Our college had a thing they called, “Forced Christian Labor.” Okay, that was not its real name, but I have buried those horrific memories so deep in my subconscious that I cannot think of its actual name. Let me explain: Each week, we would have to report on all of the ways we had witnessed to people in that week. You read that right. We were obligated to fill out a form that asked how many unsaved people we had witnessed to that week; how many Christian tracts we had handed out; how many backsliders we had restored; and how many acts of Christian service we preformed. Every single week . . . and failure to do so meant a meeting with the Dean of “Do it again and you won’t graduate.” Now, thankfully, I worked at the 100,000-watt Christian radio station that broadcast the gospel in all of its various forms (talk, preaching, music, Christian gasoline stations) all over south Florida. That meant that when I was working, I was potentially witnessing to well over 3 million people, and I often listed that number on my form (“potentially” is the key word there since I only worked the midnight to 6 am shift; it was far more likely that the number was closer to 5 insomniacs, 2 lunatics and 17 dogs and cats). I also decided that when I was out and about and feeling sorry for those pagans around me, I would play my car radio loudly. On each excursion, I bet at least 5 people heard the good news of blaring contemporary Christian music and, so, included them on my form every week. In short, the number one thing “Forced Christian Labor” taught me in all of this was to absolutely hate witnessing. It also taught me to lie, but always to be creative in my lies, a skill that has served me well throughout the years in various church planting reports and denominational statements. As a result, every time I come to a chapter with a name like, “Christian Witness,” I get nauseous. There are some traumas you just can’t put behind you.
We are looking at Mark Tietjen’s excellent book, Kierkegaard: A Christian Missionary to Christians (IVP Academic, 2016). Specifically, we are looking at his chapter on “Christian Witness.” And here’s a very odd fact: I read this whole chapter on Kierkegaard’s understanding on how we are to witness to our neighbors without once throwing up. Now, that is high praise. Today, I would like to share with you the “Four Spiritual Laws,” but not those spiritual laws (I was slightly nauseous even thinking about those four laws). No, I am talking about what I am calling Kierkegaard’s “Four Spiritual Witnessing Laws.” And I can tell you right now, I like all four! Here are four keys to being a (good, authentic, loving) Christian witness.
Law Number One: God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your witness, so talk less and live more. In fact, talk far, far less. Here’s Kierkegaard’s big idea (as stated by Mark Tietjen):
“Kierkegaard describes Christian communication as a ‘existence-communication.’ This odd designation means (1) Christianity is something lived and (2) Christianity is something communicated (or witnessed to) through life, or existence. This implies: (1) Christianity is not something primarily to think about or to ponder, nor (2) it is something primarily communicated through words. Christianity is a lived thing and not primarily a known thing.”
Kierkegaard, himself, said it this way: “The essential sermon is one’s own life.” In other words, a true Christian witness does not consist of reciting four spiritual laws, handing out tracts, preaching on the street corner, or in restoring backsliders, but in living lives overflowing with love, goodness, generosity, compassion and grace. Our lives speak, not our words. But here’s the kicker: it is far easier to speak the truth than to live the truth. Hence, the reason we typically share the “Four Spiritual Laws,” instead of waiting for people to ask us about the faith in us that makes us live such sacrificial lives. Talk less, live more in front of the people to whom you are witnessing. And if you would like to change the label of this first law, I give you permission to say it this way: “Talk less, love more.”
Law Number Two: Be (far) less arrogant, but be (far) more humble. In John 14, Jesus said (verse 6): “I am the way, the truth and the life.” Let’s be honest, we often jump on those last two characteristics, and jump over the first (we really like truth and we really like life). But if Jesus is the way, then, when he calls us, we are to follow in that way. Now, we can define the way of Jesus in many different “ways,” but one heading comes to the forefront: We are to follow in the way of self-denial. We are to take up our cross and follow him. We are to surrender ourselves and live like him. And what sort of model did Jesus give us to embody these things? He shunned political and religious and personal power and instead, “he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave” and he “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:6, 8). The way I was taught to be a Christian witness (although never in these actual words) was to share what I knew to be the truth with an ignorant pagan and to do so with confidence, a spiritual swagger and some impertinence so that they can see their desperate situation and so that I can lord it over them when I call them to make the right and obvious choice (“Sure, you don’t have to decide your eternal fate right now; just make me one promise, don’t get run over by a bus before we can speak again.”). Jesus’ way was lowliness. We need to follow him in humility, in meekness and in sacrifice.
