Christmas Doubt

My older sister wanted to go to college out of state. We grew up in a small town in California. So she decided to go to college in New York City. It was as far out of state as she could get—both physically and metaphorically.

She wanted to see the world from a different perspective. And she did. As I remember it, this became clear one Christmas break when she announced that she was no longer a Christian.

It’s not an unfamiliar story to many parents.

Your son or daughter may or may not be in college. But at some point, your child (young or old) will question and maybe even walk away from the Christian faith.

A recent study by the Fuller Youth Institute found that “seventy percent of students…reported having doubts in high school about what they believed about God and the Christian faith.”  Often these times of doubt come during the Christmas season. Because it’s a natural time of year to reflect on whether or not the Christmas story and all it implies is really true.

How can parents respond?

Here are three simple responses that will help you help your children as they work through doubts and unbelief:

  1. Give your child time and space to share their doubts

Don’t respond first with arguments. Instead, listen to your child’s doubts. Ask them what led them to their doubt? Praise them for thinking seriously about matters of faith. Allow them to critique, challenge, and even deny their faith. Don’t critique their critiquing. Instead, ask questions that seek to understand where they are coming from. And keep the dialogue going.

  1. Expose them to other Christian viewpoints

Often when your child questions Christianity, he or she is really just questioning their understanding of Christianity. New York City pastor, Timothy Keller, is famous for saying to young skeptics, “Describe the God you don’t believe in. Maybe I don’t believe that God either.” He then encourages skeptics to expand their understanding of Christianity by learning about how other Christians around the world understand and worship God, deal with suffering, and live the Christian life. As a parent, one of the best things you can do for your child is expose them to the breadth of Christian thought and practice throughout history and around the world.

  1. Remember this may be just a season

Don’t blow them off assuming this “phase” will pass. But don’t freak out assuming this “phase” is permanent. Remember God is bigger than our doubts. He’s not scared or offended by them. God is still at work in your child’s life, even if you or your child can’t see it. If you prayerfully pursue the above two actions it will only be a matter of time before you see what God is up to in the life of your child.

My older sister is actually proof that God is faithful even in the midst of doubt. Today, she loves Jesus, is committed to the church, and is married to an Anglican priest!

Hopefully, your Christmas season won’t involve any denials of faith. But if it does, see the moment as a door for opportunities. An opportunity to listen to your child’s story. An opportunity to expose your child to other Christian stories. And an opportunity to trust God that your child is still a part of His story.

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Two simple things parents can do to keep their kids walking with God

 

At some point every parent realizes time with their kids is running out. That their kids will soon leave the house. That their kids will soon make life choices without their consent.  As Christians we worry that one of those choices might be to walk away from their faith.

It’s a valid concern.

According to LifeWay Research, “70% of young adults who indicated they attended church regularly for at least one year in high school do, in fact, drop out”[1]. About two-thirds will eventually return at some point, but nevertheless that is a large number, even if it is just for a season.

So what can parents do to beat the statistics?

It may be of some comfort to know that this is not a new problem. In fact, it is a very old problem.

About 3,000 years ago a Levite named Asaph, who worked as a musician for King David, wrote Psalm 78. Within the song Asaph speaks of what must be done so that the next generation will not become “a stubborn and rebellious generation, whose hearts were not loyal to God, whose spirits were not faithful to him.”(Ps 78:8)

Asaph is concerned for his kids, and all the children of Israel. He is concerned that one day they might not follow in the faith of their fathers.

So what is Asaph’s solution?

He commends parents (and leaders) to do just two things. Pass down the Deeds and Decrees of the Lord.

Deeds

In verse four Asaph writes,

 We will not hide them from their descendants; we will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord, his power, and the wonders he has done.

And in verse seven he writes,

Then they would put their trust in God and would not forget his deeds

For Asaph, telling the next generation what God has done was of utmost importance. He understood that in order for people (of all ages) to know God, they must first hear about the works of God.

Today God calls parents to do the same thing. We are called to simply share with our kids what God has done. But not just in the Bible. We’re called to share what God has done, and is doing, in our lives.

I’ve found that most students want to hear how God is working in the lives of their parents. They don’t want a lecture. But they do want a story. They’d like to hear about a time when their parents needed God’s help and how he came through.

