Breaking The Barriers To Belief

By Bill Hybels

Just give it up, would you? What do you take me for anyway, a fool? I’d have to push my finger into the wounds in His hands and His feet, and stick my arm into His side all the way up to my elbow before I’d ever believe He was raised from the dead.

“So you can fantasize all you want to about a resurrection,” Thomas continued, “but it looks to me like I’ve already wasted three years of my life. I’m not going to give up one more day on anything associated with Jesus. Don’t you get it? It’s over!”

The disciples were huddled together in a house trying to make sense of recent events. A few days after Thomas’s tirade, Jesus suddenly appeared in the middle of the room. It soon became obvious that He wasn’t there just to have some Christian fellowship. He carefully looked around the room, as if to find a certain person.

Then He locked eyes with Thomas.

When I let my imagination run wild, I’m reminded of those old western movies where two guys square off in a saloon. While they’re staring each other down, everyone else starts diving behind tables and chairs to make themselves scarce because they know there’s going to be some action.

Well, I can just picture Jesus squaring off with Thomas. And I can imagine the other disciples, remembering Thomas’s diatribe a few days ear lier, clearing out of the way. My guess is they were thinking, Is he ever going to get it? He’s going to regret ever opening his big mouth.

Fearing the worst, they covered their eyes as Jesus walked up to with in a foot of Thomas. The room became deathly quiet. And then they heard Jesus say two words: “Touch me.”

Not “Beat it,” or “Drop dead,” or “Get lost.” Not even “Straighten up.” No, nothing remotely like that. Just “Touch me.”

Those words communicated volumes about the character of Christ. Thomas and the other disciples learned a lot about Jesus that day. And the lesson was one that many of our friends need today.

A Divine Perspective

We’ve got to help people understand that God isn’t angry or afraid of honest doubt from those who are trying to discover the truth about Him. In fact, He warmly invites any and all who have sincere questions to come, to seek, and to ask, because He wants to help them clear up the haze. Part of our challenge is to assist them in seeing how different Jesus is from the wild-eyed religious leaders in our world who demand blind loyalty from their followers and who disqualify anyone who has the audacity to doubt them. These self- appointed gurus try to manipulate and intimidate unsuspecting people into joining their cause.

With disarming deference to our human tendency to doubt, Jesus simply says, “Touch me. Do whatever it takes in order to find out I’m real.”

This is welcome news to the friends and acquaintances to whom you’re trying to clarify the gospel. As they go through the process of considering a commitment to Christ, they’ll inevitably experience waves of uncertainty about the whole proposition.

We can expect that to happen, and when it does, we should respond by emulating Jesus. We must not try to shame or hurry them through their confusion. Rather, we should walk with them through their doubts, empathizing along the way with what they’re thinking and feeling, and offering answers when it seems appropriate.

This is all part of the final element in the front half of our equation, clear communication, which starts with spiritual conversations. Eventually, these dialogs open into opportunities to explain and illustrate the gospel. But in the time between first understanding the message and later committing to Christ, our friends need assurance of the truthfulness of Christianity and what the implications are for their life.

So don’t be dismayed when your seeking friends express doubts along the way, It’s actually a positive sign. It shows that they have some genuine interest in the truth they’re so carefully scrutinizing.

Barriers To Belief

Let’s look at some of the stumbling blocks that keep people from faith: misperceptions, intellectual roadblocks, and moral misgivings. Key in on the ones you think might be issues for the people you’re trying to reach.

Misperceptions

“If you commit your life to following Jesus Christ, you can take your freedom, your individuality, your sense of adventure, and any hopes you have for fulfillment in this life, and kiss them all goodbye. After all, you’re signing up to join a bunch of lobotomized, look-alike, act-alike losers who have nothing better to do with their lives.

“But that’s not you. You’ve got brains, talent, and potential. You have places to go, things to do, and goals to achieve. So whatever you do, stop this foolish talk about falling into line and becoming religious. This is the only life you’ll ever have!”

I have a feeling I’m not the only one who’s ever heard that voice. I’ll bet it’s familiar to you, too. More importantly, some of your unbelieving friends hear it playing inside their heads like an endless-loop tape recording.

The irony is that this message is the exact opposite of the truth about the Christian life and, at a deeper level, the truth about the nature and characteristics of God. As long as people cling to distorted images of God, they’ll be severely limited in their motivation to seek Him. That’s because our made-up pictures of God can never come close to the reality of what He’s actually like.

