"Don't ever wish you were someone else, especially not me," I answered. "I believe in Jesus, for sure, and I'm grateful that He went to the cross and rose from the dead for people like me.
"But I'm just a forgiven sinner. And every day I still do, say, and think sinful things, things that don't show love for God or love for others. I have to go back to God every single day, asking Him for forgiveness and for help in living like a Christian."
The man said that he understood all that. What he wanted was a stronger faith. He wanted to be more sure about Jesus.
With a clearer grasp of what the man was getting at, I then shared with him one of the most important truths I've learned on how to appropriate faith in Christ, as well as on how to enjoy a deepening relationship with Christ.
"Here's what I've found," I told him. "You have to live into faith. No amount of praying, reading, or thinking will get you there, as important as those things are. Faith in Christ is a gift from God. All you have to do is grab hold of it. And you can grab hold of it when you live your way into it."
As many who have read this blog or heard me preach know, I was an atheist when my wife and I first married. Marrying an atheist wasn't the smartest thing Ann could have done. She was a Lutheran Christian and it would be hard for her to build a strong marriage with a husband moving in a different direction from the one in which she moved.
But early in our marriage, mostly to get Ann off my back for sleeping in late on Sundays, I started going to worship with her at the Lutheran congregation of which she was a member.
I liked what I saw and experienced there. The members were real, down to earth people who dealt with real issues in their lives and also had real faults. What I learned from them, as I've told others, is that the church--any church--is a hospital for hypocrites, a place for sinners to come and be nudged toward a new way of life by the God we meet there.
I found that whatever tough times or personal flaws of character the members of Ann's home church dealt with in their lives, they kept coming back to Jesus. They kept seeking healing and the power for living morally better lives in the hospital for hypocrites, the church.
In worship, they confessed their sins, heard God's Word of forgiveness and new life through Christ, and tried to follow Jesus in their everyday lives.
In spite of myself, I found that I wanted to be like these people. I wanted to have faith in Jesus. But I really didn't know how to get it. (I was also too embarrassed to tell even my wife that this was what I wanted. I guess I didn't want to appear either weak or ignorant.)
Then, without knowing that this desire to have the faith was percolating in me, the pastor of Ann's church stopped by our apartment one evening. "Would the two of you take over as leaders of the junior high youth group?" he asked.
I had never admitted to the pastor that I was an atheist. But I was still on the roll of a Methodist church in which I'd been confirmed. So, I tried to use that as a an excuse to say, "You know," I told him, "I'm not even a Lutheran." He wasn't buying it. "We won't hold that against you," he said with a smile. Left out of defenses against taking on this task, I retreated, certain that Ann would put a stop to the whole thing. "Ann just told him, "We'll do it." "Well, if Ann wants to do it," I told him, "I guess I could try to help her."
This was a turning point in my road to faith. My wife and I were suddenly supposed to provide some spiritual leadership to young people. That entailed getting to know the kids and providing them with an environment in which it was safe for them to talk with God and interact with others in their own unique Christian way.
I started doing things that were needed for me to play my role with some sort of authenticity and effectiveness. I...
- showed up for the evening youth group gatherings
- hung out with the kids
- listened to what was happening in their lives
- helped plan activities
- listened to their Bible devotions
- tried to pray, though at first seemed a little weird to me.
- attended worship regularly
- began to read the Bible (I couldn't believe I was doing this. But I was...and enjoying it!)
- started attending adult Sunday School class and adult Bible studies
If you want Christ in your life or if you want to enjoy a deepening faith relationship with Christ, I recommend following this pattern. If you're not a Christian, find a church and, without expecting to be a leader (in fact, always expect and aspire to be a servant), volunteer to be involved in some ministry the congregation does. It might be...
- helping collect food for area needy
- corresponding with a child sponsored by the congregation through organizations like World Vision or Compassion International
- driving an elderly person or a family with young children to church or to doctor appointments
- joining in whenever the congregation does a community kindness outreach
- if you're a musician, offering to play your instrument (it could be brass or woodwind, strings or piano, guitar or bass, harmonica or bongo drums, whatever) for worship or for other gatherings
- volunteering to go on a church mission trip, whether it's in town or to impoverished Third World locations
- helping the homeless
But whatever it is, if you want faith or you want a deeper faith, find a worthy Christian ministry and get involved.
Live into your faith and the living Jesus will live in you in ways that bring you confidence, hope, and...a deeper faith.
As long as you haven't landed at a church filled with institutional gatekeepers or where your particular talents are wildly out of sync, I believe something incredible will happen to you. As you live as a believer in Jesus, God will turn you into a believer in Jesus.
If you're a member of a congregation, this will entail getting off your tail. It will mean getting in the game. Suddenly, I think you'll find, that a faith you once found boring or meaningless will come alive. Jesus will come alive to you.
I have seen this work in countless people. But how? The answer, I think, is that Christian faith is not about us. It's what God has done for us in Jesus. And it's about sharing forgiveness, hope, and new life that comes from God with others. Living into Christian faith--serving others in Christ's Name before we fully understand what that means--gets our minds off of ourselves, cultivating the belief that, no matter what, God is with us.
Freed from the slavery to ourselves, God's Spirit empowers us to trust in Christ and to get on with the business of living.
When that happens, the Spirit has an open will on which to imprint new ways of living and thinking.
Live into Christian faith and it will grow inside of you.