As a parent, your stories offer hope to your students. Hope that the same God who helped you will in turn be the same God who will help them.

Decrees

Stories are great. But stories alone are not enough to sustain the faith of a student. Asaph longed to pass down more than stories. He also longed to pass down the decrees of God.

In verses 5-7 he writes,

He decreed statutes for Jacob and established the law in Israel, which he commanded our ancestors to teach their children, so the next generation would know them, even the children yet to be born, and they in turn would tell their children. Then they would put their trust in God and would not forget his deeds but would keep his commands.

For most of us, “commands/decrees” have a negative connotation. But Asaph knew the commands of God were good. He knew the words of King David:

Blessed is the one…whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night…whatever he does prospers. (Psalm 1:1-3)

He knew that people (of all ages) grow in a deeper relationship with God when they begin to delight in the decrees of God.

What might this look like for parents today?

Parents don’t have to hang the Ten Commandments on their kid’s bedroom wall (they can if they want). But they may want to talk to their kids about the choices they are making and why they are making them.

It is helpful for parents to explain to their kids why it is they follow the decrees of God. Parents can share why it is they don’t cheat on their taxes. Or why it is they don’t lie. They can share with their kids why it is they try to do what is right. And how doing what is right in God’s eyes has benefited them.

Again kids don’t want a lecture. But they are interested in real life case studies–especially from people they know. Giving them real life examples of the benefits of God’s decrees will show them that God can be trusted. It will show them God is good. And ultimately it will inspire them to delight in God.

We can’t force our kids to continue in a relationship with God. But we can model for them what an authentic relationship with God looks like. This happens when we spend time (lots of time) sharing with them the deeds of God and the benefits of the decrees of God. And when we do these two things we might just see our independent kids desiring to grow with God rather than choosing to walk away from God.

 

 

[1] http://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2014/may/dropouts-and-disciples-how-many-students-are-really-leaving.html?paging=off

 

Finding Peace: Week Four of Advent

I think I may have missed my calling to be a beauty pageant contestant—because I sincerely desire world peace.

But is world peace even possible?

Our society feeds on conflict. Whether it’s 24 hours of almost entirely negative news, inflammatory political rants from talk-radio hosts, or the latest firestorm on social media about the actions of a celebrity. It is all just noise that spoons conflict into our lives. We eat it up. And we can’t get enough of it.

Then we complain about it. We love to complain about it. We love to tell anybody who will listen, and many people who don’t want to listen, what in the world (or at least our world) is messed up.

And this of course breeds stress, anxiety, and anger, in our lives and the lives of others. With the result, that each day our world becomes a little less peaceful.

But we say it’s not our fault:

If only those people over there would stop doing….then there would be peace.

If only that leader would start doing…then there would be peace.

If only this or that person would change…then, the world, our families, and our lives would be peaceful.

But God’s Word tells us something different.

Peace is not dependent on the actions of others. Peace comes to us when we enter into the presence of the Prince of Peace, Jesus Christ.

Paul’s Perspective

The Apostle Paul shows us what this looks like. While confined to house arrest in Rome, he wrote the following encouragement to a suffering church in Philippi:

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:4-9)

Did you catch Paul’s recipe for peace?

Peace comes through joyful worship of Jesus (4)

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!

Peace comes through prayerful reliance on God through Jesus (6-7)

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Peace comes through the enjoyment of the things of God (8-9)

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things...And the God of peace will be with you.

The point is, despite our circumstances, peace is available to us now.

It is true that this is not the same kind of peace we will have in heaven. Now, our peace is fleeting. In heaven it will be continual. But the peace we experience in heaven will come from doing the same kind of things we are now able to do on earth. That is, the continual worship, reliance, and enjoyment of Jesus Christ.

What Paul knew is that, as long as we have access to Jesus, we have access to peace- the peace of God, that transcends all understanding.

So if you, like me, sincerely desire peace, then join me this week and come into the presence of the Prince of Peace, Jesus Christ.

Let’s turn off our 24-hour news channels. Let’s change the station on our political talking heads. And lets take a breather from our social media outrage.

And instead, lets spend time praising Jesus, relying on Jesus, and enjoying the gifts of Jesus–then we might just taste the beginnings of world peace.

 

For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace
there will be no end.

