As a kid, it always bugged me when someone was a little too sure about the state of their eternal salvation – and mine.
I heard things like, “You haven’t prayed in tongues yet? Be careful when you cross the street…” or “All you need to do is say a little prayer in your heart, and you’re saved!” One way was too hard, another too easy – and there were countless iterations in between. It didn’t make sense.
Over the course of time, these contradictions took their toll. After being smacked over the head with bibles (and dubious interpretations therefrom) too many times, I wanted to scream “Stop evangelizing me!”
It got worse.
In middle school, a classmate and I got into a pretty heated ongoing argument about the nature of salvation, and who was – and was not – going to heaven. His viewpoint was… well, let’s just say pretty exclusive. This festered for several months, and finally we brought in the big guns – our dads.
The four of us met at a restaurant to hash out our differences. I’ll never forget driving there in our beat up old station wagon, and the sinking feeling when my classmate and his dad parked next to us in a gleaming new Lincoln. As a Presbyterian minister, my dad was sadly disinclined to pour much family wealth into cars (in fact, he still suffers from this affliction).
As it turned out, we didn’t even make it through dinner. I’ll never forget my classmate’s dad – his condescending treatment of my father was nothing short of breathtaking. It was the kind of pontification one might expect from a shiny new Lincoln speaking to a crummy old station wagon, if cars could talk.
Never mind that this was a high school dropout lecturing a guy with a graduate degree in theology and Ph.D. from M.I.T. My classmate’s dad had the truth, and he let us know it in no uncertain terms. Presbyterians were going to hell. So were Methodists. Anglicans. Catholics. Pretty much everyone, it seemed, of a denomination other than my classmate and his dad.
Beyond the great example of my dad that day, who handled the situation with class and good manners in the face of truly boorish behavior, here are just a couple takeaways:
- Evangelization isn’t about “being right” or “having the truth.” I don’t know that anyone has ever been effectively evangelized (at least into the Church, although probably out of it) by a jerk.
- Humility is an absolute necessity. Jesus calls himself “meek and humble of heart” in Matthew 12:29, and we need to follow His example.
- Actions really do speak louder than words. My classmate wasn’t known for treating others very well, and it hurt his credibility. Perhaps there was a genetic component to this disposition!
- Honoring the freedom of others is really important. There is no true conversion without complete freedom. We can’t be manipulated, browbeaten, or shamed into faith – thanks be to God.
- Only love leads to true change. Friendship, invitation, and constantly striving for holiness ourselves will always trump arrogance and argument. 1 Corinthians chapter 13 comes to mind.
Presumption about the state of our souls, or those of others, is a great way to turn people off. That judgment is above our pay grade. I am consoled by the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1037):
God predestines no one to go to hell; for this, a willful turning away from God (a mortal sin) is necessary, and persistence in it until the end. In the Eucharistic liturgy and in the daily prayers of her faithful, the Church implores the mercy of God, who does not want “any to perish, but all to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9)
Thankfully, that means there’s hope for all of us. After all, is it more important that we have the truth, or that The Truth has us?