to each other and relate from the heart. And, it was by no means a one-way street! Ben & Kathy were just as instrumental in our lives as we were in theirs. In fact, we became such good friends that I felt completely free to approach them one day with a very unusual request of my own.

I was conducting another lifestyle evangelism class, this time with a couple dozen Christian friends in my home, and I invited Ben & Kathy to come and talk to us as our special guest speaker and they accepted!

The way I saw it, as "graduates" of one of my previous evangelism classes, Ben & Kathy not only knew the material well, they understood the whole process through first-hand experience in their own struggle to believe.

The interesting thing, of course, was that they didn't see the process through the eyes of the messenger, but through the eyes of the receiver, who just happened to be in the middle of the journey themselves! My goal was to help people in the new evangelism class to wrestle with things from the “receiver’s” perspective, and Ben & Kathy were the perfect choice to get us thinking along these lines.

When the day came, we set up a video camera in my living room and decided to conduct an interview style discussion, mainly with Kathy, leaving plenty of time for people to ask questions at the end.

From the start I set the ground rules for our evening together.

“We were here to learn from Kathy,” I told the group, “to try to see things from her perspective; to understand the struggles she has with the Bible, Christians, and faith; to learn about ourselves and see the way at least a few of the non-Christians in our lives might view things.”

Furthermore, I told them that Kathy was not the one “on trial,” we were; that they could ask her any question on the condition that she be treated as our guest. As such, we were not here to argue with her, pressure her, or prove her wrong. We were here to enter her world and see things from her point of view.

Wow! What a night it was! I still have the video and may post the transcripts someday (or even the video itself after converting it to digital), but it was such a “God inspired moment” that I have often used segments of the video in subsequent evangelism classes over the years to help prompt people to think along the same lines.

Nobody wants to hear how we’re truly perceived; nobody wants to hear how inconsistencies between life and message severely damage our credibility and the credibility of our message; nobody wants to hear about the many legitimate obstacles people encounter on their journey to Christ; but we need to hear it if we are going to take the Great Commission seriously.

Kathy had the green light to “tell it like it is” that night, and I couldn’t have been more delighted by the gracious interaction that took place. At first, some people thought Kathy was just a “plant,” someone pretending to be a non-Christian, but as it became apparent that she was “the real McCoy” it turned into an eye-opening evening of deeply meaningful discussion.

During the question and answer time, an amazing thing happened that really had nothing to do with Kathy or the intent of the evening – it was Ben!

Up to this point I’ve said very little about him and you may have been wondering where he was in all this, having grown up in the Lutheran Church and all. Actually, I really didn’t know for sure myself at the time. That is, until the night of Kathy’s interview!

When the evening was nearly over, someone asked a question that Ben wanted to comment on. As he was answering the question, Ben nonchalantly said something, almost as a side note to his main point, which took me completely by surprise. In so many words he said:
“……but it wasn't until a few weeks ago in my office that I told God I was sick and tired of the way I was living my life and decided to turn things over to Him…… ”
He went on to finish answering the question without further comment on this brief side note, but as soon as the meeting was over I pulled him aside and said: “Ben, tell me more! What’s this about your office……back up to the time in your office and tell me again what happened a few weeks ago?”

As we chatted it became as plain as the nose on my face that Ben had placed his trust in Christ that day in his office – completely at the prompting of the Holy Spirit! Not only was Ben a new creature in Christ, but Kathy now had a front row seat into the miracle of a transformed life as, right before her eyes, her tough Marine husband was slowly growing into the image of Christ – wow!

Obviously God was at work in ways we had never imagined, and it didn’t stop with Ben!

When we pulled up to their house in Nebraska 5 years later, we had no idea what to expect. We knew Kathy was still searching for answers, and that both she and Ben were exhausted by her struggle to believe, but we were out of touch too long and didn't have a good feel for their situation.

After putting the kids to sleep, the four of us sat in their living room talking until the wee hours of the morning. As Kathy brought us up to date, it became clear that her journey toward Christ did not come to a halt when we parted company 5 years earlier. Not by a long shot! In fact, it was quite apparent that it only intensified despite her relative isolation living in the middle of the Nebraska corn belt.

