“I DO DRUGS. WHAT WOULD JESUS SAY ABOUT THAT?”
How would you respond to this question? Here’s the context: you’re a night security guard and the only Christian in your workplace. Another guard suddenly sticks his head into your office. Pointing his finger he almost accuses, “You’re one of those ‘Christians,’ right?” You get a little nervous. Nothing good ever follows that question. No one gives you a high five, says “good job,” and goes about their business. They only want to debate, challenge, or stump you. You respond with regretful hesitation, “Yeah…”
He crosses his arms, looks you square in the eye and then brings the challenge: “I do drugs. What would Jesus say about that?” How would you respond? More pointedly, how could you respond in a way that might actually resonate with the asker?
THREE INSUFFICIENT RESPONSES
I’ve posed this scenario, which actually happened to a leader I was coaching, in trainings around the country. No matter where I am, I hear these responses:
1. “Um, I Don’t Know Exactly”
For some followers of Jesus, our gut response would be to look down, stammer a bit, and ashamedly admit we don’t know what Jesus would say. Maybe, we give in to the pressure of the unexpected question, the outlandish honesty, or the shock of a challenge at 2 a.m. Perhaps we have a general sense of what Jesus might say, but have a hard time putting it into words. It could be that our “people-pleaser” kicks in and we simply can’t tell him the core of what we believe. Sometimes, we are afraid. A common response to this question is a blank stare. Put yourself in the shoes of the asker: “I don’t know” looks like ignorance. This simply isn’t a sufficient answer, the asker really wants to know what you and Jesus think.
2. “He’d tell you to stop.”
For other Christians, the answer would stem from the moralistic, humanist culture we grew up in. Our answer is some form of Bob Newhart’s MadTV sketch: a counselee admits a number of struggles, while Newhart, the counselor answers each with a blunt “Stop it!” Even if we intellectually know Jesus is our savior, we function as if he is simply a good guy with ethical advice. When asked about any sin issue – by anyone, Christian or not – we espouse surface-level fixes. Instead of addressing the true sin, we merely address the outflows or consequences of sin. Maybe we look for five easy steps to end a struggle; advise a few “good works”. Perhaps we appeal to legality (“you’ll get arrested”), personal welfare (“it might kill you”), heartstrings (“if you get arrested or die, can you imagine how your family will feel?”), or moralism (“you know it’s wrong”). It could be that we even quote a verse: “He’d say ‘you shall have no other gods before me’ – that’s the first commandment.” Put yourself in his shoes again“He’d say, ‘Stop it’” fits a view of God they’re most likely assuming of a no-fun, rule-giving, demanding, and impersonal deity. This too doesn't get to the heart of the matter.
3. “He died for your sin so you can be with him in heaven”
A final common response acknowledges their need for the gospel. Maybe you’ve been praying for this guard. Perhaps, you’ve intentionally spoken of faith before to “peak his interest.” It could be that in this moment of boldness, you’re elated that God finally opened the door. So, you share the gospel many of us know well. You gush out some form of, “He’d tell you that God is perfect and heaven is perfect, but because of sin, you’re not perfect. God sent Jesus to die for your sin so you can be reconciled to God and live eternal life with him. If you accept Jesus he’ll forgive your sin of drugs!” This is all true – and praise God it is! But, if he’s ignoring God, he doesn’t care about heaven. If he’s like much of the world, he doesn’t believe he’s too bad a person. If he’s a common American, it’s likely he doesn’t fully understand sin or his need for Jesus. There’s a strong possibility he doesn’t believe in God – or at least, a God who makes any difference in his daily life. Even the objective, big-picture gospel is not a sufficient answer!
CHILDREN, TOSSED TO AND FRO
These three responses fail because they don’t get to the heart of our faith! The first answer is empty, the second is moralistic, the third is futuristic: it sees the gospel as merely a past event that greatly benefits my future but has nothing to do with today. Many who question the gospel need to know how it applies to them in their current situation. Behind the challenging question is a heart in need of applicable truth.
Futile and failed attempts like these, for growing or explaining faith, are not unique to our culture. Writing to first-century Ephesus, Paul explains the goal of Christian life is maturity in Christ. How do we attain maturity? Paul gives three ways we cannot grow: “[by] every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (Eph 4:14). Following new doctrinal trends, teachers, or even gaining more head-knowledge of the Bible isn’t enough. We will always be let down by relying on our own power and “cunning,” to make new rules and fix ourselves or each other. Some are deceived by false teachers, with false hope, and false ways to solve real issues. This is how we often answer any question, not just the 2 a.m. drug challenge. Difficult questions like:
- “How can God redeem my broken marriage?”
- “I’m so angry at my boss, what do I do?”
- “We just want a baby!”
- “How do these verses or commands apply to me?”
- “Where is God in this (recent tragedy)?”
