A few weeks ago I was reading in 1 Peter about gentleness. There’s a phrase I’m very familiar with from my youth group days: Be ready to give a reason for the hope that is in you.
I used to think of this phrase in the context of evangelism. I felt the pressure to form a ready answer just in case anyone asked why I was a Christian or why I was happy. This caused a lot of anxiety–if you know me, I’m not much of a ready responder. I prefer to have some time to form my answer, to mull over questions and observations before responding. Typically when I have to respond quickly, I say something stupid and then spend the next few days replaying the scene in my head thinking, “If only I had said this! Or that!”
With this verse, I agonized a lot over apologetics…I did not feel smart enough to talk about all the topics that were allegedly attacking my faith. I felt victimized already by anticipating the persecution of people who supposedly wanted to ridicule my faith. How was I to respond to them?
I imagined arguments in front of a group of people (they were always in front of an audience) where my faith was destroyed by an intellectual person as I sat there dumbfounded, unsuccessfully trying not to cry. In short, I felt like I was constantly preparing to meet the faith bully on the playground.
What was most frustrating about this phrase was that I had to look to adults, books, videos, and youth retreats for the reason for my hope. Why did I have hope again? Oh yeah, I would remember, because the world is going to hell except for those who asked Jesus to live in a treehouse in their hearts. How do I say to someone, “Jesus changed my life, and if you don’t let him change yours, you’re going to hell” with gentleness and respect? Even as a moronic teenager, I had a hard time swallowing that concept.
Was that what I was supposed to do to witness to someone? Wouldn’t it be better to be a witness to their lives, to listen to their story, to be a part of their story?
How was I supposed to start a casual conversation with a friend to evangelize without making it seem like I had ulterior motives? Like I wanted to convert them? Because wasn’t that what I was doing?
One of my friends once said that the word evangelism is the one word at which both Christians and non-Christians cringe. I believe it. I remember sitting in my 300-person government class in college next to a guy who always seemed stressed out, and on that particular day, he turned to me and said, “Why are you always so happy?” This was it! My time to give a reason for my hope! An unknowing invitation to evangelize! Don’t screw this up, Ashley! His soul depends on it!
I fiddled with the strap of my backpack and whispered, “I don’t know.” This was the time that I should have said the right to answer to every Sunday School question: Jesus. I felt like a failure in evangelism 101. It was an open shot, and I didn’t even hit the backboard.
But that downcast “I don’t know” was prophetic–I didn’t know why I had hope. I sat among hundreds of other intellectuals and wondered why I believed in Jesus. And I concluded that if I was going to continue to believe, and I wanted to, I needed a reason. I needed to figure out why.
So Peter’s words came with a lot of baggage and apprehension as I approached them a few weeks ago.
I realized that it didn’t have to be about apologetics or the 10 Commandments or street evangelism. Because all of those things made me feel stupid. Defeated. Anxious. Unequipped.
Perhaps instead we need to be ready to give a reason for our hope because we are met with hopelessness in our lives, be it in the Middle East, in our families, in our careers, in the environment, everywhere.
We are to combat despair with hope, but we don’t combat in army boots and heavy Bibles. We combat with light and cups of water and shared meals.
We pick up arms not to shoot down threats to a shaky faith, but rather to embrace each other.
Our shelters are not in trenches of homogenous factions but rather in the name of Jesus, the hope against all hopes.
Our loyalty won’t be to a political party or a building or a country. It will be to the Kingdom of God, to each other.
Because in our neighbors’ faces we see the reason for hope, we see the face of Jesus.