When someone we care about is struggling with a problem, it’s a common response to try to fix the problem for them. Men seem to have the reputation of ‘fixers’ but women can be equally guilty. When Paul preached to the Athenians he presented the Gospel and then left his listeners to make up their own minds rather than trying to force his solution on them. In this he was copying Jesus who offered the rich young man the answer he needed when he asked what he should do to inherit eternal life. The young man was unable to accept Jesus’ advice and so he walked away. We too can only do so much and then leave those who may have heard the gospel from us to make up their own minds. We might be surprised at the outcome. The readings were Psalm 148:1-2, 11-end Acts 17:15, 22-18:1 John 16:12-15 and my reflection follows:
There’s a lot made of the differences between men and women in the way they tackle life. One bestseller on the matter was ‘Men are from Mars and women are from Venus.’ I found some of the observations there quite interesting but I wasn’t sure how keen men might be to find themselves almost compared to Neanderthals with their need for ‘cave time’ when they get away from it all to think or deal with problems. Of course, the point was made that women find it hard to understand this need and encourage the men to talk about their difficulties, which is often the last thing they want to do.
The misunderstanding works the other way as well of course. The other day my friend, who is going through a lot of changes in her life, was telling me how she had suddenly found herself crying when talking to her boyfriend on the phone. She hadn’t been fully aware of just how much strain she was under and was as surprised as he was alarmed to find herself sobbing down the phone. Her boyfriend had no idea what to do and that was probably the best thing he could have done. Being at a loss for words, he did nothing and gave my friend time to express her anxieties. This led her to feel much better.
The boyfriend’s natural wish was to try to ‘fix’ my friend. This is considered to be a male trait. The female meanwhile doesn’t want to be fixed but to be heard. I believe it’s possible for us all, men and women, to go into ‘fix’ mode at times when we see someone we care about struggling with a problem. We want to make it better and often that means getting them to follow our suggested solution. Actually it is far better to allow people to find their own solution to a problem with you there as a support in the emotional sense. The story of Paul’s interaction with the people of Athens reminded me of this tendency to want to fix other people.
There can be little doubt that Paul was given help by the Holy Spirit, as Jesus promised, to know all that should be remembered and shared about Jesus. In the Acts of the Apostles we see him addressing all sorts of people in many places. His preaching seems to have been inspired and even now it can be stirring to read his words, either reported by Luke or in his letters to the young churches. When you read how he linked what he had to say with what he had observed of the people of Athens, their religious nature, as well as quoting their own poet, it’s hard not to be impressed by just how brilliant and appropriate a presentation of the Gospel this is.
The Greeks were known for their love of listening to new ideas and of debating. Paul, with his fresh ideas to give them, would have been listened to well. What we see from the passage in Acts is that this respectful listening came to an end for many when Paul mentioned that Jesus had risen from the dead. They could deal with the idea of God being something not made out of silver and gold, or made by human artists. They accepted that God didn’t need anything from humans. They didn’t seem to object to the idea of judgement. But, when it came to the resurrection some scoffed. Not a lot has changed since Paul’s time. Some still scoff at the idea of the resurrection, or try to spiritualise it away as some kind of metaphor for new beginnings.
I’m sure that Paul wanted very much to convince the people at the Areopagus that day that he was sharing with them about the true God and bringing them wonderful Good News which would help them in their lives and would bring them joy and peace. Having done all he could, inspired by the Spirit, he had to leave it at that. There was nothing he could actually do to force this new belief on the people. He may well have believed it would ‘fix’ them but it would not have been appropriate to try.
All the people heard the same preaching, all had the same opportunity, and all had the freedom to choose how to respond. We are told that some scoffed. Some sat on the fence and said that they would listen on another occasion to Paul. Paul then left their company. He had done what he could and it was up to each to decide how to respond. It seems that Dionysius and Damaris among others made up their minds that Paul was offering them the truth, and they became believers.
If you remember the story of the Rich Young Ruler as it’s often called, Jesus did the same. He offered a different way of living, a way that would have brought the young man happiness and fulfilment. The young man couldn’t do as Jesus asked and so Jesus let him walk away, much as many of the Athenians did having listened to Paul. We are told that Jesus loved the young man. That love meant letting him have the space to make up his own mind even though what Jesus offered was the best for him. Paul did much the same for the Athenians. As Paul left Athens shortly after this to go to Corinth, perhaps several people lost the chance to embrace the Christian faith because they delayed. We will never know.
If we love the people we share the Gospel with, we can be sure that God loves them more. Just as he gives each of us free will, we must do the same. We may actually be surprised at the outcome of what seems to be rejected.
Many years ago I was part of a prayer triplet in the run up to Billy Graham’s crusades in England, ‘Mission England’. We were encouraged to meet in groups of three and each to pray for three people to come to faith, ideally coming to the crusade meetings with us. I faithfully attended and prayed for week after week but nothing apparently happened. The crusade came and went. I kept the card on which I had written the three names and remembered the people often.
After about a year an incident happened with one of them and I had the opportunity to talk to her about Jesus and to give her a Bible. She believed, joined a church and seemed wonderfully happy. Sadly, some years later something went wrong in her church and she left, never to return.
Three years later I received a phone call. The voice said, ‘Hi. Do you remember me?’ and went on to tell me her name. It was another of the people I had prayed for. She had divorced and moved from the area not long after the crusade. I had not been given any contact details. This friend rang me to say that she had come to faith and was serving on one of the Operation Mobilisation mercy ships, travelling all over the world with her two children, serving God. I was amazed and very thankful to hear the news.
Another four years later I got another surprise. The third person I had been praying for suddenly decided to start going to church. He gave no reason for doing so but just went one Sunday and continued to attend every Sunday after that. He attended a course at the church and was confirmed. Later he became very involved in the life of the church and has continued to be every since.
As Paul said in his second letter to the Corinthians, ‘I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.’ It’s up to us to allow the Spirit to work in us as we seek to live out and share the Gospel but then we have to leave it to God to give the growth.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor