Preparing for Battle: 7 Tips from St. Paul on Evangelization
In the face of seemingly endless scandals in the Catholic Church, a lot of non-Catholics are asking some variation of “Why are you still Catholic?” to their Catholic friends and loved ones. Behind this question is often pain, anger, or sheer incredulity, but the silver lining is that they are asking about why we’re still Catholic, which creates an opening for evangelization. But now what?
As Catholics, we know we’re called to evangelize the world, but anyone who has ever attempted evangelization (or apologetics) knows that it’s hard to do it well. As with any craft, one of the best ways to learn is to pay attention to the people who do it well, so it makes sense that we should look to the life and example of St. Paul. He is arguably the greatest Christian evangelist who ever lived, apart from Christ himself. After all, he was “entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel to the circumcised (for he who worked through Peter for the mission to the circumcised worked through me also for the Gentiles)” (Gal. 2:7-8), meaning that if you’re a Gentile Christian, your spiritual lineage probably goes back to someone who was converted by St. Paul.
So how do we ensure that we’re properly “armed” for any sort of question, discussion, or argument about the faith? St. Paul gives these instructions (Ephesians 6:10-18a):
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we are not contending 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. Therefore take the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the equipment of the gospel of peace; above all taking the shield of faith, with which you can quench all the flaming darts of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication.
Let’s unpack this slowly.
First, St. Paul reminds us to rely upon God rather than ourselves: “Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might.” This is maybe the hardest part of apologetics. We want to be the heroes, we want to be right, and we want to do it all on the strength of our own brilliance. But this is a huge mistake, and the surest route to failure. Why? Paul gets there in his second point.
Second, he reminds us who we’re really up against. Our enemy is Satan and his henchmen. And Paul also reminds us of Satan’s “wiles,” and the “spiritual hosts of wickedness.” The devil’s smarter than you are, and more powerful. If you are relying upon your own strength, you will lose.
But this is also a good reminder that “we are not contending against flesh and blood,” even when it feels like we are. In the heat of the moment, when someone is attacking us, or attacking our mother Mary, or attacking Jesus, or attacking the Church, our natural response is to get defensive and to think of that person as our enemy. But St. Paul tells us no, they’re not our enemy, Satan and the forces of evil are.
This has several implications for how we approach apologetics. It means you can’t just approach it as an argument in which you have to “beat” the other person. Your goal needs to be to win the other person for Christ, not to win the argument. If you start getting into “winning the argument” mode, you will quickly find yourself struggling with pride, deception, and lack of charity. You might “win” the argument, but you’ve lost against your real enemy, the devil.
Third, St. Paul tells us to wear the whole “armor of God,” beginning with “girding our loins with truth.” Let’s say that the other person you’re speaking to raises a question, and you just don’t know the answer. What’s the temptation? To make something up or to guess. Why? Because it saves face, or because we buy into the lie that if we don’t make something up, we’ll lose. Paul is warning us: don’t do that. Don’t rely upon half-truths or lies just because they might help you “win the argument”; don’t make stuff up to avoid looking ignorant or wrong; don’t sacrifice truth for the sake of a “win.” Why? Because Satan “is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44), while God is “the God of truth” (Isaiah 65:16). Lying is losing.
Fourth, St. Paul tells us to wear the “breastplate of righteousness.” In other words, the most effective armor that you have in this fight is holiness. You can know all the proofs for God’s existence, you can be able to explain the arguments about Jesus’ empty tomb or his establishment of the Church, but if you’re not living like a saint, it’s a waste of breath.
On the other hand, Paul also speaks of “the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left” (2 Cor. 6:7). In other words, we should be “armed” with holiness. Even if you’re not great at apologetics, even if you can never remember chapter and verse in the heat of the moment, even if you’re the worst debater in the world, you can still be an effective evangelist simply by being loving and openly sharing “the hope that is in you.”
