Anticipating the questions

Anticipating the Questions

Both Peter and Paul expect that every believer should be ready to respond to the questions that will come their way. But what are these questions likely to be, and how can we prepare ourselves?

Is your preaching and teaching ministry doing enough to prepare your church for the task of evangelism? In this series, Andy Paterson offers biblical encouragement that every Christian has a role to play, free from false guilt.

This is part 18 in the series.

How foolish not to be ready when some advance thinking and planning might open an opportunity to share my faith.

As far as I can see it, the main issues we will face in evangelism come in three areas: the emotional, the intellectual and the social.

Emotional issues

In the emotional area it’s not surprising to discover that questions to do with suffering are number one on our list. We live in a broken and fallen world and are all subject to pain, disease, and death and our innate, God-shaped sense of justice cries out against the seeming contradiction of a sovereign and loving God allowing these things to happen.

In a famous interview on Irish television, Stephen Fry, the much-loved actor and raconteur, was asked by Gabriel Bryne: “Suppose it’s all true, and you walk up to the pearly gates, and are confronted by God. What will Stephen Fry say to him, her, or it?

57-year-old Fry replied: “I’d say, bone cancer in children? What’s that about? How dare you? How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault. It’s not right, it’s utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world that is so full of injustice and pain. That’s what I would say.

The novelist Somerset Maugham wrote something similar. “I’m glad I don’t believe in God. When I look at the misery of the world and its bitterness I think that no belief can be more ignoble.

And in my (ageing) record collection I have an Elton John record that contains the lyric:

If there's a God in heaven
What's he waiting for?
If He can't hear the children
Then he must see the war.
But it seems to me
That he leads his lambs
To the slaughter house
And not the promised land

These quotes seem to sum up the anger and hostility that many feel towards God when faced with the issue of suffering. And it would be foolish of Christians in the extreme to dismiss the deep pain and harrowing experiences that many have been through that have scarred their lives.

This is no place for quick, easy, simplistic answers. There are none. So often in situations like this, when faced with deeply personal questions demanding to know ‘why’, the Christian must gently and honestly confess they do not know. As we’ll see in the next section, so often the best and most loving thing to do is to get our friend to tell us more about the situation that has prompted that question.

But where answers are required, I think we need to explore how incredibly holy and loving God is and how deeply vile and abhorrent our sin really is.

We can carefully illustrate from the lives of some who have suffered deeply and reflected upon it (CS Lewis and Helmut Thielicke come to mind). We can speak about the choices that people freely make and the consequences that flow from them. And above all we can point to the suffering of the cross and the glorious hope of heaven.

In one paragraph I can only faintly point in directions that would take up volumes of more considered work, but at least here are some signposts to guide us in our thinking. Further reading and careful thought is certainly required.

Intellectual issues

The intellectual questions that may arise in the course of conversation, are rarely (in my experience) original to the questioner. Often, they have been picked up second hand from the opinions expressed and popularised by others.

It’s not to say that they’re not good and genuine questions but rather they’re being used as a form of defence against the claims of Christ and may be countered more directly than issues that have arisen from the heart.

The usual suspects here are to do with evidence for the existence of God, the supposed contradictions that ‘litter’ the Bible, and issues relating to science and evolution. Once again let me say that it’s not my job here to provide the definitive answers to these objections – they are well dealt with in other specialist works – but rather to encourage you to research, prepare and anticipate; to be “ready to respond” (1 Peter 3:15).

I well remember a sixth form discussion where a teacher quickly dealt with the claims of the Christian faith by declaring that “we all know the Bible is full of contradictions”. When I asked him to give me one or two illustrations of such he quickly became flustered, defensive, and mute.

This is not to say that there aren’t some issues that at first glance may appear to be contradictory, but further research and deeper Biblical knowledge can usually resolve these within a few minutes. Remember: these are generally the fig-leaf questions that are there to cover over the enquirer’s preconceptions and prejudices.

I’m not a scientist so scientific questions are harder for me to deal with if I am talking to a friend who has greater scientific knowledge. But I was very heartened to hear Professor John Lennox tell us that the big question we need to keep coming back to is that of origins.

Where did it all start? What was before the ‘big bang’, if indeed that was how it all started? If my friend is unable to answer that most basic and essential of questions, we hardly need spend hours talking about some of the finer details of the debate.

Social issues

Social questions reflect the assumptions of living in a pluralist society, where there is a strong reaction to Christianity’s claims and teachings. Some of the most common objections I’ve been hearing are to do with the claims that the Christian faith is homophobic or transphobic, or to do with the exclusive claims that Christ is the only way – ‘what about other religions?’

These are some of the hardest objections to deal with. In our questioner’s mind it is entirely unthinkable that the Christian faith should have a place within our secular, pluralist society. They cannot possibly understand how Christians could be so ‘narrow’ and ‘bigoted’.

Indeed, the pressure to bring Christian teaching ‘up-to-date’ and make it ‘relevant’ is so great that many denominations and individuals have caved in under the weight. Sadly, the response of many in society has become so aggressive and censorious that it can be very hard to have any meaningful and open discussion.

Of course, there are glorious answers to do with these issues and believers have written so helpfully to describe the true story of human flourishing under God’s magnificent grace, and many have gently exposed the gaping contradictions within the prevailing worldview. But the question remains as to whether they will get a hearing.

That’s why it is vital that all God’s children live all of their lives reflecting the grace and beauty of Jesus in all they do. Christians love lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer folk. They will speak graciously and act lovingly. They will use every opportunity to bless all people who come within their orbit. They will show mercy and engage in acts that will bless and help all they meet.

It is as the love of Christ is worked out in everyday situations that little by little, one by one, the prejudices and stereotypes are demolished, and opportunities arise to share the best story of all.

We’re just scratching the surface of an area that is vast, and we can be grateful for much work that’s been put together by others wiser in these areas. The takeaway here is the need to have, at the very least, a rough grasp of possible responses to common objections.

Be ready to respond!

Next time: The better way.

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