Law Number Three: Offend less, but let the cross offend. When in doubt, quote Luther: “A drunk man can fall off a horse on both sides.” When it comes to witnessing, we often fall off the horse by being a jerk (see above). We are often arrogant, smug, argumentative, self-righteous, and cavalier. Many of us grew up with us seeing the person we were witnessing to as the enemy (sad, but true). And many of us grew up thinking that if we were not being offensive, we were not preaching the urgency of the gospel. Even though the commandment is sure and steadfast—“thou shalt not be a jerk,”—we still went out and were jerks. But then one day, we realized that the way to win friends and influence converts was not by being a jerk to them, but by showing them love. And so, we hopped back on our horse and promptly fell off the other side, never once wanting to say anything that might even possibly offend anyone ever. As such, we went from being jerks offending everyone to being “such a nice guy” that we offer not even a hint of offense to anyone. But, let’s be honest the claims of Jesus are offensive. The very idea that Jesus claims to be God is offensive. The very idea that God became human is offensive. The very idea that Jesus died on a cross is offensive. The very idea that God died and then rose again is offensive. And the very idea that we are totally depraved sinners is terribly offensive. In short, Jesus is offensive. By sharing our faith, we will, out of necessity, be offensive; but the offense must always be in the nature of the gospel message, not in our approach, not in our smugness, not in our threat, not in our manipulation and not in our use of power. In fact, our calling ought to be to get ourselves out of the way so that the offense of the cross may be truly seen for what it is: God humbly coming to earth and taking on human flesh to save sinners from themselves.
Law Number Four: Argue Never; Compel Always. Kierkegaard said:
“In all eternity it is impossible for me to compel a person to accept an opinion, a conviction, a belief. But one thing I can do: I can compel him to take notice.”
Underline that. No matter how hard we try, we cannot argue someone into the Kingdom because it is impossible to compel anyone to embrace a particular viewpoint; only God can do that. But what we can do is compel them to think about things seriously. And how can we compel someone to embrace something? –By talking less and listening more (remember: listening is caring). –By being sacrificial and giving. –By being humble and gracious. –By serving more and offending less. –And by loving more and more and more and then going the extra mile and loving even more than that. In all of this, we have help. Kierkegaard says,
“There has never been an atheist, even though there certainly have been many who have been unwilling to let what they know (that God exists) get control of their minds.”
We may need some help understanding what Kierkegaard means here from another Kierkegaard scholar, C. Stephen Evans, who writes:
“On Kierkegaard’s view, religious faith has declined among intellectuals, not because they are so smart, but because their imaginations are so weak and their emotional lives are so impoverished.”
But all of this is not to say that we are right and they are wrong. Kierkegaard understands the struggle of faith and doubt and how allowing God to get control of our minds (let alone the minds of atheists) is never easy. And Kierkegaard understands that apart from God’s direct intervention in someone’s life, the world can appear ‘religiously ambiguous’ (to steal a term from John Hick). So, why argue? If you argue with an atheist, they see no need to insert “God” into their worldview. If you argue with a theist, they are already convinced that “their God” is at work in their world according to their own beliefs and ideas. Arguing gets us nowhere. Bottom line (and here I quote from Tietjen):
“The project of sharing Christian faith with others is God’s project, though one in which he has invited our participation. Praying that God would grant others the eyes of faith is without question a more effective approach than bending over backwards to show faith’s rationality.”
In short, argue never, but always seek to compel people to believe the good news, remembering that it is never our arguments that win the day, but always God’s overwhelming love and grace that draws us to him.
Here are our four “laws” in one summary statement. Kierkegaard writes:
“The good news of the Gospel is not to be foisted on people by means of demonstrations and reasons demeaningly, as when a mother must sit and beg her child to eat the good wholesome food, but he turns up his nose at it and does not really care to eat. No, the appetite has to be aroused in a different way—and then the glad news of the Gospel will certainly be found appetizing.”
En Garde with Kierkegaard
At the end of every post in this series, I want to drive home a few points by asking a few questions and giving you at least one great Kierkegaard quote to ponder.
- What do you feel when the topic turns to being a Christian witness?
- Which way do you tend to fall off the horse – being too offensive or being not offensive at all?
- If the “essential sermon is your life,” how are you doing?
- How can we embody the lowliness and humility of Jesus better in our church and in our lives?
- How have you made Christian faith into a primarily intellectual endeavor?
- How should Jesus being the way, the truth and the life shape our lives and our witness?
- How could we redirect our approach to witnessing away from the head and more to the heart, the desires and to the imagination?
- How can you be more compelling in your witness?
And last, a great Kierkegaard quote to ponder, especially for us who are all in favor of loving our neighbors, but not so keen on witnessing to them. Kierkegaard writes:
“To love oneself in the divine sense is to love God, and to truly love another person is to help that person to love God.”
Why didn’t they tell me years ago that the true Gospel witness is simply loving the people God puts in our path in such a way that it leads them to love God?
Next week, we embark on a journey of what it means to love the people around us. Thanks for reading.