When I find time to get to my workshop and begin playing with wood, I generally have a good idea what the finished product will look like. True, it will never look quite like the plans that I began with–my woodworking skills are backed with lots of enthusiasm but my skill level isn’t quite as high as my enthusiasm. I like to say that in the end, lots of paint and plastic wood make a big difference.
In many areas of life, we both like and expect predictability–we like knowing that if we do this, that will happen. Whether it is woodworking, cooking, computer programming, predictability is an important part of the process.
And many times, we carry that desire for predictability into our witnessing activity. If I say this to that person, it will bring them to faith. If I do that for that person, the result will be another believer. Unfortunately, our desire for predictability simply doesn’t have a place in the realm of witnessing.
Think again about the encounters Jesus had with people. Since Jesus is God in human form and our supreme example in everything, including witnessing, there should be a clear pattern in these encounters, at least from our human perspective. We would expect it to go this way: Jesus meets person, Jesus witnesses to person, person follows Jesus. But when we look at actual encounters, there is no pattern.
Some people do decide to follow Jesus–the disciples, for example, were ready and willing to drop everything and follow Jesus. But many others didn’t follow Jesus. There is no record that those who accepted Jesus’ teaching and the food at the two miraculous feedings (Matthew 14 and 15) decided to follow him–and there is good evidence that the vast majority didn’t since the number of confirmed believers at the beginning the book of Acts was about 120 (Acts 1.15).
That realization leads to my fourth principle of witnessing: Don’t anticipate the results. We don’t know what will happen when we witness. Witnessing involves a complex interplay of our personality, the activity of the Holy Spirit and the personality of the person to whom we are called to witness. And because two of the three participants are people, the results are simply not predictable. We cannot know what the results of our witnessing will be.
The Holy Spirit can know the results and will use our witness to continue the process in the life of the individual. For most people, the decision to follow Christ is a lengthy one involving many witnessing contacts and many interactions with people and God. We simply can’t predict the results of our witnessing contacts.
I actually find that liberating. Seen in this light, witnessing is not about bringing people to the faith. Instead, it is about following the Holy Spirit’s leading and allowing my witness to be added to the witness of others in the life of any individual. The Holy Spirit is at work, seeking to have believers provide the actions and words of faith that are required to help that person in their journey to God. My responsibility to seek to be in tune with the Spirit and the individual–and myself–so that I know what the Spirit wants me to do and/or say in any given situation.
The unpredictability of witnessing can be frustrating at times. I am sure that Jesus was frustrated at times when people didn’t respond positively to his witness. But when we allow ourselves to embrace the unpredictability of witnessing, we are freed. We don’t have to “succeed”–we just have to do what God wants done in the situation. What we consider a failure isn’t really a failure if we have been listening to the individual and the Spirit and faithfully doing what we are asked to do. Our witness is being used by God in ways that we can’t predict and shouldn’t try to predict.
If we believe that the results of our witness should be predictable, we are going down a path that leads to the development of manipulative and even unethical practises–we will be using human means to force or trick or manipulate people into doing what we want them to do, rather than allowing ourselves to be part of God’s loving and graceful process of bringing people to him.
I want my woodworking and cooking to have predictable results–but I have learned that it is best if I embrace the unpredictability of my witnessing.
May the peace of God be with you.