Becoming an Effective Apologist by Forgetting All you Know
Apologetics is an interesting discipline. To be properly equipped, we spend years in study, learning theology, philosophy, worldview, ethic, reason, argumentation, and science. I continue to read books and articles by both classic authors (Plato, Pascal, Augustine, Aquinas, etc.) and popular authors today—both Christian and non-Christian. We take seriously the command that we should study to show ourselves approved (2 Tim. 2:15) and that we should "always be ready to make a defense" (1 Pet. 3:15). But as important as all that preparation is, I think it's equally important to know how to chuck it all and a recent experience I had solidified that concept to me.
A few weeks ago I engaged in a conversation with a man who was seeking to know God. "John" said he was seeking to know the evidence for God's existence. He told me he "was desperate to believe" that God is real. After a few minutes of conversation, I learned some facts about John: he claims to be agnostic, he's read Bart Ehrman and feels his arguments are strong, he feels the problem of evil argues against the existence of God. John holds a PhD in Philosophy.
Given that John has an expertise in philosophy, I began to engage him in the arguments for God's existence – how the Bible cannot be considered circular given that it isn't one source but a collection of 66 different books written by many authors over a 1500 year period, how the Kalam shows that everything that has a beginning must have a cause, how moral theory shows that for evil to exist we must have an absolute standard against which to measure what counter with others. However, with each exchange John was becoming more combative and entrenched in his position.
I couldn't figure out at first why he was becoming so argumentative. He had originally sounded so desperate to find out reasons to know that God is there, but the more I provided, the more he fought me. It was at this point that God opened my eyes to something - my approach was all wrong. John was a trained philosopher since most of that training was from an atheistic perspective, he had been trained to think about philosophy in a particular way. In arguing with him intellectually, he would merely fall back on what he had learned and react almost as a reflex. The more I engaged philosophically, the more he was unplugging from weighing the evidence. Instead he reacting with stock responses that he was taught.
It was at this point that I asked him, “Wait, you came to me and said you want to believe. What about your desire?” When I switched from head issues to heart issues, his tone and demeanor immediately changed and he basically said "Yes, please pray for me. I want to believe but my heart and my mind are disconnected." And this is where true communication began to happen.
You see, many people need to understand reasons why their objections against God are not valid, so we should know those reasons. However, by only engaging people intellectually, you limit the ways God can reach individuals. I got to pray with this man -an agnostic - who had all the answers to arguments for the existence of Go d except one, he could feel God’s presence pulling on his heart.
It’s important for the apologist to understand that we must not rely on only our arguments as our sole apologetic. The real motivation here is to allow people to see the truth – that God exists and that Jesus offers salvation. If we confine ourselves to only head knowledge, we may miss the most powerful evidence for God’s reality we have - the self-attesting witness of the Holy Spirit. When I pushed hard on answering intellectual objections with John, it entrenched him more deeply in his agnosticism. In holding a PhD, he didn’t want to be shown his extensive years of study have lead to wrong conclusions. But he couldn’t deny that there was a yearning to know God. In forgetting my head knowledge for a bit, I was able to at least talk to him about how he feels and I was able to pray that God would continue to make himself real to John, as I still pray.
Next time you have a witnessing opportunity, think a minute before you answer. See where the person you’re talking with has needs. Meet him or her there. Sometimes the smartest thing you can do is to stop being smart and start feeling.