(Isaiah 9:6-7)

 

 

How You Might Be Leading Your Friends To Hell

In a recent interview, billionaire and long time atheist Ted Turner, said, “I don’t want to go to Hell.” The soon to be 75 year old, still considers himself to be an agnostic, but now he is open to the possibility that “somebody is out there.”  And to show that he is serious about avoiding eternal damnation, he has, in his latter years, focused on doing good. He has been very generous with his wealth and has become an advocate and supporter of many worthwhile causes.  But is all his good deeds enough to get him into Heaven? Jane Fonda, an openly Christian women, who also happens to be Turner’s former wife says, when it comes to Heaven, Ted Turner is a “shoo-in.”  Why is she so sure about his eternal security? Here is an excerpt from the article:

Fonda said she believes Turner’s childhood traumas left him so protective of himself that he had trouble opening up emotionally. But, she said, he does want to get into Heaven. And, she said, he’s a shoo-in.
 
“Given his childhood,” Fonda said, “he should’ve become a dictator. He should’ve become a not nice person. The miracle is that he became what he is. A man who will go to Heaven, and there’ll be a lot of animals up there welcoming him, animals that have been brought back from the edge of extinction because of Ted. He’s turned out to be a good guy. And he says he’s not religious. But he, the whole time I was with him, every speech — and he likes to give speeches — he always ends his speech with ‘God bless.’ And he’ll get into Heaven. He’s a miracle.”
 

The interviewer then summed up the article this way:

 The old Ted Turner — the one who made billions and won the America’s Cup and the World Series and launched CNN — probably would have tried to buy his way in. But the do-gooder Ted is earning his way in by saving bison and other endangered species and fighting for the oceans and preserving 2 million acres of ranch land and standing up for women and supporting causes near and dear to the United Nations.
 
That Ted Turner gets into Heaven, by Jane Fonda’s accounting.

 

Now, I am sure Jane Fonda was just trying to be nice. And maybe she plans on having many more salvation conversations with her still-good-friend Ted Turner. But if the CNN article is an accurate description of her beliefs, then sadly she is not only keeping Ted from Heaven, but inadvertently leading Ted to Hell.

To be fair it is hard for any Christian not to think that somehow the good deeds of their non believing friends or family might get them into Heaven. But the Bible is clear, no amount of good works gets any person into Heaven.

Isaiah 64:6 All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags.

Ephesians 2:8-9  For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.

Titus 3:5 [God] saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy.

How then does one go to Heaven?

John 14:6 Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

Romans 10:9 If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

Acts 2:38 Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

There is only one way to Heaven:

Repent of your sins, confess Jesus as Lord of your life, and thereby receive God’s free gift of grace and forgiveness.

Matt Chandler once wrote, ““the idolatry that exists in a man’s heart always wants to lead him away from his Savior and back to self-reliance” Our good works are often just a veiled form of self-reliance. But the good news of Jesus Christ is that we no longer have to rely on ourselves (especially for salvation), instead we are now able to rely solely on the grace of God. We were made to be God-dependent, not independent.

On the cross, Jesus did all the good work necessary for you and me to go to Heaven. There is nothing we can or need to add to that.

So for all of us who, like Ms. Fonda, have friends and family like Ted who don’t want to go to Hell, let us not give them false hope in their good works. Instead, let us lead them to the One True Hope, Jesus Christ, because their good works can’t get them into Heaven, but they can lead them into Hell.

 

 

 

The Awesome Opportunity of a Post-Christian Society

It has happened more than once. At youth group, while I explain how Jesus died on the cross for our sins, a student raises his or her hand and with a puzzled look on their face says, “Wait, people killed Jesus… WHY?”  These are usually the same kids who have never opened a Bible in their life.  And a few of them have never even seen one. They literally do not know what a Bible is. Ten to twenty years ago this phenomenon was rare at youth group, but now, at least where I live, it’s not uncommon.

We live in a post-Christian society. That is a society where the majority of people can no longer accurately articulate the core message of Christianity.  Most people do not know what it means to be a Christian or what Christianity is about.  Now it’s possible this depresses you, but I hope it actually excites you.

Really.

It’s exciting because now, most people do not know what the gospel of Jesus Christ is. And now, unlike before, it has never been easier to share the gospel with others.

