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Friday, December 30, 2011

Being an Obstacle Remover

Last time, in my post, The Journey Toward Christ, I shared the chart I referred to in my story about Ben & Kathy's journey as told in The Struggle to Believe.

By no means the definitive work on the subject, the chart I posted was simply my attempt to quantify not only what the process can look like in a person’s journey toward Christ, but the believer’s role in that process.

In this post, I’d like to go behind the scenes of the chart, so to speak, to highlight a couple of the big picture implications to us as believers, particularly as it relates to our being an "obstacle remover" in a person's journey toward Christ.

As a reminder, this is not about devising some kind of grand scheme to achieve the noted outcomes; nor is it about manipulating a person through the process.

It's about being cognizant of the "obstacles" that are likely to be present in a person's journey; noticing what the Holy Spirit is doing in their lives; and understanding how we can be an "obstacle remover" in that process.

Furthermore, this post is not about how to strike up a conversation and share the Gospel with complete strangers that we meet at the beach, park, or laundromat.

As important as those "divine encounters" are in the overall work of the Holy Spirit, our focus right now is on the people that God has already sovereignly placed in our everyday lives -- friends and relatives (both near and far), neighbors, colleagues, co-workers, classmates, students, teachers, clients, customers, associates, employees, supervisors, club members, community contacts, service providers (barber, handyman, etc), and just about anyone else we have continual contact with during the normal course of life, even if we don't yet know their name!

That's a lot of people!

Now granted, those who are completely indifferent or antagonistic toward all things "Christian" usually don't want anything to do with a follower of Christ, not to mention the fact that we only have the time and capacity to relate to a few anyway. However, since we're talking about people that God has sovereignly placed in our everyday lives, is it at all possible that He might just have something in mind for them, and that it could very well include us?

Though we know with the utmost of certainty that God is at work drawing men and women to Himself from across the globe, is there any reason to believe that it somehow excludes the people in our lives? If they are not there by accident, is there any reason to assume that He does not want to use us in the journey of at least a few?

Assuming He does, how then do we find "the few" amongst the many? How do we know in whose heart God is at work especially if His work is only in the early stages of their journey? Is there a way to identify who it is that God is leading us to so that we can be an "obstacle remover" in their journey toward Christ?

No easy answers, for sure, but perhaps there is a way!

I've often thought how great it would be to have a person's nose turn bright orange to indicate when God was at work in their heart. No one would notice but us, of course, and all we would have to do is wait patiently for "the signal" to know precisely who we should be involved with and when. It can't miss!

Pretty silly, huh? But even if it were possible, and we really could somehow take all the guesswork out of it, is that what we really want? To have some kind of mechanized signal? I'm not so sure!

For one thing, as expedient and efficient as it is to "wait for" a mechanical signal, what then becomes of our need to "wait on" and trust the leading of the Holy Spirit? For another, if we have to wait for this type of signal before we are willing to pursue meaningful involvement with people, where then is love?

When you think about it, God has already set in place a pretty good "signaling system" of His own, if only we took it more seriously! It makes three straight-forward demands of us, but when all three elements are functioning at their peak, the signal is as clear, if not clearer, than someone's nose turning bright orange.

If you haven't already guessed, the three are: 1) meaningful association with people who don't share our beliefs; 2) prayer for the people with whom we have meaningful association; and, 3) trust in the Holy Spirit to lead us and to work in the lives of those with whom we have meaningful association.

If any one of the three is lacking we might as well place our hope in someone's nose turning bright orange because these are three strands of the same cord and "the signal" is only as clear as the three functioning together.

The more meaningful the association we have with people who don't share our beliefs, the more likely we are to recognize the leading of the Holy Spirit in their lives as we pray for specific needs and issues that come to our attention. The Holy Spirit then reveals to us what we need to know, when we need to know it, and how He wants to use us as an "obstacle remover" in their journey toward Christ.

Unfortunately, the opposite is also true. The more we lack meaningful association with people who don't share our beliefs, the more empty and generalized our prayers become for them (e.g. God save them!), and the more likely we are not to recognize the leading of the Holy Spirit in their lives. Furthermore, when we do try to take more initiative with them, we often resort to a "one size fits all" kind of approach.

Most believers have a pretty good grasp of the last two, at least in terms of our heart's desire to pray and trust, but meaningful association? Now that's a problem! In fact, all you have to do is ask around a bit, and you'll probably discover that very few believers can attest to it as a current reality in their life.

