He sees you not as just another neighbor or co-worker. He has heard you acknowledge a strong belief in Jesus Christ as someone real and special to you. And he wonders. Spiritual questions and yearnings were rising inside him even before he met you, and lately they have surged to the point that he must have answers. So he is watching you. He won’t let you know it, but he is mentally putting God on trial through your life. He wants a faith that is true-to-life and sincere, and if he sees that you have it he will know it’s possible. He longs to know that God truly cares about him—so he waits to see whether you care.
In sharing your faith with others, remember that it’s your faith you’re sharing, not someone else’s.
It’s not something you heard about, not just something you read about—even though you might have read it in the Bible. Do you really know who Jesus is? If you do, sharing his gospel with someone else will be greatly simplified. It’s not what information you know, but who you know, and how well you know him.
It would be totally ridiculous for me to start to introduce my wife to someone and then forget her name. I know her too well for that. I can go to a foreign country and taste some exotic food and tell you right away whether my wife would like it. I can hear a new song and tell you the same thing. I know the things she does and the things she doesn’t do. I know her that well. We have a relationship. I don’t just know about her, but I experience life with her.
That’s the way it should be in our relationship with Jesus—living in him daily, and he in us, moment by moment. If we know him that fully, we’ll be ready to talk about him with others.
Beyond that, one attitude you must have—and if it isn’t there you’ll need to ask God to give it to you—is a real concern for the souls of people. This is a Christ-like attitude. When Jesus looked on the multitudes he was moved with compassion. Why? Because he saw they were scared. They had no shepherd. They were drifting. They were lost.
When I was first thinking about evangelism I asked myself these questions: If when I drive home from work today I pass a house on fire and I stop, and I hear someone screaming inside, would I be willing to go in there and try to pull him out? Most of us would try something, somehow.
But when someone is spiritually lost and going to hell, does it affect me in the same way?
As he was speaking one day, a pastor took off his glasses and marked a cross on the lenses with a grease pencil. Then he put them back on and said to his hearers, “You look different. Everywhere I look now I see the cross of Jesus Christ. I see the price that was paid for you.”
God gave up Christ on the cross because he loved the world—everybody in it. If we don’t let this fact grip us to the depths of our souls, I fear our evangelism will become mechanical—just something we do every Tuesday night, or something like that.
The right heart motivation in evangelism is love—a loving response to the loving God. We love because he loved us first. Yes, obedience is a factor too—witnessing to others because we are commanded to. But why would we want to obey? Surely the love factor must be there.
If you asked me to summarize the Bible’s theme, I would say love. We know from 1 John 4 that God is love. And when Jesus was asked to tell the greatest commandment he gave a two-part answer with love in both parts: Love God, and love your fellow man. Love was the motivation for God giving his only begotten Son. We need not ask why God gave us his Son. He’s already told us. It’s because he loves us.
We in his image, following in his footsteps, must also love. This love will cause us to be motivated. Witnessing will become an issue of lifestyle for us. Our gospel glasses will be on, our motivation will be right, we will be living in Christ, and we will recognize the value of a soul.
As for obedience, 2 Timothy 4:5 is a striking illustration. Here Paul told Timothy to “do the work of an evangelist.” I presume that if Timothy had possessed the gift of evangelism, Paul would have said, “Exercise the gift of evangelism that is in you.” Or, more likely, Timothy would already be exercising the gift and Paul would simply encourage him to continue.
But Paul instead told him to do an evangelist’s work, to be an evangelist. The issue for Timothy was to obediently share the gospel, whether or not he was gifted in evangelism.
So the right way to witness is in love and obedience, and the right thing to share is your own faith in Christ. There is also a right time to share.
Some years ago when I was in the military, a man was assigned to me for training who was arrogant, egotistical, and argumentative. He was an agnostic, and proudly so. I was praying about how to deal with this fellow. I said, “Lord, I don’t have the foggiest notion what to do with him. But you know, and I’m asking you to tell me what to do.” The answer was clear: Tell him nothing. Live the Christian life, and love him, but tell him nothing about Christ unless he asks.
Weeks went by. I was conducting a seminar and was responsible to train him how to conduct it also. He had been through the course before as a student, and now was watching me to learn how to teach it.
One day he said, “You conduct your seminar differently.”
I said, “Yes, I agree with you.” I said no more.
Later he said, “You have a different relationship with these men than most other instructors have.”
I answered, “I think that’s true. In fact, I intend for that to happen.”
He kept probing until I said, “Bob, there’s no way you can understand it. Not now. Not in your situation.”
He’s a very intelligent man, and he gave me a strange look. The truth of 1 Corinthians 2:14 was in my mind:
“The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them.”
“I’m serious about that,” I said. “This is a spiritual matter and it has to be spiritually discerned. And in your situation you can’t understand that. But I can explain it so that it could be understood—if you really desire to understand it. Would you like me to explain it?”
He said yes. I was privileged then not only to lead him to Christ, but also to disciple him afterwards. He later told me how quickly he would have rejected what I said if I had spoken about Christ in those early weeks. He asked me why I waited, and I said God had told me to.
