It Takes Conviction to Make Conviction
By Audrey Stallsmith
Why is it that we Christians never seem able to convince other people of the sinfulness of certain activities? For example, most people—in reference to the ten commandments—will agree that stealing and murder are bad. But, judging from their actions, even some nominal Christians see nothing wrong with the lying, swearing, and fornication also mentioned in those commandments.
In fact, I’ve just been reading a book by a hospice chaplain, in which she seems to document more of what she doesn’t believe than what she does. Apparently, hospice requires its chaplains to go along with whatever the patients’ religious beliefs are—or aren’t. So people who may desperately be looking for a way to God, as their lives are ending, aren’t likely to find Him through such wishy-washy counselors.
The modern attitude of people like that chaplain seems to be that they just can pick and choose, as from a buffet, what they like about Christianity and what they don’t. It tempts us to scream at them, “He’s God; you’re not!”
For those of us long puzzled by why our preaching at family members and friends about such things has so little effect, I may have found an answer in David Foster’s book A Renegade’s Guide to God. He writes “Rather than trusting the gospel to work in the real world, moralists are out working hard for the gospel. They are trying to do for God what he alone can do for us.”
So perhaps we frustrated “moralists” need to tell ourselves, “He’s God; we’re not.” People require a heart change to see sin for what it really is, and we can’t make that happen for them. Only God can. In other words, it requires one kind of conviction—that of the Holy Spirit working on the heart in “the act of convincing a person”—to eventually produce the other kind—“a fixed or firm belief.”
As C. S. Lewis writes in The Problem of Pain, “Christ takes it for granted that men are bad. Until we really feel this assumption of His to be true, though we are part of the world He came to save, we are not part of the audience to whom His words are addressed. We lack the first condition for understanding what He is talking about. And when men attempt to be Christians without this preliminary consciousness of sin, the result is almost bound to be a certain resentment against God as to one who is always making impossible demands and always inexplicably angry.”
Most of us so-called "evangelistic" Christians were given a glimpse of the ugliness of our sins, realized that we couldn’t change ourselves by willpower alone, and were convinced that we needed to allow God to clean our hearts instead. The presence of His Spirit in us reveals sin for what it really is. But, as Lewis points out, people who haven’t experienced a heart change don’t have that advantage.
“Now at the moment when a man feels real guilt—moments too rare in our lives—all these blasphemies vanish away,” Lewis continues. “Much, we may feel, can be excused to human infirmities: but not this—this incredibly mean and ugly action which none of our friends would have done, which even such a thorough-going little rotter as X would have been ashamed of, which we would not for the world allow to be published. At such a moment we really do know that our character, as revealed in this action, is, and ought to be, hateful to all good men, and, if there are powers above man, to them.”
Fortunately for the people with the ineffective chaplains, God knows who is sincerely seeking him, and will make a way for them to find Him. Even though He doesn’t yet live in the unsaved, the Holy Spirit still seems able to reach them with conviction like that Lewis portrays above, which most often seems to occur when they have hit bottom and realize that they can’t help themselves. As the old song by Daniel Whittle, “I Know Whom I Have Believed,” confesses, “I know not how the Spirit moves,/ Convincing men of sin,/ Revealing Jesus through the Word,/ Creating faith in Him.”
We can know that our preaching at someone will have no convicting power unless the Spirit also is working on that heart. But we don’t want to wish disaster on our non-Christian acquaintances, just so they will be desperate enough to heed His voice.
Fortunately or unfortunately—depending on how you look at it!--in our imperfect world, all of us encounter intense difficulties sooner or later. When that happens to people we know, our prayers and example will mean more to them than our pontificating. And we aren’t likely to have much effect unless our example is a good one.
I know one abusive husband who lectures his wife on her lack of morals. Why should she listen to him when his heart, too, obviously hasn’t experienced the change that it should have?
So, if we really want to reach others with the gospel, we obviously need to work on drawing closer to God ourselves. Only when those others clearly see His love and joy in us will they want what we’ve got.