Many times when, as a hospital chaplain, I have been invited to the bedside of a complete stranger, I have been amazed, as they have recounted their life's journey, at how, at significant points in their story, God has touched their life.
The patient sharing their story has not always been aware of these encounters. But as I've listened it has been obvious to me that God has been blessing them. It may be the obvious blessings that God bestows on all people. The rain. The sunshine. The birth of a child. A loving partner in marriage. Or it may have been something more specific. Protection from an accident or the provision of a job.
The privilege of being the chaplain in this situation is that there is the expectation from this complete stranger that you will introduce some "religious" talk. And so I would always comment on some aspect of their life's story where it seemed obvious to me that God had blessed them or was directing them. Almost without exception the patient would respond with acknowledgment that, "Yes, God must have been with me then." It is fairly easy to go on in a conversation like this, where someone recognises that God does actually have an interest in their life, to talk about Jesus and to challenge the person to recognise his Lordship.
If you reflect on life with Job 28 you look at all the amazing things mankind can do and has done. But thinking about all of this, thinking about all the amazing things a person has done in their life, you come up against the question, "But where shall wisdom be found?" (v.12) In all the amazing things a person has done, what is it all about? If you come to the conclusion that all the amazing efforts and exploits of humanity give life meaning, you come a cropper. Our efforts to understand life lead us nowhere. (v.13) The beauty of the world and the value of precious metals and stone have no answer. (vv. 14-19) Is it all meaningless, as life just ends in death with nothing more? (vv. 20-22)
When you come to the answer, that "God understands the way to it" (v.23) you need to be careful how this is expressed so that it doesn't appear to be the glib "Sunday School answer". To understand life, theology must intersect with experience. The glib Sunday School answer may be the right theology but it may not intersect with with a person's experience. With the mere mention of the word "God" a person may be distracted into stereotypes of what that word means in their experience. Their experiences probably have not been understood in the light of what the Bible says about God and humanity. They will therefore have no way of entering into an understanding of the profound statement, "God understands the way to wisdom." We need to express this biblical truth in a way that will touch the life of the person we're speaking with. How we express this will vary depending on the other person's life experiences.
This is where the importance of listening comes in. As we spend time listening to a human story we not only empower a person but we gain some understanding of their world view. With such an understanding we start to see points in their life where a biblical understanding of life might intersect with their experience. Such an understanding then helps us express biblical truths, not in terms that might be profound to us, but with words that tap into the other person's understanding of life.
It's a great privilege to bring the gospel into the public sphere. To do it well we need both a clear theological understanding of life and a clear understanding of what the unbeliever understands of life. And then we need some skill to bring about an intersection of these two. It's not an easy skill to develop but one with great rewards for the gospel.