Last Tuesday night students from our high school youth group went around our city to share the gospel.  Our goal was simple: just talk with people who are open and willing to listen. No arguing, no judging, no selling Jesus. We just wanted to share the good news of Jesus with people who were open to hearing it.

Our plan was simple:

1.            Ask God to lead us to the right people

2.            Ask people if they had heard of the gospel. If they had, ask what it means to them. If they had not, ask if we could explain it to them.

3.            Ask if we could explain the gospel using a handout from Dare2Share ministries (sometimes students literally just read the paper).

4.            Ask if they understood what was explained.

5.            Ask if they would like to trust Jesus with their life.

 

Many of the students were still very nervous to talk to strangers about Jesus. They had never done anything like this before. They thought people would be mean to them. They thought people might make fun of them. They thought they would look stupid.  But none of this happened.

The results were awesome. Almost every student shared the gospel with someone. One girl shared the gospel with an entire soccer team at a Dairy Queen. Another student shared the gospel with a woman who afterward responded saying, “That gives me a new perspective on things.” Sure, some people said they didn’t want to talk, and when that happen we sincerely replied, “Ok, have great day.” But the truth is most people were open to listening to a student explain to them the gospel of Jesus Christ. Why? Because they had never heard it before, or because they were not able to explain it themselves.

We may live in a post-Christian society.  But this only means we live in a society with a wonderful opportunity. If we’re willing we will have the opportunity to go out and share the good news of Jesus Christ with many who have never heard it before. And that is awesome.

 

What’s your favorite method for sharing the gospel? Is there anything you need to help you share the gospel? (Seriously, let me know and I’d be happy to help you.)

God’s not so big plans for your life…

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I remember the chapel like it was yesterday.  In a college gymnasium, surrounded by thousands of students, I sat on what was usually an uncomfortably hard wooden bench.  But on that day, my body did not squirm for comfort, because on that day my complete attention was on the charismatic Christian speaker in front of me.  His sermon was well-crafted, his stories were funny, and all his applications of scripture were convincing.  And with the Bible in his hand and deep conviction in his heart, he proclaimed with prophetic boldness words that spoke to my soul….”God,” he said, “has big plans for your life!”  But his sermon did not end there.  No, he then went on to give us the really good news: “God has bigger plans for your life than you could ever imagine.”

And thus began my season of despair…

Looking back, the problem was two-fold. One, at the time I could imagine some pretty big plans for my life. Once, when reading an article about a Billy Graham crusade, I saw a black and white photo of Dr. Graham preaching to a crowd of a million people.  At the time it was the largest evangelistic crusade in history.  With complete seriousness, I looked at that picture and prayed, “God would you use me to preach to two million people?”  And, truth be told, at that time I could have imagined myself preaching to three million— if God needed me to.

Of course some will respond that I misinterpreted the speaker’s use of the phrase “big plans”.   And I could not agree more.  But this only illuminates the second of the two problems. Often, when well-meaning Christian teachers and preachers say these kinds of things, they never think to define what they mean by the term “big”.   And so students, or chapel listeners (and, let’s be honest, even pastors) are left to define the term on their own. The problem is when most American Christians begin to imagine and dream about what it could mean for God to have “big plans” for their lives, their dreams often start to look like a Christian version of the American Dream.  Tell a college student today that God has “big plans” for their life, and they’ll think God is going to use them to save the world, or at least “their” world—whatever that might be.

There was another chapel speaker that year who talked about God’s plans for your life. His sermon was also well-crafted, his jokes funny, and his scriptural applications convincing.  But there, before a gymnasium full of college students, referencing Tolkien’s famous “The Lord of The Rings” trilogy, he spoke (what I now consider to be) truly prophetic words: “You are not the hero of the story. You are not Frodo. Rather, in the great battle of life, you are more like elf #351. But that is significant, because you are in the story.”

I have come to believe that God’s pleasure is often not in creating “big plans” for our lives (at least not the American kind), but rather in giving significance to the sometimes seemingly small plans He has for us.

Often there is nothing glamorous, nothing inspirational, and nothing “news-worthy” about the work Christ calls us to. Often we are simply called to be obedient and to follow wherever Christ leads.  Most of the time these actions do not seem big at all— but they are significant.  In Christ we are free to give up fantasies of American grandeur and instead rest in the knowledge that our lives are significant, no matter what we do, because it is Christ who gives significance to all of our life. The good news is that our stories are forever intertwined with His story.  And so whatever we do, whether it seems big or small, it is a part of His grand eternal story, and that is significant.

