Sitting in a bookstore, engrossed in a book on Christian leadership, I barely noticed the man sitting across from me reading. I thought very little of him until I was repeatedly interrupted by a sense of the Holy Spirit stirring within.
“Talk to this man; he’s longing for me.”
Despite repeatedly trying to ignore this prompting, I couldn’t shake the feeling. I realized I’d reread the same sentence at least four times and might as well give in or leave the bookstore.
I struck up a conversation about the book he was reading. He was surprisingly open with his ideas and questions about God, and we were in the midst of discussing the forgiveness and love of God when, as if disgusted by himself, he said, “But you don’t even know the thoughts I’ve had about you before we were talking. God doesn’t forgive those kinds of thoughts.” Wait, what? As a woman in my 20s at the time, I had many acceptable responses to this sort of statement, including just leaving immediately. But almost to my surprise, something entirely unexpected came out of my mouth:
“God knows your thoughts. He’s not shocked or disgusted by you as a man. He knows what you really long for, and none of this is about me right now.”
I could respond to this uncomfortable admission because I, too, knew what it was to feel sinful and awkward in the presence of a loving God. My preparedness for this encounter had little to do with being some sort of evangelistic expert and more to do with my experience of God’s love. His love and kindness had led me toward much-needed repentance more times than I could ever recall. In that moment in the bookstore, I recognized that man’s words as indicative that he was deprived of the love that I had so often encountered; something inside of me knew instinctively how to lead him there.
I’ve looked back on this conversation for over a decade now, thinking through the details. Certainly, we can see the power of the Holy Spirit when we communicate something from God we barely expect, but is there more? Is there a way we can continually prepare our hearts to love others in their awkward, sinful, and sometimes even offensive behaviors?
Jesus’ Rhythm of Sharing the Love of God
When an expert in Jewish law asked Jesus, “What is the greatest commandant?” he was searching for the crux of his teaching. Jesus replied, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matt. 22:37–40).
We hear plenty in church and Christian culture about the first commandment Jesus mentions, and rightly so: Love God. But what do we make of the second? Love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Isn’t that selfish and based on questionable pop psychology?
If we live from Christ-centered self-love there is a way that loving ourselves well translates into loving our neighbor better. But, how do we get there?
Despite our best attempts to love, the depth to which we experience God’s love directly impacts the manner in which we love our neighbor. Have you ever had a spiritual leader—or any Christian—minimize your difficulty or witnessed them silence another’s pain? What has become familiar to them in their inner world has become normative in their outer world. They are loving their neighbor, exactly as they love themselves. Their aversion to understanding the condition of their own soul becomes an inability to attend to another’s soul. To some degree, this happens to every one of us.
In light of this, proclaiming the gospel and following Jesus’ commandment hinges on how we experience God’s love for us. We get a glimpse into why soul care is essential to evangelism when we look at how Jesus interacts with others in the gospels.
All true soul care requires us to come asking Lord, what do I need from you right now? Jesus gets this; he is continually meeting individuals with exactly what they need. He doesn’t come granting wishes. He comes perceiving our core need and invites us into acknowledging this in his presence. His tools are ever changing (mud and spit, fish, fig tree, water, words, etc.), yet his general method is not. First, he offers radical acceptance of the individual, often by breaking cultural barriers. Then he brings awareness to their hearts through questions that expose their motivations. Next he offers a new path of connection to the love of God specified to their exact inner needs and outer lives. Moving forward, this frees them to extravagantly love their neighbor.
The Four Steps of Jesus’ Soul Care
If we are struggling to love our neighbor, whether in our home, neighborhood, workplace, or the world, we likely need to move into a Christ-centered self-love. As we experience this love and meet Jesus in his answer to our soul’s question, Lord, what do I need from you right now, our evangelistic life becomes us asking Lord, what does this person need from you right now?
Looking at Jesus’ rhythm of leading others to his Father’s love can help us understand our own soul care and better prepare us for evangelism.
Jesus tended to draw to himself those who were, at best, marginally accepted elsewhere. Unexpectedly and uncomfortably accepting outcasts by breaking social mores, he created a sense of belonging for them, which frequently conflicted with the moral sensibilities of religious people of his day, angering them. Initially, we don’t see Jesus approving or disapproving sinful actions or intentions. In fact, his initial contact is often without mention of sin at all. Jesus simply accepted those he encountered exactly as they were.
Jesus understood shame and our tendency to hide from vulnerability, so he sought to guide with acceptance. His loving presence seemed to create an internal rest, and people let their defenses down around him.
When judged, we hide. When accepted, we open up. Though he knew their hearts, Jesus approached without judgment. We must experience this unconditional acceptance of Christ if we are to love others just as they are.
