[I wrote the following ‘comment’ after having posted the above-link by my good friend and careful thinker Cindy Wang Brandt on my FB page. What began as a chance to put down a few related thoughts ended up being more of a blog that elaborates on her realizations re: evangelism. Fool that I am, since I started composing my comments on my iPad after waking up this morning, I typed all that follows with my two thumbs.]
Applying Steven Covey’s and Cindy Wang Brandt’s approach, I’ve learned to ask myself, “How open am I to be impacted and influenced first by who this person is and what they truly believe, to demonstrate such a deep and sincere understanding of them first?” Because quite honestly in my past, I approached sharing my faith as a 100% one-way conversation. In other words, I want you to understand (and hopefully be transformed) by my truth, my story while I am unmoved, unpersuaded, unconverted by anything you share. One of the greatest gifts anyone can offer someone else (especially if they are quite different from you) is to understand them, to the point where they are convinced that you do. This is never something that any of us can declare, e.g., “I understand you.” Only the other party can tell us whether we have in fact given them this gift. Or not.
Not feeling understood is frequently the root cause of not only failed attempts to share the gospel of Jesus. It is one of the reasons why there is so little real dialogue, so little empathy, and so much talking past each other, on ANY subject, in so many settings. Empathic Listening is not a technique of persuasion. If approached like that, it is disingenuous and utterly lacking of Christ’s Spirit. Jesus first emptied himself (Phil 2) before coming to us, before becoming for a time our flesh. His willingness to incarnate himself continues to demonstrate to us that he deeply understands what it means to be human, even though he is God. The Son of God’s incarnation was ultimately his way of empathizing with us, of being willing to be transformed first.
Jesus risked being transformed by us first without any guarantee that we would be so moved by this self-emptying act that we would then all be open to understanding him and being transformed. Some were so unmoved that they wanted to destroy him. But Love will always go first, will always risk being unrequited, rejected, even taken advantage of.
Think how much this Christ-like example is needed today in the Middle East or between rich and poor, straight and gay, women and men, young and old, parents and teens. Without the willingness to lay down one’s agenda to be understood first, to be declared right, to come out on top, there will only be serial monologue–with neither party truly listening to understand, but only formulating counters and comebacks–and never any genuine dialogue.
And as ones who’ve supposedly been transformed by Christ’s empathy, we should always be the ones to seek to understand first. But sadly, this rarely happens. Years ago, I was leading a small group of struggling Christians and curious outsiders. One of the latter was a quiet man with a Masters in Zen Buddhism and a doctorate in clinical psych. I spent much of our first two sessions trying to convince him that Jesus trumped Buddha, that I was absolutely right and he was absolutely wrong. He sat that passively and I thought I was winning. He then spoke up. “I’ve read the entire Bible several times through, even studied Barth’s Church Dogmatics, before deciding that what I was seeking could be found best through Zen. Much of what you’ve said is inaccurate. There are seven schools of Buddhism, and mine doesn’t believe in a soul, so the question of where I will spend eternity is irrelevant. Where did you ‘learn’ this? Have you read our sacred texts? Have you spent any time with Buddhist priests?”
In a rare moment of emptying, I confessed that I had done none of those things, that my declarations were based on vague recollections from a Christian paperback that I’d read back in high school that purported to explain and disqualify the 3 other major religions in the world. “Since you’ve studied both, please help me understand why you ended up choosing Zen.” And for the rest of that session, I concentrated on understanding why even if I didn’t always agree.
When he was done, his countenance was different, less defensive, softer. He then looked at me and asked, “What caused you to let me speak, to talk about my own beliefs? Christians always do all the talking. What kind of Christianity is this?” I meekly replied, “The kind that is trying to be more like Jesus.”