The Christian Imperative

Knock, knock.
—Who’s there?
—An evangelist.
—An evangelist who?
—An evangelist who can save you from yourself.
—But I don’t need to be saved from myself.
—Satan’s threat is ever upon us all.
—Then how do you save yourself from yourself?
—Ah, I’ve been saved.
—So the battle is over for you?
—This is my battle now: reaching down to lost souls in hopes of lifting them up.
—So you’re above me?
—The Lord is my light. Have you found the Lord?
—I think you and I mean different things by “Lord.”
—Well, neighbor, who is the Lord for you?
—You know what, never mind. This is going nowhere. (Door begins to close.)
—But you needn’t be afraid, friend. The Lord is beyond your comprehension and his love surpasseth all understanding. But he looks kindly upon you.
—I’m not interested.
—(Through the now closed door) He wants you to be with him.
—(Door opens again.) So you claim to know what God wants for me? The Lord is beyond my comprehension, but not yours? It’s all so simple for you, isn’t it?
—If you read the Bible you’d know how sweet are his fruits. In Leviticus 9....
—You know Scripture by rote and you know nothing about me, but here you are at my door thinking you actually have a chance to “reach down” into my soul and bring Jesus to me. You’re too much.
—It is the Lord who is great, not I.
—I wasn’t saying you’re great. I’m saying you’re galling.
—Let me leave this with you. After you’ve had a chance to read it, I’ll come back.
—No thanks. I won’t read it.
—(As door is closing) I’ll pray for you....

There are two kinds of believers. For one kind, individual differences among believers pose a threat to the group, if not to the faith, and what we hold in common is far more important than what separates us. The other kind holds that doubts and disagreements among individual believers are a pivotal and profound feature of the individual, the group and the truth underlying belief itself. Perhaps I’m not alone in reporting that I’ve spent my adult life straddling these two camps, never entirely comfortable in either.

Exchanges like the one dramatized above leave me feeling frustrated and often depressed. It’s not because I don’t know my Scripture backwards and forwards (though I don’t), and it’s not because the “Christian” label doesn’t always sit well with me (though it doesn’t). The real reason this kind of encounter vexes me so has to do with my discomfort with evangelizing, particularly of the door-to-door variety.

Maybe I’m mystified by their motivation and their chutzpah. If it’s an exercise in strengthening one’s own faith or building one’s own confidence, then such an approach makes sense. But if it truly is an attempt to reach, save or convert, let alone dialogue with, a total stranger, then I can’t imagine a better way to sabotage one’s own efforts than by accosting a stranger on his own front steps with your ignorant and unprepossessing presumption that he isn’t “saved.”

The question is, What is the Christian imperative?

For Søren Kierkegaard, a thinker who himself straddled the worlds of existentialism and Christianity, belief was not a once-and-for-all passage from spiritual torpor into spiritual ecstasy, but an ever-renewed self-commitment through free choice. “Without risk,” he argued, “there is no faith. Faith is precisely the contradiction between the infinite passion of the individual’s inwardness and the objective uncertainty.” For Kierkegaard the individual believer reaches his highest state not when standing contentedly before God, but when leaping perilously across the void. He understood that faith is not a platform for vatic utterances but a mysterious alchemy of passionate conviction and unquenchable self-doubt.

The statement “I am saved,” while offering a certain identity and security, elides the fact that our relationship to God is neither static nor safe. For evangelizers, as for any believer, the temptation is to make faith into a neatly packaged set of answers, when faith, it seems to me, must ever be regarded as an uncontainable welter of questions—not a destination one arrives at but a gift unwrapped by fits and starts.

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