In heaven I imagine we will meet missionaries who gave their lives to the work of the gospel while living in total obscurity.  We will meet pastors who never published a book, never spoke at a conference, and never started a network, but did quietly and faithfully fulfill their calling to shepherd a flock. We will meet businessmen and women who never climbed the corporate ladder, but did live simple lives of kindness, and integrity.  And there in heaven, I imagine we will see for the first time how Christ used every one of these lives and their actions to magnify His presence on earth.  And there, before the throne of God, I imagine we will stand in awe of those once obscure and un-glorious people, and together with all the saints, we will praise God for their significant lives.

Have you ever heard someone tell you God has big plans for your life? What did you think when you heard that? Does the difference between “significant plans” vs. “big plans” resonate with you at all?

How I handle doubts about God

From time to time it happens. I begin to really doubt the existence of God. That might sound taboo coming from a pastor, but honestly there are times when the existence of God just seems crazy. And that’s ok.  Having faith in an unseen, all-powerful being, in a world that screams “believe what you see” and “it’s all about me”, can sometimes take some work.  So what do I do when I start to doubt the very Being I committed my life to? Well, I start by drinking heavily… no, no, no, I’m just kidding. I actually start by asking myself three fundamental questions about existence.

1.  Why is there something rather than nothing?

Our universe is built out of matter—physical stuff—but where did the physical stuff come from?  Matter doesn’t just pop into existence, nor does it exist eternally.  Even famous atheist Richard Dawkins admits we currently don’t know where the matter for the origins of our universe came from. But his best guess is that maybe some intelligent aliens created our universe (http://youtu.be/abugiGHOHg0). That answer of course only pushes the question back to the universe of the aliens: How did they come to exist?  When I think about such things, it makes much more sense to me that something outside and wholly unlike matter created matter. Something that was self- existent, eternal, and immaterial.  Something that was intelligent with the ability to create. Something like God. Richard Dawkins would say, to posit God as creator of our universe is just lazy thinking—like coming up with any answer because you can’t take the time to think of anything better. But God is only a lazy answer if God does not actually exist, and if there are no other reasons to believe in God. But there are at least two other good reasons to believe God exists.

2.  How did life begin?

Now even if the universe did just pop into existence one day, there is still the nagging question, how did life begin?  Because for most of the Darwinian Evolutionary story there isn’t life at all, just lots of things made up of different chemicals. When it comes to the question of how did life begin, even Harvard biologist, Andrew Knoll is honest enough to say “The short answer is we don’t really know how life originated on this planet.”[1]  Now I will be the first to say that there is a difference between what is true, and what could be true but is currently unknown given our limitations. In other words it could be the case that what is true is that life began without God, but we currently lack the technology to explain how that happened. I understand that is possible, but it doesn’t seem highly probable. In the same way, something like matter does not come from nothing, so it seems unlikely that one kind of something (chemicals) would produce a fundamentally different kind of something (life).  But it would make perfect sense for something different, like God (who is himself a living being) to produce something similar to himself (more life). 

3.  What is the purpose of life?

I will be the first to admit that the way my mind answers this last question is the least rational of the three questions. But there is something inside me that hungers for purpose and significance. And when I think about a world in which there is no God, then there is not a lot of room for purpose or significance. In a world without God the most significant thing I could do with my existence is to please me. And truth be told, I have tried that, and yes, there are still times I fall back into that, but every time I do it’s terrible. I am terrible at living for me, because half the time I don’t even know what I want, let alone what will make my life truly significant.  I am terrible at writing the story of my life.  On the other hand, when I live as if God exists (namely the God and Father of Jesus), and when I seek him to determine my purpose and significance, trusting that both those things truly come only from him… well, it’s crazy, but that’s when I actually find myself pleased.

I have asked myself these three questions many times, and I imagine I’ll ask them again. But every time doubt in my Creator arises they have served as the initial roads that lead me back to belief.

In the future I’ll talk about how the bible and personal experience can also serve as two roads which can take one from doubt to belief.

What about you, what are your doubts about faith or God? How do you handle them?