Our Lord commanded his followers to, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation” (Mk 16:15). If you believe in Jesus Christ, and you are a member of his Body through baptism, then you have been given a great gift that you have been called to “give away,” to share with those in your life who do not know Christ or his Church.
There are many reasons, however, that we might hesitate to share this great gift, and one of the reasons is the challenge of discerning the how and when of “speaking the truth in love” (cf. Eph 4:18). This is what I believe Pope Francis demonstrated recently in his conversation with an atheist.
Allow me to digress just a bit to my farm. Jesus said to “preach the gospel to the whole creation,” and I feel this includes being a good steward of His creation. St. Paul had an amazing insight concerning the salvation of creation:
For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. (Romans 8:19-23)
We are united with the creation around us in our groaning for the final fulfillment of the gospel, when all of us together will be free from the results of sin—our sin. And I particularly know this whenever our livestock start mooing for me to act on my God-given responsibility to feed them.
With Fall in full color and winter far-too-quickly approaching, the grass in our pastures is no longer replenishing itself fast enough to provide sustainable nourishment for our cattle. So, we are faced with switching them to a combination of hay and a non-GMO feed.
Right now we have whittled our herd down to six cattle: a 3-year-old Jersey who is dry now but due to calve in the Spring; two 2-year-old Angus cattle that are scheduled for a “long vacation in the freezer”; and three young Angus calves. I’ve detailed our herd to illustrate the difficulty in determining the correct balance of hay and feed to provide for them on pasture so that each of them gets their fair share. The pregnant adult milk cow needs a slightly different combination than the two adult Angus cows facing “the freezer” and the three young calves. Placing all the feed in one large trough is probably the easiest (and will probably be what I do), but unless I’m there to manage their etiquette, I can’t be sure whether the adults have controlled themselves or instead scarfed down too much, leaving the calves with too little. Ideally, I could separate them into “need” groups, and feed each accordingly, but real life makes this unlikely. So, I will probably give them the once-a-day bulk feeding, but keep a daily eye on them—especially the youngest heifer calf. She’s underweight and may need special attention. And when the Jersey gives birth, the calf and we will be sharing the daily milking duties, so the mom will need a different special feed. All of this to illustrate the symbiotic relationship between caring for and feeding our livestock.
I fully realize that most of you could care less about the conundrums of cattle feeding (and any farmers reading this know that I’ve yet to get a handle on it), but I mention this to illustrate the conundrums of evangelism. Like the mix of my herd, we are surrounded by a mix of people—of different ages, intellect, education, interest, and psychology—but we are called by Christ to reach out to each of them with the truth of the gospel.
Some think that this means dropping one canned gospel message on everyone, one condensed set of “spiritual laws,” that everyone must, therefore, accept and believe “for the sake of their salvation.” But this is what truth looks like without love.
Evangelism means “speaking the truth with love” (cf. Eph 4:1). Shoving the truth down people’s throats without befriending them first in love is “proselytizing.” Showering them with love without ever telling them about the truth of Christ, about their need to seek first His kingdom, is enabling their attachments to this world, enabling their potential destruction. It doesn’t answer the groaning call within their hearts for redemption. But by befriending them first in love we learn how much of the truth they can handle and how soon. Through love we learn what they must hear immediately, “for the sake of their salvation,” and also what we can or must hold back for now, until sufficient love has worn a passage through their mountains of resistance. And usually in the process, the first mountains that need to fall are those in our own hard hearts, the mountains of pride, fear, ignorance, and sin.
If I get tired of feeding our livestock, they will die of malnutrition. If we refuse to share our faith with those God has put into our lives, they may die spiritually; it may be that God placed us providentially in their lives to be His witness to them, and just as God doesn’t force us to love Him, He doesn’t force us to love others.
It also might be that we ourselves might be starving spiritually because we have refused to give our faith away. In the Philokalia, a book of reflections by Eastern Orthodox mystics and monks, one such writer warns of the great sin of self-esteem. He prescribes that the only cure from the sin of self-esteem is to leave the privacy of one’s cell and care for the poor. The only way to cure ourselves of the dead road of self-centeredness is to give ourselves away by “speaking the truth in love.”
I believe all of this summarizes what Pope Francis has been trying to communicate ever since he accepted the high and very visible office of “servant of servants”, seeking to imitate and model the Saint whose name he bravely chose—and this is particularly illustrated in his conversation with an atheist. Through the love of friendship, he gave only the mix that he discerned his interviewer was ready to receive, and this involved confronting the interviewer’s misconception that “conversion” is equivalent to “proselytization.” After quickly correcting this, he proceeded forward with just the right mix of love and truth.
This morning was the first day I put the new feed mix out for the cattle, and earlier this evening I went out to see whether they had discovered the new treat and eaten their fill. The trough was empty, and like most of the evangelistic efforts of the Church, our responsibility is to broadcast the truth far and wide. We are not responsible for how anyone responds, and frankly we usually don’t even know if anyone is listening, but through the love of friendship—always the first step of true evangelism—we can learn how much they have heard, and discern, through patience and prayer, how next to “speak the truth in love.”