In my junior year of college, I had to fill a required credit for Art. As someone who finds it difficult to draw a proper stick figure, I decided to take a class on art history. I am not sure if it was the right call. The lectures were dry. We spent an inordinate amount of time in a dark room, looking at slides and did not have a textbook to help organize the information in a meaningful way. At least, that’s how I remember it. I will admit my recollection may be shaped by the way my semester in this class ended.
It was finals week—lots of late-night cramming. Art history was the last exam of the week and came on a sunny spring afternoon. An hour before the scheduled test, I sat down underneath a tree near our campus’ famed “Pine Grove.” I was tired and the day was made for napping. Which I did. When I woke up, I realized I was late for my exam.
I will never forget that frantic feeling. Opening the door on the dark lecture hall. Speaking with my professor. Pleading for a chance to complete the exam. Relief as she said I could. Sitting down and feeling nothing so strongly as, “I am totally going to fail this exam!” I was behind the 8-ball. I was out of my depth. I was, literally, playing catch-up.
Now, my bet is you know this feeling. Even if you have lived a much more responsible life than me and never barged into a half-finished final exam, you have probably had one of those “anxiety dreams.” You know the ones, right? You stand to address an audience and realize you have not prepared a speech. It is April 16 and you just remembered you have not filed your taxes. You arrive at a formal dinner dressed in cargo shorts.
We all dread feeling dread. I think Christians, especially, know this feeling in a world that is increasingly post-Christian. As our core convictions are increasingly out of step with conventional wisdom, we worry about that moment when someone turns to us and asks a tough question. In moments like these, it is easy to freak out. That is why we are taking 2019 to look at some tough questions and provide helpful answers.
Before diving into particular issues, I think it is important to address the way we go about answering tough questions with our friends. This is because the attitude and approach we take will communicate as much as the answer we give. In the 1960s, UCLA Professor Albert Mehrabian isolated three core factors of communication—visual, tone, words. After extensive study, he determined that people take away 55% from the visual, 38% from the tone, and 7% from the content!
Of course, the content of our message is vitally important. But studies like this tell us that the truth we want to share will be received much more effectively if we, as the carriers of that truth, communicate it in a way that establishes a connection of trust with our friends.
That is where the “freak out” phenomenon comes into play. When our friends ask us tough questions, it is easy to project our feelings of fear, inadequacy, confusion or maybe even frustration. Why? Because we often are asked questions and think, “Oh my goodness. I have no idea how to answer this! What am I going to say?!? What if I make them think that Christianity doesn’t have answers? What if I look like an idiot?” At least, I know those are some of the thoughts that race through my brain in a tough question situation.
When that cycle of thoughts begins to play, it is important to pause and speak truth to ourselves. This is because truth is the determining factor in our feelings. When we believe what is false, we fall into fear. That fear will emerge in our demeanor. And, ultimately, our demeanor will have a huge impact on how our friends evaluate what we tell them about our faith. In other words, if we can hang on to truth, we will avoid freaking out and actually establish a connection, opening the door for our friend to explore Christianity.
Here are four key truths to remember:
- Other people have asked these questions: Whenever someone poses a question, we need to remember that Christianity has been facing tough questions from the very beginning. The good news, at least in the North American context, is that the people asking these questions are not also holding stones to throw at us! Over 2,000 years our faith has stood the test of ferocious attack. Chances are very good that any question you are asked has been asked by someone else over the centuries.
- People smarter than us have given answers: I remind myself of this whenever I am dealing with a tough question. It is very liberating to realize, “I don’t have to be the answer-man.” If I am not sure about how to respond, simply saying, “I am not really sure how to answer that, but I’m positive that there is an answer. Let me check and get back to you.” Even better, we can point our friends to some of the great thinkers, allowing them to encounter the brilliant and perceptive insights of other believers.
- There is always more to explore: Even when we give an answer, we need to remember there is always room for further explanation. I have recently been teaching basic Christian doctrine to a group of high school students. We have been studying a simple, high-level summary of theology. I was thoroughly delighted when this room-full of students realized, “We’re only scratching the surface!?!” They were stunned when I told them, “Each of the topics we have discussed has literally hundreds of books written about it!” Our faith is a beautiful landscape that only becomes more amazing as it is explored!
- Our faith is in a risen Lord, not pat answers: Ultimately, we want to communicate that our faith does not rest on a set of neat syllogisms. We know Jesus is real not only because there are solid, rational reasons for faith. Ultimately, we know He is real because we know Him! He has touched our lives. He has changed us. We know His presence in the person of the Holy Spirit. Our faith is in Jesus. He is the Way, the Truth and the Life. And we believe that this Jesus wants to reach our questioning friend even more than we do!
We need to carry these four truths with us wherever we go. If we do, then we will be equipped to face any situation, even if it feels like we have walked into a half-finished final exam. Don’t freak out. Take a breath. This could actually be fun.
Adam T. Barr (MDiv, ThM) serves as senior pastor at Peace Church near Grand Rapids Michigan. In addition to his work in the local church, Adam speaks and writes on Christianity and culture, helping followers of Jesus understand and apply God’s Word in an increasingly post-Christian society. His most recent book, Compassion Without Compromise, is available through Bethany House. Adam is also a contributing writer and adjunct teacher on the Organic Outreach International team, serving as the Director of Cultural Apologetics and hosting our Organic Outreach Podcast.