What does this picture bring to mind? Awkward moments seeking the passenger who will cause the least discomfort to you? A chance to finally rest your legs after a crowded commute?
I always look for the empty rows when I get on the bus, but it’s absurd since I know someone is probably going to sit next to me. I guess it signals an unspoken desire to be alone. But the truth is I don’t want to be alone–I’d much rather have a meaningful conversation with someone. Why don’t I take the empty seat and start the conversation?
There was a period in my life when I felt like every conversation had to be directed to the gospel and somehow incorporate Jesus. If He is the most important person in my life, wouldn’t I naturally talk about him most? Just as lovers continually have the name of their beloved on their lips, wouldn’t I want to bring Him up with others? Unfortunately my best intentions caused me much grief, anxiety and guilt. Oh there were glorious times when I got to share about Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection and how he saved me and transformed my life. But for every good conversation there were ten more that fell flat and another twenty “opportunities” that I missed and felt guilty about after the fact.
Avoiding the empty seat was my way of avoiding the opportunity to share the gospel and I could thereby avoid the guilty feelings that came from ignoring those opportunities. Everybody cares about something and even if you don’t care about the gospel, I think you can agree that the Seattle bus culture makes it difficult to connect with other passengers on a personal level. It’s even easier to avoid other passengers with the ubiquity of smartphones. Now you can take the empty seat next to someone and still skip the opportunity to connect with them by pulling out your phone and checking e-mail, watching a video, or texting a friend.
I actually like being alone on the bus. Minding my own business and doing my own thing. I don’t want to trouble anyone and don’t want to be troubled myself. But I struggle about my responsibilities towards all the strangers around me. What does God expect of me? Does he expect me to “make the most of every opportunity“? What is an opportunity? Is it someone asking me a question about God? Or is it me sitting next to a stranger on a bus and initiating a conversation? What does it mean for me to “love my neighbor as myself“?
As my chaotic conscience endured these hard questions, my soul has often taken refuge in the sovereignty of God. He alone is capable of saving any person and he alone can give them the gift of faith and it is completely his free choice. But as much of a relief to conscience this reality is, it does not remove the responsibility of being a witness.
When I set out to write this post, I did not have any strong, heartfelt answers to this internal conflict. It has percolated in the back of my mind occasionally, but I didn’t have anything solid worth sharing. So I looked around for some answers in the five texts linked to above.
Colossians 4:5-6 In Paul’s letter to the Colossians, he prefaces his exhortation for believers to make the most of every opportunity with a request for prayer so he would have an open door for the gospel. He also does not explicitly command evangelism, but gracious and seasoned speech that give a person knowledge of how to answer everyone.
Mark 12:31 The whole concept of loving one’s neighbor as oneself could be inappropriately stretched to mean telling everyone the gospel the moment they give you a chance to speak since it is “the most loving thing to do”, but if I consider the desires of my own heart, I think most people want to connect deeply and share their heart’s desire and struggle. They want someone to hear them and love them and speak words into their lives that pierce through the superficial safety bubble they’ve setup with insight and care.
Exodus 34:6-7 God’s freedom to have mercy on anyone he pleases is coupled with his abundantly gracious character. Whenever I seek to share the gospel with someone I can be confident that the God on whom their salvation depends is thoroughly good.
Ephesians 2:8-9 I am not so different from everyone else. Once dead in sin; ruled by disobedience. I once didn’t care much about God or Jesus and one day he blew me away with his glorious grace. If God can save me, he can save anybody. There is truly no one beyond his reach as humanly impossible as it may seem; there is always hope.
Acts 1:7-9 Although these words were to Jesus’ immediate disciples, every statement remains true in our day. The times and seasons are fixed by the Father’s authority. God’s kingdom, the success of the gospel, the victory of the Church are all under his wise control. He didn’t spell it out in detail for the apostles and he doesn’t for us, but he promised them something even better–his own Spirit come upon them so that they would be his witnesses. This is the same Spirit he gave to all believers in Jesus.
This small selection of Scriptures turned out to be a deeper treasure trove than I expected. While writing this, I was surprised at how they dispelled the guilt and anxiety that have often arisen when I’ve had to “take the empty seat” and replaced it with freedom, confidence, and desire (particularly the reflections on Mark 12:31 and Ephesians 2:8-9).
The next step for me is to test it and see how it helps me the next time I’m on the bus. If you have any stories to share about how this helped you, please leave a comment!