Our answers are some mixture of:
- “I don’t know” (and if you’re really good, you’ll add “but I’ll pray for you.”)
- “Let me give you a great book on that.”
- “Let’s meet every week for accountability.”
- “Do these three things or steps.”
- “You just need to trust Jesus.”
- “One day, all this will be better.”
None of these, Paul would say, are sufficient for faith or maturity. He even claims answers like this likens us to “children, tossed to and fro by the waves” (v.14). These answers fall short because they don't come from belief in the gospel. Pointing people to books, programs, and renewed moralism to receive blessings and solve problems demonstrates a lack of belief that Jesus is sufficient for our struggles, doubts, hopes, and frustrations. We are saying, "that's a tough question, let me point you to some human cunning or the latest in pop-psychology.
APPLYING AN OBJECTIVE GOSPEL TO SUBJECTIVE SITUATIONS
In conversations like these, we miss a great blessing of the gospel. It is a past event, both historically and personally for every Christian. It does give future hope, for personal reconciliation and the renewal of all things. But it also impacts every moment of our present lives! Paul writes in Romans, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’” (Romans 1:16-17). Verse 16 shows the past reality of the gospel; in the verses following these, Paul explains coming wrath and eternal power: the future reality of the gospel.
But verse 17 says our faith doesn’t just “save us,” and “give us eternal life.” Faith is the very power by which we live. The gospel does mean something: to everyone, everyday and for every situation. We just don’t seem to know how to apply it! To the Romans, Paul says we learn to “live [now!] by faith.” To the Ephesians, he says that while those other ways will fail, the way to “grow up in every way into him who is the head” is to “speak the truth in love” (Eph 4:15). Jesus himself, the greatest proclaimer and very embodiment of the gospel, gives us an example of what it looks like to apply the objective truth of the gospel to the specific, subjective need.
When Jesus meets a Samaritan woman in John 4, she challenged him with a question of race and gender roles, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” (v.9). Jesus doesn’t ignore her first question; he doesn’t tell her to stop worrying about her situation; he doesn’t answer that he’ll die soon to reconcile the broken socio-economic status, so she should believe in him for eternal life. Instead, he starts by addressing her obvious need, thirst: “there is greater water than this well can give,” he says – “living water” will forever quench your thirst (v.10, 13).
Here’s what is often missed in this passage: Jesus speaks to something deeper than thirst. He speaks to the woman’s lack of satisfaction. We see this in her desire to be filled, never having to drink again: “Sir, give me that is water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water” (v.15). We see this as they discuss her string of spouses: “You’ve had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband” (v.18). In her unfilled desire to worship: “[Jews] say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship” (v.20). At every point, Jesus shows himself and God’s truth to be more satisfying than any of her lesser pursuits: water, good husband or fulfillment in a man, or worship location. Finally, she declares her need for a Messiah as he reveals, “I who you speak to am he” (v.26).
Jesus spoke “truth in love.” He met her on her turf. He showed her how faith matters for her present life. Jesus spoke the objective gospel: “There is a Messiah, coming to free you to worship God in spirit and truth, and I am he!” But he spoke that objective gospel in a way that addressed her subjective situation. He started with her felt needs, then pointed to her greater, heart-level need: “God will satisfy you more than this!” It’s a poignant picture of Jesus, truth incarnate, speaking truth to her in a way that she can immediately resonate with and understand.
HOW WOULD YOU RESPOND?
Back to the original scenario and challenge: “I do drugs. What would Jesus say about that?” How do you answer that question? What deeper need is the asker really addressing? What true struggle is he admitting? Put yourself in his shoes: how can the objective truth of the gospel apply to their subjective situation?
Here’s how my friend responded to the challenge, and I couldn’t be prouder of him. After thinking for a moment, he said, “I think Jesus would tell you that you’re looking for hope in a place that’s going to let you down. You know it lets you down because you have to take a hit three times a day. So I think Jesus would tell you that he’s a better place to put your hope, because he promises he’ll never let you down.” Jesus spoke the gospel truth as it addressed satisfaction; my friend spoke the gospel truth as it addresses personal hope. He exalted Jesus as the objective answer to the guard’s subjective question. God has thousands of years of history, 66 written books, and millions of lives throughout history to prove that Jesus is man’s greatest hope.
No, the guard didn’t fall on his knees weeping that night. God didn’t redeem his soul in that office. But he uncrossed his arms, shook his head, smiled and told my friend: “No one has ever told me that before. That actually makes a lot of sense. We should talk more about that sometime.” That night, the guard walked away from my friend, having heard the gospel spoken to him in a way that resonated with him in his present life.
Ben Connelly lives in Fort Worth with his wife and daughters. He started The City Church in 2010 and lives on mission by teaching public speaking at TCU. Ben sits on the board of a few city-focused organizations, trains occasionally across the country, and writes in spurts at benconnelly.net. Twitter:@connellyben