Life in Focus

Where following Jesus and Every Day Life Intersect


Good Questions Get to Root Issues



Signs of spring are all around us. I love looking at the lush green hills and blooming trees and bulbs. One unfortunate side effect of all this new growth is the abundance of weeds that sprout up with everything else. Pulling weeds is not my favorite part of working in the yard, but I do like the results when I’m done. One thing I’ve learned is that to eliminate a weed it is necessary not just to pull out the green shoots above the dirt; I need to dig down until I get to the roots.

Asking people good questions in faith conversations is much the same. If we just deal with the surface issues they have, we may not understand the roots of their problems or questions about God. Just like with weeding the yard, it takes a bit more time and effort to uncover the roots, but it is worth the effort.

I don’t encounter many atheists ready to engage in lively debates in my daily life, but Mary Jo Sharp’s lesson on asking good questions helped me to recognize how I can engage people differently. For me, the most common challenge I have is trying to overcome people’s preconceived notions about Christians. I’ll look at a few of the most common root issues I’ve discovered below.

People Who Have Absorbed Our Culture’s Views:

I find many people who are hesitant to explore faith because they’re afraid they’ll have to change their political views or stances on “hot topics.” They’ve heard sound bites about Christians that have caused a negative impression. Most people are unaware of how much they’ve been influenced by popular culture and have subtly been swayed to reject what is moral, right, true and good. I see people being influenced by outspoken celebrities with strong opinions, talk show hosts, news media and even fictional characters in movies and on TV that evoke sympathy in viewers.

Some of my best conversations with people have been when I’ve asked them to tell me how they’ve adopted their views that differ from Christians on certain hard issues. I’ve encountered very few people who have reasoned through their stances. Most realize they’ve come from being influenced by commonly held views that are espoused all around them. I know women who are craving spiritual fulfillment but who won’t set foot in a church or Bible study because they assume the people there have views differing from theirs. Sometimes they are afraid that exploring the Christian faith will mean they have to adopt a specific “agenda.” They make assumptions about God without looking at His word. Many people embrace the buzzwords of popular culture without really understanding what they mean or if they are really good.

“Sometimes the kindest thing we can do for people is gently shake up their presuppositions and invite them to think.” (Sue Bolin, “Four Killer Questions”, quoted from Why Do You Believe That? p. 76)

A few good questions to ask (without getting emotional or defensive):

-What causes you to accept that viewpoint? What is its foundation?

-Are you willing to look at what God has to say about that issue in the Bible?

-Are you willing to explore who God is aside from that issue?

-Are you afraid you’ll be forced to change or become someone you don’t want to be if you explore your questions about faith?

-Do you understand that not all Christians have the same view on every issue?

People feel great relief when they learn that becoming a Christian does not mean they must automatically think and act a certain way. Our focus should be on helping people learn how to engage the Bible and discover truth rather than on telling them what to think about specific issues.   Our first priority should be helping people understand Jesus’ love for them rather than debating side issues.  We can trust the Holy Spirit to open their eyes in His perfect timing to help them recognize areas He’s calling them to change.

People With Negative Views of God

It’s helpful to ask people how they got their opinions about God, church, and the Bible. When we can learn the root issue that is impacting them, we can figure out what to address. Some people have skewed views of God based on their upbringing. For others, popular culture, TV shows, movies, books and music have given them certain impressions of God that are not biblical. For others, a negative experience has caused them to assign blame to God. Some people have had no exposure to faith and are afraid to engage in conversations about it because they feel embarrassed, awkward or intimidated.   It is foreign territory and a long way outside of their comfort zones. What all of these people need is gentleness, patience and encouragement.

A few good questions to ask:

-How do you think you came to that conclusion about God/the Bible/ Church?

-Are you willing to put aside your preconceived notions to explore faith in a different way?

-Have you have looked at what the Bible teaches about God? Are you willing to look at it with me?

-What do you know about Jesus? Can I share a little bit more about Him with you?