When you talk to people who have converted to Catholicism, or who have gone from being a lax Catholic to on fire for their faith, there tend to be two common elements: (1) there is almost always a personal connection—if you don’t know a Catholic who loves being Catholic, chances are, you’re not going to become Catholic, or start loving your faith; and (2) most of the time, that person isn’t what you would imagine. They aren’t some world-class theologian with all of the answers. Sometimes, sure! But more often than not, they’re a person who was proud to be Catholic, and who took the life of holiness seriously. Pope Francis writes that “holiness is the most attractive face of the Church.” And Pope Benedict XVI said:
To me, art and the Saints are the greatest apologetic for our faith. The arguments contributed by reason are unquestionably important and indispensable, but then there is always dissent somewhere. On the other hand, if we look at the Saints, this great luminous trail on which God passed through history, we see that there truly is a force of good which resists the millennia; there truly is the light of light.
In other words, no matter how tight your intellectual argument for Catholicism is, people can always find ways of not believing it. There are intelligent people on both sides of every one of these arguments, because God doesn’t force belief. Rather, he enables faith. So the only unanswerable argument for the truth of the faith is holiness.
Fifth, St. Paul tells us to shod our feet “with the equipment of the gospel of peace; above all taking the shield of faith, with which you can quench all the flaming darts of the evil one.” We’ve just established that these encounters, as innocuous and meaningless as they may seem, are points of spiritual combat, and combat against a foe who’s stronger and smarter than you. In the face of this, especially if it doesn’t seem to be going well, it’s important to cling to the peace that only Christ can give. As he said at the Last Supper, knowing that the Apostles were about to undergo a serious spiritual trial, “Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me” (John 14:1). And a short while later: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (John 14:29). The devil can offer you complacency, but not true peace. And so what does he want to have happen in these encounters? For you to lose your peace, and to stop trusting that God is more powerful than Satan.
Sixth, St. Paul reminds us to be armed with the “the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” In other words, lean on God and learn Scripture. It’s a great tool. When the devil tried to tempt Jesus in the desert, Jesus responded by quoting Scripture (Mt. 4:1-11). The devil then tried to get Jesus to jump off the Temple by selectively quoting Psalm 91: “He will give his angels charge of you,” and “on their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.” Jesus corrected him, still using Scripture.
This is a lesson for us. One of the most common reasons I hear Catholics say that they can’t evangelize is that they don’t know Scripture well enough. Well, good, you recognize the problem! Your lack of knowledge of Scripture is impeding your ability to live the Christian life fully, and keeping you from bringing other people to Jesus. What are you going to do about it?
And it’s not just about knowing chapter and verse. It’s about knowing the Gospel, and coming to know Jesus intimately through prayerfully devouring Scripture. St. Jerome puts it this way: “If, as Paul says, ‘Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God,’ and if the man who does not know Scripture does not know the power and wisdom of God, then ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.”
Finally, you’ll notice that I said prayerfully devouring Scripture. That’s because St. Paul calls upon us to “pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication.” In these moments of evangelization, when someone is asking or challenging, you need “air support.” This is for two reasons. First, because you’re not equipped to do it well enough on your own. The devil is a predator, and what do predators do? They try to get you away from the herd. They want you alone, so you’re defenseless. So when the devil tells you, “You’ve got this, don’t worry about praying!” he’s saying, “Come over here, without God.”
But even more than that, it’s because faith is a gift from God. A friend of mine was a fervent and brilliant anti-Catholic (he went on to clerk for a Supreme Court justice, and is now a lawyer working for the White House). As a young man at Hillsdale College, he would argue his Catholic classmates out of the Church. Eventually, enough of the Catholics around him started praying for him that he underwent an incredible spiritual transformation and he became Catholic. There wasn’t some particular argument that he encountered that he’d never heard of before. Instead, as he put it, it was like the scales just dropped from his eyes one day, and all of his resistance to Catholicism was gone. Don’t understestimate the power of prayer.
No matter how good your arguments are, you cannot give someone faith. The most you can do is learn to remove some of the intellectual barriers (and, by holiness of life, remove some of the nonintellectual barriers). The only one who can give someone faith is God, and so we need to be praying for people by name. We might also need to join this with fasting for them, because that’s a powerful spiritual combination (Mark 9:20). I would encourage you right now to take a moment to let you pause and ask God if there’s anyone you need to be praying for in this way.