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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Why Is Faith a Good Thing?

In a recent interview, Bill Maher asked Ralph Reed,[1] “[If] faith [is] the purposeful suspension of critical thinking…why is faith a good thing?”[2]

How would you respond to Bill Maher’s question?

First, we should take Bill Maher’s question seriously, understanding that his understanding of faith is a popular one.

But next, we should redefine “faith”.  Because, contrary to popular belief, faith is not “the purposeful suspension of critical thinking,”…at least not Christian faith.

Christian faith actually depends on critical thinking. For example, Easton’s Bible Dictionary defines faith as “the persuasion of the mind that a certain statement is true…in accordance with the evidence on which it rests.”[3] From this definition we see that faith presupposes evidence.

What does this look like?

When I was 18, I needed an appendectomy—my appendix was about to burst. The idea of surgery made me nervous, until my doctor informed me that he had already successfully completed six appendectomies just that day. Upon hearing this information I felt better.

What changed? My faith. Specifically, my faith that arose from my critical thinking.

My critical thinking told me that if the doctor had already completed six successful surgeries earlier that day, then he knew what he was doing. This reasoning led me to have faith that my doctor would also perform my surgery well. My faith did not arise from the “suspension of critical thinking.” On the contrary, it came about because of my critical thinking.

Christian faith is the same way. As Hebrews 11:1 states, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Yes, faith is hope in things not seen. But this hope comes with assurance and conviction. Where does the assurance and conviction come from? It comes from our critical thinking. Specifically, our thinking about and understanding of what God has revealed to us through his general and special revelation.[4]

Now that we’ve properly defined “faith”, at least Christian faith, we’re now ready to answer the question, why is faith a good thing?

Timothy Keller has written, “It is not the strength of your faith but the object of your faith that actually saves you.”[5] Faith for faith’s sake is not a good thing. But faith becomes a good thing when the object of faith is a good thing.

Go back to my surgery. Having faith before my surgery was, for me, a good thing. It led me not to freak out. But my faith was good only because my faith was placed in a good object—the experienced doctor. In the same way, Christian faith is good because, as Christians, we have a very good object of our faith—Jesus Christ.

So what does this mean for us today?

Well, if we really believe faith to be a good thing (and want others to believe the same), we need to ask ourselves some hard questions.

What are we communicating to others about our faith? Does it appear that our faith is a faith that suspends critical thinking? Or is it clear that our Christian faith is a faith that relies on critical thinking? And do we appear to value faith just for faith’s sake? Or is it clear to others that what is good and most valuable about our faith is the object of our faith, Jesus Christ?

I pray, that as Christians, we will show the world what true faith is all about.

 


 

[1] Ralph Reed is a conservative American political activist, best known as the first executive director of the Christian Coalition

[2] “Bill Maher Spars With Ralph Reed Over Literal Interpretation Of The Bible,” June 6, 2014, http://crooksandliars.com/2014/06/bill-maher-spars-ralph-reed-over-literal

[3] M. G. Easton, Easton’s Bible Dictionary.                                          

[4] General revelation is that which can be known about God through nature. Special revelation is that which can be known about God through Scripture.

[5] Timothy Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism.

How do I know if my kids are maturing in their faith?

Every Christian parent wants their kid(s) to mature in the Christians faith. But often it’s hard to define what that looks like. Does it look like a student reading his or her Bible more? Does it look like a student being more involved in church programs? Does it look like a student just not walking away from his or her faith after high school?

All of those are good markers of growth. But talk to a few Christian parents with adult “kids” and you’re sure to hear a few stories of kids who once read their Bibles, loved going to church, left for college grounded in their faith, but now are completely apathetic about their faith or worse have no faith at all.

So what are we to do?

One helpful  thing to do is to first change the way we think about what “mature faith” looks like. Personally, I  like the comparison chart created by pastor and youth ministry coach Mark DeVries. It provides a clear distinction between childhood faith and mature adult faith.

 

Comparison of Childhood Faith and Mature Adult Faith[1]

Childhood Faith Mature Adult Faith
  • Good Christians don’t have pain or disappointment.
  • God uses our pain and disappointment to make us better Christians.
  • God helps those who help themselves.
  • God helps those who admit their own helplessness.
  • God wants to make us happy.
  • God wants to make us into the image of Jesus.
  • Faith will help us always explain what God is doing (things always work out).
  • Faith helps us stand under God’s sovereignty even when we have no idea what God is doing.
  • The closer we get to God, the more perfect we become.
  • The closer we get to God, the more we become aware of our own sinfulness.
  • Mature Christians have answers.
  • Mature Christians can wrestle honestly with tough questions because we trust that God has the answers.
  • Good Christians are always strong.
  • Our strength is in admitting our weakness.
  • We go to church because our friends are there, we have great leaders, and we get something out of it.
  • We go to church because we belong to the body of Christ.