Jesus’ Example

Jesus’ encounter with a Samaritan woman at a well gives us a great example of engaging someone effectively in a faith conversation. In John 4, we find Him traveling through Samaria and stopping for a drink and a rest at a well. He asks a woman drawing water: “Will you give me a drink?” and the question begins a conversation that changes her life. Two things stand out to me that relate to our topic. First, Jesus knows the woman is not living a lifestyle that honors God, yet He doesn’t address this right away. First, He focuses on her deepest issue: “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” (John 4:10, NIV) He doesn’t start by telling her to clean up her act; He starts by showing her what He has to offer. We can do the same thing when engaging people who have been strongly influenced by our culture.

Second, when the woman offers what she does know about religion, Jesus builds on what she says to give her a clearer understanding. She says, “I know that Messiah (called Christ) is coming.   When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”   Jesus responds, “I who speak to you am he.” (John 4:25-26, NIV) Similarly, we can use the limited knowledge a person shares as a jumping off place to helping them understand more in our faith conversations.

Once the woman realizes who Jesus is, she can’t keep it to herself. She runs back to town to tell others and to bring them back to hear His teaching. It’s an inspiring example of what can happen when we engage in faith conversations. We don’t have to tell people what to think or how to change. We just expose them to God, ask them good questions, pray for them and let Him work in their hearts.

Click on the link to hear “What I Know” by Tricia Brock (a song from the soundtrack of last year’s movie about apologetics called “God’s Not Dead”)

Sharp, Mary Jo; Why Do You Believe That?  A Faith Conversation;  Lifeway Press; 2012, 2014.


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Two Ears, One Mouth


I had a chance encounter with an old acquaintance recently that gave me something to think about. She is the mom of one of my son’s former classmates from elementary school who I haven’t spoken with in several years. After a few minutes of small talk she said, “Would you ever have time to meet for coffee? I’m thinking about going back to work full time and it would be great to chat about it with you.”

Since my professional background isn’t in her line of work, I was taken aback. “I’d love to meet you, but I don’t know how much business advice I have to offer. I’m happy to just sit and listen though.”

Her tense facial expression changed to a relieved smile. “That sounds like exactly what I need.”

I hadn’t done a thing, but to my surprise, she seemed grateful and looked less anxious.

A few days later I opened Mary Jo Sharp’s Why Do You Believe That? I discovered that the topic of the entire third week of study is about being a good listener. My encounter with my acquaintance suddenly made perfect sense. Although our conversation had nothing to do with apologetics, I realized that most of us are longing for someone just to listen to us. When we find a person who is willing, it’s such a relief. The ability to listen to others well is a way to minister to them and to open the door for future conversations about our beliefs. We can’t engage in effective faith conversations or apologetics without it.

Mary Jo cites the words of Christian theologian Deitrich Bonhoeffer:

“So often Christians, especially preachers, think that their only service is always to have to ‘offer’ something when they are together with other people. They forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking. Many people seek a sympathetic ear and do not find it among the Christians, because these Christians are talking even when they should be listening.” (Beonhoeffer, Dietrich; Life Together; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005, 95. Quoted from Why Do You Believe That? page 53)

If we don’t listen to others, it’s difficult to build relationships or to respond to their ideas and questions. We can’t show someone we care if we’re not bothering to pay close attention to what they’re saying. Each of us has one mouth and two ears–maybe our anatomy is a clue from God that we’re supposed to talk less and listen more. My prayer is that I can begin to listen twice as much as I speak. I want to show others that I value them by hearing their words. The apostle James puts it this way:

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.” (James 1:19, NIV)

Whether we are engaging in conversations about apologetics with people who don’t know Jesus or we are talking with family, friends or complete strangers, listening well is a way to show them the love of God.

