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There is no formula for “success,” but there is one for faithfulness

Annibale Carracci, “Domine Quo Vadis,” 1602
Annibale Carracci, “Domine Quo Vadis,” 1602 (photo: Public Domain)

A recent article in a Catholic publication explored the obstacles to the Christian conversion of a certain prominent journalist, a secular Jew, who is obviously a “seeker.”

The would-be convert himself lists “walls,” or barriers erected by Christian behaviors, tending to keep him out of Christianity: a Christian siege mentality, bad listening, invasive care (in which someone morally intrudes in the life of another), and intellectual mediocrity of mushy, vague sentimentality. The article also lists things the writer finds attractive in Christianity.

A friend brought up the article to a group of her Catholic friends, me among them, asking what we thought about the “barriers” to the man’s conversion. We all agreed the items were indeed things to avoid throwing up before a seeker or “faith explorer.”

“But suppose,” one of us said, “an unassailable study came out reporting how converts in overwhelming numbers were significantly helped by Christians who engaged in just the sort of activities the resistant journalist decried? Suppose the study found that what a few people regard as stumbling blocks the vast majority take as steppingstones?”

“I would doubt the validity of the study,” one friend replied. Not because she prefers her ideas unscathed by contrary facts, but because such results would contradict her experience. She had seen the barriers to faithful entry operating in people she knew. And those barriers seemed the result of the very sort of things the journalist would-be convert described.

Perhaps the sensus fidei was at work in my friend’s skepticism. We shouldn’t take as an endorsement of bad things the fact they might, salva gratia, somehow result in good outcomes. God writes straight with crooked lines, but that’s no excuse for sloppy penmanship. In the Old Testament God used Balaam’s ass to communicate his message, yet the Lord provided no license for Christians to behave as asses.

Another friend doubted the journalist’s hesitancy because of “walls.”

“Sure,” she said, “some Christians operate from a siege mentality, and are bad listeners, moral butt-ins and intellectually deficient. But so are many non-Christians. Surely a thoughtful seeker should be able to see that those ‘walls’ reflect human limitations operating outside of faith as much as within. If you’re looking for reasons not to commit, you can always fall back on the foibles of believers as an excuse,” she observed. Even she conceded, though, Catholic bad example can be more than a mere excuse for people not to inquire further.

My friends and I decided to focus on how Catholics should behave, regardless of whether their behavior gets results or leads others to reject the message or provides excuses not to commit. We should, we agreed, speak the truth in love, trying to avoid unnecessarily giving offense but caring enough to risk offending.

That makes sense to me as a general proposition. The problem is, applying it concretely. And here three biblical passages come to mind: 1 Peter 3:15, Romans 12:8, and Luke 6:21-23, 26.

“Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks for a reason for the hope within you, but do it with gentleness and respect,” writes Peter in 1 Peter 3:15. “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all,” writes Paul in Romans 12:18. In other words, be mindful of what you say and how you say it.

Yet Jesus himself also said, “Blessed are you when people hate you and exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice then, and leap for joy, for behold, great is your reward in heaven. For their fathers so treated the prophets” (Luke 6:21-23). And, “Woe to you when all speak well of you; for so their fathers did to the false prophets” (Luke 6:26).

Not everyone will like what we say or always like us for saying it, Jesus warns. Not if we’re being faithful. His own example is a case in point. So we have to be careful about drawing conclusions concerning how we should evangelize based on whether people respond as we would like.

Each of us must discern how what God says through the passages above applies to particular conversations and the specific people with whom we have them. There is no formula for “success,” but there is one for faithfulness: love of God and neighbor, and humble submission to the guidance of the Holy Spirit.