You know the scene: A troubled family member arrives at home only to find various loved ones seated in the living room. They ask him or her to sit down and hear what they have to say. One by one, they read prepared statements of love and admonition. The subject, eyes brimming with tears or flashing with indignation, endures as much as possible before caving in, pushing back or storming out.
The poor soul has bottles hidden around the house and in the flowerbed, and she can find another pint as soon as her prime stashes are blown.
Or there’s the trash addict who can’t throw anything away, even dead animals. (I was called in on a cleanup with some church members in my seminary days; we found a dead, dried out cat under matted, stained clothes under stacks of newspapers in one of the closets.)
An intervention is very uncomfortable but worth it, whether the addiction is drugs or drink, clutter or cussedness. They’re ruining themselves, as those around them are grieving if not outright harmed. And they don’t much appreciate your suggestion that something is out of whack.
I know that people can come to Christ in a lot of tender ways. An immigrant wife is touched by her Christian neighbor’s shopping and language tips. A lost welder is disarmed by the warmth of a church softball team he’s been asked to join. A “singing Christmas tree” rendition of Joy to the World brings tears to the eyes of a cranky, unchurched parent who shows up to watch his high school senior perform.
But the Lord has also used Jonathan Edwards’ Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God and the chaste slap of a godly college girl knocking some sense into a unbelieving suitor, whose advances were unseemly, a jolt which caused him to reassess his secular worldview. Or how about Mordecai Ham’s scathing anti-alcohol parades, which salvifically grieved some drunks standing outside bars on the roadside?
God may well use a sequence of happy and scary events and items to lead an individual to Himself. (I think I once heard the late evangelism professor Roy Fish say the average was seven Gospel touches before conversion.)
So Bob may have been providentially prepped for salvation by, in order, a Vacation Bible School lesson he heard at age 8; a highway sign reading, “Prepare to Meet God”; a Jack Chick tract named Holy Joe; the stellar performance of a homeschooled spelling bee champ who thanked Jesus for helping her; five minutes of a Joel Osteen sermon; and a friend who repeated something he heard in an Alistair Begg broadcast.
Truth is, we risk looking silly when we declare, well beyond our competency and theological warrant, that all evangelistic approaches other than our own are tacky, pompous, dated, specious, trendy, dopey, sleepy, grumpy, sneezy and bashful.
That being said, there is an irreducible kernel of awkwardness and agony in conversion—repentance. I compare it to throwing up. I hate it. I fight it. (On a bucking airplane I close my eyes, turn the air full blast on my face, breathe deeply and sit very still.) I suppress it with every fiber of my being. But when it comes, oh, the relief—the blessed cooling of a sweaty brow, the relaxation of suppressed muscles.
Yes, it’s that gross, as is repentance, as we hurl up and out the poison and rot of self, sin and damnable, willful stupidity—the sort of thing you find in James 4:8-10: “Cleanse your hands, sinners, and purify your hearts, double-minded people! Be miserable and mourn and weep. Your laughter must change to mourning and your joy to sorrow. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and He will exalt you.”
Sometimes we hear and say that a witnessing Christian is “just one beggar telling another one where to find bread.” I’d suggest it’s more like a formerly-suicidal fellow who was talked off the ledge trying to talk a currently-suicidal fellow off the ledge. Or it is like a repentant Taliban terrorist in Gitmo going on TV to dissuade current Taliban terrorists to cut it out.
Of course, most don’t think that a law-abiding, philanthropic citizen—working the NYT crossword in Starbucks on Sunday morning, sitting across from his wife Khloe enjoying a half decaf pike place roast, beside their jogger stroller bearing little Nash—is a suicidal terrorist. But he is just as we were. He’s bound for a well-deserved sinner’s hell, indifferent to the godly stewardship of his life, harming innocents along the way by his passive, aggressive and passive-aggressive defiance of the Kingdom and its gospel of grace, Khloe and Nash being his prime victims as his “spiritual leadership in the home” couples them to his downgrading train.
And so we intervene. If, that is, we love the person, are convinced of his plight and are willing to risk the alienation of affection. It doesn’t take licenses or programs or eloquence, though those can help. It simply demands compassion, courage, a firm grasp of the hard truth and, yes, a life which reflects a better way.
Mark Coppenger is director of the Nashville extension center and professor of Christian apologetics at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.
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