Harry Potter is evil. I’m sorry, I meant to say that Severus Snape in the Harry Potter books is evil. All along we had hoped that Snape was Dumbledore’s friend; that while acting suspiciously, he was, in fact, in Dumbledore’s circle and not in the employee of “he who should not be named” (but I think his name is Voldemort). But in a crisis moment, when Dumbledore is surrounded by enemies, Dumbledore cries out, saying, “Severus, please. . . .”; but Snape doesn’t help. Instead, he kills Dumbledore. The weasel! (Sorry, I forgot to say “spoiler alert” before I told the story!). Now, such a betrayal is unconscionable, but I guess with a name like Snape, you’re destined to be evil. But, a funny thing happens. In the last Harry Potter book, (spoiler alert!) we discover we had it all backwards! Harry extracts memories from Snape’s dying mind and discovers that Snape and Dumbledore were, in truth, close friends. Dumbledore had even confided in Snape his most terrible secret: he was slowly dying from an irreversible curse and that there would come a time when the pain would become unbearable and he would need a friend to do the unthinkable. He would need a friend who would mercifully end his life. And now, we know what Dumbledore was asking. He wasn’t asking, “Severus, please help me.” He was asking, “Severus, please have mercy on me and kill me.” As I said, we had it all backwards (although with a name like Snape, he could have gone either way.)
We get all sorts of things backwards, but that is especially true when it comes to evangelism. For instance, we think evangelism is an annoyance and an aggravation. Backwards. We see evangelism as primarily us talking and “sharing.” Backwards. We think of evangelism as a job for well-trained professionals, not mere mortals like us. Backwards. We think evangelism is declaring truth. Backwards. We think evangelism has to include all four spiritual laws and a prayer. Backwards. We think evangelism is going mano a mano with a “pagano,” confronting them at every turn (hence, the expression, “turn or burn”). Not even backwards, just plain wrong.
Now, if you have any of those mistaken notions, be of good cheer. I did, too. Matter of fact, I learned all of these backwards facts in college, and then I had them reinforced in seminary. In college, we were required each month (as in, this will affect your grade) to go somewhere and “share” the gospel. That meant, we would be sent out to the beach, to the mall, to the airport or even to the dog pound – anywhere there were lonely people that would be willing to have a “conversation.” (And yes, we could mill about with no apparent purpose in an airport back in the day without fearing you would be in line for a full cavity search). Once we found our “target” (sorry, I meant, unsaved person in need of redemption), we would hook them with some form of trickery (“Would you mind participating in our survey?”); and then, once the gate had been opened, we would tell them the good news that they were a sinner, draw a bridge, sketch a cross and say a prayer. And as long as we did all of that and they were still breathing at the end of the discussion, we got credit for it. I can’t tell you how many people decided to hop on a plane going anywhere rather than to stay another minute listening to my gospel presentation. And I can’t tell you how often I was tempted to go with them so that I wouldn’t ever have to do “evangelism” that way again. Let me just say it: If that is the only way to do evangelism, I hate evangelism. In my opinion, it was manipulative, artificial and insensitive. But here’s the good news. That is not the only way evangelism can be done.
Orson Scott Card said that one of the great benefits of a metaphor is that it holds “the most truth in the least space.” What if, instead of the confrontational metaphor of evangelism (see above) to which I was subjected, we had a different metaphor that made evangelism authentic, sensitive and enjoyable?
Consider the Parable of the Physician. A physician walks into the examining room. He is reading your chart as he enters. He glances at you and greets you, but it is obvious his mind is focused on your report. He doesn’t even look at your ankle which until just a few minutes ago was carefully wrapped and stuck in a walking boot, but is now propped up on the examination table looking like a red weather balloon. Instead, the doctor throws an x-ray up on the light box and nods his head approvingly and says, “Well, that doesn’t look too bad!” And then, he looks over at your ankle for the first time and says, “But that looks really awful.” And yes, this is a true story. He then spends the next 15 minutes asking what happened and what I felt if he did this and if this hurt when he did that and then it was over. And as you are walking out, you realize that he didn’t really do anything. He didn’t heal your ankle. He didn’t change your prescription. He didn’t do a magical chiropractic move. All he did was ask a few questions and listen. Oh, he did make one recommendation. He told me not to slide into third ever again.