Here are a few things we can do to become better listeners:

-Being intentional about looking people in the eye and not past them to other things happening in the background

-Keeping our phones out of site so we’re not tempted to multi-task by checking them while having a conversation (being physically and mentally present)

-Moving closer to someone so that we can hear clearly

-Eliminating background noise or stepping out of a noisy place to hear a person better

-Asking questions sincerely and then waiting for the complete answer (“How are you?” is not a valid question to ask someone when we’re in a rush)

-Not glazing over, becoming distracted or thinking about what we’re going to say next

-Not interrupting or finishing someone’s sentences, letting them speak until they finish a complete thought

-Not letting our minds wander to our “to do” lists

-Making the effort to remember what they say so that if we do get interrupted, we can ask them to pick up where they left off instead of starting a new topic

-Following up and asking about what they’ve shared when we see them at a later time

-Being sensitive to recognize when a person needs more time to talk than we have to give at that moment and then being intentional about following up to hear more later

Is there one thing from this list or from Mary Jo’s lesson that you’ll commit to working on this week? I think I’ll start by following up with the acquaintance that suggested we meet for coffee. Maybe there is something I haven’t included that you would add to this list.  Leave a comment so we can work on these things together.

Josh Wilson has a great song called “Listen.” Although he’s specifically referring to listening to God, I think the principles fit with listening to other people as well. For me, it’s a great reminder (and a bit convicting too). Click on the link to be inspired by it.

Sharp, Mary Jo; Why Do You Believe That?  A Faith Conversation; Lifeway Press; 2012 & 2014.

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Apologetics is about Sowing Seeds


I was sitting in my small group discussing Week One in Why Do You Believe That? when I realized that apologetics is an emotionally charged topic. Every woman in my group seemed to have specific people in mind that had been antagonistic towards their faith—whether they were family members, friends, neighbors or co-workers.

An emotional and articulate person who loves to argue makes for an intimidating opponent and a heated discussion.  If the person has a chip on his or her shoulder about the Christian faith, the potential for discomfort is even higher. Confrontational encounters with others can leave us feeling timid about engaging in future faith conversations.

These kinds of difficult interactions could cause us to avoid discussions about our faith altogether. However, assuming that people are going to be antagonistic causes us to miss out on some great opportunities. Yes, there are people who are hostile towards Christians for a variety of reasons: a negative experience with a church in the past; a painful circumstance that they blame on God; or a lack of understanding about the precepts of the Christian faith. If we can listen without feeling personally attacked, we may learn that their issues are roadblocks that can be removed through ongoing conversations in the context of a caring relationship.

For every hostile person we encounter, I believe there are many more who are neutral or even favorable to having faith conversations—they just don’t know whom to ask. I have encountered people who have been turned off by religious institutions, but are still very interested in learning about God and the Christian faith. Through our conversations, their negative views towards all things associated with God slowly begin to change as their understanding of Him grows.

If we can see our faith conversations as part of God’s bigger plan, it can take a great deal of pressure off. We don’t have to have all the answers, but we can plant seeds that enable people to take one step closer to God. We can share what we know and trust that the Lord will bring others into their lives to help continue that process. It becomes less daunting when we realize that we play one small part in sharing what we believe and why we believe it. The apostle Paul gives us a perfect example of this in his first letter to the church at Corinth as he examines his role in comparison with a fellow teacher, Apollos. He shows how each of us plays a different part in the process of sowing seeds of faith, but it is God who ultimately causes the seeds to grow:

“For when one says, ‘I follow Paul,’ and another, ‘I follow Apollos,’ are you not mere human beings? What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor. For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building. By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care.” (1 Corinthians 3:4-10, NIV)

All followers of Jesus are co-workers, serving God by sharing with others. And each of us should take the part we play seriously so that we can build on what others have shared with the wisdom and knowledge God has given to us.

In her Bible study, Mary Jo Sharp often references conversations she’s had with strangers on airplanes and after speaking engagements.   It might be difficult for those of us who don’t have those kinds of interactions regularly to picture where and when we could engage in faith conversations. I’ll share an example that might help you figure out how it could look in your life.

