I’ll never forget our final conversation.
Jessie and I had been friends from my first year in college. We met after I had transferred in from another school and been assigned to the same floor. We hit it off immediately. We both loved REM, science fiction/fantasy, and playing long, intense board games. Yes, we were geeks. One thing separated us: I was a dedicated Christ-follower. Jessie was an agnostic (or atheist, depending on his mood).
Over the next three years, Jessie and I maintained contact. As we moved into different dorms and majors, we drifted a bit. But we always maintained a connection. I genuinely enjoyed his friendship. I also hoped the Lord would open his heart to the Gospel. That never happened. This did:
We were in our final semester and knew we would be heading in different directions. Jessie had majored in art. I had doubled in religion and philosophy. There were a few months left in our final semester. I think we were looking at one of Jessie’s art projects. It was epic. As we talked, he asked, “So, do you really think that I’m going to hell for not believing in Jesus?”
I took a breath. I think I answered something like, “Well, I believe that faith in Jesus is the only way to be saved.”
“Man, that’s messed up,” he replied. “I respect your beliefs. I don’t judge you. How can you think that about me? I don’t know how we can really be friends.”
Honestly, the rest of the conversation is kind of a blur. I don’t believe it ever got heated. Neither of us was defensive nor offensive. Jessie had just come to the conclusion that we had mutually exclusive convictions about the most important issue in life. For him, that meant we couldn’t be friends anymore.
I have wondered where he is many times.
Salvation and eternity is one example of a hot topic. There are many. Last month, we specifically addressed the question of politics. In reality, political disagreements are often just the outer layer of much deeper issues. Political convictions are usually born out of a set of moral convictions which are typically connected to deep, personal commitments. The so-called, SOGI issues (sexual orientation, gender identity) are perhaps the hottest of the hot topics. But others abound: climate change, immigration, religious pluralism, abortion, pornography, etc.
The apostle Paul knew all about difficult conversations. He wrote these words to the Colossian church to help them navigate such interactions:
Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should. Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone (Colossians 4:2-6, NIV).
We can draw a few principles from this text to help us deal with hot topics:
- Look for open doors: We are called to follow in the footsteps of the Holy Spirit, not force our way in. Notice how Paul tells us the whole thing starts with prayer. We are asking God to “open a door.” Our job is to look for them. We need to be honest with ourselves and answer a question: Do I tend to force doors open or run from open doors? Do we tend to be timid or aggressive? If timid, we cannot use the excuse, “The door wasn’t open” for never sharing our faith. On the other hand, if aggressive, we should not turn every conversation into a debate about ultimate issues!
- Always bring it back to Jesus: We can approach every conversation with a sense of humility and calmness. Why? Because we know the most important issue: Jesus is Lord. That will allow us to put any “hot topic” in its place.
- Speak clearly: Paul wants to “proclaim [the message] clearly.” So should we. Besides our commitment to Jesus, we want to convey something important: We are seeking to align ourselves with a higher authority, not just make it up as we go along. We believe the Bible is God’s Word. Our convictions are not simply the result of personal preference or desire for popularity. Just as we have surrendered our lives to Jesus, we have submitted them to his Word.
- Speak strategically: Paul tells us to “make the most” of every opportunity. That means something very important: Realize the nature of the opportunity in front of you and respond accordingly. No golfer would reach into her bag for a five-iron when she’s lying just off the fringe. We choose the best club for the present situation. The same principle should hold true in our interactions around hot questions.
- Speak winsomely: Have you ever been in a great restaurant, anticipating an incredible meal and been totally disappointed? The dish comes out and is under-seasoned. What do you do? Reach for the salt, right? Paul tells us our speech should be “full of grace, seasoned with salt.” Our goal is never to win an argument but to lead this person into the light (to mix metaphors). In the light of Jesus, their eyes will be healed, and they will come to see the truth for what it is. Winsome, grace-filled speech leads people towards Jesus!
- Pray. Pray. Pray: Notice how much Paul talks about prayer in this text. Why? Because Paul understands that all outreach is a partnership. We are never on our own in the mission to share Jesus with others. The Holy Spirit is always there with us, moment by moment. Prayer is essential for our sake. It opens our eyes to see opportunities. It opens our ears to really hear the other person. It opens our minds to be guided by wisdom. And it opens our hearts to allow God’s love to flow through us. Prayer is essential.
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.