The fascinating thing about all this is that the farther away a person is in their journey toward Christ, the more critical their need for "meaningful association" with a follower of Christ. Yet the paradox is that the farther away a person is in their journey toward Christ, the more reluctant we are to associate with them.

Sure, we'll associate with them if they are polite enough to keep their politics to themselves; if they keep their ideas of morality to themselves; if they keep their views on creation and Christianity to themselves; if they don't talk about topics that we consider offensive.

Sure, we'll associate with them! They just need to be willing to listen to "truth" without dissent; to be willing to attend "Christian" activities; to be willing to change their lifestyle to suit us; to be willing to show us some respect; and, if they happen to be Muslim, to be willing to comply with an even longer list that is best left unmentioned here!

Since few are willing to comply with such prerequisites, meaningful association with people who don't share our beliefs is all but impossible.

We long to be an "obstacle remover" in the lives of people, but, when meaningful association is absent, the only "obstacle" we seem to notice is falsehood, and the only way we know how to "remove it" is through confrontation, often in a caustic, argumentative way.

The irony of the matter is that it's questionable whether any obstacles are actually removed when we use this approach. Do we really believe that someone can actually be argued or shunned into the Kingdom of God? When was the last time you heard of someone coming to Christ after "losing the argument" with a believer?

Though there is most definitely a place for "tough love" and confronting falsehood in a person's life, we do it so often that it's become the only tool in the toolbox for some of us. In fact, the norm we've come to expect in our relationships with people who don't share our beliefs is not a meaningful association at all, but a contentious one. We just expect it to be that way and live as if that's the price we must pay in order to "defend" the truth!

If success in evangelism is primarily viewed as getting "the truth" out to as many people as possible (whether they listen or not), we will approach the people in our lives one way. If, on the other hand, success is measured by being an "obstacle remover" in a person's journey, helping them move one step closer to Christ no matter where they're at in the process, we will approach people in an entirely different manner!

The difference between these two views of success is that the latter requires "meaningful association" with people who do not share our beliefs, the former does not! The latter requires sticking with people for the long-haul, the former does not! The latter requires waiting on the Holy Spirit to lead, work, and use us in any step of a person's journey toward Christ, the former does not!

If we're going to understand how to be an obstacle remover in someone's journey toward Christ, we must come to grips with the vital importance of meaningful association. If we don't grasp its significance, we will most assuredly create more obstacles in the lives of people than we see removed!

Every year at Christmas we recall in song and celebration the most amazing event in all of human history – God becoming man and living among us.

How does one even begin to grasp the fact that The Creator of the universe actually chose to come and dwell among His creation? And not just dip his big toe in our world and pull it out again, but to literally "move into the neighborhood" and live everyday life right alongside everyday people!

But it gets better! When He entered the world that He created, Jesus not only didn’t limit His contact to the “respectable” members of humanity, He associated with everyone, even to the point of gaining a reputation for being a friend to the very members of society that the so-called respectable people considered outcasts!

The Holy One, moving into the neighborhood of the unholy and yet living in meaningful association with us in spite of the hugely incompatible nature of our being! The ultimate “outsider” – God, taking on the form of His most treasured possession in all of creation – man, and becoming the consummate “insider” in what was to Him a most unfamiliar community! Wow!

If it were not so sad, it would be laughable, to hear the way that we, as the people of God, justify our lack of meaningful association with people who don't share our beliefs on the grounds that we have nothing in common with "those" people!

Is that right? Nothing in common with those people? Well what in the world did Christ have in common with man? What did He have in common with the “outcasts” or even the so-called “respectable” of society? What does the creator have in common with His creation? What does the Holy One have in common with the unholy?

Of course, the answer is that He had absolutely nothing in common with us, and yet He chose to dwell among us anyway! It would blow our mind to hear of an oil tycoon or prominent world leader taking up residence in a shantytown, yet even that would be pale in comparison to God becoming man, moving into our neighborhood, and daring to associate with us in meaningful ways!

As I bring this to a close, let me leave you with a story that relates directly to these thoughts on meaningful association; a true story about a time when my wife and I learned the lesson of a lifetime!

We were living in Okinawa, Japan, during the 50th anniversary of the war, and had the privilege of having a marine veteran and his family stay with us during that solemn time of remembrance. It's not a well known fact, but more people lost their lives in the Battle of Okinawa than Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined and most historians consider it to be the bloodiest battle of WWII.

This veteran was not just any marine. This was a man who was severely wounded to within an inch of his life, and yet went back to the land of his former enemy a few years later to spend over 30 years of his life as a missionary to the very people that once tried to kill him.

