The limits of persuasion – when explaining doesn’t help

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If only people knew what was really going on, they’d quickly change their minds and behaviour.  If I could just sit down face to face and talk with them, then they would see that I was for them, they’d understand the decisions I’d made and the actions I’d taken. They might not like it but they’d understand.  If we can just get the church members together and carefully go through all the proposals and show our reasoning including all the facts and all the costings then people will get behind the proposals and the motion will pass.

At some point, unless you are a complete cynic, I’m sure you have found yourself thinking at least one, if not all of those statements.  Then of course it doesn’t happen.  Some of us are particularly prone to the temptation to trust in our ability to explain and persuade.  This is particularly true if you are one of those people who finds that you are good with words, whether in writing or speaking.   If you are used to teaching in education or persuading in debate or through sermons, then this is the risk

Certainly, this is the temptation that I find myself facing.  Too often I’ve just assumed that if I’m given the time then I’ll be able to bring people along with me.  Too often I’ve been stung when it hasn’t worked out that way.  We are slow learners.

One of the things that Isaiah 6 does it that it offers a corrective to this kind of thinking.   It’s ironic isn’t it.  Jonah went with his prophecy to Nineveh hoping that his words wouldn’t be enough to save the Ninevites but God used them to piece the hearts of the citizens bringing about repentance and forgiveness.  By way of contrast, Isaiah hoped and longed for a similar response from the people of Judah when he brought warnings of coming judgement. Instead, not only were their hearts hardened but God specifically used Isaiah’s words to do the hardening. He commanded the people to be unable to know and understand.

Has it ever felt like that to you? That actually the clear communication of loving truth has provoked the opposite response to what you might expect, that people become even angrier, even more opposed, even more bitter? 

I think that one of the things God does at this point with Isaiah is that he reminds him that he is not infallible, he cannot control the destiny of the nation nor change the minds of the people with the power of his words.  The people will not be saved by prophetic words any more than they will be saved by sacrifices.  It’s another way of reminding them that salvation comes through Christ alone.

You and I sometimes need to be reminded that we are fallible, that we cannot depend on our own powers of persuasion.  Rather, God is sovereign and we are dependent on the Holy Spirit to work in the lives of others.

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