3 Lessons from Lunch with an Atheist

The atheist invited me to lunch. He wanted to ask about Jesus.

I played it cool.

Externally: “Sure, man. Let’s roll.”

Internally: Fist pumps. Shouts of, “Yes!!!”

This is what followers of Jesus in the secular marketplace long for, right? A chance to be salt and light to a co-worker who is suddenly eager to hear about God’s redeeming love.

So we went to lunch, me and the atheist.

He shared some of his the troubles. He asked why believing in God would make any difference in his life. And he asked why I “bought into Jesus.”

I listened. I asked questions. I made observations. I shared from my personal experiences as an agnostic-turned-believer. I gave him blunt answers to his blunt questions. I drew stuff on a napkin.

He listened. He asked more questions. He made more observations. He looked at the stuff I drew on the napkin.

We spent more than an hour talking about life, death, and God. And guess what happened?

Well, that was more than 10 years ago and, as far as I know, he’s still an atheist.

On the one hand, he left with a clear understanding of mankind’s sinfulness and the solution Jesus provides for anyone who seeks forgiveness, grace and redemption. On the other hand, I felt like a failure. Intellectually, I knew better. But I had invested emotionally into this friendship—and others in our office. Why wasn’t I seeing fruit? Surely it was my fault.

There are times when I still experience this type of frustration. But a few decades in the marketplace mission field has driven home an important theological point: It’s not about me, it’s about God.

That’s easy to forget in a results-oriented culture, especially when the challenges of life are beating on us like the winds of a hurricane – when Satan whispers (or shouts): “You’re not good enough!” So when the storms begin to form, here are a few things that help calm my waters:

  1. Remember the seed-planters. When I feel like I’m not making a difference in the world, I make a mental list of all the people who invested in my journey who have no idea I’m no longer the same misguided agnostic they once tried to help.
  2. Disrobe and un-gavel. One of my sisters is a federal judge. She gets paid to judge others and interpret the law. Not me. So why should I judge myself (and others) when it’s so clearly not my job?
  3. Take my medicine. Sometimes I enter into a conversation believing God is using me to teach the other person something. That might be true, but too often I arrogantly miss something God is trying to teach me. God is sometimes working through me, but He’s always work in me and on me.

In our work, we set goals and we’re held accountable for the results. In the Kingdom of God, we act in obedience and leave the results to Him. We can get uptight when the results aren’t what we expected or wanted, or we can remember that God is far more qualified than we are to spin this world forward as He sees fit.

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