How do we know when to be wooing people and when to be challenging people? This is a dilemma for the evangelist. There are often two schools of extreme thought that seem to be at odds with each other. On one side are the hellfire, repent or burn types. On the other side are the God is love, come as you are types who are accused of cheap grace. One side is criticised for being too judgemental, the other side is criticised for a lack of holiness. Yet God is both love and holy, so what should we do? Can we drop holiness in favour of love, or drop love in favour of holiness? How do these two integral characteristics of God work together? How does the evangelist reflect both in their communication?
Jesus once told a gathered assembly in Capernaum in John 6:43 "stop grumbling among yourselves." Grumbling was a national sport for the Jewish people at this time, and they had a lot to grumble about under Roman occupation. This is straight talk from Jesus, he is being very directive and challenging, and this is just the beginning of his challenge, it gets tougher and harder to receive. Remember that John 6 includes the story of the miracle of the loaves and fishes. Jesus had just fed thousands of people. I suspect Jesus is frustrated with their consumer attitude and is trying to adjust their thinking beyond natural needs to spiritual truth, beyond their own wants to the bigger picture.
In this context, Jesus is speaking to Jewish people who are in a synagogue (it is Jesus' home church). It is very important we are aware of the context of our communication. How we speak to people is all about the context. It is also about the heart. What kind of attitude do people have? How well do they respond to you? What we say depends on where we are and who we are speaking to.
Jesus speaks of grumbling and is making a reference to the Old Testament story of the children of Israel as they passed through the wilderness towards the Promised Land. He reinforces his point by speaking of the bread of heaven, calling himself the Bread of Life. This causes quite a reaction in the synagogue. In John 6:52 it says "Then the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves,“How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” They are offended. In my own experience I have found offended people the hardest to connect with. They often have interior, subconscious reasons for reacting badly. What does Jesus do? He increases the challenge levels. This is not a tactic I would have used. I probably would have given up and backed off. Look at what he says next, it is John 6:53-58:
"Jesus said to them,“Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.54 Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.55 For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink.56 Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them.57 Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me.58 This is the bread that came down from heaven."
Not content to offend them with his bread talk, he moves onto eating human flesh and drinking human blood. This pushes most of his listeners over the edge of credulity. Even his own disciples in verse 60 say “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” Verse 66 says "From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him."
Jesus even gave an opportunity to the Twelve to leave if they wanted. Jesus is not gathering a crowd, he is not interested in a miracle seeking audience. In response Simon Peter says “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.”
What is the purpose of tough talk? It is to reveal the heart. Sometimes we need to push people out of their comfort zones, perhaps even into the offended zone. However the clever bit (it is an art more than a science) is to know when to do that. Jesus tended to do it with people who had hard hearts rather than soft ones. Soft hearts are good soil, hard hearts need ploughed, weeded and stones removed and sometimes tough talk is the way to do it. The sharp edge of a plough is not comfortable.
My view is that it is better to offend someone than risk them losing out on the mercy of God and gift of salvation. However I want to put a condition in place, check the motivation of your own heart first before trying to offend people. Sometime we enjoy being directive or frustrated because we are angry ourself, or feel rejected. Our appeal to love and holiness must come out of a place of love and holiness, otherwise we are being a hypocrite. Also Jesus walked closely with the Father, he was led by the Spirit. Before choosing the offensive route, make sure we are aligned with the Spirit. Our default should be love and gentleness, and when necessary if needed be prepared to push harder for the sake of the person.
I once led a street team in the centre of Edinburgh and four young women came into our venue which was offering prayer. Three of the women were open and one was very angry and resistant. I could have ignored her and concentrated on the three open ones, however I felt the Spirit lead me to this angry young woman. I asked her "would you like prayer?" She rejected me right away and I said under the Spirit's guidance "what has hurt you so badly?" She burst into tears and unpacked a heartbreaking story of abuse which made her angry at God and the world. She received prayer from the other members of the team for a long time that night. We must be careful not to assume what is going on in the heart of a person, it is too easy to misread the situation. Be careful when dealing with a person's heart. Jesus knew in the case of the offended synagogue goers that they needed to be pushed, but he tested the waters first, we need to do the same.