But there was something else that was becoming obvious, something I never expected to see during our very brief stopover. Kathy's questions had, for the most part, been answered.

When we first started investigating the claims of Christ together, Kathy's struggle had more to do with intellectual and emotional issues about faith. With no church background or previous Bible knowledge, she understandably had questions like:

  • Is the Bible historically accurate? Where did it come from? Is it true? Can it be trusted?
  • Who is Jesus? Is He merely a good teacher or is He God? Is Jesus really who He says He is?
  • Do miracles really exist? Did Jesus really perform miracles? Did He really rise from the dead?
  • What about injustice in the world? Why does God appear to be so indifferent to suffering? Why doesn't He step in and do something? Why doesn't He make Himself plainly known? Why all the riddles and the tests?
  • What difference does it make to believe? Does faith actually work or is it just a nice saying to put on a plaque and hang on the wall? How does one believe anyway?
  • Does faith make a difference in the lives of the people I know who claim to believe? Are they for real? Do they seem credible and trustworthy?
  • How do I really feel about God? About Jesus? About the Bible? About Christians? About becoming “one of them?”

Kathy had been working through these issues for years! Though she and Ben feared she would be struggling with them for many more years to come, it was quite obvious to me that God had been faithfully moving Kathy along in her journey toward Him even if she was not completely aware of what He was doing. In fact, there was really only one issue remaining – will she, or will she not, choose to trust Him!

The journey to Christ has often been compared to the road to marriage. It usually starts with emotion – I like this person! Leading to a variety of intellectual questions – is this someone I can spend my life with? Leading to an act of the will – yes or no, to the commitment of marriage!

For Kathy, it was obvious that, emotionally, she had no further issues with faith. The Christians she had known and the transformation that took place in Ben’s life was very attractive to her, making her eager to know God in the same way.

Intellectually, she still had questions, but they were all minor compared to the “big” questions that she was dealing with just a few years earlier. She had done her “homework,” more than any person I had ever known, and it was evident that she no longer had intellectual issues dealing with God, the Bible, and the person and work of Christ, including His resurrection.

There was only one issue remaining, but it required an act of the will – yes or no, to committing herself to Christ! Simple trust!

By this time it was closing in on 2am and we all needed to go to sleep. After all these years of patiently waiting on God to draw Kathy to Himself, I didn’t want to suddenly switch into manipulation mode, but I definitely wanted to give her the chance to choose Christ that night, if she was indeed ready.

We discussed all we were going to discuss and our hearts were heavy as the weight of the one remaining issue sank in. It was time to pray together! We agreed that Ben would start, followed by my wife, then me. If Kathy felt like she wanted to bear her heart to God, I would pause for a minute or two in silence to give her the opportunity to do so. She could talk to Him out loud, in her heart, or not at all. If she felt this was not the right time for her, I would simply close in a final prayer and we would all go to sleep!

When the time came for me to pause, the silence became deafening. The longer the pause lasted, the more my heart wilted; wondering whether this would at last be the moment that Kathy would find peace with God. Just as I was about to call it a night, Kathy's voice broke the silence and she began to talk to God.

In utter amazement and joy we listened, and prayed along with her, as God's Spirit broke through to a heart that was tired of the struggle and ready to trust! Quite honestly, I really don’t remember much of what she prayed; all I can tell you is that she became a new creature in Christ that night and we went away amazed at all that God had done!
Over the years I've reflected much on our experiences with Ben & Kathy. It definitely was a watershed moment in my life as I've learned more and more since then about how to see things from "their point of view." It was, without a doubt, "a God thing!" Something I'll cherish all the days of my life!

By the way, to this day we're still close friends with Ben & Kathy and they're still walking with God; the only difference is that we now live in the States and they're the ones now living in Asia. Ugh!

NOTE: A closer look at "the process" spoken of in this story about Ben & Kathy continues in the next post, The Journey Toward Christ, Part 1. You can view it by clicking here.