 

As parents, our job is simply to help our kids move from childhood beliefs to mature beliefs.

So how do we do that?

Here are a couple options to get us started. If our kids are old enough we can share this chart with them, and then ask them what they think…likely, a conversation will take off from there.

If our kids are younger, (or we’re just not ready to have a deep conversation with them yet), then the best thing to do is simply hang the chart somewhere we’ll see it. Then we can begin regularly praying these things for our kids (and ourselves). God will take it from there.

No one is in a better position than parents to help their kids mature in their walk with Jesus. God wants to use you. I pray this chart will serve as a helpful tool in that effort.

 


 

[1] Mark Devries. Family-Based Youth Ministry. IVP Press. 2004. P. 27

Jesus Still Heals

Jesus healsI want to praise Jesus for healing my kids. But I am not quite sure how to do it. Because the moment I talk about a healing, I feel like I have to defend the fact that it really happened.

I feel like I have to make a case for why it wasn’t just the sickness running its course. Or why it wasn’t just the medicine we used. Or why I think Jesus’ healing power is actually the best explanation of what happened.

I have no doubt that time and medicine all had their part to play. But here’s what I also know:

When I left for a three day retreat all three of my kids were sick with fevers. When I came home they were still sick with fevers.  Then last night before bed I prayed over each one by laying my hand on them, asking Jesus to heal their bodies, and then commanding their bodies to be healed. In the morning all of them were doing much better-  my two oldest were even fever free.

Was their healing the result of  sleep, medicine, and time? Maybe. But maybe it was also the power of Jesus.

Jesus loves to heal

Healing was such a major part of Jesus’ ministry.  Here’s just a  sample of verses from the gospel of Matthew which show this :

Matthew 4:23 Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people.

Matthew 8:1-3When Jesus came down from the mountainside, large crowds followed him. 2 A man with leprosy came and knelt before him and said, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.”3 Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” Immediately he was cleansed of his leprosy.

Matthew 8:14-15 When Jesus came into Peter’s house, he saw Peter’s mother-in-law lying in bed with a fever. 15 He touched her hand and the fever left her, and she got up and began to wait on him.

Matthew 8:16 When evening came, many who were demon-possessed were brought to him, and he drove out the spirits with a word and healed all the sick.

Matthew 14:14 When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick.

And it was not just Jesus who did the healing. He also sent out his disciples to do the same thing:

Matthew 10:7-8 7 As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ 8 Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give.

 

So why does healing, whether big or small, make us so uncomfortable? I know in my head that Jesus still heals today. I have seen him do it through others, and even through me before. But I still wrestle with it. I want to boldly praise him for what he has done. But on the other hand I don’t want to sound crazy, look naïve, or be foolish.

But today I am going to risk it.  I choose to believe that Jesus still heals. And that by his leading and power on some level he healed my kids.

So thank you Jesus for healing my kids! And if it’s not too much trouble I love to see you do it again.

 

 

 

What are your thoughts about Jesus using us to heal others?

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?

Evil and Grace

Jesus on cross black and white

Why did God let a madman shoot up a school? Better yet, why did He let Adam sin? Better yet, why did He let Satan into the garden? Better yet, why did He let evil into Satan’s heart?

Why is there evil at all?

Sure it’s true that God Himself through Jesus Christ came to rescue sinners from evil and to redeem the world. But why should the world and the people in it need rescuing in the first place? Is God like a man who built a house, rented it out to tenants and then set it on fire so that He could later rescue them? And even if we say that, in God’s case, He did not actively set the house on fire, He just allowed it to happen, He is still the one that had the power to stop it and chose not to. Why?

Some say God did not stop evil because He could not; others say He did not stop evil because He chose not to. Among those who say He chose not to stop evil, there are those who say it is because God is evil, and then there are others who say it is because God wants to work good from the evil.  In either case, God still appears evil. Because even a God who allows the ends to justify the means appears to be a God who is simply a manipulator of creation, like someone just doing the best He can with what He has to work with.

