You may not feel particularly attracted by the thought of an octopus. Perhaps your only interest in one is when you eat Calamari, made from one the octopus’ closest cousins, or if you are especially wild about some Chinese specialty dishes. But can a female octopus teach us something about having an on-going conversation with a seeker about God and stay the course to see that person come through for Christ?
Scientists recently discovered the determination of one octopus to hatch her eggs. It took a staggering four years and five months, the longest egg brooding session in known marine biology. Unusually long, this brooding session was thought to be necessary due to the cold water temperature at these depths just off the coast of California.
In the same way, we also might need to spend extra time and extraordinary patience if we want to see people drawn to Christ and born into the waters of the ever more chilling spiritual environment of our culture. What lesson can “Octopussy” (the name given to this particularly dedicated mother) teach as we seek to help win people to Jesus?
It is likely that she ate little or nothing at all for the entire period of brooding and literally gave her life into order to see her young come into the underwater world. She fed the eggs with the nutrients from passing shrimps, frequently ignoring her own needs. She constantly caused ocean water to flow over the eggs keeping them oxygenated, all the while keeping them warm with her own body temperature.
This natural instinct to breed, reproduce and multiply is in all of us, but are we also aware that God has placed within us both a command and a deep desire to see Christ reproduced first in us and then through us – to see the earth filled with “little Christs”, disciples of Jesus Christ? I have been recently pondering the question, “What does it take to have a truly spiritual conversation with another person – anyone, believer or otherwise?”
Building spiritual friendship
I am so glad that in our cell strategy we place Spiritual Friendship Groups at the centre. Everybody needs at least one other person, a spiritual companion, someone with whom we can share our deepest thoughts, longings, joys and pains. Genuine, Christ-centred relationships are vital for deep and meaningful interaction as we all journey through the difficult territory of life on our way to the eternal joys of heaven. In my booklet The Friendship Factor, I outline three principles that govern and guide these key relationships within our cell groups which we call the Groups of 3. The first is this – we receive one another with the same joy and acceptance as Christ has received us. This means we love and accept one another in the Spirit of Grace.
The second is that we recognise Christ in one another as the deepest treasure within every born again believer. Beneath the interior struggles, the mess and the disappointments of life lies a treasure and that is the joy of Christ living in us and the potential for his passion to become the ruling passion of our heart.
Real communication is always heart-to-heart, genuine, with no pretence.
The third is we restore one another seeking to see the glorious nature of Christ formed in ourselves and in each other.
We can come to the place where all these three principles govern our conversations in truly-connected fellowship. They must govern if we are going to engage in spiritual conversations with our brothers and sisters in Christ and see the encouraging and motivating power of truly Christian love. But how does this love work when talking to those who do not yet have Christ living within? How can we engage in a spiritual conversation with those who do not know the joy of coming home to God, who may not even be interested in or know about that possibility?
Having a truly spiritual conversation about God with a person (believer or not) is one of the most stimulating and encouraging of all conversations. Passions are shared. Joy is imparted. Personally, I would not like to try and decide what thrills me most – talking with Spirit-indwelt believers or those who (though they may not be aware of it) in whom the Spirit is working, drawing them back through Christ into their true purpose in life and eternity – knowing God.
I find that the same principles can help us when talking about God to those who have not yet come home to him as well as those who already believe but (like us all) need to draw closer to him. Obviously, there are some differences in how we go about it. But in both types of conversations the same issues are often present.
We struggle with the same internal battles whenever we are talking about God. With Christians we might feel we have to impress, show them how spiritual we are, that we have it all together. Among non-Christians we must feel the added pressure of always having the right answer, giving the right impression and proving that we are right and they are wrong.
Motivated by such fleshly concerns, rarely do conversations with the lost go anywhere. You have heard the old adage, “You can win an argument, and lose a soul.” It is right to want to persuade people, make Jesus look good and lead people in the prayer of salvation. In the final analysis, we cannot convince anyone. Only the Holy Spirit can do that. It goes without saying that the greatest qualities of a soul winner is prayerful dependence and sensitivity to the Holy Spirit.
The same three principles mentioned before (slightly modified for obvious reasons) are useful as we share our faith with others.
Engaging with Love
First we must approach every evangelistic conversation with love. This means we must genuinely accept and receive our friends as they are. God invites us all to come to him just as we are. Of course, he loves us too much to leave us as we are, but the absence of religious superiority or negative judgmentalism is one of the first things that our unbelieving friends should notice about us. It should (and often does) blow them away. They have such a negative impression of Christians who from past experience have been nothing less than holier-than-thou and perhaps even carping, critical and loveless, only interested in showing others how wrong they are.
