In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul addresses men and women in marriages with spouses who do not share their faith in Jesus Christ. In some translations, these are referred to as "unbelievers." In others, as "not believers." The more I've been thinking about this, the more I think there's rather a big difference here.
It's tempting to group everyone who lacks a belief in Jesus into one group. We, the believers, are the Christians. They, those without a belief, are the heathens. There is faith, and there is lack of faith. There is belief, and there is lack of belief. There is Jesus, and there is emptiness. Most of our evangelistic efforts have centered around this idea - that we must simply plant belief where there is none.
But we're missing something important, as our English translations have so hinted here. (And we could get into the Greek, but it's not so important here to do so.)
See, there are different reasons why persons lack a belief in Jesus. Some, as we call them, are unbelievers. Others, as we also often say, are not believers. This matters.
Persons who are not believers are a bit easier to work with. They likely haven't had exposure to the message of Christ or they have not had much reason to really consider it. Their issue is ignorance - they simply haven't heard. When we come into contact with the not believers, then, our task is to present the Gospel message. It's to make an introduction. It is to grab these persons by the hand and place their hand in Christ's and say, "Here you go. Talk to Him. He's got something really cool to tell you."
Of course, it's overly optimistic to think that every not believer that we introduce to Jesus is going to hit it off with Him. But it's still wise to know when the person with whom we are interacting simply has not had a chance to know; it tells us where to start.
The unbelievers are a bit trickier. Unbelievers are actively not believing. They have likely been introduced to Jesus. They probably know the stories. They have had ample opportunity to come to know Him. But they're not buying it. Either they don't believe they need a savior or they don't believe He's it.
Unbelievers usually have trouble not just with the idea of Jesus, but also with the presentation of Him. It's this group that is looking most critically at Christians, trying to figure out what possible difference this Jesus makes and often concluding, He doesn't. It is this group that is calling out our hypocrisy. It is this group that is mocking our faith. It is this group that is noticing the difference between real faith and blind hope, and deciding that for most Christians, this Jesus seems more hope than faith. It is this group that presses us to be better at this Jesus thing.
For the sake of the lost.
You can't just tell an unbeliever the stories; they've already heard them. You can't just introduce them to Jesus; they've already met. You have to step up your game around an unbeliever and demonstrate the difference. You have to make Jesus not only amazing, but relevant. They're looking for a God that matters, and if you can't show them that He does, what good is your God? They're just as well off without Him.
Again, it's important to know what we're dealing with when we face an unbeliever.
It's tempting to think there are only two categories of persons when it comes to God - those who believe in Him and those who don't. But the truth is much more complicated, and the answer even moreso. It's right to have a heart for the lost, but if we don't stop to consider the ground on which we must meet them, we're wasting our breath.
That person you're thinking of right now, the one that lacks a belief in Jesus...could it be your approach? Do you know who you're dealing with? Is it an unbeliever or a not believer?
These things matter.