Resources for Following Christ in All of Life
It’s been a year and a half since I left the pastorate of a local church. For sixteen years, I walked people through Scripture and helped them wrestle with how to apply it to their lives. Along the way, I made some assumptions. Many whom I taught had been in the church a long time. They knew how to navigate their Bibles reasonably well. They were generally familiar with major Bible stories, if not much more. And so I taught with certain assumptions that people already knew this or that, believing it was rarely necessary to re-hash the basics.
For the last year and a half, my assumptions have been challenged, at least for the larger church in Houston. During these 18 months I have taught in a variety of well-resourced congregations. I’ve also met with hundreds of Christians in offices, homes, and coffee shops. And along the way I’ve changed my assumptions about how familiar Christians in general are with the what, why, and how of their faith. Maybe what I’ve learned will make you re-think your assumptions as well.
Many Christians can’t tell you what Christianity is all about.
One of my favorite questions to ask is: “If you had to describe to someone what Christianity is all about, what would you say?” Sometimes, I ask this of people who do not call themselves Christians to see what their perspective of Christianity is. It’s not surprising that they come up with broad-ranging descriptions of the message of Christianity. But what is most revealing to me is how few Christians can offer much better clarity. You might be quick to say, “Well, that’s probably because they are not really Christians after all.” I wouldn’t be so quick to make that judgment though. In many cases, I think Christians have a number of the basics right, but are poor at communicating them very well. But that’s a problem too, isn’t it? What if you were to ask the “What is Christianity all about?” question to everyone at your church, what percentage would include something of sin and judgment, would tell of Christ and His grace, or would speak of faith instead of works in order to know Christ’s forgiveness? Based on the responses I’ve received of late, I am guessing it’s a lot fewer than you think.
Even fewer Christians know why they believe what they do.
I like to help people think through why they believe what they do regardless of their faith background. When it comes to Christians, I’ll ask questions like: “If someone asked you how you know God is real and not a figment of your imagination, what would you say?” And “If someone wonders if the Bible is more than just some man-made stories that probably aren’t even true, what would be your response?” Or, I might ask, “Suppose someone believes the existence of evil and suffering in the world is a clear defeater for the existence of God, what would you say?” Frequently, when I ask these questions, I get a blank stare. Christians by and large have no idea how to respond to these questions, even if they are among the minority who can communicate what Christianity is all about. In other words, even Christians who are clear on what to believe rarely know why they believe it. The best many can say is: “Well, I just have faith.” Some people consider Christianity blind faith, which I am afraid for many Christians isn’t too far from the truth.
A tiny few have any sense of how to share Christ with others in an effective way.
Ask a Christian if she thinks it is important to tell others about Christ and she will likely say yes. But close behind that declaration, she’ll say something like, “But I am not very good at it.” That answer is probably not a surprise when you consider my first two discoveries. If people are unable to share the basics of Christianity and they are unable to explain why they believe what they do, that is going to make sharing Christ with others particularly challenging. But beyond that, many Christians think evangelism involves a different kind of engaging with people than what they already do day to day. The result is when they do try to share with others, they get stiff and awkward and sometimes argumentative. No wonder they don’t feel very good at it! Perhaps you have been telling those under your pastoral care to share Christ more. That’s all well and good if they know how to do so in a manner that will resonate with the listener. But I doubt that’s a reasonable assumption.
Now you might guess that I am sharing these thoughts as a knock on the average American Christian. But that is not my point at all. I am sharing these thoughts because I think as church leaders, we are largely responsible for what the average American Christian looks like. And what I have discovered is that we have failed those under our care. Indeed, I failed those under my care.
There are all kinds of great things I can do as a pastor. I can exegete passages, so people are aware of Scriptural details. I can lead people in great community programs that meet important needs. I can see that kids and teens have places to hang out in what we might call a better environment. I can even lead my congregation to give generously to “professional” evangelists and missionaries. But if in all that, I am not seeing to it that those who call themselves Christians can clearly communicate what Christianity is all about, are able to explain why they believe what they believe, and know how to share comfortably with others, I have fallen short in my calling. Perhaps you have too.
