When They Won’t Let Us Talk
We have all heard it at one time and in one way or another: Don’t talk about Jesus.”
Maybe your Aunt Esther invites you for Passover and lets you know, by the way, that she would appreciate it if you wouldn’t talk about “your religion” that night. She hopes your feelings won’t be hurt, but explains, “It would just be a nicer night for all of us.” Uncle Morry has that ulcer, and we wouldn’t want to aggravate him, right?
If you’re planning to wed, it might come up in a discussion about your ceremony. Your parents are thinking about all their friends and relatives as they nervously inquire if you are planning to mention “what you believe” in your service. After all, religion is a private matter, isn’t it? No need to embarrass the whole family.
Worse yet, maybe you’re a new Jewish believer and you’ve just told your parents (or your adult children) about your faith in Jesus. They replied in no uncertain terms that you are never to mention His name in their presence again.
Most of us feel torn by such requests or demands. After all, Jesus said we are the light of the world. He commanded us to let our light shine so that all can see and know the glory of God. Yet the people we care for most deeply urge us to hide our light under the proverbial bushel.
How can we be faithful to Jesus and still be loving toward our family? How do we shine our light when they won’t let us talk?
Check Your Wattage
First, we need to make sure we’re “flashlights,” not “spotlights.” Flashlights can point people to Jesus. Spotlights draw more attention to us than to Yeshua (Jesus) and can blind people in the process.
I remember one zealous young Christian who was a client at a social service agency where I used to work. He asked his counselor if he was saved, then began to dance in a circle while singing “Jehovah Jireh.” He wanted to share his joy in the Lord and sow some gospel seed. Singing and dancing can be a wonderful story in a proper setting, but a place of business is usually not such a setting! The counselor later told me what a negative impression his client’s behavior had left. We need to make sure that our light is shining as a pointer or a guide away from us and to Yeshua—not a blinding spotlight that makes us the center of attention.
Time and place are very important when it comes to “shining” your light. For example, your own wedding is an appropriate setting for a public story of your faith in Yeshua. It would be wrong to bow to the pressure of leaving Him out of that momentous occasion. But what about Aunt Esther’s seder? As a guest in her home, it is right to honor her request that you not initiate conversations about Jesus with the other guests. What Aunt Esther should not expect, however, is for you to be silent if someone else brings up the subject.
You can’t promise to keep silent about Jesus, but you can promise not to make Him the topic of conversation in someone else’s home. Of course, you can make your own seder on the alternate night and tell your own guests about the redemption you’ve found in Yeshua. But as we’ve mentioned in previous Mishpochah Messages, it is better not to use family get togethers to “spring” your faith on people for the first time.
Likewise, with family members, you can’t promise to refrain from telling this or that relative what you believe, but you can be sensitive as to how and where you tell people. Also, once you explain your faith, you don’t have to take every occasion to repeat it.
But frankly, very few of us are in danger of excess wattage when it comes to our witness. Most of us need encouragement to “let our light so shine,” especially when the pressure to “hide it under a bushel” becomes intense and we have to weigh the consequences of obeying Yeshua’s command.
How to Handle Ultimatums
Let’s say you’ve been presented with a “choice”: promise never to mention Jesus or else face the consequences. Those consequences might mean being disinvited from a family event or kicked out of the house, losing your college funding, having your name removed from a will—even having your spouse leave you. Do these sound extreme? Many Jewish believers have been threatened with these and other consequences if they do not comply with the wishes of unsaved loved ones.
Before dealing with ultimatums, it might help to examine some of their characteristics.
- Ultimatums are often issued in the heat of an angry moment as a hasty way to vent frustration, anger, sadness, embarrassment or guilt.
- For most people, ultimatums are attempts to control what would otherwise be beyond their control. Family members may resort to an ultimatum as a quick fix to what they view as the “Jesus problem” in your life.
- Whatever else they may be, ultimatums are power plays—attempts to force you to do or not do what others decide is right or wrong.
- The only thing that can make an ultimatum effective is for the person receiving it to comply. Comply with an ultimatum and you will probably find yourself faced with more ultimatums.
Advice concerning ultimatums—don’t react! Even if the person issuing the ultimatum expects you to “make your choice,” don’t allow anyone to push you into saying something in an emotionally charged setting. If you’re not careful, you could find yourself saying something such as, “Fine, then. Do whatever you want. You can’t tell me what to think or say!” It is important to respond, not react.
