Many of us saw a movie a few years back called The Horse Whisperer starring Robert Redford. The film was loosely based on a book with the title, Man Who Listens to Horses, written by Monty Roberts who discovered a revolutionary way of taming wild horses so they might be domesticated and ridden. An Australian evangelist suggests this way of “listening” or “whispering” to horses may have a meaningful parallel to the way believers can reach those who don’t know Christ.
Monty Roberts was raised in a family of rugged horse traders who had for generations captured and broken wild mustangs in Montana and then sold to other ranchers. The traditional way of breaking these horses after they were rounded up was to corral them and break their spirits after tedious days and even weeks of extremely hard work. Some of these animals were so wild that one of their fetlocks had to be tied with a rope that was placed around their necks so they would be hobbled and then after being subjected to an exhausting process, would be broken to the point it could be saddled and ultimately ridden, then sold for a profit.
When Monty was a teenager, he noticed that when a horse was separated from the herd and left to wander in the mountains, it would usually get sick and maybe even die, much in the same way a baby left without its mother or any other human contact can lose its will to live even with proper nourishment. As a result, Monty’s observations led him to develop a unique method for breaking these mustangs that requires a lot less time and energy. Quite simply, he gets into the corral with the horse but stays as far away from it as possible allowing no eye contact between him and the animal which is circling, snorting and bellowing for being penned up. Monty moves slowly away from the horse being careful to look away from it and not approach it in any way. Amazingly, the wild mustang will soon draw nearer and nearer to Monty and generally within an hour, it will be saddled and ready for a rider.
Monty, now 84, says, “These animals need contact with others so much, they would rather befriend their enemy than be left alone.” Monty learned that wild horses have a deep longing that responds interestedly and submissively to a man who is willing to “listen,” and who “whispers” by climbing into the same enclosure and being in his world though not of it, and take the time and patience to win over the wild beast. At the root of all this is his love for the horses themselves. He disliked seeing their spirits being crushed by the wranglers using what seemed to be necessary but cruel treatment.
Over the years, some of us have tried to oversimplify the gospel by making it appear to be the answer to all of life’s problems (“if you want a happy marriage, do this. If you want to prosper, do this,” etc.). At the deepest level of course, it is the answer. But our approach was a “take two of these and call me in the morning” kind of thing that in many cases was not realistic or very spiritual. For instance, for the Christians being persecuted in India, the gospel has caused their problems. It hasn’t solved them. Jesus told us this might happen and there’s a greater reward for enduring it, but for us in the West, persecution is usually a political affront rather than actual torture or murder.
The fact is, spirituality can be anything but reasonable and practical. And in this day and age when the world is groping for answers to life’s meaning and its complexities amidst so much cultural white noise, the church seems to be the last place people are looking for refuge, perhaps because of our pat answers. Maybe it’s time to listen to not-yet-Christians because we genuinely care for them and not just regard them as adversaries we have to vote down at the polling booth. After all, they were created by God the same way we were whether they are aware of it or not. Maybe we can begin to whisper to them in ways that communicate the Lord’s grace and mercy besides trying to use the bible as a do-it-yourself manual.
Whispering to unbelievers really shouldn’t require more of us than we are generally accustomed to giving. It’s just a different approach that could reap bigger dividends in a shorter period of time with less effort. Since we have “put on” Christ, the fruit of the Spirit should be evident, in fact, should be all over us. Are we exhibiting love, joy, and peace? Or are we being antagonistic, depressed and agitated? Are we longsuffering, kind, and good? Or are we impatient, thoughtless, and smug? Are we faithful, gentle, and self-controlled? Or are we anxious, abrupt, and unreliable?
A study done among a group of 500 churchgoers in England who had come to faith in the previous twelve months found that almost seventy percent of them described their conversions as a gradual experience that took an average of four years. Only twenty percent described their salvation experience as dramatic or radical. We would do well to use our Savior as a model. He whispered to those who gathered around him. He told stories most people didn’t understand and later told those in his inner circle that he didn’t expect everybody to understand them and sometimes didn’t bother explaining them. Many of his stories didn’t have any obvious spiritual significance, didn’t mention God, and didn’t quote the Old Testament. There was a sense of mystery about him and what he said. His words created a gnawing in the stomachs of those who were spiritually hungry. And they followed him.
We don’t have to know everything. Our love should produce a spiritual appetite in the environment we inhabit. For that to happen, Jesus must be central. If we are like him, we give the world a taste of eternity. We are not just committed to a creed but to the author of it. Our commitment is to trust in him and put him on like a coat we wear, one that generates a sense of wonder that makes those who are seeking ask questions we are happy to answer. And then we can relax knowing we are only responsible to do the planting and watering and there is One in heaven who will do the harvesting in His season.