It’s been a quest. I think that’s how I would describe my life: a quest. I’ve wanted to know answers. I’ve never asked my mom or dad, but I am guessing I was one of those kids who asked why to just about everything. I doubt most friends would frame my life in that way today, because somewhere along the way most of my why’s stopped getting voiced. They just went on inside my head.
Many today have some church experience. Maybe they grew up going to church on Christmas and Easter. Maybe a bit more. Maybe all the time. I was one of the latter. My family was a church-going family, and I didn’t have a problem with that. I liked the people at church, and had lots of friends there. Often we did fun things in “children’s church,” and I could earn a little star by name for memorizing something or other. When I got into junior high I even thought some of the girls were cute. But like a lot of kids, somewhere along the line, I figured out the party line. I don’t say that to put the church down, because just about every organization, whether it’s a church, a school, or a business, has a party line. There are certain answers you are supposed to give to questions, and there are certain things you shouldn’t ask about.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I think there’s something not so good about that. About not feeling overly free to ask the questions you have. And I think this is especially true when it comes to some of the important questions of life. I say this because there are some really good questions that need to get asked, like: How do we know God really exists? Is the Bible historical or is it made up stories like Aesop’s fables? What’s this about Jesus doing miracles and rising from the dead? What about science, doesn’t it contradict the Bible? And how can one explain evil and suffering in the world if God is all-powerful and all-loving? Now, if you are solidly on the Christian side, you might have all those questions settled, or perhaps they just don’t matter to you anymore. But, I’ve met with a lot of people, Christian or not, who have never gotten good answers to these questions. And as a result, they are stuck.
That’s why my life has been a quest. I’ve needed to answer these questions for myself. Being told you just need to have more faith isn’t going to satisfy. And it shouldn’t satisfy us. Jesus didn’t just tell people to have faith. He gave them evidence on which to make a rational decision as to who he was. Do you remember John the Baptist—the one who boldly and publicly declared Jesus was the Messiah? Do you remember that later in his life he began to doubt? He wondered whether he had gotten it right. That’s right, John the Baptist (whom Jesus said was the greatest man ever born of a woman) had doubts. In fact, his doubts festered enough that he sent a message to Jesus to ask whether he really was the Messiah. And how did Jesus respond? He didn’t say, “Have more faith.” He said, “The blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear.” In other words, he said, “Go, look at the evidence, John.”
And I think that is what God has been saying to me over the years. He’s been saying, “Go, look at the evidence, John.” And then beyond that, I’ve sensed him saying, “And help other people look at it too.” I spend most of my days now helping people with their questions about life, God, and the Bible. And people have really good questions. And the best thing I’ve discovered is that God isn’t afraid of them. And if He is not afraid of them, then I don’t need to be afraid of them. I don’t need to be afraid of asking them and I don’t need to be afraid of being asked them. Because more often than not, there are really good answers. Answers that make sense. Answers that help get people unstuck on their very own quest.
I sit looking out the window as I write. The rain continues to fall, just as it has for the past three days. We are told that three more days of rain are still to come. Buildings are flooding, streets are collapsing, levees threaten to be breached. If Houston were a towel, I cannot imagine how many days, and months, and even years, it would take to wring it dry. One of the most disconcerting facts of the storm is that it hems you in. My neighborhood remains in good shape. Our drainage has been good, and all is well…for now. Not far from us, though, are friends who have been flooded out. We want to help, but the roads are closed. Hopelessly unable to help, we sit, and I write.
I get asked questions frequently about God and life and faith. There is hardly a question asked more frequently than, Why does the bad stuff happen? Or more specifically, Why are there hurricanes and tornadoes and floods, and where is God, if He exists, in the midst of them? I wonder if questions like these will become more frequent in the days to come. In some ways, I hope they do. They are worthy of the times.
The God and suffering question can be approached in many ways. I won’t attempt to come at it from all the possible angles. Here I will just offer one. Let me say upfront, however, that I never propose to answer why God has allowed a particular disaster to befall anyone. I do not know if God has very specific reasons for seeing a family lose a child, or for a Midwestern town being decimated by a tornado, or for a city like Houston experiencing massive flooding. I do believe, though, that there are some general reasons that can give us perspective, and one has to do with deeper magic.