Bob, and his wife, Jean, arrived for the 50th anniversary event a few days before their kids, and we discovered as we chatted that most of their 5 children were not walking with Christ. As parents of young children, in full-time ministry ourselves, we listened intently as Jean told us of both her hurt and her hope in regards to their now adult children.

At one point, she referred to Isaiah 5, where the Lord speaks of planting a vineyard on a fertile hillside (referring, of course, to Israel); clearing the stones and planting only the choicest vines; constructing both a tower and a winepress in anticipation of the harvest; and yet when He went to look for a crop of good grapes, found only bad.

God did everything right but the fruit was simply not there, and He thus asks the question: "What more could have been done for my vineyard than I have done for it?"

Jean went on to share that though they certainly have their regrets and would definitely do a few things differently in hindsight, they truly don't think they could have done anything more than they did to raise their children to love and serve the Lord. She said that it took years for the truth to sink in that ultimately, like God and the nation of Israel, our children have a will of their own, and ultimately it's up to them to choose to follow Christ no matter how well we raise them.

Her heartfelt story touched us deeply, but as you might imagine we were just a tad curious about the nature of their relationship with their kids now that they were adults. We were about to find out the next day when three of their five children arrived.

Quite honestly, we were expecting tension and arguing; we were expecting disdain and disrespect; we were expecting indifference and antagonism; we were expecting criticism and condemnation; but we saw none of it!

For five days, and countless hours living and traveling together, we observed how their family interacted, and could only conclude that they genuinely enjoyed and appreciated each other. It was quite clear to us that their children's rejection of Christ did not have any bearing at all on Bob and Jean's relationship with them, and it took us completely by surprise!

We pointed this out to Bob and Jean after their children departed, but before I tell you what they told us in response, I need to first tell you another story that stands in stark contrast to this one.

Several weeks before Bob and Jean arrived, my wife and I heard a very troubling message on "the cost" of standing up for righteousness. It was the kind of message that we all need to hear from time to time, one that I normally would have agreed with wholeheartedly, that is, until this Pastor made his concluding remarks that day.

Apparently, his son fathered a child out of wedlock. It was unclear at the time whether his son and girlfriend were going to remain single or get married, but thankfully they chose to see the pregnancy to term and have the baby, something very encouraging in the midst of all that was discouraging.

In his concluding remarks, however, the pastor went on to share that when the baby was born, and was brought to his house, he refused to go downstairs to acknowledge his newborn granddaughter and still refuses to acknowledge her to this day.

If he was going to stand up for righteousness, he believed there was only one choice in the matter - he had to reject his own flesh and blood. To him, this baby was born in sin, and to acknowledge the baby was the same as acknowledging the sinful act that produced the baby. In his mind, he could not remain a credible voice for righteous living unless he was willing to endure such a cost.

The contrast between this pastor's response to unbelief and sin, and Jean's response to unbelief and sin could not be more pronounced. Two polar extremes!

In Jean's mind, her kids needed her now more than ever. The farther they were from Christ, the more they needed the presence of a believer in their life, and she was determined to stay with them on their journey toward Christ no matter how long it took.

How was she going to do that? Through meaningful association with her children; praying for them as she became aware of needs and issues; and trusting the Holy Spirit to draw them to Christ one small step at a time. Practically speaking, it meant waiting for permission to speak into their lives; not arguing with them about their beliefs and lifestyle; and simply enjoying who God created them to be!

Both the pastor and the missionary had children who rejected Christ. One chose to shun his child; the other chose to stick with them on their journey toward Christ no matter how long it took.

To us, the lesson of a lifetime was simply this: Whether it's our children, a co-worker, or the neighbor next door, if we truly believe that God has sovereignly placed them in our lives, what choice do we have but to stick with them on their journey toward Christ?

What choice do we have but to stick with them no matter how long it takes? What choice do we have but to trust the Holy Spirit to use us as an obstacle remover in their lives as He moves them one step closer to Christ in the process?

What choice do we have? Well, I guess we can always choose to shun them. The choice is completely up to us!

Meaningful association with people who don't share our beliefs is never easy, but that's not really the issue, is it? I leave you with Jesus' own words to ponder as you think of the people sovereignly placed in your life:
By the way, Bob and Jean passed away a couple of years ago within six months of each other, and the word we received is that several of their children had committed their lives to Christ in the years preceding their death. In fact, we heard that their time in Okinawa turned out to be a key stepping stone in their journey toward Christ, as they walked a mile in their father's footsteps in the very spot where he nearly lost his life 50 years earlier.