It was as direct a question as someone could ask me. "Why," the visitor in my office quizzed me, "are you Christians always trying to convert us Jews?"
To be honest, I hadn't really been trying to convert my guest. I am embarrassed to admit that at best, my evangelistic style is indirect and oblique. So I was surprised that my new friend (so new that we'd been talking for less than 30 minutes) now thought I was putting the squeeze on him to become a Christian. Indeed, the thought actually went winging through my mind that maybe God was joshing me a bit, using my guest to taunt me about the fact that, no matter what he thought, I really wasn't being all that faithful in my duties.
But whatever God thought about my intentions, my guest thought I was being pushy. Why the urgency, he asked?
My new friend-a newspaper reporter from New York City-had just come from visits to the campuses of two Christian colleges. He had attended chapel services at both schools, and sat through an altar call at one of them, finding it tedious and repulsive. "It went on for 30 minutes," he told me, "and it wasn't even directed at me. It was directed at their own students. Why is all this so important?"
I tried an analogy. "Suppose," I suggested to him, "that we've known each other for six weeks instead of just 30 minutes. Suppose that we've formed a good enough friendship to eat lunch together once a week, and that in the process we've found a mutual interest in investing and are now regularly exchanging hot tips about stocks that seem to have great futures."
"But now suppose as well," I said, "that you tell me enthusiastically how you're taking $100 of your hard-earned income every week and salting it away in a particular company. I am dumbfounded, for I happen to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that your company is headed soon for bankruptcy.
"So now am I intruding on your private life, am I being somehow less than personally gracious or unloving if I tell you what I know, and warn you against further investments there? Isn't it really the other way around-that if I fail to tell you, that would be the ultimate expression of my personal disregard for our friendship? The fact is that if what I believe about the Bible is true, you're investing in something much more precarious than a bankrupt company that might end up costing you a few thousand dollars."
My friend did not immediately drop to his knees and ask me to explain the plan of salvation. But neither did he suggest that he was offended. "That's an intriguing way of looking at things," he responded. "I'll admit that I've never thought of it just that way."
Two years have now passed since that meeting. My mind goes back to it often, and I wonder what my friend is thinking now. Indeed, we've corresponded from time to time-although he's never expressed any interest in pursuing that particular question any further.
So do I sit and congratulate myself for having cleverly moved the question that afternoon from my corner to his? I wish. If this were only an academic debate, it might be that simple. If it were just all a matter of winning converts and proselytizing folks from other religions-then things would be so much simpler.
But these are real people, with real eternal destinies. The fellow in my office that afternoon is not just investing his life savings in the next Enron. He's investing his whole being in a thought system so bankrupt that if he continues in that direction, he will spend all of eternity grimly separated from God.
All this is true, of course, not just of our Jewish friends and acquaintances. It is true as well for everyone who ignores or explains away Christ's offer of grace and tries to earn acceptance with God some other way. The gospel of Christ is wonderfully inclusive-but it is inclusive only for those who embrace it. Everyone else is excluded.
So instead of thinking about a cleverly won argument, I have to think instead: Was I so intent on respecting my new friend that I ended up not respecting him at all? In my zeal not to appear too pushy, had I ended up not being nearly pushy enough? And what will my friend himself think about all this 10,000 years from now? Will he think of me as his friend?