During the record breaking cold temperatures of the recent polar vortex, I was attending the 2019 Bethlehem Conference for Pastors in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In one session, the conference host brought some levity by quoting a line from Psalms:
Who can stand before [the LORD’s] cold? (Psalm 147:17)
At first a light-hearted comment, I later encountered the sobering reality of the verse. A man in the hotel lobby entered into a conversation I had with a few other guys. He demonstrated an intentional hostility to the gospel, cursing God and slandering his Church. Considering he was a lost soul, I tried to share the Gospel with him but he grew more angry. When I tried to pray with him, he left the building and walked outside.
I watched him walk into the cold night in nothing more than shorts and a hoodie. It struck me how he was unprepared to face both the polar vortex outside and the “cold” judgment of God.
I felt like I had failed. I wondered: What could I have done different? What should I do now? Maybe you can relate to this experience of interacting with a lost soul unprepared for judgment. How are we to respond? Here are three ways to respond in prayer.
1. Pray for their Soul
Like Paul in Romans 9:1-2, we might experience “great sorrow and unceasing anguish” for those far from Christ. In fact, this ought to be so for someone whose heart is aligned with the heart of Christ. It is Christ’s love that controls us, and we as his ambassadors and messengers of reconciliation cannot regard anyone according to the flesh (2 Corinthians 5:14-20).
As C.S. Lewis put it in The Weight of Glory, “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.” Every saved or lost soul is destined for eternity: either enjoying the fullness of joy in the presence of the Lord (Psalm 16:11) or suffering something much worse than the polar vortex:
The punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might. (2 Thessalonians 1:9).
So what determines one’s eternal destiny? Romans 9:16 tells us “it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.” The context is God’s sovereign choosing and calling of his people.
Please don’t miss the impact this has on evangelism. Good works will not save nor will the good words or efforts of an evangelist.
We are to implore a lost soul to be reconciled to God and to share the gospel. But it is ultimately God who saves. When we experience apparent evangelism failures we must realize “it is not as though the word of God has failed” (Romans 9:6), but that God “will have mercy on whom [he has] mercy, and [he] will have compassion on whom [he has] compassion” (Romans 9:15).
The first response to an evangelism failure is to pray that God might have mercy on the lost soul. Pray for God to have mercy on their souls.
2. Pray against the forces of Evil
One of the passages I’ve found helpful in evangelism is 2 Corinthians 4:1-6. The “ministry” in verse one is a ministry of gospel proclamation. Unfortunately, though, the gospel is “veiled to those who are perishing” (4:3).
As we share the gospel, one danger is what I call “content download evangelism”, where we attempt to primarily teach unbelievers the content of the gospel. This is different from proclaiming or preaching the gospel. It assumes the root of the problem is ignorance rather than spiritual blindness.
The man I encountered in Minneapolis during the polar vortex actually knew a lot of scriptures. He was able to cite them from memory. He, however, did not see the “light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” (4:4).
Why is that? Because “the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light” (4:4). It is not ignorance, but Satan who keeps the minds of unbelievers in darkness; only God can “[shine] in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (4:6).
A second response is to appeal to God’s judgment and pray against the forces of evil. Because Satan, like a lion, seeks to devour lost souls, we might pray:
O God, break the teeth in their mouths; tear out the fangs of the young lions, O LORD! (Psalm 58:6)
3. Pray in Thankfulness for God’s Mercy and Grace
As I prayed that night, I remembered this passage:
What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles? (Romans 9:22-24)
Immediately, I began thanking God for his salvation. The difference between ‘vessels of wrath prepared for destruction’ and those vessels “prepared beforehand for glory” is God’s mercy. There are no degrees of lostness, no partial lostness, and no partial salvation. Apart from Christ, I would be equally as lost as one who curses God.
When God commanded Adam to not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, he said, “in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” (Genesis 2:17) The truly fair thing for God to do would be to give to every human the wages which are due him or her: death and hell.
God’s mercy means we don’t receive the righteous judgment of sin that we deserve, because Christ received that judgment in our place. This great mercy should cause us to rejoice in God’s goodness and relish the riches of his glory.
When you feel you’ve failed to reach someone for Christ, remember that God hasn’t failed to reach you. Pray in thankfulness for his mercy and grace.
God Works on the Evangelist’s Heart
About 15 minutes after I got back to my room that night, I saw an ambulance from my window driving with its emergency lights flashing amid the polar vortex. I don’t know if it was for that man but I felt in that moment the cold reality of death and the world’s deep need for Jesus Christ.
Looking back on my experience in Minneapolis, I wasn’t able to share the gospel with this lost man, or even pray with him. By any metric, this was an evangelism failure. But the lost man’s rejection of the Gospel was only half the story, God worked on my heart that night as well.
I thought that night was about the lost soul and my failure to reach him with the gospel, but it turned out to be about my heart and God’s success in reaching me with the gospel. More than a deeper understanding, it was a heartfelt savoring of the gospel.
Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him! (Psalm 34:8)