Deeper magic is not my phrase. I borrow it from C.S. Lewis. He used it in his classic The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Aslan, the Christ-like figure, was willingly captured by the witch and killed. All seemed lost for those who had any desire for good in the land of Narnia. But then Lewis’ story reminds us that in the dark hour of Aslan’s death, there was a deeper magic at play. Evil’s seeming victory was short-lived; Goodness would win and the witch and her minions would find themselves on the run from there on out.
One way to look at the Houston flooding is to believe there is a deeper magic at work. There are lost lives, and homes, and businesses, and dreams. But perhaps, just maybe, there is a deeper work going on that more than justifies the scale of suffering, a work that will make even this disaster seem like a light and momentary affliction.
Towards the end of Jesus’ life, he spoke of his return. A return not marked by the grace of his first coming, but by a judgment that would separate the sheep from the goats, those who sought his mercy and forgiveness from those who didn’t. Among his words, is this warning:
But as for that day and hour no one knows it — not even the angels in heaven — except the Father alone. For just like the days of Noah were, so the coming of the Son of Man will be. For in those days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark. And they knew nothing until the flood came and took them all away. It will be the same at the coming of the Son of Man. (Matthew 24:36-39)
Of course, given the circumstances besetting Houston at this time, the term flood jumps off the page. “What? Did Jesus say flood?” Yes, he did. He referred to a flood that makes what is happening in Houston child’s play. Even if you don’t believe there could have been a global flood, there are simply too many ancient accounts of a catastrophic flood to think that something of monumental proportions did not happen in the days of Noah. But let’s look at Jesus’ point in bringing up that epic flood. Maybe we will find some deeper magic at work.
Jesus says that the day of his impending judgment cannot be predicted. No three- or four-day warning like we get on The Weather Channel. Think if no warnings had been given in advance of today’s Houston flooding. How much more damage would there be? How many more lives would be lost? But Jesus is emphatic, there will be no specific warning of his return. The warning is the warning he gave when he first walked the earth. The warning is the warning given when the earth flooded in Noah’s day. And the warning is floods that happen today in cities like Houston.
Scripture tells us in no uncertain terms that God promised never to send another flood like that which beset Noah’s era, but it says nothing of God promising not to send smaller regional floods and disasters. So how do we interpret these events? I tend to believe it is best to think of them as aftershocks of sorts, as echoes of the same warning spoken in the flood of all floods. Jesus said the flood of Noah’s day caught people off guard. They should have known better; they should have listened to Noah. But they didn’t, and they paid dearly for it. They didn’t heed his call.
Now, echoing through the millennia, is a similar call to be ready. Tornadoes and earthquakes and hurricanes cry out to us: “Turn back, get on the boat, call out to Jesus! No time to waste! He will return, and there will be no second chances!” In Noah’s day “people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark.” Sadly, people do the same today. They live with no thought of what is beyond. They mock the coming return of Jesus, by doing as they please. No worries, be happy” is their mantra. All the while, the clock ticks down, the flood waters gather their wrath.
“So what about the deeper magic?” you ask. “What deeper magic is there in all of this flooding?” It is this: Some will hear the echoing message wrapped up in Houston’s flood waters. Some will be reminded that this life is fragile. Some will recognize they are nothing compared to nature and its Creator and Sustainer. And some, in the midst of all this tragedy, will make themselves ready. Not ready for an elongated power outage, or for months or years without a home. But ready for eternity. And they will make themselves ready by turning to Jesus. And they will be saved, not for a day, not to live for a few more decades, but from evil and death into all eternity.
If this deeper magic is at work, then Houston’s flooding is not a loss, not by a long shot. And we have reason, even as the rain continues to fall, to give thanks and praise to the One who opens the heavens.
John likes to help people wrestle with the big questions of life in his work with Search Ministries. He served as a pastor in Houston for 16 years, earned his doctorate at Biola University, and is a contributing author of Reasons to Believe: Thoughtful Responses to Life’s Toughest Questions.