But the God of the Bible is none of these things. So why then did YHWH allow evil into the world?

Imagine evil never existed. Imagine Adam and Eve never sinned. And not only did they never sin they never had the option to sin, because evil was nowhere in existence. What then could we know of God? We could know His power.  We could know His intelligence. But we could never know His Grace.

Grace–unmerited favor–cannot be known in a world without evil.  Grace does not exist in a perfect world because in a perfect world everything is merited.  Every reward is the natural consequence of the perfect action that preceded it. But in a world where there is evil, there are many actions that merit condemnation, judgment, and even wrath. And in that world there is now space for Grace.

In an evil world there is now an open place for favor to be poured out where it should not be. In an evil world Grace shines brightly against the just consequence of condemnation.

Grace…an unknowable quality of God in a world without evil. Could it be that the great I AM is interested in displaying all of who He IS?

In Grace we see a characteristic of God that is wholly unlike any other conceived divine being. In Grace we see the holiness of God (His otherness). In Grace we see the beauty of God. In Grace we see the love of God in a way that otherwise would not be possible.

The Cross, the great symbol of Grace, is not just about salvation from evil, nor is it just about Jesus conquering evil. It is even more: it is a glorious beacon brightly shining in the darkness of night, displaying who God IS.

Evil is necessary for Grace. Grace is an essential attribute of God. God desires to fully display His attributes. Therefore evil exists.

What are your thoughts?

Why pursue Jesus now?

Why not enjoy life now, do whatever I want and then pursue Jesus later…after I’ve had all my fun? This was the question we discussed last night at our high school group. It’s is a good question, one I  thought about in high school and have since thought about as an adult.  For most of us if we’re honest we’d admit that there are times when we see others “enjoying” life apart from God and we can’t help but think— why can’t I do that and then ask for forgiveness later?

But the question is usually asked when we’re not thinking about three things…

1.  I am not in control of when I die.

God says in James 4:13-14

13 Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” 14 Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.

No one has control over their tomorrow.  We can make plans but ultimately our life is in God’s hands.  My family became painfully aware of this truth last fall when my wife’s mother died unexpectedly of a brain aneurism.  She was healthy, full of life, and we should have had many more years with her. But instead our lives were turned upside and we were forced to come to terms with a new reality.

Medical emergencies, car accidents, and even school shootings are everyday reminders that we are not in complete control of our mortality.  So when we assume that we’ll have many tomorrows in order to turn our lives around we’re making a pretty foolish assumption.

2.  God has good things for me to do now

Ephesians 2:10  says, For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

This is one of the greatest promises of God.  If I have given my life to Jesus, then I can know that Jesus has prepared good things for me do. I can literally wake up every morning and say to God, “Would you lead me to the good things you have for me today”. My job, then, is simply to be faithful to where God’s leads me.  The reason I pursue Jesus isn’t just to avoid negative consequences, but rather to enjoy watching God do good things through me.

3.  In Jesus I have access to joy–all the time

This leads to the third truth, in Jesus there is joy—all the time.

Psalm 16:11- You make known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.

In the presence of Jesus there is joy.  Now what I didn’t know in high school was that this verse does not mean that Jesus will fill my life with joyful things.  Instead it means, despite the suffering that may come from external circumstances, there is joy when I acknowledge the presence of Jesus over all my life and chose to praise Him–no matter the situation.

This is actually an amazing experiment to try sometime. Wait till you’re angry, frustrated, sad, depressed, anxious, or stressed out of your mind…and then start worshiping Jesus. Seriously.  Start with the simple stuff, like “Jesus I thank you for giving me a mind, and thoughts, and the ability to think. Jesus I praise you for color and giving me eyes to see it. Jesus I praise for creating good flavors and the ability to enjoy food. Jesus I praise you for the trees outside that look like they are lifting their arms to worship you” …whatever comes to your mind.  As you do this you will literally feel your heart soften, and the beginnings of joy enter in. It is this secret of life that led the Apostle Paul to exclaim, Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! (Philippians 4:4), while suffering in prison. Jesus is worth pursing now, because He offers joy now.

Life maybe short and unpredictable, but in Jesus we know that there are good things planned for us and joy in His presence–now and forever.

When have you been tempted to ask, why can’t I sin now and then ask for forgiveness later? How have you experienced the joy of Jesus’ presence? What has motivated you to pursue Jesus?