Tuesday, January 31, 2012

reading between the lines

Take just a moment and imagine yourself back in the times in which you had just met the person who is now your significant other.  Remember those awkward conversations where you were poised to catch every single word that came out of their mouth so that you could analyze and interpret their interest properly.  You wouldn't want to seem too forward--too desperate.  You wouldn't want to do something out of proportion to what the situation called for.  So you listened and you watched and you tried to figure it out.  Wasn't it frustrating, even just a little bit, to not be sure of where you stood?  Wasn't it scary to take those first tentative steps over that invisible line that you probably couldn't ever return from?

How did you know when it was safe to take those steps?  How did you interpret the other person's completely inadequate communication of their own tentative feelings?  How did you know what they were thinking and feeling?  Because you kind of did know.  You figured it out--whether it was from their words or their body language or all the things they didn't say.  Their carefully chosen vocabulary spoke volumes to you about where their mind and their heart was at any given moment.

And those are exactly the same skills that I think we need when we're talking to people about faith (or talking with people around the possibility of faith).

Over the past 10-15 years, really since I returned from living overseas, I've been observing our culture here as it unfolds and grows into something new.  Every 500 years or so, we see this kind of cultural shift, where the parent culture births the daughter culture that becomes (at least for a while) the total antithesis of the parent.  I find these years in the middle to be so fascinating. 

One thing I've noticed is a shift away from scientific method and reasoning toward a more intuitive and emotional knowledge.  In this context, an appeal to authority in an argument carries little weight when it's compared with the actual experiences of those within the argument.  Spirituality is welcome and interesting, so long as no one is trying to impose his own sense of morality on others.

As I've observed these things and the way they relate to finding and growing in faith, I've observed that most people's barriers to faith and surrender to the kingdom rule of Jesus are largely emotional.  There are still components of the rational arguments against God.  And there surely are the same spiritual reasons that people always have to tell him no.  But by and large, the overarching theme of my friends' objections to God are based on an emotional response to how they perceive him, his character, and his followers.  The only real problem is that they don't usually talk about these issues at an emotional level.  Instead, they bring up rational objections to faith--they couch everything in intellectual terms.  A question about God's goodness might be couched in language that implies the real problem is whether it's theoretically possible that a good God can send someone to hell.

Which begs the question, how are we to respond to these emotional barriers, the deep and hidden barriers that people have to faith?  How are we to respond to them if we also have to be the ones who identify them?

I've written about the concept of emotional barriers before, here and here, and there's a list of common barriers available here.  But I've been thinking recently about how we can train ourselves to see behind a person's statements about their objections to God to hear what their heart is really asking. 

And I think that at least one answer is in the memories that you conjured up at the beginning of this post.  We already know how to do this.  We read between the lines every day of our lives as we interact with people socially.  We can hear from the tone of a co-worker's voice that she's frustrated and upset about something, even if she doesn't say it outright.  We know that our son is having a terrible day because of the way he goes straight to his room instead of hanging out with the family like normal.  Every single day we are called upon in these relationships to see more than the stated questions and issues to the hearts of the people we love and care about.

Why do we think that people's questions about faith would be any different?  Why do we take those at face value and try to answer them only at that surface level?  Why aren't we looking deeper into the lives of our friends to ask where that question is coming from, what life experience led to that question, what that question might tell us about the person's emotional barriers to faith?

If following Jesus means trusting him enough to allow him to tell us who we are (to give us a new identity), then these emotional barriers might be 100% more important than any intellectual question that I might say out loud.  Because my heart is where I make that final step toward allowing someone else to know me and love me and tell me who I am.  No matter what I believe in my head about a spouse or a boyfriend or a friend, I will never let them close to me until I know in my heart that they are trustworthy.  Similarly, no matter what I am convinced about evolution, the theology of eternal punishment, or even the question of God's existence, I will never be willing to give my life to him until my emotional barriers are overcome.

Next week, I'd like to talk more about engaging with those emotional barriers to faith, but for this week I want to think about identifying those barriers.  First, what are the emotional reasons you struggle to trust and follow God in your own walk with him?  How do those things help you to identify what those around you might be struggling with?  Second, what are all your friends saying about their objections to Jesus?  What are they not saying that you know is there, weighing on their hearts and minds?

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