I’ve personally never had a difficult time believing in God, and for that I consider myself blessed. Even in the particularly difficult times of my life, times when God felt eons away, I have never been able to simply relinquish my faith in His existence. For me, it’s all too reasonable.
Yet, for so many, this is not the case. For them, believing in God poses much more of a challenge, and it’s not so much that they’re unwilling to believe, but rather they are unable or not quite ready.
This is an important point that I think tends to get overlooked when we speak about evangelization. However, if we want to be truly effective in spreading the Gospel, then we need to carefully consider this fact, and approach it with the wisdom of Christ that we find in the Scriptures.
We can get a better understanding of this wisdom by starting in Matthew 13, when Jesus preached to a crowd of people from a boat using the parable of the sower:
And he spoke to them at length in parables, saying: “A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky ground, where it had little soil. It sprang up at once because the soil was not deep, and when the sun rose it was scorched, and it withered for lack of roots. Some seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it. But some seed fell on rich soil, and produced fruit, a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold. Whoever has ears ought to hear.” (Mt 13:3-9)
After he does this, his disciples come to Him and ask Him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” Jesus replies, “Because knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven has been granted to you, but to them it has not been granted.”
While the disciples were willing and able to accept the truth, many others at that time weren’t ready to hear that this carpenter’s son was the promised Messiah. So rather than hitting these listeners directly with the truth, he gave them a story that contained the truth.
(What’s funny is that Christ seems to be telling these people that they aren’t ready to hear the truth through a parable about hearing the truth.)
These passages can help us better understand the troubling question posed above. Perhaps much in the same way the people in the crowd weren’t ready to hear the truth, so too are those who reject God, His Church, and the Gospel in our world today.
Let’s consider the explanation of the Sower’s Parable in verses 18-23:
“Hear then the parable of the sower. The seed sown on the path is the one who hears the word of the kingdom without understanding it, and the evil one comes and steals away what was sown in his heart. The seed sown on rocky ground is the one who hears the word and receives it at once with joy. But he has no root and lasts only for a time. When some tribulation or persecution comes because of the word, he immediately falls away. The seed sown among thorns is the one who hears the word, but then worldly anxiety and the lure of riches choke the word and it bears no fruit. But the seed sown on rich soil is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold.”
I’m sure all of us can think of friends and family who are like the seeds thrown into the rocks and weeds. For some of us, belief is easy. It doesn’t take much for us to accept the truth. For others, it’s not so simple. That’s why it’s not just evangelization that’s important, but how we evangelize.
Talk to any atheist long enough, and they’ll eventually tell you how bible thumpers and over-zealous Christians are more likely to send them packing than cause them to do any true reflection. At the same time, the secular world is constantly putting the Church in a negative light, making us out to be enemies of liberation, equality, and progress.
We can’t come barreling at these people with the full force of the Gospel, because not everyone is willing, or even able, to accept it. You can’t tell an atheist that their purpose in life rests with God alone and expect them to just start believing. Simply pointing to the scriptures as proof of Christ’s redeeming power won’t hold much water with the skeptic.
We don’t always have to be so direct with the truth. Instead, we can simply let the truth show through us like a living parable. This starts with simple acts of kindness, friendship, and compassion, small ways to plant seeds in even the most egregious of non-believers.
In December of 2000, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, in a letter to catechists and religion teachers on the New Evangelization, reminds us that “large things begin from the small seed.” He tells us that the New Evangelization does not mean immediately reaching all those who have fallen away through “new and more refined methods.” Instead, he says, “It means to dare, once again and with the humility of the small grain, to leave up to God the when and how it will grow.”