So, where do these misperceptions come from and what can we do to counter them? I think they come from several sources: poor examples, bad teaching, and natural fears. We’ll look at each of these, together with some suggested ways to respond.

Poor Examples

Most of us have been around some naive, narrow-minded, and pessimistic people who, in the name of God, the Bible, or the church, condemn anything they don’t happen to like. They toss around Bible verses and give two-cent answers to million-dollar questions. Arid they’re proud to tell those around them about all the awful things that they don’t ever do.

The typical seeker responds with sarcasm. “You mean, if I want to become a serious Christian, I’ve got to be brain-dead? I’ve got to put on blinders, become simplistic, and close my eyes to the realities of life? Wow, where do I go to sign up?”

What can you do to remove this barrier? First, let your friends know that you understand their hesitations. Try verbalizing some of these fears yourself, like I just did. Tell them about the ill-founded worries you once had about following God. It’s disarming for them to hear you voicing their concerns, especially ones they thought you’d never understand. It lets them know you’re on their wavelength, that you realize that some Christians are off-base in their beliefs and behavior. And it puts you in position to paint a more accurate picture of the Christian life.

Second, live your life as a model that shatters their stereotypes and gives them a new view of Christianity. Although your words can go a long way toward softening their prejudices, it’s what you do that will ultimately reshape their perceptions. Your example can become the living illustration that breaks this barrier by convincing them that Christians favor love over law-keeping, truth over trivialities, and faith over frenetic religious activity.

In addition, anything you can do to get those friends around other authentic Christians will be energy well spent. They need to see that you are not the exception, but one of many who are living exciting lives through Christ.

Bad Teaching

Many people carry around inaccurate portrayals of God because, formally or informally, they’ve been taught wrong ideas.

And as long as God is pictured as a helpless old man, a harsh ogre, a disinterested deity, or a cosmic killjoy, who in their right mind is going to get all worked up about knowing Him? Misguided mental images effectively blunt people’s motivation to move toward God.

Again, we need to identify with our friends’ concerns. You can do this by reflecting on your own former misconceptions, or by referring to ones you’ve seen in others, and then explaining how these can stymie our spiritual progress. I like the way Jay Kesler drives this home. He says to the person, “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in. Maybe I don’t believe in Him, either!” Ultimately, the only effective antidote for countering bad teaching is to correct it with good teaching, replacing misguided ideas with accurate ones. And the best way to do that is to teach the Bible and challenge people to study it for themselves. They’ll discover that God’s revelation about Himself is surprisingly different from the misperceptions people harbor about Him.

Another way to help friends adjust their view of God is to encourage them to read books that faithfully portray His character as it’s revealed in the Bible. I’d recommend such classics as: Your God is Too Small, by J. B. Phillips, and Knowing God, by J. I. Packer. Also, Lee Strobel’s recent book, What Jesus Would Say, will give them a fresh and perhaps unexpected perspective on how God might interact with a number of well-known people today.

Natural Fears

When considering a life-changing choice, it’s only natural to hesitate as we approach the point of decision. If this is true of buying a house or get ting married, it’s certainly all the more true when it comes to signing our lives over to someone else, even when that someone is God! Our natural fears and worries can blur the picture of what it is we’re considering.

Underlying many people’s distorted images of Christianity is the misperception that they’re going to lose more than they’ll ever gain. I had a conversation a while back with a man who was wrestling with this very issue. Finally, he said in an exasperated voice, “I understand the message, and it’s starting to make a lot of sense. But before I make a commitment, you’ve got to tell me: What is God’s agenda for my life after I take that step? I know what He says He’s going to do for me in eternity, but what can I expect right now, between here and heaven?”

I could see that he was worked up about this, so I decided to respond by shocking him into seeing what he was really saying. I shot back, “All right, I’ll tell you what God’s agenda is. He is going to lock you up in a monastery with a bunch of meditating monks and throw away the key! He’s going to wrap you up in a straight jacket of rules and regulations so tight you won’t be able to breathe! He might just make you be a missionary “in Iraq!” His smile told me he realized that I was merely making a point.

Then I challenged him with a couple of questions: “What kind of Cod do you think He is? And why are you so sure that He’s more of a taker than a giver?”

People who worry that they’re going to give up more for God than they’ll gain are underestimating His character. They’re selling Him short. They need to know what it says in Psalm 34:8, “Taste and see that the LORD is good; blessed is the man who takes refuge in him.”

