Persuasion: Beyond the "Burp Effect"

Scott Oliphint
I am not at all sure exactly when or why the topic of persuasion began to preoccupy my thoughts. I am sure that there must be a number of influences in my past that, cumulatively though somewhat subconsciously, were catalysts in my own thinking. 

The one event that I do remember was an illustration that Os Guinness gave in a lecture that I attended many years ago. He illustrated the difference between "just telling the truth" in our communication of the gospel, on the one hand, and persuasion, on the other. A concern for "just telling the truth," Guinness said, produced what he called "The Burp Effect." "The Burp Effect" is demonstrated when we are content simply to "burp" the gospel on someone. The result is that, like a burp, we might feel much better, but our audience is inevitably offended!

The point of the illustration highlights the "how" of gospel communication. There is a way to communicate the truth of the gospel that is automatically offensive, and there are ways of communicating the truth that lessen the risk of offense. Persuasion is concerned to try to lessen the offense by looking for a connection between what we want to say and those to whom we wish to speak. Persuasion considers, not only the one communicating, but the one(s) to whom communication is given. Or, we could say, persuasion takes seriously the notion that communication is meant to be communication. It is double-sided, not one-sided. It requires a connection between (at least) two sides. 

Two implications of this notion of "connection" in persuasion are important to remember. 

The first implication is this: Just because persuasion is interested in "how" we communicate, does not mean that it is only interested in technique. Persuasion is not pragmatism. It is not primarily concerned with "outcomes" or "consequences." Persuasion is not a discipline that takes mere truth-telling, applies make-up and perfume, and sets it loose to attract the otherwise disinterested. On the contrary, persuasion is at the heart of the gospel itself. In that sense, it is, first and foremost, deeply theological.

Consider that God himself is the ultimate and primary Persuader. When God decided to create, he determined to condescend to his creation. The term "condescension," which means "to come down," we should recognize, is a metaphor. It does not mean that God began to occupy a space that he otherwise would not occupy. Given God's infinity, there can be no place that God does not occupy; he is "in" every place, because he is God. Instead, his condescension is his determination to relate to us in a particular way, a way that is, at root, persuasive.

John Calvin, in his commentary on Psalm 23, helps us see the reality of God's condescending persuasion:
God, in the Scripture, frequently takes to himself the name, and puts on the character of a shepherd, and this is no mean token of his tender love towards us. As this is a lowly and homely manner of speaking, He who does not disdain to stoop so low for our sake, must bear a singularly strong affection towards us[1]
It is this "stoop" of God that constitutes his condescending persuasion. In his mercy, he deals with us according to our limitations and weaknesses. He is a Shepherd to lost sheep, not a wolf who takes advantage of our obvious stupidity.

Not only so, but in condescending, God does not come to us in the full resplendence of his glory. in relating himself to us, there was no constraint on God to deal with us gently. It would have been perfectly consistent with his character if he had brought to bear on us the full glory of his majesty and holiness. But that would have destroyed us.

Moses, in his exuberance, thought he could endure God's majestic glory:
And the Lord said to Moses, "This very thing that you have spoken I will do, for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name." Moses said, "Please show me your glory." And he said, "I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name 'The Lord.' And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But," he said, "you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live." (Ex. 33:17-20)
In condescending mercy, the Lord reminded Moses that no one could endure the full effulgence of his glory. To come face to face with the consummate glory of God is to face certain death. The fullness of the presence of God would, quite literally, overwhelm us to the point of death.

God could have decided to grant Moses' request; there would have been nothing unjust or otherwise untoward if God had given Moses what he asked for. But Moses would have been no more. Our creaturehood is such that we cannot stand the unfiltered presence of God. Like the full force of the sun's heat, God's perfect presence would destroy us.

Instead, God determines to persuade us. He does not meet us as he is in his fullness. He meets us as we are. In the beginning, he "stoops" to speak to our first parents. He tells them what they are to do and be in the Garden that he has made for them. He tells them what they are not to do as well. As soon as they disobey his command, God could have come to them as a consuming fire, resulting in instant death. Instead, he comes to them on their level, in the Garden (Gen. 3:8). To be sure, he comes to judge them. But even as he walked in the Garden to seek them out and to judge them, he also offers them hope (Gen. 3:15).

