The Key to Breaking Down Emotional Barriers

Many years ago, my mother was visiting town, and because of limited space we needed her to stay in a hotel. I made the reservation for her, then later went to check her in. When I arrived, the woman at the front desk, without looking at any records, told me in no uncertain terms that I did not have a reservation and that there were no rooms available. Of course, I protested and asked her how she could know that I did not have a reservation without referring to the registration system. My protest, however, was only met with a curt reply that no rooms were available for the night and that I would need to leave. The experience was so unpleasant that whenever I drove by the hotel in later years, it was hard to keep negative sentiments from popping up. I am guessing that the woman who shooed me away hasn’t worked there for years and the hotel is under new management. Nonetheless, because of the emotional barrier built from that one event, I have chosen to take my hotel business elsewhere.

After reading about my experience, you might say, “Come on, John! Get over it. It happened so long ago.” And you would be right, but if you recall how you have responded to certain unfriendly people or hurtful events, my reaction may not seem too far from the norm. Maybe you avoid a certain restaurant because of the way the staff treated you years ago. Perhaps you are leery of certain authority figures because you experienced some kind of injustice from those in a similar position. Or, maybe you had a teacher embarrass you in a math class when you were in middle school, and ever since you have been uneasy whenever numbers are thrown your way. Everyone has emotional barriers that have developed over the years, and they make us avoid or push against whatever it is that hurt us. Not only do these emotional barriers exist for restaurants or math; they also make people angry, cautious, and distrustful of Christians and Christianity.

Imagine that your parents took you to a church every week where the pastor yelled and screamed at everyone in attendance. That was the experience of an older friend I have. The angry tenor of Sunday mornings still rings in his ears and has kept him from attending church for decades. Or suppose you were invited to join a youth group, but then you see how the “Christian” kids in attendance spend their Friday and Saturday in unholy escapades. That was one friend’s experience in high school, and so she kept her distance. Or maybe you know of a vocal Christian in your office who is always on a soapbox about how the country is falling apart and yet regularly shades the truth in order to close a business deal. My guess is your co-workers would chalk it up as one more reason to steer clear of Christianity. Finally, picture that you daily prayed as a child for your mother not to die, only to see her succumb to a long, painful death. In that case, it would not be surprising if an emotional barrier was built not just between you and Christians but even between you and God. 

These are the kinds of events that create an emotional barrier in the hearts and minds of many who are resistant to the gospel so that even the clearest gospel presentations are rejected. A friend may make an emotional barrier easy to spot by saying something like: “I can’t stand Christians; they are all such hypocrites.” Or another friend might unmask his emotional barrier by asking, “So where was your God when my dad died?!” But even if no such remark is made, you can assume an emotional barrier is lying under the surface if just a slight turn in a conversation to more spiritual matters has a person looking for a quick exit or an angry fight. So what are we to do when we encounter an emotional barrier in those we hope to reach with the gospel? We must become their trusted friend. 

People listen to people they trust. A person who has an emotional barrier does not trust Christians in general, but that doesn’t mean they cannot come to trust you if you work to show yourself a trustworthy friend, family member, neighbor, or colleague. We must recognize that a great deal of what a person believes about any topic comes by way of a trusted voice. You believe a restaurant is worthy to try because a trusted friend told you it was a good restaurant. You believe that a particular medical treatment is the best course of action because you heard it from a doctor whom you trust. You believe that a class is worth taking because your trusted colleague told you how much it helped her grow professionally. Given the impact trusted voices have on our beliefs and decisions, it is incumbent upon us to become a trusted friend to those we want to reach. This is especially true when someone has an emotional barrier. Does it take time to build trust? Most certainly! In some cases, it can take years. But the effort to build a trusting relationship is worth it, because without that trust, people with emotional barriers will likely back away when you speak of Jesus even if you have the best of intentions.

Last year my college-aged daughter was out for a jog when a dog came angrily toward her and took a bite out of her backside. As you can guess, the event has made her quite leery of dogs, even though she grew up with a dog in our house. If she were to get bitten another time or two, she would probably do everything to keep her distance from any canine that came her way. Now, let’s suppose that after she’d been bitten several times, a friendly dog wanted to become her buddy. If the dog immediately ran up and jumped on her in excitement, my daughter would not respond very positively. She might scream, run away, or beat the dog with a stick for the simple reason that she does not know if the dog can be trusted. In that case, then, the dog’s efforts would backfire. My daughter would be more afraid of the good-intentioned, friendly dog than before the encounter.

When an emotional barrier is present, it’s important to recognize that taking the time to build trust can be slow, but it is not slowing down the process. Instead, it is readying the soil of the person with whom you want to share Christ. Yes, this will often require a season of “wagging your tail” from a distance or “laying a ball at their feet” before you can speak as forthrightly as you might wish about the gospel, but short-circuiting the process by pressing too quickly for people to follow Jesus will often do little good. 

My friend Mel understood the importance of building trust when he was preparing to move into a new neighborhood. He was a minister at the time, and when Dale, his soon-to-be neighbor, heard that a pastor was moving next door, Dale was not pleased. Dale’s experience with Christians in the past had been distasteful, so the last thing that he wanted was a Christian leader breathing down his neck.

Mel caught wind of Dale’s negative feelings toward Christians before he moved in, so Mel resolved to do all he could to love Dale from the very start. At first, that meant greeting Dale with a smile whenever they caught each other’s eye. Soon, it meant playing ball with Dale’s kids in the front yard, trading little favors, and having friendly conversations “over the fence.” This went on for years, and eventually, Mel began to gain Dale’s trust, even if Mel was a pastor. Then, without any forewarning, Dale and his wife showed up at Mel’s church one Sunday morning, and they kept coming in the months to come. Not long after, Dale accepted an invitation from Mel to join a weekly men’s gathering where Jesus and the Bible were discussed. Slowly, Dale’s heart began to soften, not only to Mel but to Jesus and the gospel. 

Dale is not the same person anymore. When Mel’s adult children come home and see Dale, they say, “That’s not the same Mr. Dale we grew up around.” And they are right; it is not the same Dale. Now, he is a sweet, kind man who loves Jesus and daily asks God to guide him. We know that God can draw even the most jaded people to himself in a moment, but in most cases, he uses people like Mel—people who break down emotional barriers by first taking the time to become a trusted friend.

Taken from Giving Jesus Away: Finding Joy in Sharing the Gospel by John Hopper © 2023. Used with permission by SEARCH Ministries.