October 19, 2011

Nudging Helps

Have you pushed anyone lately?

Why is the author asking me that question? you may be thinking. I learned in kindergarten not to push or shove others.

The reality, however, is that we all push others more often than we might think, and others push us in return. I’m not talking about pushing in a physical sense, but rather a spiritual one. So how do we “push,” or “nudge,” someone spiritually, and what should be the results?

2011 1529 page31When new converts tell of how they found Jesus, their stories usually can be categorized into one of two groups. People in the first group live more or less without faith, until confronted by a serious illness or other crisis. At that point they meet God and eventually give their lives to Him. People in the second group often think about the meaning of life and are open to existential questions. Over time they repeatedly come into contact with believers and are impressed by their words or actions. It is these encounters that “push” this second group of people—or better said, give them small nudges—toward faith, which eventually leads to personal decisions for Christ. When I mentally review the Adventist conversion stories I’ve heard, most seem to fall into the latter group.

This aligns with the thinking of authors Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein in their book Nudge, which suggests that people change their thinking and behaviors not only by their own inner motivation but chiefly because they are pushed externally. For example, people are much more willing to become organ donors when they have to expressly refuse to be donors rather than overtly seek to do this. This type of gentle nudge encourages action in a certain direction. That is why evangelists make an appeal at the end of a sermon and ask for decisions. Without this call, significantly fewer people would make decisions for Christ. The evangelist’s call for a decision, however, is in reality only the final brick in the building of a convert. Generally, many people play a part in the “building.”

One person’s influence on another may be limited, but when many individuals are nudging together, the opportunities for the person to meet God multiply as well. Nudges can include the sharing of a personal experience with God, the giving of a helpful book, a comforting word spoken at just the right moment, a warm hug, practical help with daily tasks, or simply being an understanding listener. When engaged in this kind of nudging, it’s vital not to argue with the person. Our motto should be: “Leave the converting to God.” This is the only way in which we can convey a positive and winning impression of God’s character.

Nudges are greatly strengthened by intercessory prayer. After all, it’s the Holy Spirit who does the missionary work in the hearts of individuals. We don’t know exactly how He will choose to work; we do know, however, that He does not manipulate, force, or threaten. Instead He attracts, gives ideas, and helps people to better understand and see their lives in context. Often the Holy Spirit bestows on people a feeling of acceptance and unconditional love by God, particularly when someone feels rejected by others. Eventually the Holy Spirit leads the person to see the need of a Savior, and then leaves it up to the individual to make a decision for Christ.

Conversion is not something we can “do”; instead, it’s the work of the Holy Spirit, who leads a person, of their own free will, to make a decision for God. But we can nudge—as the Holy Spirit inspires us—and thereby assist the Holy Spirit in His work.

Thomas Lobitz is editor of the magazines Adventisten heute and Zeichen der Zeit at the German Seventh-day Adventist Publishing House in Lüneburg, Germany. He is married and has two children. This article was published October 20, 2011.