Throughout the rest of the Old Testament, God is condescending, primarily in the Person of his Son, to call a people to himself, and to continue the relationship that he graciously began with them. At every point of that condescension -- even as he remains the infinite and eternal God -- he comes down to the level of his people.

The incarnation is, of course, the quintessential condescension of God. When the time had fully come (Gal. 4:4), God saw fit to come as one of us, even all the while remaining fully God. His "stoop" was a stoop of humiliation. But it was humiliation that allowed him to undergo the full experience of what it means to be human. 

This is the ultimate persuasion. It is packed full of mystery; it is unimaginable; it is wholly beyond what any human person could do. And, most importantly, it is the heart of the gospel. God did not simply shout from heaven that we were all bound for eternal hell, true though that is. Instead, he stooped. He came to us. He came to be one of us. And he remains one of us, for eternity. He is, in every way, the Perennial and Perfect Persuader.

There is a second implication of persuasion that must be remembered. Even though one objective of persuasion is to avoid unnecessary offense, it cannot change the fact that the gospel itself carries its own offense, no matter the persuasion employed. Jesus himself, though perfectly persuasive in all that he said, nevertheless, was offensive to some of his listeners (see, for example, Matt. 13:57; Mk. 6:3; Jo. 6:61). He himself was the "stone of stumbling" and the "rock of offense" (Rom. 9:33; 1 Pet. 2:8). Because of this, the gospel will inevitably be an aroma of death to those who are perishing (2 Cor. 2:16).

In his recent book, Fool's Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion, Os Guinness bemoans the loss of the art of persuasion in the church:
Loss of persuasion? It might seem bizarre, almost unimaginable, that Christian communication has lost something so central to its mission. Yet in profound ways it has, and that is why our challenge is to think about apologetics in ways that are not only fresh but faithful and independent-- faithful in the sense that they are shaped by the imperatives of Christian truths, and independent in the sense that they are not primarily beholden to ways of thinking that are alien to Christian ways of thinking [2]
Guinness is virtually alone in showing the connection between apologetics, persuasion and evangelism. But he is absolutely correct. That connection, once grasped, has the potential to relocate apologetics to its proper place in the church. It takes the defense of Christianity out of its dark, small, locked closet in the academy and brings it into the pews and pulpits of any and every Reformed, Bible-believing church.

My interest in persuasion was, unbeknownst to me in those early days, part and parcel of my interest in Christian apologetics. It became clearer to me, along the way, that the only defense of Christianity that could seamlessly connect to evangelism and persuasion was one with its foundation in the theology of the Reformation. A defense of the faith that is founded on that theology will, at its best, persuasively communicate the truth of the gospel in response to objections that are lodged against that truth.

Guiness laments the fact that "much apologetics has lost touch with evangelism and come to be all about 'arguments,' and in particular about winning arguments rather than winning hearts and minds and people."  That is undoubtedly true. The remedy to this imbalance is, says Guinness, "to reunite evangelism and apologetics, to make sure that our best arguments are directed toward winning people and not just winning arguments, and to seek to do all this in a manner that is true to the gospel itself." 

"The gospel itself," as we noted above, is God's Ultimate Persuasion; it is not "God shouting at us," or "God demeaning us." Instead, the gospel is Emmanuel, "God with us." Not only has God graciously "stooped" to be with us, but he has provided a way for his people, graciously and persuasively, to defend his truth as we communicate his good news. Once we grasp the power of persuasion in apologetics, we will begin to see, perhaps for the first time, that the truth that we defend is defensible because it is God's truth, in the Person of his Son, and it is meant to be communicated and defended, by all of God's people, and to all of God's human creatures.


[1] John Calvin and James Anderson, Commentary on the Book of Psalms, vol.1 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), pp. 391-92, my emphasis

[2] Os Guinness, Fool's Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion (Kindle Locations 171-74), Intervarsity Press. Kindle Edition. Because Guinness'' concerns dovetail with mine, I will be referring to this book throughout this series on persuasion.

[3] Ibid., (Kindle Locations 179-80)

[4] Ibid., (Kindle Locations 180-82)