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Winning the Person, Not the Argument

Jesus' response to Mary and Martha teaches us to respond to the person before trying to win a point

One of the most common reasons that Catholics give for why they don’t evangelize is that they feel that they don’t have all the answers. What if the person they’re speaking to asks a question that we can’t answer? But this objection gets one of the most important things about evangelization wrong. “We are not contending,” St. Paul explained, “against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12). In a word, we need to stop trying to win the argument, and start trying to win the person.

This advice, simple as it is, fundamentally changes the frame of reference for apologetics. It’s not you against your Protestant or atheist friend. Instead, you’re cooperating with God’s salvific plan for that person. How might that change how you approach your friend? First, it means that all of those tactics that feel good but don’t get anywhere – demonizing them, misrepresenting them, straw-manning their argument, and doing everything you can to seem smart and making them look bad – have no place in Christian apologetics. That’s contending against flesh and blood, and it’s the triumph of your ego, not God’s saving plan. The person you intellectually batter in this way might have no clever retort, and you might come away feeling victorious, but you haven’t moved them an iota closer to becoming devout Catholics. After all, when was the last time you were persuaded by someone treating you this way?

It also means being aware of your own soul when you’re engaged in apologetics and evangelization, especially if you touch on an issue that gets heated. As a friend of mine recently put it, paraphrasing Matt. 16:26, “what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole argument and forfeits his soul?” If you find yourself tempted towards dishonesty or uncharity as you make the argument, it may be time to walk away for your own good.

But winning the person rather the argument goes much further than this. It’s ultimately a recognition that every person is unique as well as beloved, and it means that whenever possible, you tailor what needs saying to the particular crowd to whom you’re addressing it. What does that look like? It looks like Jesus’ responses to Mary and Martha in John chapter eleven.

To set the scene, remember that Jesus is already friends with the siblings Lazarus, Mary, and Martha at this point. St. John reminds us that “it was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair” (John 11:2), although Mary and Martha are perhaps better known today for the incident in Luke 10:38-42, in which Mary sat at the feet of Jesus while Martha “was distracted with much serving.” From these glimpses into their lives, we get a hint at what were likely very different personalities. And this difference is reflected in Jesus’ approach to each woman.

The two sisters send word to Jesus that Lazarus is deathly ill (John 11:3). This sparks one of the strangest verses in the Gospel: “So when he heard that he was ill, [Jesus] stayed two days longer in the place where he was” (John 11:5).  Instead of rushing to Lazarus’ bedside, Jesus does the opposite, intentionally delaying the trip. It’s the sort of divine action that is, from an earthly perspective, inscrutable. Why does God seem to tarry when we need him the most? Why does he permit suffering, including especially those who seem closest to him?

As the events of this chapter play out, we get a hint of an answer. Jesus permits Lazarus’s death “for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by means of it” (John 11:4). When he does arrive, Lazarus has been dead for four days, meaning that even had he left at once, he would have arrived two days “too late.” But in fact, by waiting four days, Jesus has eliminated the possibility in the crowd’s minds that Lazarus wasn’t really dead and had been buried by mistake. Therefore, he is able to perform an undeniable miracle in raising him from the dead. Waiting the extra two days really was for the glory of God.

But of course, it didn’t seem like it to Mary and Martha at the time. Their question was the one we all can struggle with in times of grief and suffering: where was Jesus when these bad things happened? And each sister, emboldened by their friendship with him, puts the question to him squarely. Remarkably, he answers them in very different ways.

The first to confront Jesus is Martha. In another hint at the personality differences between the two sisters, we learn that “when Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary sat in the house” (John 11:20). Later, John will note that Martha didn’t even let Jesus make it all the way to the village (John 11:30). Instead, she finds him still some distance away and says to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. And even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you” (John 11:21-22). Martha confronts Jesus about his absence, but then immediately makes a theological statement about his power and his relationship with God.

Jesus responds to her in this same vein. He speaks to her about Lazarus’ imminent resurrection. Misunderstanding him, Martha affirms her belief that he will be raised on “the last day” (John 11:24), to which Jesus clarifies that he is the resurrection and the life, and that the one who lives in him will never die. The result is a theological breakthrough for Martha, who proclaims, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, he who is coming into the world” (John 11:27). What she still seems not to understand is what this theological insight means about her brother – whether Jesus is simply comforting her that he will indeed rise on the last day, or whether he has something more immediate in mind.

Contrast this with Mary. Rather than running out to Jesus to confront him, Mary doesn’t go out until Martha returns and tells her “The Teacher is here and is calling for you” (John 11:28). Like Martha, Mary goes out to Jesus, and says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:32). On the level of the “argument,” Mary and Martha are saying the exact same thing. But on the level of the person, they could scarcely be more different. When Mary utters her line, she does so weeping at Our Lord’s feet. Jesus doesn’t respond with a discussion about theology. Instead, he is “deeply moved in spirit and troubled” (John 11:33) and asks to see the tomb. Then, remarkably, “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). Instead of trying to engage with Mary intellectually, Jesus recognizes the emotional rawness of the situation and simply enters into her grief.

Eventually, of course, Jesus will work a profound miracle that will turn the sisters’ grief into joy, and answer Martha’s question. He simply responds by answering them, as unique individuals. This is what it looks like to win a person, rather than an argument.

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