Sunday, January 14, 2007

God-Pleasing Evangelism

For Christians it is certainly easier, and frankly more comforting, to assume that people do not accept the Gospel because of their own pride, indifference, or lack of faith. And while in some cases this may be true, it is an explanation which too easily allows those of us who are Christians to avoid our own responsibility for how we present the Gospel.

This incomprehensible divine respect for human freedom lies at the center of the Gospel. Think for a moment about the Christ's conception. God doesn't manipulate the Virgin Mary or (worse still to imagine) force himself on her. No, God sends the Archangel Gabriel, his best man if you will, to invite Mary to receive Christ into her life, into her body. And once the invitation has been extended, God waits for her consent. It is as if God, the angels and the whole creation hold their collective breath and wait in silent expectation for the consent of this young girl. Then, from the depth of her heart, freely and without reservations, Mary consents to God's invitation and sings out: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord: be it done to me according to thy word.” (Luke 1:38) There was on God's part no force, no manipulation or coercion, He simply made an offer with respect and consideration for Mary's freedom and dignity.

God-pleasing, to say nothing of effective, evangelism begins with an imitation of the respect God extends to each human person. If we are to be faithful imitators of Christ, we must avoid any violation of human freedom and dignity. “We must avoid,” as Evdokimov tells us, “any compelling proof (that) violates human conscience (and) changes faith into mere knowledge.”

Even as I write these words I can hear the objections: Christ proclaimed the Kingdom of God with power and authority, with signs and wonders, with miraculous cures and deliverance from demons! While not wishing to deny God's miracles, or the need for Christian preaching, I think we too easily forget that, relative to what he could have done as God, the All-Powerful Creator of Heaven and Earth, Christ did very little. As Evdokimov reminds us: “God limits his almighty power, encloses himself in the silence of his suffering love, withdraws all signs, suspends every miracle, casts a shadow over the brightness of his face.”

Sometimes we forget, or maybe we've never really heard or understood, that God redeems us not by being God Almighty in Heaven, but becoming a man in Galilee.

n Christ, God enters into human experience and transforms it from within. If we take seriously the Incarnation, we understand that we are redeemed by an act of divine empathy by our great high priest, who has "compassion on our infirmities as one tempted in all things as we are, but without sin." (see Hebrews 4:15)

In Jesus Christ, God sees as we see, he lives as we live, and, to quote Evdokimov again, “it is to the humility and empathy of God, of God emptying himself (on the cross) that faith essentially responds. God can do anything -- except compel us to love him. Often Christians, in our zeal to proclaim the Gospel, forget that God doesn't force us, but woos us.” It is our humble and sincere love that draws people, through us, to Christ Jesus our Lord. Christians must proclaim the Gospel; evangelism is essential to our commitment to Jesus Christ. But if we wish to be faithful to Christ's command to us, if we wish to proclaim the Gospel with power and authority, it might be better if we do so softly, gently and with regard for human freedom and dignity.