We can't make people follow God, but there are some things we can do in partnership with the Holy Spirit to influence them.
The Delaneys lived down the street from us when I was growing up. Even though their house was almost exactly like ours, and their kids went to the same school I did, they were "different." I noticed the Delaney kids didn't participate in games that made fun of people. They didn't tell off-color jokes or swear. But even more surprising to me was that Mrs. Delaney referred to God as her friend. She said she talked to Him and asked Him things about her life. She even seemed to like Him!
Years later someone explained to me what it meant to be a Christian. I didn't understand all that was said in that conversation, but I decided that a Christian must be someone like Mrs. Delaney, and I wanted to be like her. So I whispered in my heart, Yes, God, I will follow You.
I'm sure the Delaneys weren't as perfect as they seemed to my childlike eyes. But the fact remains that some Christians live their lives as though their faith makes a difference and others live their lives in spite of their faith.
God gives all of us a choice to follow Him: "See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. For I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in his ways, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws...I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life" (Dt. 30:15-16, Dt. 30:19). At some point, the Delaneys chose to follow God—they chose life. And even if they weren't aware of it, they helped me to choose life by gently "nudging" me to want to be like them.
On the other hand, I can think of too many friends who have turned away from God because of someone’s ill-suited attempts to "disciple" them. In our well-intentioned determination to "clean up" a new believer’s life, we may impose standards and expectations that God never intended.
This, I believe, is because we often forget how God works in our own lives. He usually works slowly and quietly. He uses circumstances to pattern His own intervention. And He never speaks to me in exactly the same way He speaks to you.
Most important, we must remember that He does the work. It isn't our work, our influence, or our ideas that cause real growth in another’s life. If we forget that, we can be tempted to manipulate others, and we risk becoming caricatures of people of faith.
As I’ve experienced God’s work in my own life and seen Him work in the lives of others, I’ve noticed that He does three things: He nudges, He speaks, and He corrects. We grow—we choose life—when we respond to His activity in our lives. We help others choose life, too, when we understand and participate in God’s work as He nudges them, speaks to them, and corrects them.
What does it mean to participate with God in another’s life? We find a pattern to follow in the way Jesus related to others. In the gospels we see that Jesus met people where they were—in their sadness, in their needs, in their illnesses. He rarely barreled His way in. He nudged them toward obedience.
This is typical of the way He reaches out to people today. For all the Pauls who are struck blind by His presence, there are dozens of other disciples who meet Him walking along a road to Emmaus (Lk. 24:13-35). This is why we are rarely effective when we barge in, uninvited, with admonition and advice. We need to be careful with tender, young Christians and try to understand their attempts at faith.
When Steve became a Christian while in college, he started going to the local fellowship group. Suddenly he dropped out, and we didn't know where he had gone. It wasn't until I met him years later that I found out what had happened. Steve told me that the students in the Christian group had had a Christmas party. As an expression of his gratitude for their help in his spiritual growth, Steve brought a bottle of wine. Instead of welcoming him and appreciating his gesture (even if they didn't drink the wine), several misguided friends took Steve aside to instruct him on God’s view of drunkenness. Steve was so hurt and angry that he went home, drank the wine himself, and never went back to the fellowship group. Thankfully, God’s grace wooed him back later in life.
We need to carefully seek out the hidden messages in what we may perceive as inappropriate or immature behavior, or even outright rebellion, in the life of another. Like Steve, a person may be well-intentioned but spiritually young. Or perhaps he hasn't yet experienced God’s loving grace in the secret corners of his life. Like the anorexic teenager who starves herself to maintain an illusion of control, some of those who seem outwardly rebellious may be desperately hanging on to something that is particularly difficult to give over to God. Others may be acting out of a deep hurt from the past.
There are hundreds of reasons why believers fail to live out their commitment to the Lord. Whatever lies behind their sins and failures, usually they are touched most effectively by those who come alongside them and, like Jesus, reach out with a probing question while continuing to walk along the road with them.
When we meet people whose faith is immature, our job is to observe the work God is doing in them and then do whatever we can to encourage active response to His work.
How do we do that? I love to hear peoples' stories, so I ask questions about their lives. When they mention something that sounds particularly important to them or of special interest to me, I pursue that topic, since this may be a spot where God is nudging them.
Sometimes their needs are similar to my own. As I admit my struggles to them, they may be encouraged to admit theirs. Or, if their needs are very different from mine, I simply encourage them to talk further about their experiences. This gives them permission to verbalize frustrations, pain, and weaknesses.
My friend Amy is a woman whose life has been full of pain. Some days she radiates the love of Jesus. Other days she’s angry and almost sullen. She gets angry at Christians who say she ought to read her Bible a certain way. She wants to stamp her feet and curse those who have disappointed her. She even wants to sleep with her boyfriend just to prove she can be her own person. On the days when she’s angry, it’s hard for me to listen to her with love and grace. But Amy needs a safe place to voice her fears, not only about God, but also about herself. God is nudging her, and she needs to be able to talk about what that means to her.
