Parking Lot Theology: Winning the Argument or Saving the Soul?
I was climbing back into the cab of the truck when she approached me, her dress flats clicking on the hot asphalt between the Discount Tire and the corner laundromat. The rumble of the diesel was drowning out her words, so I leaned out the window and inquired, ”Yes, Ma’am, how can I help you?” But, come to find out, it wasn’t a question of what I could do for her, but what she could do for me. For she was a woman on a mission, a witness for Jehovah, the iconic pamphlets in hand. And she was eager to introduce me to a life in which I would find hope in this world.
I listened politely as she explained how hard day-to-day existence can be, how many global problems there are, how there are true answers to life’s difficult questions, and that God was the key to understanding it all. I took the pamphlets from her and slid them on the dashboard. My eyes took in the time—fantastic, already running way behind schedule. She was looking up and smiling, waiting for me to say something, anything, in response. I confess that my first impulse was simply to thank her and drive on to the next delivery. After all, there were places I needed to be; customers were waiting on their freight. But, overcome with a uncommon sense of compassion, I took the truck out of gear, set the brakes, killed the engine, looked her in the eye and said, “I’m sorry, Ma’am, but I can’t accept what you say is true, for you and I, unfortunately, we believe in two different gods.”
And so it began, a brief but honest discussion between two believers, of two opposing faiths, about things that really matter. We talked about the crucifixion. We talked about the Trinity. The divine nature of Jesus. Whether the Holy Spirit is a power or a Person. She talked, I talked, and we listened to each other. Whether my words made any impact on her or not, I’ll probably never know. She was a random stranger, and the likelihood of our paths ever crossing again is very remote. But as we talked, reciting Bible verses here and there, comparing and contrasting our distinctive confessions, I began to realize something about myself.
When I was in my mid-twenties, newly ordained into the ministry, when I had a theological disagreement with someone, my main objective was to win the argument. Whether the issue was large or small, pertaining to a chief doctrine of the Christian faith or some minor point of the church’s non-binding tradition, the opponent was someone to be converted to the right answer. They believed 2 + 2 = 5, and I was there to show them it was really 4. Or they believed 2 + 2 = 4, but my 4 was a little better than theirs. And, let it be said, there’s nothing wrong with that, especially if the discussion is about a subject to which God’s word gives a clear answer.
What was so often was missing in those discussions over God’s answer, however, was a genuine concern for the person with whom I was talking. What mattered most was the correct belief, not the person believing or rejecting it. My objective was to save the truth, to defend correct doctrine, but more times than not I was so zealous in my endeavor that I forgot that the truth was there to save the person, and the correct doctrine actually led lost souls into a relationship with the Father, through the Son, and in the Holy Spirit.
While listening to the woman reveal that she does not believe in the Trinity, and thus does not believe in the one true God, I experienced nothing short of sorrow for her—not anger because she rejected the truth; not arrogance because I had the right answer and she didn’t; not a desire to win the gold in this theological debate. And that sorrow, joined with compassion, affected the manner in which I spoke with her. For when there is love for the truth, joined with love for the person, the tone of the discussion, and often the outcome, are vastly different than when naked zeal drives the debate.
I am a member of a conservative church body. In a few days, when it meets in convention, there will be matters up for debate, some minor and some major. Every time someone steps to the microphone to speak his or her mind, or gathers with a group of peers to talk about issues, what a difference it would make if love was in control of the tongue instead of pride or anger or party lines or political correctness or any of another host of possibilities. Would that in the church, those who love orthodoxy, always love the people to whom orthodoxy is God’s gracious, saving gift. For, as someone once said, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become as a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” God grant that love bridle my tongue, and the tongues of my brothers and sisters in Christ, that when the truth is spoken, it is always spoken with a keen awareness that the listener is one for whom God himself was willing to die.