Jesus dealt with the same issues in His day. John 10 tells about a time when He sensed that the people around Him were worried about God’s plan for their lives. So He said, in effect, “There’s been enough confusion on this subject. I want to clear this up once and for all: The evil one comes to destroy your life. But I’m not like him. I came so that you could find life and experience it in all its fullness.”

In essence, the Bible says that being a Christian is not only a great way to die, but it’s also the best way to live. We need to help our friends understand this so they can overcome their natural fears.

Intellectual Roadblocks

A second kind of barrier to belief is intellectual roadblocks: questions and objections that cause doubts about the veracity of Christianity.

Don’t ever sweep these issues under the rug. It’s very damaging for someone seeking the truth to have their queries about the faith taken lightly by a committed Christian. And it’s even worse when that believer spiritualizes his lack of knowledge by telling the seeker they’ll “just have to take it on faith.”

When we take that tack we’re directly disobeying God’s command in 1 Peter 3:15, which says, “Be prepared to give art answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” As the late Walter Martin warned, if we fail to come through with a rational response, we risk becoming just another excuse for that person to disbelieve.

Take your friend’s questions and objections seriously. Thank God that they’re interested and engaged enough to raise such important issues, and do your best to give them a worthy response.

You won’t always have the answer on the tip of your tongue. In many cases the best thing you can do is tell them they’ve asked a good question and that, right now, you don’t have a great answer. Assure them you’ll do some homework and then get back to them. In the long run they might be more impressed that you put the work into checking it out and follow up than they would have been if you’d had an answer in the first place.

When I see people challenging the Christian faith on intellectual grounds, I do two things. First, I try to help them realize the bankruptcy of the competitors to the faith, whatever they may be. Secondly, I try to help them see by contrast the superiority of the biblical position.

I hope you know we’ve got nothing to fear from the teachings of competing world views. To bolster confidence in that fact, I taught a series at our church called, “Alternatives to Christianity.” In it I contrasted some of the claims of the New Age movement, cults, and world religions with those of the Bible. More recently, our church hosted a public debate between leading spokesmen for atheism and Christianity. These helped those in attendance make informed comparisons, and many of them made commitments to Christ.

It’s easy to look on the surface of the alternative positions and be drawn to them. But the closer you look, the weaker they become. Arid the deeper you delve into the evidence for Christianity, the more your faith will grow. We must do our homework in order to firmly fix our own convictions. Then we need to do all we can to help our friends grapple with the truth and make it their own.

Here are a few examples of intellectual dilemmas your friends may face and some ways you might help to resolve them.

The Historical Accuracy Of The Bible

We must show them the wealth of ancient writings, from both religious and secular sources, that support the reliability of the Christian Scriptures, as well as the many confirming finds of modern archaeological research.

In addition, they need to know that other faiths sorely lack this kind of historical credibility. For instance, contrary to the written record of eye witnesses, Islamic teachings say that Jesus never even claimed to be the Son of God, and most modem Muslims deny the documented fact that Jesus died on the cross. And Mormonism teaches that advanced civilizations existed in the Americas at the time of Christ, a claim for which there is no reliable historical or archaeological evidence.

The Logic Of Faith

The rationality of our faith has been affirmed and reaffirmed by many of the greatest minds throughout history. In fact, some of the strongest defenders of the faith started out as skeptics, studying in order to disprove Christianity, and in the process became believers.

In contrast, many of our friends who are concerned about this question would be surprised to find out that teachers of Eastern religions routinely argue against the validity of logic itself!

The Problem Of Evil

Our friends need to realize that if the biblical accounts of human origins, freedom, and rebellion against God are true, the world should look a lot like what we see each night on the six o’clock news. There’s nothing logically incompatible between the existence of an all-powerful Creator and moral rebellion in the world, especially in light of the fact that He promises to ultimately judge all evil.

The bigger challenge is for those who say that everything is God, as is taught in Eastern religions and the New Age movement. How can they make sense of or find hope in the inescapable conclusion that evil is therefore actually a part of God?

And the atheist position is no better, because without God, there is no objective standard of right and wrong; nothing is really evil, but merely distasteful to some individuals. But if all we’re left with is personal taste, then who’s to say that murder or rape are inherently wrong?

Christianity refutes these claims and affirms that evil is real, that it’s not part of God, that it’s against His standards and therefore wrong, and that we’re accountable for what we do. That may not tell us everything we’d like to know about the subject, but what it does tell us makes a whole lot of sense.

Christianity Vs. Science

While the Bible was not written to be a text book on science, its teachings display divine insight and truth when it touches on issues of a scientific nature. And its freedom from the folklore and mythological musings within so many other religious writings is impressive.

