In 19th century France, there was a bishop at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris who was a very effective and successful evangelizer—and he made a special effort to share the Gospel with unbelievers, cynics, and persons hostile to religion and to the Church. Someone asked him why he was wasting his time on people who weren’t likely to convert, and he answered, “Let me tell you a story. About forty years ago there was an angry young man who would stand outside this great cathedral and shout mockery and insults at the people going inside for Mass or to pray; he’d call them names and say they were fools for believing all this religious nonsense. The rector, or priest in charge of the cathedral, came outside to confront the young man, but the youth kept on shouting and wouldn’t even listen to his arguments. Finally the priest challenged him: ‘Let’s get this over with once and for all. I’m going to dare you to do something—and I don’t think you can.’ Naturally the young man insisted, ‘I can do anything you propose, you hypocritical religious wimp!’ ‘Fine,’ said the priest; ‘all I ask is that you come into the church with me, look at the figure of Christ on the cross, and shout at the top of your lungs, “Christ died on the cross for me and I don’t care one bit.”’ The young man gladly agreed, and went inside with the priest to the sanctuary, where he shouted at the top of his voice, ‘Christ died on the cross for me and I don’t care one bit’—to the horror and bewilderment of the parishioners inside. The priest said, ‘Very good. Do it again.’ The young man repeated the words, though with a little bit of hesitation this time: ‘Christ died on the cross for me, and I don’t care one bit.’ ‘All right,’ said the priest, ‘you’re almost done. Say it just one more time.’ The young man raised his fist and looked again at the crucified Christ, but the words wouldn’t come; he just couldn’t look at the suffering and agonized face of Christ and continue to utter that blasphemous curse.” At this point in the story the bishop paused for a moment, and then said, with tears in his eyes, “I was that young man. That young man, that defiant young man, was me. I thought I didn’t need God, but found out I did” (William J. Bausch, Storytelling the Word, p. 152). God’s grace worked such a miracle that an angry young enemy of the Church was not only converted, but eventually became a priest, and then a bishop, who delighted in sharing the Gospel with people the world considered unlikely ever to accept it. Jesus is the One Who calls sinners to conversion—even when others don’t think it’s possible.
Over 500 years before Christ, the Jewish people were undergoing the Babylonian Captivity; as punishment for the nation’s ongoing sins, Jerusalem had been conquered, and the people taken away into exile. However, the Lord (Isaiah 43:16-21) did not forget His Chosen People; He promised to restore them to their homeland, telling them to “Remember not the events of the past, the things of long ago consider not; see, I am doing something new!” This referred to the historically improbable return of the Jewish exiles to Jerusalem, and the rebuilding of the Temple—but the promise also applies in a personal way to those who allow their lives to be transformed by divine grace and mercy. St. Paul, of course, is the foremost example of this. He was a fierce opponent of the early Church—until he was miraculously converted, and then, to the astonishment of all who knew him, transformed into Christianity’s greatest missionary. So complete was this transformation that Paul (Phil 3:8-14) was able to say, “For [Christ’s] sake I have accepted the loss of all things and I consider them so much rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him . . . .” The grace of Jesus can work miracles in the human heart; that’s one reason He would not go along with the condemnation and execution of an adulterous woman who, according to the Law of Moses, clearly deserved to die. The scribes and Pharisees wanted to trap Jesus (John 8:1-11) in an impossible moral conflict between mercy and justice, and most of the onlookers were probably eager to see a disgraceful woman get what she had coming to her—but Jesus had a very different agenda: an agenda of mercy and salvation. Divine Justice must be satisfied—but one of the ways it’s satisfied is by giving sinners another chance to repent even when, from a human perspective, it seems a waste of time.
We human beings tend to pass judgments based on outward appearances, but God looks into a sinner’s heart; He is able to see possibilities that escape us, and to work miracles of grace beyond our imagining. I’d like to suggest one very timely, and possibly controversial, way in which this might be true: in regard to the war on terror. As the terror attacks of September 11, 2001 showed us, the future of western civilization, including the United States, is seriously threatened, and as a society we have the right to defend ourselves—though it can be argued as to whether this should include preemptive military strikes, occupation of foreign lands, curtailing of civil liberties, and so forth. However, in all the discussions on how the war on terror should be conducted, there’s one very important thing that never seems to be mentioned: praying for our enemies—in particular, praying for the conversion of terrorists. This is not a pious, unrealistic suggestion; it’s been done before with some success. Almost fifty years ago a Romanian minister who spent many years in Communist prisons, the late Rev. Richard Wurmbrand, wrote a book called Jesus, Friend of Terrorists; this effort to share the Gospel with terrorists throughout the world brought many of them to conversion. Currently, something called “The Jesus Film Project” is beaming a movie about Jesus into Muslim lands, resulting in large numbers of conversions to Christianity—and we can only guess how many potential future terrorists are having their lives changed by the Gospel of peace.
Not all terrorists and other evildoers are willing to be converted, of course—but sometimes miracles do happen. That’s why God never gives up on anyone—and as His children, neither must we. Instead of hating our nation’s enemies, we should pray for their conversion, even as we take necessary steps to defend ourselves; we should also pray for the spiritual renewal of our own country, instead of merely complaining about how society’s moral standards have declined. We should also pray for our personal enemies, including the relative who isn’t speaking to us, the former friend who has a grudge against us, the neighbor who deliberately seems to annoy us—and for good measure, we can include in our prayers inconsiderate drivers, unhelpful sales clerks with a “so what” attitude, civil servants who are anything but civil or friendly, and anyone at all who irritates us, treats us unfairly, or rubs us the wrong way. No matter how sinful they may be, God loves every single one of these persons, and no matter how unlikely it may seem to us, each of them is given the chance to repent and be saved. Our prayers can help this miracle occur—and if it does, we, with Jesus’ grace, will have helped change someone’s eternal destiny.