A few years ago I was sitting in the bleachers with another mom watching our boys play little league baseball. As we chatted, she mentioned her desire to send her older son to summer camp and wondered if I knew of any good ones. I took a risk and suggested she connect with a mutual friend who was sending her son to a camp with a solid biblical foundation.

Two years later, my friend from the bleachers was sending both of her kids to the same Christian camp and allowing them to attend youth group at the church that sponsored it. They were starting to ask questions about God and the Bible and she felt uncomfortable.   She had no faith history and no idea how to answer them.

Eventually I had the opportunity to invite this mom to attend a Bible study I was starting. She was hesitant, but intrigued. Ultimately, she decided to give it a try. Over the course of that year, her eyes were opened to God and the Christian faith in a way that she’d never experienced. She was able to ask questions that had nagged her for years and to experience the joy of Christian fellowship. However, at the end of the year, her schedule changed and she decided not to continue with our group.

Each time I’ve encountered her since she stopped coming, our conversations have been warm and friendly. Her recollections of the group have been positive. I don’t look at her choice not to continue as a failure. Seeds were planted in her heart and she learned foundational truth about God’s love for her.  She heard the gospel message and knows Jesus paid the price for her sins. She continues to have ongoing friendships with other Christians who are praying for her and loving her well.   Each of us has played a role in planting seeds and engaging in meaningful faith conversations with her. Never once has it been scary, tense or argumentative. Yet, we’ve been able to explain clearly and lovingly why and what we believe. She’s heard the truth and we will continue to love her and pray for her as she decides how she wants to respond to it.

Looking at Paul’s passage above, it’s clear that the Christians surrounding her have been “co-workers” who have each played a part in building a faith foundation for her. Paul encourages each Christ-follower to “build with care.” That is why we must never stop learning and growing. We must never treat our faith lightly or become apathetic or careless about it.   Learning the foundations of what we believe and why we believe it enables us to bless others and help them begin their own journey of faith.

Let’s not allow those hostile to our faith to deter us from sharing with others who are more open.   And instead of giving up on people who are antagonistic, let’s pray and ask God to bring a fresh voice to speak His truth in a way they can hear and receive. Remember, the apostle Paul was one of the most vehement enemies of the Christian faith who God transformed into one of its most impactful leaders. (Read Acts 9:1-31 if you need a reminder of what happened to him).  There is always hope, even with the most difficult people.

The band NEEDTOBREATHE has an inspiring song that reminds us sowing seeds of faith multiplies praise to God. The song describes the love of Jesus as “radiant diamonds bursting inside us we cannot contain.” It reminds me that having faith conversations is the most exciting and important thing we can ever do. Click on the link to enjoy the song.

Sharp, Mary Jo; Why Do You Believe That?  A Faith Conversation; Lifeway Press; 2012 & 2014.


Always Be Ready


Walking into the fire station’s immaculate garage, I’m surprised to find piles of clothing lying on the floor outside each truck’s open doors. The rest of the station is so orderly that the scene before me seems out of place. Turning to my brother, who is giving us a tour, I ask, “So, what’s with the clothes and boots on the floor? Were you guys in a hurry and just didn’t have time to hang up your stuff?”

He smiles wisely as he answers. “Nope. Everything is exactly as it should be. We do that to save time. When there’s an emergency, every second counts. During the day our wheels have to be rolling within sixty seconds of receiving a call. At night we have ninety seconds to get from our beds to the trucks.”

He begins showing me all of the different time saving measures the fire department takes to ensure a rapid departure: boots with zippers instead of laces, shirts with snaps (buttons are just for show on the outside), the fire pole that shaves forty-two seconds off the crew’s trip from their beds to the garage floor.   He explains that in health emergencies every second matters for averting brain or cardiac death. Rapid response is also crucial for fires, which double in size every minute.

The station’s garage no longer looks messy to me. Instead, I’m impressed realizing how attentive the department is to every detail. When calls for help come, the firefighters are always ready to respond.

