“I just want to make a difference”

I am investigating the possibility that in evangelism, we may find that the common speech of our contemporaries unwittingly points to the gospel.

Tertullian, the great apologist of the second century, wrote about “the witness of the soul by nature Christian.” He was not intending to say that people were naturally saved, but rather that at the very basic level, the soul, the inner person, cannot help bearing witness to the truth.  Even polytheists or atheists call out, “Great God!”  or “God sees!” at moments of stress.

Perhaps if he were a student of contemporary reality TV he may have added “O my God!” to his list.

In any case, in our quest for those things which we can use as common ground to open contemporaries to the truth of the gospel, moving them from known to unknown, I am suggesting that we should examine “I just want to make a difference” as the utterance of a soul which vaguely knows that there is more to life than what they have.

Of course you hesitate to challenge it. It such a Gen Y saying, and who wants to question such a gentle ambition?  Having been left with such a vague moral structure by preceding generations, that they are prepared to commit to any such goal in life is a matter for applause, not for criticism. And yet…

The last time I heard this said in earnest was by a brilliant professional person in his thirties, who had just dazzled me with his skills. Already his career path was on steroids. We had become reflective together and he confided in me about his life experience to date and his hopes for life, his ambitions. It included sex, but not a family; prestige but not responsibility; power, but not public service.

Except for this: “I just want to make a difference,” he said wistfully.

At such a moment it is probably wise to choke back the words which come instantly mind, words such as, “Pontius Pilate (or Chairman Mao, or Attila the Hun) made a difference.” Such a riposte has a tendency to halt a rather promising interchange.  Your aim at this point is to (metaphorically) stand beside the person, enabling them to follow through the implications of what they have just said, rather than merely to shut conversation down.

After all, we are generally our own best tutors and the mind which has articulated the truth which it arrives at by itself, is most likely to own it.

Three Paths

But I judge that three paths have just opened before an evangelist at this moment: 

  1. We can explore with a person why it is that despite all they have achieved there still remains a longing to do more and to do good. From whence comes this longing to commit to an idea or even to a person, and how is it to be satisfied?
  2. We can ask what it is about living the human life which seems to obligate us to have such an ambition. Are all people intended to “make a difference”? Is this part of the meaning of life – in which case where would such a purpose arise? – or is it simply a psychological curiosity in some people?
  3. We can enquire about the nature of the difference they have in mind (that is, the Pontius Pilate question). What is the content of their moral code and where does it arise from? Could they not do terrible harm while trying to make a difference? How will they know what to do?

Now, of course, there are all sorts of answers to these questions. The last time I tried the third, I came across a convinced and well thought out utilitarian. But I suspect that he was well beyond saying something quite as vacuous as “I just want to make a difference.”

Inchoate Longings

Is it fair to say “vacuous”? Maybe not. At least here is evidence that the ideologies of the world are not satisfying to the heart. There is an inchoate longing for something more, and something more fulfilling than sex, success and power. There is a longing for what the gospel of Jesus Christ offers – a personal reality beyond ourselves who inspires us with the gift of meaning and purpose and summons us to sacrifice ourselves for others.

Where to from there?  I wonder if love should be the next topic you explore with such a person. Of course by that stage you are getting very close to the God who is love and the Son of his love. You may even be able to confess that Jesus Christ is Lord and that following him makes a huge difference for good.

But there is another useful piece of cant phraseology beloved by our public speakers:  “the family has now achieved closure.”  How close is that to the gospel? (More on this next time)


Photo: Roxanne Milward, flickr