Here’s our calling. We are to be Physicians of the Soul. The inventor of the stethoscope said: “Listen to your patients and they will tell you how to heal them.” If you take nothing away from the blog except that quote, we have hit a home run. Write this down: our primary calling in evangelism is not to talk, but to listen. It is not to give people answers; it is to ask good questions. And it is not to tell our story, but to encourage the person to share theirs. Now, there may be occasions when we may prod them on in one direction or another, and there may be times when we will want to make a quick comment, and there may be times when we may want to suggest a recommendation or two; but mostly, we want to listen and show that we care. Theologian Paul Tillich said it this way: “The first duty of love is to listen.” That’s our job.
Now at some point in time, we will need to speak up, but usually, that’s later. As we are starting out, we will want to listen far more than we will talk, which means we must constantly be thinking of great questions so that the conversation will give you insight into where the person is spiritually. What does that look like? What do we listen for? We listen for their hopes and dreams and fears and disappointments. We listen for the longings of their soul and for the pain in their heart. And we listen for the questions they have about life and death and God and about where life doesn’t make sense. And we don’t do this merely as a matter of diagnostic curiosity, but as a real friend. Why? Because evangelism isn’t much if you don’t love the person to whom you are talking.
And we also want to listen for where they are on the evangelistic scale (the Parable of the Rock). If nothing in that last sentence made any sense to you, please reread last week’s blog. Knowing where the person is on their spiritual journey is crucial because it gives you your job description. For instance, if you discern, as you are listening, that the person is a “minus 10” (an atheist who is as far away from God as possible), your job is to love that person and befriend them with the hope that you can gently nudge them to become a “minus 9.” If you know the person is a “minus 10,” you know your job is to live a life before your friend that will make them wonder if there could be a God (and maybe, help them to want there to be a God). Of course, knowing that is your job means that it is going to take time and patience and creativity. If you discern that they are a “minus 5,” your job description is going to be to provide some engaging answers to some of their tough questions and to do so winsomely and graciously. If they are a “minus 1,” you will need to encourage them to become a disciple of Jesus and describe what that will look like. Knowing where they are on the scale will provide you with your job description because your job is always to move the person from where they are to the very next demarcation (not to move them from a “minus 10” to a zero, but from a “minus 10” to a “minus 9,” etc.).
But listening also allows you to discern, not only where they are on their spiritual journey, but where the Spirit is at work in their life. Let me just say it. If the Spirit is not at work in the person’s life, we are spinning our wheels. And therefore, we will want to discern what the Spirit is doing so that we can partner with him in the work he is doing (as opposed to hoping the Spirit will join us in our work). When it comes to evangelism, it is crucial always to keep in step with the Spirit. Don’t lag way behind, but don’t run too far ahead either. Now, on one hand, discerning where the Spirit is at work in another person’s life is hard because it takes prayer and wisdom and spiritual insight. But on the other hand, it is easy because we can relax and realize that if the person doesn’t respond with a Spirit-enthused “yes” to a few of our questions, we know that we’ve done all that is required of us at the moment. In other words, we don’t have to try to manufacture opportunities. We don’t have to make things happen. Instead, we can rely on the Spirit to do all the heavy lifting while we simply follow his lead.
And there we have it. We are called to be Physicians of the Soul whose primary job is to listen and discern what’s going on spiritually in the life of the other person. From there, we can know our job description and join in with what the Spirit is doing. But it all starts with listening. And there it is in a nutshell, the first metaphor: the physician of the soul. And what does a Physician of the Soul do? They listen so they can discern. John Wayne once said to some cowboy, “You’re short on ears and long on mouth.” But I bet he didn’t say that to a physician of the soul.