A while ago, I wrote a post called “Ten Words” about saying a few words to a lot of people, trying to condense the things that matter most in life into just a sentence or two. I was under the impression that I had done all the thinking about that post that I was going to do after I hit “publish”, but then my Dad left a comment with a lot more to consider. On the surface, his comment addressed a flaw with my answer, a flaw that I had wrestled with a lot before writing the post, but as I returned to that train of thought I realized that there was a bigger issue, a problem with the question itself.
When I was first thinking of which ten words I would choose, I faced a difficult quandary. On the one hand, I felt that I should use my ten words as my Dad did, to delineate a bare-bones version of the Gospel, but there was one problem with that approach that nagged at me. Donald Miller captures it perfectly in his book “Searching for God Knows What” when he writes about God-impostors and the misrepresentation of God in the world. Miller observes that people have this preconceived idea of who God is based on what the people who claim to represent Him have said and done, and those ideas are what come to mind every time you mention God to them. While I knew that I should use my ten words to tell people who God really is, I also knew that it would take far more than ten words to convince them.
So I settled for a gentler message of selflessness and altruism, and then Dad’s comment arrived like a bullet to the heart. We talked about it later, and he told me that he hoped he wasn’t being too harsh; he just wanted me to be sure that the main thing was still the main thing to me. “I don’t want to see you waste your life putting a fresh coat of paint on the Titanic,” he said, “when you should have been filling the lifeboats.” As his words processed in my mind, I felt my own ten words turn around to accuse me: “You only get one life. Don’t waste it…” they echoed. That’s when the problem with my answer faded away in the face of an overwhelming new realization: the problem with my question.
At its core, it was the same problem that I had struggled with earlier: people have their preconceived ideas of God, and it’s going to take more than ten words to change their minds. But the real issue doesn’t lie with the number. It’s not that ten words are not enough – it’s that words in and of themselves are not enough. People have heard so many words only to see them contradicted in action, and that’s why they don’t want to hear about God in the first place – because the god we’ve shown them is nothing like the God of the Universe, the God they really need. Their disapproval doesn’t give me an excuse to resort to my first response, the natural impulse to back down, to shy away from God’s name because it’s unpopular, to be ashamed of the One who took on my shame to save me. Instead, it drives me to be bold, to stop wasting my time mincing words and courting compromise and represent the One True God in the only way that really works: take action.
If I ever find myself in that theoretical situation, the one where I’m standing in front of the whole world and I only get ten words, I know exactly how I’ll escape the fault in the question, the fault of empty words and hardened hearts. I’ll ask the world, “Who here feels alone?” And I’ll wait. I’ll wait for someone, anyone, to be honest enough to raise his hand and admit that something’s not right, that something’s missing. Then I’ll use my last six words: “I want to be your friend.”
And I would. I would go and introduce myself while the rest of the world went their separate ways, wondering why they all had to come and listen to some stranger, anyway. I would invite him to sit down with me and buy him a coffee and talk with him about life and who we are and what we’re doing here. I would do everything I could to show him what God is like, to reflect to the best of my fallen ability the overwhelming love that God has for him, and I’m sure that most of the time I wouldn’t even use words. If I could be there for just that one person, if I could break through his preconceptions with the most beautiful, most important Truth in history, I would be satisfied that my opportunity did not go to waste. After all, I only get one life, and I can’t think of any better way to spend it than rescuing someone else’s.