An Inviting Alternative to Defensiveness
I have four children, ages four, three, two, and seven months. It’s virtually impossible to leave the house without strangers estimating ages in their head or making comments like, “Your hands are full,” or simply, “Oh.” My wife once had a lady tell her, “Be careful. We don’t want to be seeing you on the news.”
When it comes to such reactions, I’ve gone through my own rendition of the stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining (or in my case, comic retorts), Depression, and Acceptance. The comic retort stage has been my personal favorite. For me, sarcastic responses are practically genetic.
My father, a prodigal-turned-pastor and then missionary who ultimately had nine children over a couple decades, was once asked, “Don’t you know what causes that?”
My father answered, “Yes, and it sure was fun.”
Over the last few years, I’ve tried my share of retorts before settling on, “Hey, everyone told me, ‘Do what you’re good at.’”
It’s tough to know how to answer seriously. My wife’s and my decision to have a large family is intrinsically tied to our faith, and it’s difficult to reduce years of Biblical study, prayer, and sanctification to a sentence.
Still, I’m becoming increasingly convinced that the best answer is not a retort or a rebuttal but an invitation.
Lately, I’ve been pondering the story of Jesus calling Philip and in turn, Philip inviting Nathanael. It goes like this:
The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, “Follow me.” . . .
Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”
“Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked.
“Come and see,” said Philip.
John 1:43, 45-46
Nathanael’s almost brotherly response intrigues me. On one hand, it’s kind of a legitimate question. There was a Roman garrison in Nazareth, which meant it was a hot spot for pagan practices like idolatry and prostitution. On the other hand, Nathanael’s answer is an ad hominem. Jesus being from Nazareth, a terrible place, didn’t mean Jesus couldn’t be the Messiah.
What’s even more fascinating though, is Philip’s response. He completely evades the attack.
He doesn’t answer the legitimate question or rebuff the ad hominem. Instead, he invites Nathanael to meet Jesus.
The tactic is so simple yet so profound, and it’s one Christians need to use when they engage with nonbelievers.
There are many people out there with legitimate problems with Christianity, issues where either the Church has failed or wolves in sheep’s clothing have hijacked Christianity for personal gain. Likewise, there are individuals with genuine questions, logical or otherwise. There is a time and a place for addressing both. However, that should not be our first priority.
Our first response has to be, “Come and see.” We have to invite the world to experience Jesus first, rather than getting bogged down in debate, no matter how amicable.
This is the strategy Philip used, and it worked. Jesus spoke two sentences to Nathanael before Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel” (1:49). Afterward, Nathanael became one of the twelve apostles and was faithful to Jesus even unto death.
Obviously, we don’t have a physically present Jesus to introduce people to, but we can share the gospel accounts, teach people to pray, and tell the stories of lives changed by Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.
For my part and in my particular “big” family situation, maybe it’s just as simple as opening a conversation by telling inquisitive strangers, “Jesus said, ‘Anyone who welcomes a child in my name welcomes me.’”