Though it’s hard to believe, there was a time in my life when I really savored a good debate. I think it was back when I knew everything (you know, when I was in high school). These days, if you have something controversial you would like to discuss with me, please submit it in writing and wait patiently for me to get back to you in a day or so. Or, on the other hand, maybe I’ll just bake you cookies and hope you don’t bring it up again.
Anyway, back in those simple days, there was one guy in all my classes that loved a good debate as much as I did. We’ll just call him Jimmy. Since we happily and energetically argued about anything, it was no surprise that when I decided that I believed in Christianity this became the ultimate source of fodder for debate. I thought that I really needed to convince Jimmy of the truth that I now held as of eternal importance and he was delighted to find a topic that he could get me really riled and emotionally distraught over. As a new Christian I took some interesting approaches. I wanted to show him how much it hurt God’s heart to have his name used in vain. So, the lucky day we were paired as partners in chemistry class I decided to exclaim, “Jimmy!” or “By Jimmy, now you’ve done it!” whenever something would go wrong just to let him see how it felt to have his name used as a swear word. So he could, you know, empathize with God. He thought God would find it very amusing.
The challenging thing about Jimmy was that he asked really good questions. There were the classic questions like, “What about the people in the jungle that never heard of Jesus? Can you really say that they are going to be damned to Hell?” Then, there were some surprise questions like, “Why do Christian girls wear fancy underwear on dates?” Let’s just say the conversations were unpredictable and lively. And, since I had gone to church consistently for maybe three months and I started every day reading a chapter of the Bible and ‘Our Daily Bread’, I believed I should have an answer for every single question.
Somehow I convinced my friend Jimmy to start reading the Bible. As much as he enjoyed the debate for debate’s sake, I think he also really did earnestly desire to find out what was true. When he came back with his assessment after reading the Gospels (the four books that tell the story of Jesus’ life) and some of the early letters to the church from the apostles (they didn’t have blogs or mass email back then) I was really taken aback. Jimmy said, “I really liked Paul. He was a nice, humble guy. Jesus seemed so arrogant, though.” Jesus was arrogant? I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Or could I? Deep down inside, though I would never have admitted it to Jimmy, I knew what he meant. It was much easier to read what other people said about Jesus than to read what Jesus said about himself. Some of the things he said made me feel uncomfortable. In the first century those things made the religious leaders of the time so uncomfortable that they decided to crucify Him. There wasn’t much I could say to Jimmy about Christianity after that.
After what I saw as my evangelistic failure with Jimmy, I was happy to meet people in college that were excited about sharing their faith. I started attending a Christian group that met on our campus and found some older women (they were like twenty two or something) that taught me how to use a little booklet to share the basics of Christianity and hopefully lead people to say a prayer when we got to the last page. I lived with my sister in an apartment off campus my freshman year. She was not a Christian.
I came home armed with the booklet and asked sweetly, “I was just learning something, can I, umm, practice it with you?” An older sister always eager to see me learn something new, she good naturedly agreed. So, we sat at the table in our little apartment and I shared each point thinking that this would be the moment it would all make sense. We got to the last page. She didn’t say the prayer.
I did keep trying with other people though. This actually led to some good conversations and it was kind of fun to approach strangers and ask them if they wanted to talk about spiritual things. Most people actually do like to discuss big questions and big truth. Do most people like being read a booklet? Not so much.
I didn’t give up on it completely though until I went on a summer missions trip to an inner city. I was helping with children’s programs and kept a bunch of the kiddie version stuck in my purse to easily pull out and share. I did share it; a few times to a few precious children. And, then I realized I was lying. You see, in the adult version, one of the essential truths is that ‘God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.’ I hadn’t thought about what that was really saying until I saw the way it was simplified for kids. There were two drawings of the same child. In the first, before he knew Jesus, his life was a mess. I think they had him doing poorly in school, missing the ball in soccer and his parents were mad at him. In the second picture he had asked Jesus to become the center of his life and everything was wonderful. Good grades, happy parents, goals in soccer. Really? This is what I was going to tell the little girl who lives with her grandmother probably because her father is in jail and her mother is on drugs? The little girl that didn’t speak to me for the first week and now won’t let go of my hand? The little girl who snuggled next to nineteen year old me and whispered that she wished I was her mother? Was I going to tell her that if she prayed a prayer to ask Jesus into her heart that her life would be wonderful? I trashed the booklets.
You see, I realized I had a problem. I thought I had to protect Jesus from the truth.
The truth is not always so pleasant sounding. It goes something like this: God loves you and you might get cancer. God loves you and you might struggle with infertility. God loves you and you might get in a car accident and end up paralyzed. God loves you and someone with evil intentions might break into your home. God loves you and your child might die.
God loves you and you are going to suffer.
The truth also is that there are some really hard questions that I don’t necessarily have good answers for. How can God be completely powerful and still be completely loving when there is so much pain in this world? Why does He let suffering continue so long for the sick and dying when we can barely cope with seeing an old dog suffer and we try to give it a peaceful end? Is God less humane than His creation? What about Hell? What about the unending, painful, crushing, tormenting punishment for still aware, thinking, feeling souls? Can we brush that off? Should we as Christians say that it shouldn’t give unbelievers pause when they think about the validity of what we believe? There are hard questions. I don’t have all the answers.
So should I just lose heart?
I still believe there is a beautiful, freeing, exhilarating story to tell.
With all my heart (and mind) I believe that the Bible really is true. It’s a collection of reliable books that tell the history of the world, of the ancient Jewish people and the accurate history of Jesus and his church. I believe that Jesus lived and was murdered and that he was resurrected so that we could be saved from the disease of sin and the terminal diagnosis that comes with it. I believe that God hears and answers prayer. I believe His love is so much greater than we can fathom. I believe in a lot of hard to understand doctrines like the trinity and the sovereignty of God and the reality of Hell. I believe in the Holy Spirit working in hearts and his church to spread a powerful message called the gospel.
And, I totally get why a lot of really thoughtful people think these things I believe are foolish.
The apostle Paul was a highly educated, respected religious leader. He wanted to see the followers of Christ wiped out. And then, he met Jesus. The message he once thought foolishness became a great treasure. He left his respectable position behind and spent the rest of his life sharing the message.
It was Paul who said, “Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.” (2 Corinthians 4:2,3)
Like Paul, I want to renounce underhanded ways and embrace honesty. I don’t want to soften what the Bible says to make God look better as if I could have written a better story. In the story God authored, Jesus suffered great humiliation and the shame of the cross. Why? Because of his love for those he had come to save.
Do I love others enough to be thought a fool?
“For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.”2 Corinthians 4:7
God places His story, the treasure of the knowledge of the gospel, in jars of clay. Remembering that it is the surpassing power of God that transforms his message from foolishness to shining light, I’m suddenly free to trust Him with His own message. I’m free to give up the debate and really listen to other’s stories and also to their questions, sometimes admitting that I have the same ones. And ultimately, I can love others enough to plainly share the truth even if it makes me a fool in their eyes.
I really don’t enjoy a contentious debate the way I did in high school but I’ve come to really love an honest conversation. I’d love to hear where you are in your own journey of faith.