Unstopping conversation stoppers

If you frequently share your faith, you have probably heard lots of “conversation stoppers.” Or perhaps you haven’t shared very often because you’ve felt stuck after having one or two such experiences. But don’t be discouraged! Almost any conversation stopper can actually turn into a conversation starter.

The article, “Judaism teaches . . . or does it?” in this month’s newsletter addresses a common conversation stopper. The article points out that Judaism does not present one large body of teachings that all Jewish people know and perceive as true. So if someone says, “Judaism teaches that Isaiah 53 refers to Israel” an apt response could be, “I understand that this is one of the interpretations Judaism offers. I’m curious to know what you think of the others and why.” An Orthodox Jew might be able to tell you that Judaism also teaches that the Bible talks about two Messiahs, Messiah ben Joseph and Messiah ben David, and that Isaiah 53 describes Messiah ben Joseph as the suffering servant. The idea is that God will decide which Messiah to send based on whether Israel is acting in belief or unbelief. Someone who was raised secular may not be able to give that (or any other) interpretation. In either case, you’ve opened the conversation to the fact that there are other traditional Jewish interpretations.  You’ve challenged the person to think about the basis for their opinion of Isaiah 53, which goes beyond a generalized “Judaism teaches.”

BTW, the idea of two Messiahs is especially interesting when witnessing because it is used to reconcile the very different portraits the prophets painted of the Messiah; one who suffers and dies, and one who rules and reigns.  One argument against belief in Jesus is that the Hebrew Scriptures do not say explicitly that the Messiah will come twice. It is helpful to be able to point out that nowhere do the Scriptures say that there will be two Messiahs, either. The two-Messiah theory is one way to reconcile the different Messianic portraits, and a belief that one Messiah comes twice to fulfill all the prophecies is no less biblical or supportable.

Some people who say, “Judaism teaches” don’t consider themselves religious; they just want you to know that if they ever decided to be, they would stick to their own religion (Judaism).  It’s the same kind of conversation stopper as someone (Jewish or not) who says, “Show me scientific evidence and I’ll believe.” That’s not something a truly scientific person would say. What they are really telling you is, “I am a rational person and I don’t think you have a rational basis for belief.”

Conversation stoppers normally occur when people see the gospel as a threat to who they are and what they value. “I’ll stick to being Jewish,” “I’ll stick to being rational,” etc. On the one hand, the threat is often based on false assumptions about what it means to be Jewish, to be rational, etc., because, of course, you can be either or both and have faith in Jesus.

But on the other hand, the gospel absolutely is a threat to anyone who wants to maintain the status quo of his or her identity, whatever that might be. When we surrender our lives to Christ, we become new creatures. Our identity is now shared with Him. It’s no longer solely our own. And that can be scary.  

We don’t believe in Jesus because of who we are, butbecause of who He is.

Here’s what you always want to come back to: We don’t believe in Jesus because of who we are, but because of who He is. The truth about Him exists apart from our identity, our affiliation, or even our preference.

Humans, by nature, are so enmeshed in our own identities and preferences that it’s not always easy to want to know the identity of the Messiah, or the preferences of God. Many people do not even realize that they don’t want to know.

When someone throws out a conversation stopper, you might not have a free path to the exact conversation you’d hoped for. But you can usually ask something that invites a person to examine the reason they’ve stopped the conversation. One thing I learned to ask in missionary training is: “As a purely theoretical question, if the Bible is true and if Jesus really is the Messiah, would you want to know it, even though it would have severe social consequences?” Some people won’t even allow themselves to think about it theoretically and will refuse to answer. But I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen people stop and think, and give an answer that seemed to come to them as a moment of revelation, whether it was a yes or a no.

Sometimes, that’s all that is needed for a particular encounter. It might just be God’s way of preparing that person for the next encounter.