Starting Focused Living’s new study on apologetics, that tour of my brother’s station makes the perfect example of the need for readiness in defending our faith. Author and  Bible teacher Mary Jo Sharp explains: “We shouldn’t need a crisis of doubt in order to learn to support our beliefs. Instead, we should begin to study the reasons for belief in God out of a love of truth.” (Why Do You Believe That? p.23) She points to the Apostle Peter’s teaching to substantiate her claim:

But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” (1 Peter 3:15, NIV)

The firefighters in my brother’s station are always ready because lives are at stake. Isn’t the same true for us? We need to spend time studying God’s word so that we can speak about it clearly when opportunities arise.

For some of us, the term “apologetics” is a little scary. We envision impassioned debates between highly knowledgeable and articulate opponents. For those of us who don’t find arguing to be a “fun” past time and who don’t enjoy confrontation, the thought of learning about apologetics might seem unappealing at best and excruciating at worst. If you’re nodding your head in agreement, please keep reading.

The first time I encountered a seasoned apologist was on the campus of my large, secular university. I heard his voice before I laid eyes on him. Rounding the corner, I saw a tall man standing on the main quad, surrounded by a large crowd of students. He spoke with a booming voice, sharing the good news of Jesus with a boldness and confidence that were truly inspiring. Hecklers in the crowd would occasionally interrupt to pose questions. He would stop speaking and look for the person who’d asked. Once he made eye contact, he would smile gently. “I’m glad you asked that,” he’d say, before giving a clear answer that made perfect sense. His Bible was in his hands as he paced back and forth in the small space the crowd gave him to move.

Standing on the fringes of the group, I was mesmerized by his words. Being a Christian at such a large university had often caused me to feel like I didn’t fit in. Hearing this man speak with conviction and confidence about Jesus out in public was like getting a pep talk from an inspiring coach. He wasn’t ashamed of the gospel, he was proud to share it, knowing he had something to offer his hearers that would change their lives for eternity.

Not all of us may be able to command a crowd like that apologist did on my college campus, but we all have opportunities to make an impact for Christ in our spheres of influence. So many times we get intimidated to share the hope we have because we don’t feel we know enough or we fear it might lead to conflict. I wonder how many opportunities I’ve missed because I was too afraid of saying the wrong thing.

That is why I’m so excited to be doing Mary Jo Sharp’s study: Why Do You Believe That? A Faith Conversation. In her first video teaching, she explains a few misperceptions that might hold us back from wanting to delve into apologetics.

First, she explains that apologetics has nothing to do with the word “apologize.” Apologetics means: “to make a case or present a defense.” She points out that giving a defense doesn’t mean we have to be defensive and that being able to argue doesn’t mean we have to be argumentative. On the contrary, studying apologetics will give us the confidence to speak clearly, putting our listeners and us at ease. That’s why the apologist at my college could say: “I’m glad you asked that,” and really mean it. He had an answer that would bless those hearing it.

Learning to speak clearly about what we believe and why we believe it will give us opportunities to engage people in meaningful conversations. We’ll have the chance to dispel misperceptions about Christians. Sometimes, we might even encourage fellow believers, as the apologist did for me when I was in college. Most importantly, we earn the right to be heard and get the chance to present a life-changing and soul-saving message to hurting people desperately in need of a Savior.

I look forward to sharing the adventure of this study with you over the next month and a half.  Mary Jo reminds us of Jesus’ words: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” (Matthew 22:37, NIV) Will you join me in praying that God will prepare our minds to absorb all of the truth this study has to offer? It’s just one of the many ways we can show the Lord we love Him.

Click on the link to hear Lincoln Brewster’s song “Love the Lord” which combines Jesus’ words in Matthew 22:37 with a similar command from Deuteronomy 6:5.

Sharp, Mary Jo; Why Do You Believe That?  A Faith Conversation; Lifeway Press; 2012 & 2014.