In addition, many people will find it interesting that increasing numbers of top-notch biologists, geologists, paleontologists, and astronomers are finding evidence for a divine Creator in the phenomena of the physical world. Good science and good theology point to the same truths about reality.

Hurdling The Roadblocks

We need to help people see that while Christians have questions to deal with, those in the alternative camps have conundrums from which there’s no logical escape. After studying the other options carefully, seeker after honest seeker comes to the conclusion that it takes more faith to deny Christianity than it does to actually embrace it.

So we’ve got to encourage our spiritually inquisitive friends to ask their questions and raise their doubts, but then to do their homework, consider the evidence, examine the Bible, read the books, look at history, weigh the facts, and listen to knowledgeable people who’ve devoted their lives to determining the validity of the Christian faith.

We can help our friends by pointing them toward some of the many books and tapes available by leading defenders of the faith, such as Josh McDowell, J. P. Moreland, William Lane Craig, Hugh Ross, Gary Habermas, Bob and Gretchen Plassantino, Norman Geisler, Ravi Zacharias, Walter Martin, Paul Little, C. S. Lewis, and others. Most of these aren’t household names, but considering how they’ve helped people break through their intellectual roadblocks, they ought to be.

Once our friends have done their research and weighed the facts, we need to encourage them to act on what they’ve found. This means not lying to themselves about their findings, or hiding behind the excuse that they haven’t answered every possible question. Remind them that a jury has to finally reach a verdict based on the evidence they have available.

I once had a fascinating talk with an atheist friend. At the end of our long and lively discussion, he said, “Well, Bill, you believe one way and I see it another way. So why don’t we just agree to disagree, and leave it at that?”

“But, Keith,” I said, “there’s a day coming, and it won’t be long, when we’re both going to find out who is right. We’re banking our lives and destinies on totally contradictory ideas. We can’t both be right. One of us is going to hit the jackpot and the other is going to be in remorse for eternity. Keith, I’ve done my homework on this subject, but I really wonder if you’ve done yours. Why not deal with your doubts directly, and make sure you’ve found the right answers?”

That’s what Thomas did. He doubted, too. But he also weighed the evidence and ended up falling before Jesus and saying those heart-felt words found in John 20:28: “My Lord and my God!” He believed, based on the facts, just as thousands of truth-seekers have done since then.

Moral Misgivings

“That was a pretty good talk you just gave, but I can’t accept the Christian position because there are too many logical holes in it.”

“That’s interesting,” replied Mark, “because I haven’t discovered them yet. What issues bother you?”

It was difficult to tell which of them was more fired up about this conversation. For the next forty-five minutes this man threw his challenges at Mark. Arid Mark, in turn, drew from his background in theology and apologetics to answer the objections, as well as to confront this man with the truth of the gospel.

When the smoke cleared, Mark sensed there was something deeper going on. So he looked the man in the eye and said, “You are raising some good questions, but I want to know what the real issue is. What are you so afraid of having to change or give up if you commit your life to Christ?”

To his surprise, the man vulnerably admitted that there were moral issues in his life that he didn’t want to deal with. “That, I’m afraid, is our real question,” declared Mark. ‘And until you’re willing to let God change hat area of your life, you’ll keep finding every excuse in the book to write off Christianity.”

I’ve seen this sort of thing for years. Some seekers have serious intellectual questions that are preventing their progress toward Christ. Others just act like that’s their situation, and they use philosophical-sounding objections in an effort to keep the focus off of their ordinary, old-fashioned sin.

What often happens is that the person will lead off with a couple of honest questions. But when he sees that there are good answers, he gets nervous. That’s when he has to make a choice. He can either open up and be honest, like the man Mark spoke with above, or he can start raising every random issue that comes to his mind in order to keep you, and God, at arm’s length.

When you sense that someone is putting up a smokescreen, my advice is to come right out and call his bluff. Tell him frankly that he seems to be putting more energy into finding questions than answers, and ask whether he’s afraid God will want to change him or make him give up something to follow Christ. If he divulges that there is, you then have the chance to help him determine how valuable that thing really is.

In other words, assist him in a cost-benefit analysis. For example, if the person admits he enjoys spending his weekends getting out of control on alcohol, and he’s unwilling to give that up to follow God, you’ve now got something to measure. With his cooperation, you can put that issue on a written or mental chart, and help him take an honest look at what he’s gaining and what he’s losing by hanging on to it.

“Okay,” you might start, “let’s list all the things getting drunk does for you. We’ll get more sheets of paper, by the way, if we need them. You talk and I’ll write.”