This doesn't mean that I'm passive in my relationship with Amy. She knows that I think Christians should read the Bible. She knows I do not approve of immorality. But she also knows that I understand her struggle. We’ve consumed many cups of coffee talking about what God is saying to her, what Scripture says about those issues, and how Amy can become strong enough to respond to God in obedience.
When God’s nudges get stronger and are reinforced by specific passages of Scripture, then He is clearly speaking to us.
Recently, I laughed out loud as I read one of the psalms with new insight. But sometimes God tightens his grip on my heart, and I read verses that convict me to change areas of my life. Hearing God’s voice through Scripture is one of my favorite parts of the journey of faith.
When my friend Ann read in Exodus, "You shall have no other gods before me," she told me that she thought God was telling her to let go of the memory of a high school boyfriend. Until that moment she hadn't realized how much she was influenced by the lure of his good looks and social prestige. With genuine conviction she saw that his influence had been affecting her for almost twenty years!
This was a significant moment, and I told her that we should do something—the way the people in the Bible burned their idols. So we decided to have a private ceremony to burn the pictures and notes she had kept. A few days later, we read Scripture, prayed, and (as Ann called it) had a small bonfire. It was an event neither of us will forget. God had been nudging Ann in this direction for years. Then He spoke very clearly. I just happened to come along to light the match.
Lighting the match can be as simple as commenting: "That sounds like an important insight. Tell me more about what you mean." Sometimes it comes as a gentle reminder: "Don't forget what you told me you were learning about such and such. I think it relates to this situation." Sometimes God’s Word is reinforced by a question: "How does that fit in with what you said God spoke to you about last week?" Occasionally, if we are very close to the other person, we can be more direct. In my small Bible study group, we have developed a level of intimacy where we can say, in effect, "I think this is the Word of the Lord to you right now."
God speaks through Scripture in many ways. Sometimes He speaks through private reading, sometimes through sermons and Sunday school lessons or Bible study groups. And sometimes He speaks through private conversations. We can be part of his intervention in individual lives by reinforcing His words in whatever way possible.
God nudges. God speaks. And God also corrects. I'm thankful for that. Sometimes I miss His nudges. Sometimes I misunderstand His words. And so He needs to correct. But God’s correction is not a frightening thing. Rather, it is freeing and invigorating.
Recently, I read about how God corrected Rehoboam, king of Judah, after he had mustered 180,000 men to go to war. "Do not go up to fight against your brothers," God said. "Go home, every one of you, for this is my doing" (2 Chron. 11:3). I wondered if Rehoboam had been tempted to think, I get almost two hundred thousand men ready for war, and I should go home? No way! Did he feel embarrassed that he had to turn around with his entourage in tow? Whatever pain there was in God’s correction of Rehoboam, the fact remains that he and his men did not have to go to war. God’s correction now sometimes means that we will avoid battles later.
It’s typical that the Word of the Lord came to Rehoboam through another person. Sometimes God does this because we want to do it "our way," or because we're blind to our faults. In fact, one of God’s gifts to the church is "exhortation" (Ro. 12:8). The word translated "exhortation," with its connotation of criticism and advice, can also be translated "encouragement." Exhortation that is truly Spirit-given is full of encouragement as well as correction. The times when I’ve given or received exhortation in the Spirit have been times of real encouragement rather than times of guilt-producing pontifications.
Christians who want to reach out to their friends and help them grow sometimes make the mistake of thinking that it’s their job to convict their friends of sin. But this is the Holy Spirit’s job (Jn. 16:7-10). Our job, if we have the gift of exhortation, is to "stimulate the faith of others" (Ro. 12:8, Phillips) to stand on the sidelines and cheer: "Yes, my friend! Be free! Listen to the conviction of the Spirit! Follow the Word of the Lord!"
Several years ago I wrote a letter to a friend who had offended me. I felt that he was out of tune with God’s will. I was afraid he would respond with anger to my letter, but I couldn't shake the thought of writing. So I asked the Holy Spirit to communicate whatever He wanted to say through the letter. My friend thanked me! My words had encouraged him so much. Amazing! If this had happened only once, I would think it was a case of miscommunication. But over the years, sensing God’s leading, I have had many occasions to speak up and say a word of exhortation that turned out to be a word of encouragement. What a loving God we have to give grace as He corrects, to give hope as He disciplines! And what an amazing thing that He uses people like us to pass that word along.
Most of the time God’s nudging, speaking, and correcting take place in the ordinary moments of our days. Sometimes God seems especially present in a conversation. Occasionally, I sense God leading me to suggest meeting with a friend five or six times to discuss a particular issue, book, or passage of Scripture. When that happens, I usually tell my friend that I'd like to give her the gift of focusing on her agenda when we get together. This is not chitchat time. It’s not even sharing time. It’s a time to look at her life to see if we can discover what God is saying to her. I love it when people show that kind of interest in me. And you can be sure that others will respond enthusiastically to your interest in them.
Thinking back to my childhood, I'm thankful for the Delaneys, whom God used to nudge me towards the Kingdom. I'm delighted that in the years since then, God has used me to help many others "choose life."
God uses ordinary people like the Delaneys, like you and me, to urge others to follow Him. What a privilege to be part of His work in the world today!