It was random, but it was not an accidental meeting.
On my way to a meeting yesterday morning, I stopped at Barnes & Noble to get some work done since I had some time to spare. Not surprisingly, I didn’t even take my bag off my shoulder to set it on a table because I couldn’t resist the urge of browsing the stacks.
I love books. I had to look. I roamed around a bit through the biographies, and then predictably, I made my way to the Christian book section. Staring at some of the new books, I was interrupted by a guy about 20 years old who told me he thought my bag was nice (I get that a lot…Saddleback Leather…comes with a 100 year warranty).
Then he said my bag matches my shoes (they’re both brown?), and I thought to myself, “Gosh, this is awkward. How many people actually engage other customers in a store these days, let alone a bookstore where people are reading and being quiet?” Hoping he was just being friendly, and deciding to be friendly myself, I asked him if he was looking for a book in this section.
Surprisingly, he said, “Not really.”
I said, “Oh.” Then he added, “I’m not religious.”
Oh great. More thoughts come to mind: “So what are you doing in this section? Stalking my bag?”
Restraining myself, I said, “I’m not either.”
He explained that he likes to learn about religions, especially their origins and historicity (no, he didn’t use that word), but he doesn’t believe in them.
I told him I believe in Jesus.
He said, “I believe he was a real person. He did some great things, right?” I said, “Yeah, he did some really great things.”
What an embarrassing answer! In my mind, I was rattling off things like healing the sick, making the blind see, raising the dead to life, proclaiming a lot of good news to a lot of people who needed it—making what’s wrong in the world right again. But, those words just didn’t come out. Instead, I listened a bit more, both doubting my ability to give good answers and that he really wanted to have this conversation.
I don’t recall exactly how the rest of the conversation went, but I remember he told me he was an atheist, from Russia, and he mentioned a few questions and concerns. Here are the two that stuck out to me:
- He was under the impression that the modern translation of the Bible could not be satisfactorily trusted as authentic. He had come to believe the King James Version was especially way off.
- He thought believing in Jesus was about obeying commandments—mostly what to do and what not to do.
I did my best to give a brief answer about the amazing and unmatched reliability of the Scriptures compared to any other historical documents. I also explained that the King James Version is indeed based on an inferior historical text, but it is still 99% accurate based on tens of thousands of reliable copies still in existence today. And, I told him that there is even an entire science to studying these texts called textual criticism.
Then, beginning to sense (possibly incorrectly) that he was ready to move on, I inadequately talked about Jesus, fumbling a bit in my head about how to explain it so quickly to someone who had no frame of reference whatsoever about who Jesus really is. My weak attempt isn’t even worth describing to you.
I wrapped up the conversation by asking, “If I bought you a book, would you read it?” He hesitated and then answered, “You don’t have to buy it. I’ve already read ten books just by coming in here.”
More thoughts in my head: “Is your name Will Hunting? You just come in here on your free time (that you have a lot of) and read books for free that people are supposed to buy? Is that what I should be doing? Is that how you got so ‘smart?’”
Anyway, I found C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, and said, “Lewis was an atheist, too. This book is from a radio address he gave, and it is a great, intellectually sound explanation of what Christianity believes.” He seemed intrigued.
As I handed it to him, I introduced myself. He said, “I’m Ivan. Thanks.”
At that point, we parted ways. I bought a book, and Ivan went to read Mere Christianity, I hope…for free.
I went to Barnes & Noble to kill time. God made sure I didn’t waste it.
Two quick lessons I learned today about sharing my faith:
1. Never start with sin
You have to talk about sin and our broken relationship with God at some point (not to mention all the other brokenness in our world), but start with the Creator who made humanity and all the earth out of love. The Gospel starts in Genesis 1 not Genesis 3.
2. Love without an agenda
In my flesh, I wanted to bust out historical, intellectual, and philosophical genius on Ivan so that I could win him over to my side. I had to tend to and weed out my selfish thoughts to discern and listen to both God and Ivan. What were they telling me? I may have fumbled through some answers, but I’m confident Ivan did not leave our conversation thinking he’d met a Bible-thumping Christian.
If you’ve read this far, will you take a minute to pray for Ivan? Pray that God would reveal Himself to him in a powerful way—in a way that is so compelling that He cannot be ignored. Pray that Ivan becomes a part of God’s family, and a valuable citizen of God’s Kingdom. Pray that he will put his hope and foundation in God’s Word—the written Word and the Living Word.