You can respond by pointing out that emotions are running high and you will call in a day or two to talk things over (or wait, if you live with the person). This gives your loved one a chance to back away from the ultimatum, and it just might keep the family intact. When things calm down, that person may wish he or she had not pressed you to make a choice that could have had such awful results. Often the issue can be discussed more reasonably at a time when emotions are not swirling.
If, in a few days, the ultimatum is still being pressed upon you, the only thing you can do is gently but firmly refuse to comply. Your loved ones may or may not follow through with their threat. It’s important to let them know that you are not separating from them. They are, in fact, pushing you away. Let them decide if that’s something they really want to do. If they do follow through with the ultimatum, you may have to pay a high price for the gospel’s sake. But it’s worth any price to stand for the Lord without buckling under pressure. Yeshua will comfort you after you’ve been ostracized for His sake, just as He did with the blind man whom he healed (John 9).
If you’ve never faced an ultimatum regarding your faith, be glad—but be prepared. It is important to know ahead of time how to respond to difficult situations, especially if the response necessitates doing something difficult. It’s always better to approach the difficult choices with the strength of a commitment that you’ve already thought and prayed through.
We need that thoughtful and purposeful approach—and not only to brace ourselves for our family’s response to our witness. We also need to be thoughtful and purposeful about our story and what we hope to communicate. The most satisfying story is one person telling another what Yeshua has done for him or her. We all should have at least one opportunity to tell our loved ones what He means to us.
You might try what Moishe Rosen calls the 15-minute approach. You can say to someone, “I don’t want to put you on the spot, but Jesus is such an important part of my life that I’d like to tell you why I believe in Him so that you will understand me. It won’t take more than 15 minutes, and it would mean a lot to me to explain things, even if you don’t want to discuss anything I say.” Most people are willing to give a person 15 minutes of their time—but you’ve got to keep that promise to keep it brief. Moishe once did this with a cousin who, after 15 minutes, looked at his watch and said, “Time’s up.”
There are a few extreme cases in which a Jewish believer is completely ostracized from family with no opportunities whatever to communicate—but these are the exceptions. Perhaps your situation is not so extreme, but it is discouraging nonetheless. Take heart. Usually changes are gradual. Just because things don’t happen all at once doesn’t mean they won’t happen.
It may be helpful to think of your witness to family in three stages. Though the stages are not absolute, knowing that your witness follows a logical progression can be reassuring as you pray for the salvation of loved ones. The first stage, the circumstantial, involves a demonstration to others of the reality of the gospel in your life. The next stage, the conceptual, involves an explanation of the content of the gospel. And the third stage is the convicting stage, where God’s Spirit takes hold of people’s hearts so that they repent of their sins and receive Yeshua into their lives. Let’s explore the meaning of these three stages.
Jesus said, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). Our good deeds can never take the place of an explanation of the gospel. But as we let our lights shine, remember that our light must be more than words. Our changed lives also make a bright statement, especially when those changes mean we are more patient and more loving toward those who know us best.
Most of us came to faith as a result of God’s work in our lives over a period of time. Yet we want immediate results in the lives of our families. One zealous new Jewish believer told her father, “Dad, I’ve made the greatest discovery! Jesus is really the Messiah. I believe in Him, and you’ve got to believe in Him too!” It probably comes as no surprise that her father didn’t fall on his knees and repent on the spot.
Like most of us, our families need evidence of how the gospel really changes lives. Let them see that you’ve made a genuine decision, that you haven’t been brainwashed and you aren’t following some guru. Let them see that you are sticking with the faith you profess, that it is not a temporary fad or a decision of convenience to gain acceptance from those outside the Jewish community.
You are truly a new creation, and you want your family to recognize this. Show that you are different in the way you deal with things. Perhaps you have more control over your temper since coming to faith. Maybe you express more love toward them than you did before Yeshua was in your life. Some changes might not be to your family’s immediate liking: if they ask you to do or say things contrary to your faith, your very ability to refuse might be a witness of your changed life. In some families, parent or adult children are accustomed to influencing the behavior of other family members through manipulation or other types of pressure. When you blow the whistle on that kind of behavior rather than giving in, it demonstrates inner strength and the determination to take orders first and foremost from your Lord.
Remember, it’s not possible to discuss ideas in a meaningful way when the atmosphere is too charged. If your loved ones aren’t willing to hear from you, you can only speak through your life and works. However, throughout this stage, your objective is to get your family into the next stage.
