Persuasion is a funny thing. Perhaps at turns like a chess match, like a roller coaster, like falling in love. Becoming convinced of something that you formerly didn’t believe consists frequently of many different elements: a sharp chisel sometimes cracking granite, shaving edges. At other times it’s like trudging home in the falling snow, white confetti and the crunch underfoot and the air nipping at your nose: at first it’s the warm glow inside the windows, then it’s the warmth that meets you in the face, then the smells of wood on fire, pies in the oven, candles lit on the table, and the warm embrace of your wife, smiles and antics of the kids. How do you describe all of that? How do you convince someone of goodness and beauty? It just is.
On the one hand it’s tempting to say it’s just magic. It’s impossible. It’s supernatural. It’s irrational or at least super-rational — it transcends all human understanding. Of course as a Christian, the central conversion or persuasion on my mind is the decision to trust in Jesus, to become a Christian, but this applies to any number of transitions in opinion and belief that can take place in human experience: deciding to take this job and not the other, moving to this city, accepting this invitation to marry this man, belonging to this denomination, etc. And depending on your circumstances and background, particular decisions can carry more freight for you than for others. And this “freight” raises the stakes and the likelihood of changes of mind, changes of conviction is rendered nearly impossible. Sure, it happens, but the chances of a hardened militant Muslim embracing Christ seem so wildly unlikely that it must be random, magic.
The reason why there is truth to this is because human beings are narratival creatures. We are created with a sense of narrative, with the tendency to prefer coherence over incoherence, and therefore from an early age our communities, families, friends, and experiences work together to create a narrative of reality. These narratives are often called paradigms, worldviews, presuppositions. They aren’t watertight; they aren’t impermeable; and they aren’t exhaustively consistent. And even our generalizations of “worldviews” are really just that, generalizations. But a white, Anglo-Saxon protestant may have many diverse views from another just as a middle eastern Muslim woman may differ greatly in conviction from another. But true generalizations are generally true. They aren’t exhaustive, but they contain sufficient truth to be broadly helpful in identifying patterns of human experience and conviction.
From within these paradigms answers are provided for why the world is the way it is. How did we get here? Is there a god? If so, what is god like? Where did people come from? Why do they do what they do? Is there good and evil? On what basis do we judge such notions? What is man’s highest good? What is the best way to spend your life? Is there life after death? And so on. The paradigm provided by culture, religion, family, tradition, nation and so on does a better or worse job of filling in answers to these and other questions. And from within many recognized paradigms the answers given by other paradigms seem as strange and alien as a foreign language. When I explain to a college student that having no ultimate objective standard for truth is suicidal, irrational, they look at me as if I’m telling them that their experience is completely false, completely wrong, as if I’m claiming that their “home” is not lit with candles, is not full of the sweet and pleasant smells of dinner and fire and family but instead is a rotten barn lit by flickering florescent lights, full of the smells of pigs, and the sound of braying asses.
And so when we talk to one another it’s tempting to grow frustrated, grow pessimistic like we are encased in paradigm bubbles that are impermeable, airtight, and only somewhat randomly, magically do they transition, come apart, undergo conversion. But this is too simplistic, too rationalistic, and perhaps most importantly too inhuman. Without denying any of the weight of these realities (not to mention the additional factors of peer pressure, familial expectations, economic demands, health concerns, etc.), the Incarnation is God’s intervention in the narrative of history and thereby His standing testimony that there is more to persuasion than a magic trick (even if there is some truth to that too). For if it was only a magic trick, a divine lightening strike that was needed, then the whole conception and pregnancy of Mary is unnecessary; no need for Jesus to grow in wisdom and stature for 30 years; no need for several years of teaching and ministry either — what a waste — if the way people are changed, transformed, converted, persuaded is completely unexplainable. But in fact Jesus was born, lived, walked, talked, healed, rebuked, ate, drank, was condemned, murdered, and rose again. Not only that but witnesses proclaimed what they had seen and heard and that they had touched this reality, and they wrote it down for those who had not seen, who had not heard, who had not touched so that they might know the Truth and believe, so that they might be persuaded and come to understand.
There’s no denying that there is a great deal of mystery to persuasion, and it is absolutely true that the translation of a human being from the power of sin, death, and Satan to the freedom and light of the Kingdom of God is not reducible to 12 steps or a series of discrete rational movements. Persuasion and conviction are likely as complex and diverse as the human species itself — perhaps one conversion is never exactly like another, but we should not miss the fact that for all that we remain human. Though the complexity can feel impenetrable, human beings still have hands and feet, mouths and ears, minds and hearts. People are made in God’s image, and therefore they were made for Him, they were made for His truth, for His goodness, for His beauty. This leaves room for humility, a humility that feels how small each of us actually is, how little we control or understand, and the vastness of the Infinite One who made us, with Whom we ultimately have to do. But here we are drinking apple cider, listening to fiddles in the breeze. Here we are holding hands, smirking at one another across the firelight. Here we are talking, reading, discussing. Here we are. We are alive. We are forgiven. We know, and we are known. We are loved, and so we love.
Persuasion is mysterious, frustrating, sometimes horrifying, but we live in the world God made. We live in the world He is telling. So we talk, we preach, we argue, we baptize, we sing, we laugh and drink and sleep and do it all again. And somehow, somehow God is here with us, in us, working through us, through the Word, through our feeble words, through our prayers, through water, broken bread, and shared wine, through dinner tables, candles, pies, through it all, and He draws us on. God is always free to suspend His normal rules. He can part the sea; He can speak through donkeys. But usually He uses His ordinary magic. He uses the magic of well reasoned arguments, the magic of friendship, the magic of hospitality. We can’t reduce any of these things to a formula, to an exhaustive list of ingredients, but we don’t need to and we don’t need to throw up our hands in despair or give up arguing or preaching or sharing or loving.
This is because He is the One persuading all of us. He is the One who plays and sings and calls us home, and we come.
And we all will come.