Opening Eyes


“The first element of evangelism is opening a person’s eyes, that is, his desires, his sense of need. This is not done with the gospel.”

Chapter 1 of Jim Wilson’s new book, Taking Men Alive: Evangelism On The Front Lines. Available December 1.

The first element of evangelism is opening a person’s eyes, that is, his desires, his sense of need. This is not done with the gospel. Because the gospel is the light, it must come only after the eyes are open. For hundreds of years Christians have been preaching the gospel to a pagan world whose eyes are shut. The world cannot see the light, because light does not cause sight.

TakingMenAlive-COVERHave you ever told the gospel to someone in complete detail, and after you finished, the person you talked with did not have the faintest understanding of what you had so carefully and clearly explained? Why did he not understand? His eyes were closed. Have you ever been in a church where they taught the gospel for two solid years in confirmation class, and at the end of all those classes the children were confirmed and never came back again? The church is under the impression that if it shines light on kids for two years, they will see. But they do not see, because light does not open eyes.

Several decades ago, I spent two years running a bookstore for a Missouri Synod Lutheran college. During that time, I asked many students if all the wonderful truth they had learned in confirmation class had sounded like good news to them. Most of them said, “Are you kidding? Two years of classes on Saturday mornings? Does that sound like good news to you?” Most of these students were preparing for the ministry, yet the gospel still did not sound like good news to them! I found only one student in that college who said, “Oh, yes, it was wonderful. I couldn’t get enough of confirmation class.” Someone had opened her eyes so that when she got the light, it looked like light.

Since giving light to someone with closed eyes does not make them understand, when you are opening people’s eyes, you do not have to explain the gospel to them. They will not understand it, no matter how clearly you present it. Opening eyes is not about making sense. It is pre-light, pre-gospel. Opening eyes speaks to the need, the desire, the fears, the hunger, the thirst. The unbeliever does not need to understand at this point; he just needs to be left wanting whatever it is that will meet his need.

The Bible also speaks of evangelism in terms of farming. The book of Jeremiah tells us to break up the fallow ground. Jeremiah was speaking of spiritual ground here. The first step is to plow the hard ground, harrow it, soften it. Consider the Lord’s parable of the sower from Mark chapter 4: A man went forth to sow, and some seed fell on the pathway, some fell on the rocks, some fell in the weeds, and some fell on good ground. Jesus said if the seed falls on the hard path, the birds eat it. It never gets inside; the devil takes it away. If it falls in the rocks, it does not have enough moisture and dies when the summer heat comes. If it falls in the weeds, the cares of the world choke it. But when it falls on good ground, it bears much fruit.

That is what would happen if you sowed that way. However, if Christ had been giving instruction on farming, He would not have said, “Go plant some seed on the turnpike.” He would not say, “Go plant seed in the rocks.” He would say, “Plow up the ground. Pick up the rocks, turn the soil over, get it ready for the seed.” Opening eyes is like that. It is preparing the ground of a person’s heart for the gospel. Plowed, soft hearts are hungry for seed just like open eyes are hungry for light. If we make someone hungry, when the seed of the gospel (which is the Word of God) is given, it is received. There may not be a conversion right away, but you will not run into an argument or an immediate rejection of the gospel. Then you can plant the seed and reap the harvest.

Suppose I have a thousand acres of unplowed ground that I want to be wheat. I say, “I need laborers in the field, so get out there!” and you run out, jump on a combine, and start driving it around the unplowed ground. I get you back and say, “No, no, wrong! Don’t reap. Plow.”

“What do you mean, ‘Don’t reap’? There were six stalks of wheat out there, and I got them all!”

You probably did. There are always people ready. However, when the ground is hard, we should plow. It is wonderful to watch the ground turn over. You know something? Hard ground does not object to being plowed. It only objects to being planted or reaped! Closed eyes do not object to being opened; they just object to being given light.

The best way to open a person’s eyes is to live a godly life in front of him. He may not know what the cause of that godly life is, because that comes with his understanding of  the gospel. Do not tell him why you live the life you do; you can tell him that after his eyes are open. He might think, “Oh, Joe is such a wonderful man. He must be a Buddhist. I think I’ll study Buddhism.” That is not bad, because he is still looking at you. Opening a person’s eyes does not mean that he comes to God; it means that sooner or later he will come to you or to someone like you. When you live a godly life in front of people, it reaches them emotionally, either positively or negatively. It makes a person very conscious of his state, or perhaps just very conscious of your state. He realizes that he is unhappy with his, and he admires yours.

Living a godly life means having a great love for him. This love is not necessarily expressed with a gospel tract attached. (Remember, you are still opening eyes.) Love the person for who he is. Love him unconditionally, regardless of where he is. Loving him is key.

Another way to open eyes is with the things you say, in a testimony. This testimony does not have to have the gospel in it, either. Years ago, I was working in a Christian bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and a student from the University of Michigan who had wandered in suddenly realized what kind of bookstore it was and felt obligated to tell me why she was not a Christian. She went through the entire history of Christianity—the Conquistadors, the Inquisition, the Crusades, the present inconsistency and hypocrisy of the Church, etc.

As she finished, I looked at her and said, “Well, that’s funny. I don’t agree with any of those things either, and I’m a Christian.”

She looked at me, slightly puzzled. “How could that be?” “I’ll tell you why I’m a Christian.” I said, “Twenty-three years ago I had an encounter with God that was like having a bath on the inside. It’s changed my life, and I’ve been happy ever since. I’m sorry you’re not a Christian.” I turned around and started to walk away.

This woman was in a belligerent mood when she started talking to me. If I had presented the gospel to her, she would have fought back. Instead, I told her something that made her want more: I told her I had been happy for twenty-three years! I told her I was clean on the inside, but I did not tell her how I had gotten that way.

As I started to walk away, she grabbed me by the arm and said, “Aren’t you going to tell me how this happened?”

I opened her eyes with a simple statement. If I had tried to give her light, it would not have worked. Just to be sure her eyes were open, I said, “Well, we do not believe in holding onto the customers.”

She said, “I have all the time in the world.” We went into the office, and I gave my testimony, this time loaded with the gospel. I gave her a whole stack of InterVarsity booklets. I do not know for certain that she ever became a Christian, but I am confident that she did. However, I do know this: her heart got plowed, and she got planted in good ground. That is all that had to happen! To push for the harvest right then would have been foolish. She was not ready. We do not have to always do the whole thing at once when we are evangelizing. Sometimes the seed needs time to grow before you can have a harvest.

Some biblical examples of this approach can be found in the Gospel of John. Look at John 3:2-3:

 He [Nicodemus] came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.” In reply Jesus declared, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”

That was the first time in the history of the world that the expression “born again” had been uttered.

Here is my question: Did Nicodemus know what Jesus was talking about? No! Did Jesus know that Nicodemus didn’t know what He was talking about? Yes! Then why did He say it? Jesus was not communicating information. He was not communicating gospel. There was no light in His statement. Many people today think if you say “born again” often enough, you are preaching the gospel. There is no gospel in that statement. Jesus was not communicating light—He was communicating desire for the kingdom. He was opening Nicodemus’ eyes. He kept laying it on, over and over. Finally, He rubbed it in: “You mean you are a teacher in Israel and you do not understand these things?”

Nicodemus was climbing the walls for light before it was over. Then Jesus gave it to him:

 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him. Whoever believes in Him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. (John 3:14-18)

Jesus set Nicodemus up. He opened his eyes, made him hungry, made him want more before He gave him the gospel.

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