The gospel stories about the way that Jesus interacted with people do not sit well with our modern view of evangelism and salvation. We are told that “large crowds” followed Christ, particularly early in his ministry. With few exceptions, we know little about most of those people. In Luke 8, Jesus encounters a demon-possessed man in the Gerasenes. Jesus casts out the demons, and then we see the healed man “sitting down at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind.” We know nothing of the interaction between Jesus and the anonymous man after the exorcism. We are told only that Jesus said to him, “Return to your house and describe what great things God has done for you.” There was no baptism. No alter call. No prayer to accept Jesus. No overt expression of faith. No time for theological training. No time for discipleship. No church membership. No command to read the Bible or pray. If any of these happened, then we must conclude that the Spirit of God, in His wisdom, decided that this information would not be useful to us, perhaps even counterproductive. As far as we know, Jesus healed a desperate man, said, “Return to your house and tell your story,” and then he got back into his boat and sailed away.
We hold this man up as a prime example of how God can save anyone. How could we, for even a second, imagine that Jesus, that quintessential evangelist, would not have an eternal impact on the people he met? By modern conventions, though, we can’t be certain that this man was saved at all! Did he go back to town and join a church? the right church? Did he start having quiet times? Did he ever pick up a Bible? Did he believe a basic set of doctrinal tenets? Or did he remain a social outcast? Did he go back to town to tell people that Jesus had healed him, while throwing into the mix some questionable statements about God, where we would have to conclude that he was a heretic? Worse than that, did he tell a few people what happened and then never gave God another thought?
The Garasene demoniac is not an isolated case. He is only one of thousands who encountered Christ about whom we could ask similar questions. What is wrong with this whole line of thinking is that we believe that people have to prove to us that they are saved. We must do this because if we are to invite them into our fellowship, we must be reasonably certain that they qualify. I do not see such human-created, human-applied litmus tests anywhere in the Bible. Apparently, what matters to us does not matter to God. We require convincing evidence of salvation before we will believe that a person is saved. God, on the other hand, simply saves people. Aside from pleading that Christ would not torment him, the Gerasene demoniac did not ask Christ for anything. All this man did was elicit the compassion of Christ. Jesus did not respond to anything the man said. He was moved by his horrible predicament. Otherwise, the demoniac did nothing. Nothing at all.
And so it has been with me. But in ways that are so subtle that many times they go unnoticed, I behave as if I must do something for God. In Hebrews, God invites me to draw near to Him. So, in prayer, I go. But, this is how subtle the enemy is: deep down inside there is a belief that prayer, itself, making an effort to draw near, earns favor with God. Certainly, or so I believe, I gain more merit for my prayers than those who don’t pray. Since I am doing what God wants me to do, surely He must favor me more than those who pray much less or pray not at all. I anticipate gaining something from my prayers that others do not deserve and will not obtain. My arrogance must be a stench in God’s nose, an intolerable offense. But He loves me still. And He loves me enough to make me aware of behaviors and attitudes that are based on a belief that Jesus, the only begotten innocent Lamb of God, died for nothing when, in fact, he died for everything.
I am very, very slowly coming to terms, not just with the fact that I am a sinner, but mainly with the fact that my situation is hopeless. No amount of effort, no multiplication of promises, no amplification of desire will change this fact. The Spiritual Exercises, even if performed with due diligence and utmost discipline, will leave me a sinner. I will die a sinner. Sinning. And there is nothing I can do about it. Nothing at all.
That is what I bring to God in prayer: a sinner, hopelessly stuck in sin. Astoundingly, He welcomes me, a sinner. He loves me, a sinner. I cannot fathom this. It makes no sense. It is inhuman. But when I go to Him in prayer, He gazes upon me with love. That is what keeps me going back.
I am no longer trying for perfection by my own efforts, but I want only the perfection that comes through faith in Christ and is from God and based on faith. (Philippians 3:9, Jerusalem Bible)