Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson


Tonight I took a taxi back to my hotel. After some small talk, the driver asked me why I was in Israel. I told him I was teaching ethics. He did not quite understand, so I clarified that I was teaching a course to students on the nature of right and wrong (I did not elaborate that my students were 24 pastors–eleven Jewish and 13 Arab—training to strengthen the emerging church in hopes of bringing Israel to Jesus). This, I am sure, would have been too much. He might have stopped the car in the middle of the street and asked me to leave. Or he might have stopped any further conversing. It was then he said something rather amazing: “You are teaching right and wrong. I always feel I am doing something wrong.”

I began to sense this was not a chance encounter. I asked him to explain, and he told me that even in the most mundane matters of life (e.g. giving someone road directions), he feels like he has said something or done something wrong. He feels this way every day. It was obvious this rather large, older man was carrying a significant burden. I probed more, asking him to describe his life. It’s as if he had been waiting to unburden his life with someone who would listen.

I don’t have a script for this, but then, I wouldn’t want one. Every person is their own unique story, and every person deserves far more than some canned response. I told him that he is not alone. I hear this voice. Most of us hear the same condemning voice every day—“You’re not good enough.” “You’re a disappointment.” “YOU HAVE DONE SOMETHING WRONG.” Something, someone wants us to feel inadequate, unworthy.

I asked him if it could be that this voice comes from outside—from someone beyond himself. What if this voice of condemnation is the voice of the devil? I have no idea if his world view even has a devil in it. But I told him I believe this is the source of this voice, and this same accusing voice drives me to God, whose voice is just the opposite—loving and forgiving. The conversation began to turn to faith. He does have God in his world view. He told me that he finds similar solace when he enters the synagogue. I asked him if he finds this peace especially if he does some good works for God. He agreed, and then he told me what he wanted most—for God to give him a million dollars.

I asked him why he would want a million dollars. He said, “If God would give me a million dollars, I  would give it away to people, and then, finally, I would no longer feel like I am doing things wrong.

By now, we were at my hotel. He thanked me for riding in his taxi, but I could not leave on this note—because I know that what he told me was not true. I told him this. I turned to this man and suggested that if God gave him even more, and if he gave it all away, he would still feel the same way. Trying to appease God, trying to make people happy, trying to make one’s self happy by giving away money, or anything, is a futile effort. There is only way out of feeling condemned—finding perfect forgiveness in a Messiah named Jesus, who came to pay the price for all of our shortcomings.

And then it ended. We exchanged good byes. I have no idea what God does with conversations like this one. Maybe a seed was planted. Maybe a future encounter with someone else will carry it further. But here’s what I know for sure. Traveling this far to teach ethics to pastors means little if I am not willing to give myself to chance encounters—to entering in the fray to tell the world about a Savior. I suspect it is the same for you.

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