“It tastes good,” he begins, “and it’s fun. Besides, all my friends are into it.”

“Great. What else?” Silence. “Anything else?” you ask again. He’s already scraping, “…and…uhhh, it helps me relax.”

“All right, if you think of any more benefits, we’ll add them to the page. Now let’s look at the downside. You don’t mind if I help you think of some things, do you?”¬†And in short order you’ll have a long list of items like:

* I end up saying and doing things I later regret.

* My hangovers are downright painful.

* It costs me good money, not to mention time and energy.

* I’m risking eventual liver disease (or at least a beer belly!).

* There’s a high probability of alcohol addiction.

* It impairs my ability to drive, which risks not only property, but also could cost somebody their life.

This kind of evaluation means even more when you point out to your friend how much he matters to God. Explain that God cares so much about him that He’s trying to prevent him from all of these problems. He’ll get a glimpse of what a kind and caring God we have.

And we haven’t even looked yet at all the benefits he’ll forfeit by not following Christ. When you add the lists of short- and long-term ways God blesses our lives to the analysis you’ve already done, there’s simply no contest.

This approach can be helpful when applied to any area that a person is unwilling to give up. I’m not saying that they’ll look at this simple calculation and make their decision purely on the data. But it can be an effective eye-opener that helps them eventually break through this barrier of moral misgivings as the Holy Spirit pulls them toward Christ.

Breaking The Barriers

The process may be short or it may be long, but we’ve got to stick with it, helping our friends clear away whatever barriers are standing between them and Christ.

Along the way, we can encourage them by pointing out two things: a prayer and a promise. The prayer is found in Mark 9, where a man had asked Jesus to heal and deliver his son. Jesus told him it would be possible, if he would just believe. To this the man replied, in verse 24, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”

I find two interesting things about this “doubter’s prayer.” First, Jesus did not put down the man for wavering in his faith. And secondly, He actually went ahead and answered His prayer anyway! That tells us a lot about God, and it gives us great insight into how we can approach Him.

I’ll often encourage a seeking friend to take whatever faith he can muster, as well as all of the doubts he’s facing, and just talk to God openly about them. I’ve led people in prayers along those lines, encouraging them to express their mixed-up feelings to Cod. They’ll say things like, “God, I’m not even sure you’re there. But if you are, I’d sure like you to let me know If you’re real, I want to know you.”

That, I believe, is a prayer God takes seriously. Which leads to the promise. Jesus states in Matthew 7:7-8, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For every one who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.”

And in Jeremiah 29:13, Cod said, “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” Though this was addressed to a certain group of people at a specific time in history, I think it informs us how to coach our friends concerning Jesus’ promise about asking, seeking, and knocking. Namely, they need to do it whole-heartedly. To make it a front- burner issue, to realize that the ramifications of this decision are so great that it warrants top-priority.

If they’ll sustain that kind of an all-out effort, they’re going to break through all the barriers keeping them from belief. It’s an incredible privilege to help someone through this process, and then eventually to usher them across the line of faith, as they embrace Christ as their forgiver, leader, and friend. We’ll explore how you can do this in the next chapter, where we’ll begin the section on maximum impact.

Kerry Livgren described the searching process poignantly in his powerful song, “The Wall.” He wrote these words while still a spiritual seeker, several years before he became a Christian:

I’m woven in a fantasy, I can’t believe the things I see
The path that I have chosen now has led me to a wall
And with each passing day I feel a little more like something dear was lost
It rises now before me, a dark and silent barrier between,
All I am, and all that I would ever want to be
It’s just a travesty, towering, marking off the boundaries my spirit would erase

To pass beyond is what I seek, I fear that I may be too weak
And those are few who’ve seen it through to glimpse the other side,
The promised land is waiting like a maiden that is soon to be a bride
The moment is a masterpiece, the weight of indecision’s in the air
It’s standing there, the symbol and the sum of all that’s me
It’s just a travesty, towering, blocking out the light and blinding me
I want to see

Gold and diamonds cast a spell, it’s not for me I know it well
The treasures that I seek are waiting on the other side
There’s more than I can measure in the treasure of the love that I can find
And though it’s always been with me, I must tear down the wall and let it be
All I am, and all that I was ever meant to be, in harmony
Shining true and smiling back at all who wait to cross
There is no loss

Article “Breaking The Barriers To Belief”¬†written by Bill Hybels is taken from Becoming A Contagious Christian written by Bill Hybels.

This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes, “Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”

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