Jesus associated with, ate with, mixed with and loved the lost. We should too.Even if it meant I was misunderstood and even condemned as being worldly having been seen coming out of a “worldly establishment”. Provided of course, I like Jesus, did not participate in sin. I would not fail to show love to my friends who are very far from God and so mixed up with the things of this world We often stay cosy in our churches and cell groups, barely having any contact with the lost and hurting people of this world, just because they are never seen in a church building. Sometimes we simply want to stay comfortable in our confined “church-ianity” so that we can avoid being contaminated by the world.
Jesus loved the lost. He came to seek and to save them. We must follow him and be with them.
The second principle is to recognise and discern the way the Spirit is working. The Bible says that God has put eternity in the hearts of men. People have a deep, deadened and distant memory of having been made for fellowship with God. They are lost without Christ, conscience and consuming passion for Christ. Their ruling passions are always deeply ungodly – sensual passions, moral passions or, the most despicable of all, the God-hating passion and dogged determination to make life work without God. They search for the good life, the better life, but forget God. Either they shake their fist in the face of God telling him that he doesn’t exist or that he is just plain useless when it comes to the things that really matter. At best (or is that the worst?) they try to use God to satisfy their desires in this life, or in the one to come. This is what religion is all about.
I recently spoke to a young man whom I had known for some years. He came from a Muslim background but had become quite secular in this thinking as a young adult. He told me he had begun practising Islam once more. I was deeply disappointed, as I had been witnessing to him about Christ for years! More to the point, I felt rejected and even threatened by his decision. But as I talked further I discovered that the stirrings in his soul to get to know God were from the Holy Spirit. He was searching and had discovered a new desire to get to know God. That discernment of how God was a work in this young man’s heart released me in my witness. Later, I sent him a text that read something like this, “Don’t let your pure desire to get to know God be spoiled by religion – whatever religion. But keep genuinely seeking him and you will find him”.
This was far better than jumping on him and beating him down with my superior knowledge of Islam, of its false claims and false teachings. I keep on praying that the Spirit of Wisdom and Revelation will draw my friend to Christ.
What is the Spirit doing in your non-Christian friends?
Is he showing them the shallowness of life without God, are they slipping on the slopes of self-fulfilment, self-attainment and self-hope, or are they sadly still so unaware that anything else is available. When you answer these questions you will know better how to pray, how to speak and how to brood over these fragile eggs even if you break all records of the longest period of a soul ever coming to Christ. The third principle of speaking to the lost is to reveal Christ and show him to your friend by whatever good means is available as the Holy Spirit leads you. The pressure is really off us if we depend on the Spirit. We cannot do the work in the person’s heart anyway. There are excellent ways you can prepare to preach the gospel message effectively and answer difficult questions people have about the Christian faith. I encourage you to prepare yourself in every way you can, but in the end, it is always down to being sensitive to the Spirit as you show and tell others about Christ.
The purpose of the Gospel
We must also be very clear on what the gospel is and what we have that can help others find Jesus. The gospel is of course centrally about the fact that we have sinned and fall short of God’s glory. Christ died for us, the just for the unjust, to bring is back to God. But we need to be clearer about the purpose of the gospel. If, in the past, we were falling short of the glory of God, surely the real purpose of the gospel in not just that we should be saved and go to heaven, but so that we might learn what it means to live for God’s glory. Not just to do it, but also to have the amazing privilege of experiencing what it means to live for him. Our testimony is all about making God look good. Often we think it is about listing all our blessings – including our peace and joy – and then telling others they could have it too if they gave their lives to Christ. While all that is true, it can be told and heard in an extremely shallow and unconvincing way.
Our hope is knowing God fully and enjoying him forever
Don’t bad things happen to good people? Or, even worse than that, don’t good things happen to bad people? How you handle your suffering, your pain and the deep disappointments of life will demonstrate both Christ and the reality of the gospel far more than simply having to pretend that all is always going well. After all, the levels of satisfaction and fullness we grasp after belong, in the main, to the life to come. As the old hymn puts it, “Now the cross and conflict; then the perfect day.”
I have found that people can make money and be prosperous without Christ and they can enjoy high levels of health and worldly satisfaction without God. Stories abound both in secular and non-Christian religious communities of children off drugs, young people flourishing in sport and professional achievement and people living the kind of lives that they use as “Exhibit A” in the defence of their beliefs. What do we have that no person not reconciled with God and passionate for Christ could never have – unless and until they yield to the kingdom of God in Christ? We have a secret place, a place of sweetness and inexpressible joy that nothing – neither good nor bad, neither pleasurable nor painful, no matter how intense, can never destroy. That secret place is the joy of deeply knowing God and this, as Jesus said, IS eternal life.
Thinking and talking like this when sharing our faith takes the pressure off us having always to hide our true feelings, our disappointments or our pains. We hurt, we bleed, we weep – just as others do. But with one super-extraordinary difference. We enjoy the good, we endure the pain, and all the while, our relationship with God and the true purpose of our lives comes ever closer. That purpose is not the better life we long for here, but the best of all life – our hope of knowing God fully and enjoying him forever. Don’t give up brooding over your eggs, many of them will hatch!