When a member of your family becomes interested or even mildly curious about the changes in your life, then you can enter the second stage of witness, the conceptual stage. Communicate the essentials of the gospel: that Jesus is the Messiah who died for our sins, was buried and was raised the third day according to Scripture (1Corinthians 15:1-5).
Since most of our families aren’t familiar with biblical truths and images, it’s often more effective to use nonbiblical terms and images. For instance, speaking of sin as a deadly disease and faith in Yeshua as the cure is a powerful metaphor. The illustration of a convicted criminal set free because an innocent person has stepped forward to bear the punishment is sometimes helpful when trying to explain vicarious atonement. Whatever you do, don’t load someone down with too much information at once. When doling out spiritual food, provide just enough to nourish; otherwise the person may get spiritual indigestion! It’s important to give just the amount of biblical truth that someone can understand and respond to with a conscious choice. Let your loved one tell you if he or she wants to hear more.
Finally, God willing, someone in your family will reach the stage when he or she is not merely curious about what we believe but also determined to know if what we believe is true. When a person realizes that there are implications for him or her if it is true, and feels a pressing need to know, he or she is truly open.
The primary actor in this stage is the Holy Spirit. Only He can convict people of sin and open their hearts to the Lord. It’s not always easy to recognize when this is happening—sometimes it even takes the person to whom it happens by surprise. Just pray, then be ready and available for this work of God in the lives of those you love. Your objective in this stage, of course, is to lead that family member to the Lord.
Perhaps some in your family will come to faith soon after you begin your witness. If so, mazel tov, and Praise God! But many of us could be waiting and praying for years. Take the two Steves, for example.
Steve Cohen’s family was upset when they heard of his faith—but they hoped, as many families do, that it was a passing phase. A few years later, Steve became a missionary and his family realized the step he had taken was irrevocable. His father announced that the family would have nothing further to do with Steve and his wife, Jan.
For fourteen years, letters were unanswered, and phone calls were met with a click of the receiver. Yet when Steve’s father was dying of cancer, Steve showed up at his parents’ door and they were ready to reconcile the relationship. An even greater reconciliation took place several months later as Steve’s father came to faith in Yeshua.
Then there is Steve Wertheim. Steve came to faith through the ministry of Jews for Jesus. He was living in California at the time; his parents and younger brother were still in Queens. Steve says his parents were so upset by his decision that he could hear them from New York—without a telephone! Yet in an attempt to understand what had happened to their son, they agreed to meet with local Jews for Jesus staff and began attending Bible studies. One by one, Steve’s brother, father and mother came to faith—all within nine months of Steve’s decision.
We cannot know why God works speedily in one family and over a period of many years in another. We do know that He is merciful, loving and righteous. And we should do whatever we can to bring our family members to faith in Yeshua so they can know and enjoy His mercy, love and righteousness forever.
As we persevere in praying for the salvation of our loved ones, we need a balanced approach to avoid two common mistakes. We must not be intimidated into keeping silent about our faith. Nor can we rush the process, moving too quickly for our loved ones to follow. Look for cues from your family and keep sensitive and alert as you continue in prayer. Be encouraged—as you pray for your family, know that God loves each member even more than you do. He is at work in their lives.
North American Director
Stephen's grandparents immigrated to America from Eastern Europe in the early 20th century, ultimately settling in the Chicago area. As a boy, Stephen enjoyed sports and excelled in school. In his high school years he began to question the values he had been raised with, and instead of focusing on academics, began to spend all his time playing guitar and harmonica. Over the next few years he searched for answers to his many questions about life, eventually becoming a follower of Yeshua. Three weeks after receiving his bachelor's degree in social work from the University of Illinois, he got married and began to work with abused and neglected youth in a residential treatment center in Chicago, which he did for 10 years (taking one year out to live on a kibbutz in Israel). He received his master's degree in social work from the University of Illinois in 1984. He and his young family attended a messianic congregation for 13 years, where Stephen served as the worship leader. In 1989, Stephen began missionary training with Jews for Jesus and now serves as North American Director. For 12 years he oversaw our work in Israel and still continues to be involved with our work there. Laura and he have four children, three of whom are married. He received a master's degree in intercultural and Jewish studies from Fuller Theological Seminary in 1997. Stephen is known to be a warm-hearted and engaging teacher and a good listener.