Once Christ’s radical acceptance eased their resistance, he made them aware of their motivations and the reality of their sin through careful questions. Do you want to get well? (John 5:6) Why are you so afraid (Matt. 8:26)? Why are you trying to trap me (Matt. 22:18)? Who do you say that I am (Matt. 16:15)? Why did you doubt (Matt. 14:31)? What do you want me to do for you (Mark 10:51)?
In the loving presence of Christ, they could allow these questions to penetrate their deepest hearts. This kind of spotlight is uncomfortable, but we see Christ exposing their inner lives without shame.
He understood that the greater their experience of love, the greater their capacity for correction, and thus the greater their ability to move toward wholeness. The same is true for us.
The more we encounter awareness of our truest motivations and our sin in the loving presence of Christ, the more accustomed we become to loving others in their moments of exposure.
A New Way
Though this may initially sound strange, the Good News is substantively different for each person Jesus encounters. His healing words and call to action are different for each individual. Jesus rubs spit-laden mud over a man’s eyes to make him see (John 9:6); “Sell everything and give to the poor” (Matt. 19:21, Luke 18:22); He tells a woman to go and sin no more (John 8:11); “let the dead bury their own dead” (Matt. 8:22, Luke 9:60); Jesus tells a lame man to take up his mat and walk (Mark 2:11, John 5:8).
Jesus understood people individually and desired, above all, for them to experience the love of the Father. He offered a path toward connection with God that took into account their different personalities, histories, sin patterns, and more. And he always included a way they must let go of their own sinful manner of engaging the world. Wherever the flesh was in control, Jesus offered wholeness through repentance unique to the individual. Following Jesus required turning away from something specific in their lives and turning decidedly toward something else.
When we experience Christ’s individual call to repentance, which untangles our souls’ barriers to giving and receiving his love, we become intimately acquainted with the comfort and love of God’s call to our awkward and sinful hearts. We then gain confidence in God’s call of unique repentance in other’s lives.
Loving Your Neighbor
When we are in the presence of love and given a unique path to a healthy inner life, we indelibly carry the Good News to share with others. We begin to innately respect what it is like to feel vulnerable, to be exposed, to have to repent. That internal cadence in which Christ leads us becomes a well-worn path in our brain and our souls.
This is the pathway to grace. Continually leaving behind shame and pride, we grow ever more into the beloved son or daughter we already are. Soul care means routinely opening ourselves to the love of God, trusting that his kindness will lead us to a repentance, which will lead us toward wholeness. The love of God becomes self-love, and we are freed to love our neighbor just as we love ourselves.
Evangelism, Meet Soul Care
Accepting ourselves and others, becoming aware of our motives and sin patterns, discovering Christ’s new way forward, and loving our neighbors is a rhythm we can never wear thin. Regardless of personal growth and years of following Christ, there is always an interior place for this Good News to encounter our souls. This rhythm is as inexhaustible as Christ’s creative power in our inner lives; there are always places where we need to meet Christ in one of these ways. The work of soul care is to come to God with open hearts, asking Lord, what do I need from you right now? and allowing him to show us the answer and meet us there. It gives us a language for soul care and an understanding of how to love our neighbor.
For those we seek to evangelize, we come to God asking Lord, what do they need from you right now? We notice where they are in their lives; we pray to see what their soul longs for. Do they need to experience Christ’s acceptance of them? If they do, it’s likely not time to call them to a new way, to repentance. If it’s time to bring awareness to their hearts through a gentle, probing question, then remaining in acceptance without conviction of sin only blocks them from encountering the Good News.
It is futile to continue to demand another person love their neighbor better when they need to be called to a new way themselves, experiencing refreshing restoration in Christ. This is delicate and imperfect work on our part, but the more we live this language through our own soul care, the more equipped we are to lead others to this same Good News.
That afternoon in the bookstore concluded as that man I met whispered hopefully, “I want that God that you are talking about,” while awkward tears filled his eyes. We prayed a repeat-after-me prayer, quietly, right there in the bookstore, and I left him with the names and contact information of a few churches in that area. Given the specifics of our encounter, it didn’t seem right to follow up personally. He thanked me with bright eyes, and I’ve never seen him again.
Far from a prescription for evangelism, this is one description in a sea of millions of ways in which the gospel is transmitted from one soul to another. While the Holy Spirit can and does work through every one of our meager attempts, continually experiencing the Good News in our own soul—especially as believers—is part of God’s continual kingdom work, too.
The more soul care we receive, the more caring for souls we have the capacity to engage.
Evangelism, meet soul care.
Kimberly Pelletier is a spiritual director, speaker, retreat/workshop leader, and the director of soul care at The Mansio Center in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. You can find her writing at smallgroups.com, The Mudroom, The Redbud Post, and kimberlypenrodpelletier.com.