The Holy Spirit is our power source for knowing when to speak and what to say. If you don’t rely on the Spirit, you’ll find evangelism becoming mechanical. You’ll become disillusioned. You’ll become disheartened. You won’t see what you expect to see. People may respond, but it won’t be real.
I once went through a gospel tract with a fellow, and when we came to the prayer at the end I asked him if he could pray this prayer and really mean it. He looked at the prayer and said yes.
Then it was just as if I heard the Lord say to me, “Hold it.” I quickly prayed for direction, and the issue of sin came forcefully to mind.
I said to the fellow, “We need to go over another issue or two,” and we looked again at sin. We looked up the list of sins in Galatians 5. He knew stealing was sin, and lying. But when I explained fornication to him, he said he didn’t know it was a sin.
When I asked him if he was willing to give it up, he said, “Not on your life.”
“Well, are you willing to pray and ask God to help you give it up?”
“No, you don’t understand. I really like that.”
“Well, are you willing to pray and ask God to change your heart so that you’ll want to give it up?”
“I’m not willing to give it up for anybody,” he said.
“Are you willing to go to hell over it?”
He said, “I guess I am.”
He had been ready to pray the prayer just as the Holy Spirit stopped me. I would have let him get away with a cheap gospel with no repentance. He was responding to a mechanical thrust, no more believing in it than he did in the man in the moon.
Eight months later I saw him in an airport terminal. By this time he had become willing and repentant and had made a decision for Jesus Christ.
Yes, the secret is capitalizing on the Holy Spirit’s power. Recognize that you’re in a spiritual war. This is not fun and games, or simply a matter of methodology. It’s God against the devil.
Prayer is required to tap this spiritual power. One thing that has changed my life is to pray while I’m in a conversation with someone I’m witnessing to: Lord, show me where to start . . . What would you have me do? . . . What would you have me say? . . . What Scriptures would you have me use? . . . How would you have me answer his questions?
If there’s a rule, it’s to find out what God wants you to do and say. Maybe it’s nothing. Or maybe you should take a strong initiative. Perhaps rather than speak you should help the person with something, or ask him to help you.
Once I was driving on Interstate 65 in Alabama after an afternoon rain and I saw a car off the road on the opposite side of the highway, with two young women standing there. Now the Lord knows I don’t like to change a tire. The first time my father showed me how to do it I decided I didn’t like it, and I still don’t. But I prayed and slowed down.
I stopped my car and walked across the median and got to them just in time. They were about to drop the car off the jack because they didn’t have the jack in the slot in the bumper.
So we straightened that out and I changed the tire.
They thanked me and asked if they could pay me. I said, “No, not with money. But I gave you fifteen minutes out of my life and I would appreciate it if you would let me have five minutes out of yours to tell you something I consider very important.”
I knew God wanted me to talk with them. I knew it was a possibility when I first slowed the car down and I prayed, Lord, do you really want me to do this? His answer was yes. So I knew to stop and help, whether or not I like to change tires.
I guess there’s no way I could really tell you how to do this, except to give you the perspective from my life. For me the secret is to continually pray, Lord, what would you have me to do about this?
As you pray, learn to plead with God—”Oh God, please!” I learned this from my daughter when she was very small. She had been disobedient, and I said, “Joy, what does Ephesians 6:1 say?”
She said, “I don’t want to tell you.” I asked her to tell me anyway.
“Well, it says, ‘Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.'”
“Yes, that’s exactly what it says. What did you do?”
“I know Daddy. I disobeyed.”
“What are you supposed to do when you disobey?”
“I know Daddy, I know what I’m to do.”
So I let her spend some time alone with the Lord to work that out. When I put her to bed that night she volunteered to pray. She took a deep breath—”God, I’m sorry. Help me not to do it anymore!”
It was such a plea. I thought, Here’s someone pleading from the depths of her heart. When is the last time I pleaded with God?
Most of us don’t plead. In fact, a lot of us don’t even ask. But earnest prayer like this brings answers.
I’ve asked the Lord to give me a real empathy for people, to help me feel how they feel. I believe God has helped me do that, and he’s continuing to help me so I can I identify more closely with people.
It’s important to meet people at their point of interest, just as Jesus did with the woman at the well. It helps in this to be widely read. I try to read in several subject areas, and I make it a point to read the newspaper. Once I met a fellow who was interested in track. I have almost zero interest in track, but I had read that day about the regional track championships that were being held locally. I knew a few names of the expected top finishers. He was excited as we began talking about this. We developed a strong rapport and I was able to share the gospel with him.
Have you ever gone up to the trashman and thanked him for picking up your garbage? I did that last week. He didn’t have time to listen to the gospel, but at least the door has been opened.
That’s the lifestyle evangelism I’m talking about. Think and pray about it every morning when you walk out your front door. Let it be a way of life for you, whatever you do.
This article by Bill Threlkeld was originally published in the first issue of Discipleship Journal. Bill directed the Missionary Associates program of The Navigators.