As Christians, we recognize the need and benefit of having spiritual conversations, with both believers and non-believers. In other words, we see the value in having conversations that move beyond superficial topics and get into areas of eternal importance.
But we all know how much easier (and more comfortable) it is to swim in the shallower seas of discussing the weather, how busy we are, or the latest controversy in culture or politics. Guiding a conversation into more spiritual arenas can be difficult.
So how can we do our part to have more spiritual conversations? Let me share with you a 3-step process I learned from one of my seminary professors. This process, he joked, was a secret that could save you $36,000 and several years of effort by eliminating the need for a master’s degree in counseling.
The “secret” 3-step process is simple. It is to guide the conversation through three phases: External, Internal, and Eternal.
Talking about external things is the place where most of our conversations begin and unfortunately is usually as far as they go. We talk about what is going on in life – how the kids are doing, how work is going, what the weather has been like, interesting anecdotes from the previous week.
The joys of life, stress, difficulties, uncertainties, funny stories. These are the things most of are conversations consist of. These are important things to discuss and it is good to discuss them. But if we only ever talk about the external circumstances of life we will never have deeper conversations.
Instead, we want to move from talking about the external to discussing the internal.
Imagine hearing from someone who has just lost their job. Hearing about what took place, what their plans are next, and letting them know that “after the rain comes the rainbow” – all of this remains in the realm of external circumstances.
But when we ask questions that examine what is going on internally we have gone a level deeper. For instance, think of talking to someone who has just shared how often they are on the road for work. A purely external conversation could talk about the aspects of airplanes, hotels, and conferences. But an internal conversation might ask them if that busy lifestyle can get lonely. This is a question about their internal mindset.
Or imagine talking to someone who has just sent their youngest kid off to college. You could speak only of the extra room in the house or the free time they’ll now have or what their kid will be studying. Or you could ask “Do you feel a sense of accomplishment now that they are out on their own?”
Questions like these can help steer the conversation towards examining how the external circumstances of life have impacted the person you’re talking to on the inside: their thoughts, emotions, and attitudes.
It is one thing to hear about someone’s exciting new job and ask about details regarding their role, responsibility, or start date. But to ask them “is that something you wanted to do when you were little?” is to try to go deeper to discuss matters of the heart.
Discuss the external realities of everyday life. Ask questions about how those things impact the person’s thoughts and feelings internally. And from there, you can go one level deeper still: the eternal.
As your conversation continues, find ways to transition from the external to the internal to the eternal. Questions such as “What do you think God may be up to through this?” or “What have you been most thankful for during this time” or “do you feel you’re having to rely on your faith more?”
By asking questions aimed at exploring the eternal aspects of how God shapes us through our circumstances helps us consider issues of eternal significance. After all, to paraphrase AW Tozer, everything that happens to us is to make us more Christlike.
Even if you were talking to an unbeliever, you could enter into discussions of the eternal. Asking “Let’s say that God did exist – what do you think He could be up to through this circumstance?” can yield surprisingly deep conversations.
A good, spiritual conversation ultimately arrives at things of eternal importance. Not every conversation ends up there, but we should have as our goal to contribute what we can to having deeper, more significant conversations with those we interact with.
That being said, keep in mind that there is a reason for there being 3 steps involved. It can be rather off-putting for someone to jump directly over the external and internal and land immediately on the eternal at the outset of every conversation!
We don’t want to force conversations, nor do we want to linger back out of fear that things may get uncomfortable as we seek to create opportunities to speak of the things of God. Move as the Spirit directs you, and this 3-step process of moving from external to internal to eternal can be a help in having natural, spiritual conversations more often.
Watch Dr. Jim Coffield, the professor from whom I learned this process, share his insights on the anatomy of a good conversation in this video (beginning at the 15-minute mark).
Worried that deep conversations can be intimidating? Check out this conversation with Greg Koukl on how to navigate tough conversations.