This is the first part of three on the ease of making people into projects. Of course, the title is a little tongue-in-cheek. No one wants to reduce a person, a potential friend, down to a project, but it happens. A lot. Since I’ve seen and done this, I wanted to share my thoughts on the subject. I’ve chosen three ways, but there are more, I’m sure, so use these articles as inspiration to get your brain fired up to explore this topic.
For those who like to know where we’re going, here are the three points that will be discussed in the series:
1. We make people into projects when we reduce them to an argument to be won. Genuine friendship isn’t a debate class.
2. We make people into projects when we teach them in an inappropriate, uninformed way. Good intentions aren’t always enough.
3. We make people into projects when discipling them if it becomes a task to be completed instead of a relationship to be nourished.
Now, let’s slow down and dive in.
How Do Others Experience, or Perceive, Me?
I was sitting at a conference as the next speaker got up from his seat and moved up toward the podium. He stood behind the microphone, looking out at us, and gave his lecture. I don’t have a clue what he said. I don’t remember any of his main points and not one illustration he used. I can’t even recall the theme of the conference in general. The crazy part? That speaker told us that we’d forget everything! As he opened his notes and readied himself to dive into the topic at hand, whatever it was, he looked up and told us that we’d most likely forget everything that he said that day. I did.
“But,” he continued, “you won’t forget the way that you felt during this session and this conference.” Again, he was right. I don’t remember hardly any of the information that was shared, but I do remember the way I felt those three days … and the days that followed.
The speaker’s observation has stuck with me. Is this principle the same in my life? Do people remember how I make them feel even if they forget what I said? I think so. When I think about certain people, I either get a positive or negative feeling, even though I’m not thinking about specific things that they’ve said. They do make me feel a certain way, and I’m sure that I make people feel a certain way as well.
How people experience me is important, and it has a deep impact on my testimony as a believer. I’m not talking about people liking me necessarily; sometimes they won’t, and that’s ok. I’m also not talking about “clicking” with someone. That happens sometimes, and friendships are fast-tracked to BFF status.
I’m talking about the importance of honestly reflecting on the way in which others perceived us. If I asked five or six people how they experienced me and words like impatient, arrogant, or finicky come up more than once, it’s probably not a coincidence. There could be something there worth looking into. These observations and the feelings that they invoke, will affect my relationship with them.
Maybe an example would help.
Insights Gained While on the Receiving End
I met a man a couple of months ago, and after interacting with him, had such a negative feeling that I hope never to see him again. That sounds harsh, but it’s the way he left me feeling. Ironically, he didn’t “do” anything to make me feel bad, nor do I think that it was his intention. But in our hour-long conversation, he talked badly about neighbors, other regions of his country, and other nationalities beyond the borders of those regions. He went as far as to try to convince my friend, who was sitting next to me, that her region of the country was far inferior to his. It’ll be no surprise that this statement was the conclusion of a long monologue ripping into their mentality, customs, and local culture.
Needless to say, neither she nor I were impressed, and he did nothing to convince us that he was right. He did the opposite. He pushed us away. If I ever see him again, I have no doubt that a wave of dread will wash over me, and my mind will whirl in frantic search of any excuse not to interact with him. He lost my respect and my friendship. He could regain both of those things, but he’d have to work really hard to move me from that bad feeling to one of openness.
What were the specific things he said? I’ve no idea, but the feeling of wanting him to stop talking—and to leave—is still fresh in my mind. Whether he was aware of this or not is unclear, but of one thing, he left no doubt: He thought he was better and knew better than everyone else, including my friend and me. His knowledge was superior, his opinions more enlightened, his experiences infallible. There was no conversation. He was on a soapbox, and until he finished, we couldn’t get a word in edgewise.
I’m not that different from him, although that’s something I’d rather not admit. I love to win arguments. I love to be right and for others to know it. I love to correct others and convince them that my way is better—and just like that proud man—often forget something: Relationship is about more than winning.
You see, what the man missed was us. Even though we were sitting right in front of him, he was so busy talking about his few days spent up north that he missed the lifetime of experience that my friend had growing up there. He didn’t ask her for her opinion about his observations. He didn’t show any sign of wanting to learn from her. He knew better.
Sometimes I know better, too. I know better and that knowledge eclipses the person in front of me. I don’t think I’d ever fight to win an imaginary argument about which part of my country is better, but there are some “betters” that I’m in danger of stuffing down unwilling throats. For example, I know that life with Jesus is better than life without Him. I know that the gospel is the better power to restore and heal a soul. I know that God is better when compared to any other god.
I’m convinced of these things and want to tell others about the better way that I’ve found in Jesus, but sometimes in my passion, my attitude becomes about proving that their way of thinking isn’t as valid as mine. If I present my beliefs in rapid machine gun fashion, I shouldn’t be surprised to find a wounded person in front of me when I finish. It’s never ok to hurt someone just to prove a point, no matter how true the point is.
How Does This Understanding Impact My Witness?
If how we share the better story of Jesus is leaving people bleeding and feeling inferior, something needs to change. My words may sound over-the-top, but I encounter many people on the mission field who, because of “evangelism,” have been left scarred and alienated. They didn’t feel loved or valued. They were made to believe that their way of thinking was stupid or backward. They were told the story of amazing grace and then shown no grace during the messy process that choosing to follow Jesus can be. It was a “Jesus’ way or the highway” message. You reject Jesus and I will reject you is what was communicated, and it left deep wounds.
I have done this. Unintentionally, of course, but unintentional wounds hurt just the same as intentionally inflicted ones.
What I’m really doing when I interact this way is that I’m reducing a beautiful, complex human being, created in the image of God, to an argument to be won. I move in to change their opinion at any cost. In those moments, I’m not loving them with Jesus’ ever-patient, ever-present love. I’m pushing them around like a bully. I listen only to refute or to defend myself … I mean the gospel. The problem is the gospel doesn’t need defending. It breaks down every argument, every confusion, each time that it resurrects a soul, breathing new life into it. The new life in us is the best argument we have and, like a river, will flow out of us if given a channel.
The best channel is often a slow, steady example. Not perfection. Only Jesus has access to that. It’s a consistent pattern of seeking God, repenting when we get it wrong, and loving those around us. If we, if I, invested in those things with as much passion as I put into convincing someone that Jesus is the Savior, I think they’d see a much more powerful example of that Savior in action.
As they watch Him rescue me, reveal Himself to me, and change me, they’ll see the power and the hope of the Savior. They’ll feel the gospel: the power of God. Of course words are essential, but force-feeding them to someone will leave a bad taste in their mouth. In other words, a bad feeling.
If, on the other hand, we simply let the river of living water flow from a vibrant, inner spiritual life, I believe that they’ll taste that water and see that the Lord is good. Then, it’s up to them to choose whom they’ll follow.
Let the power of a changed, Jesus-saturated life do the arguing and save your breath for better things. A changed life is more convincing than even the best crafted debate rebuttal.
Changing our approach might even open the door for a new friendship, bringing the Jesus in us closer to the new friend next to us. Our goal, after all, is to make Jesus known, not to win an argument.
• Ask several people, believers and non-believers, how they experience you.
• Think of several words that describe the feeling the gospel leaves you with.
• Cultivate your inner-spiritual life alone and in community.
• Be bold with your life and with your words, but don’t argue!