During the last 40 years I’ve spoken with many men and women who did not understand much about God or His word. Most of them came to me with inquisitive hearts, honestly seeking answers to their questions. I always answered as best I could, while considering my own continuing journey to know more about Him. But there were also those who, like the Pharisees who came to Jesus trying to trap Him in some statement (Mark 12:13), or the Samaritan woman who at first wanted only to challenge Him (John 4:9-26), there were those who did not want to know truth, but instead wanted to justify their lifestyles or simply engage in an intellectual discussion for the sake only of entertainment.
In my earlier days as a Christian, wanting so much to share with others what I’d discovered about God, I made the mistake to argue. I should have taken my cue instead from Scripture and avoided such useless discussions. For example, St. Paul wrote, “Reject a factious man after a first and second warning, knowing that such a man is perverted and is sinning, being self-condemned” (Titus 3:10-11). And Jesus said, “do not throw your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.” (Matthew 7:6)
I wish I had learned in those days what St. Bernadette knew: Our job is to inform, not to convince. It is, of course, only the Holy Spirit who can convince someone of “sin, righteousness, and judgment” (John 16:8). Our job is to simply tell others what the Book says.
So I’ve recently changed my approach. When someone is honestly confused about Scripture and is seeking truth, I will explain what I know to the best of my current knowledge. But when I now suspect someone is simply looking to justify his or her sin-laden lifestyle, or to argue a point just to argue, I will give them an assignment to test their sincerity. If they are honest in their search for truth, they will take on the task. If they are not, they will brush off the assignment and we will have both saved ourselves from wasting time. Here is what I tell them about the assignment:
"If you really want to know truth, then go to the One who is truth and read what He said. Read the New Testament. Even if you have read the Bible in the past, please do so again. Two chapters a day will finish the New Testament in less than four months."
"Use a good modern translation, preferably one without editorial commentary in the page margins. The New American Bible (Catholic Edition), the New King James Version, the New American Standard Version, or the New Revised Standard Version (Anglican or Catholic editions) are some of the high quality translations available. Start at Matthew’s gospel and continue reading a couple of chapters a day until you finish Revelation. Keep a journal and each day write what you have learned, or what questions come to mind. Send me weekly updates on your progress so we can talk each week about what you are learning."
I tell them when they finish the New Testament, we will sit and talk about any other questions they might have that still trouble them. We will talk for as long as necessary – months, if necessary.
I assign the New Testament, not because I consider the Old of little value; On the contrary, one cannot fully understand the New Testament without a fluent familiarity of the Old Testament. As St. Augustine wrote: The New Testament is concealed in the Old, and the Old Testament is revealed in the New. But the questions most people ask are more readily answered through the pages of the New Testament.
My God has done so much for me that I yearn to tell others of His great love and promises. But the older I get, the more I realize time is too short and too precious to waste discussing truth with those who are not really interested in more than sound-bites. Those who play theological games with God ought to be wary, for God is not mocked (Galatians 6:7). But to those who seek Him with an honest heart, caring not about the cost, God says, You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart (Jeremiah 29:13).