Saturday, December 11, 2004

Why I Believe Christian Faith is True, Part 3

In this series, I'm exploring why I believe that Christian faith rings so true that it convinced me to move from being the atheist I once was, to being an enthusiastic follower of Jesus Christ.

In the first two installments, I gave my first two reasons for believing the truth of the Christian witness about God.

First, I'm swayed by its uniqueness. Unlike other religious or philosophical systems in the world, Christian belief is rooted in the notion that God reaches down to us and does all that is necessary for us to become acceptable to God and gives all that is necessary for us to live a new and better life. The Christian message about a God Who loves fallen sinners and then makes it possible for us to enjoy an eternally restored relationship with God as a free gift is so completely countercultural that it jolts me to attention. This unique perspective makes me conclude that the Christian message is either completely nuts or the definitive Word from God.

Since my life experiences cause me to observe that truth usually resides in the unexpected possibility, Christianity's uniqueness persuades me of its truth.

Second, I am persuaded by the claims that Jesus makes to be God in the flesh. These claims were buttressed by the life Jesus led and the fact that, unlike others who have made similar claims, Jesus gives no evidence either of being mad or a liar.

Now we come to the third reason I believe that Christian faith rings true: Jesus' death on a cross.

A man I know once derided his daughter's faith and the cross she wore as a sign of it. "Don't you know what happened on that cross?" he asked her. "Christian faith is nothing but a dark, sick obsession with death."

Maybe that man was only ever exposed to a morose and sickly version of Christian faith, the kind humorist Garrison Keillor described when he once observed, "When you're Lutheran and from the Midwest, it's always Lent."

But Christians don't value what Jesus did on the cross for its gruesome qualities. They value it because Jesus voluntarily underwent the torture of the cross for people like us--by that I mean, people like the one writing this blog and the ones reading it.

For us to fully appreciate what Jesus did on the cross for us, we must first come to terms with some very difficult--and for many people, unpalatable--facts.

The first is this: You and I are the genetic heirs of a condition called sin. Sin is the condition of alienation from God and others into which all human beings are born. It's our inborn predisposition to "look out for number one."

Don't believe that's our common condition? I didn't believe it either. It flies in the face of our usual view of babies being these blank slates with an innate sweetness and innocence. But then a friend asked me once, "Mark, if you locked two two-year olds in a room with a single toy, what do you think would happen?" "I suppose," I said, "that they'd fight over it." "Why?" "Because they each would want the toy for themselves." "Okay," my friend asked me, "who taught them to be selfish?"

Of course, the answer is that no one teaches infants to be selfish. It comes naturally. Infants use their cries and whimpers to manipulate their environments, including their parents who they regard as mere extensions of themselves, to get what they want.

Unpalatable fact number two: Our condition of sin causes us to commit individual sins. God's expectation of human beings--in fact, I think, our expectation of human beings--is simple: to love God with every fiber of our beings and to love others as we love ourselves. I don't know about you, but on any given day, I'm sure that I don't live up to that standard very well.

We need to understand what love is, from God's perspective. Last week, while driving from one meeting to another, I listened to the host of a national radio sports show. He was reacting to a statement from Jason Giambi that came after his Grand Jury testimony revealing his use of steroids. In his statement, Giambi said that he loved baseball. That set the radio host to talking about a definition of love. He claimed it was an emotion, an involuntary response over which we have no control. "Why do you think they call it 'falling in love'?" he asked triumphantly.

Falling in love is a very pleasant sensation. I've experienced it. It can be the initial explosion that sets the engine of a relationship running. But, it seems to me that love--the kind of love that sustains marriages, friendships, and other relationships over the long haul--is composed of a chain of conscious decisions.

I often tell young couples who are preparing for marriage that love isn't something that you feel, it's often what you do in spite of how you feel. A woman once told me, "When Joe and I first were married, we told each other that no matter what may happen in our lives, divorce is not an option." That decision to stay together has sustained them through good times and bad. The result: A marriage in which their emotions follows their commitment. Many people turn things around, making their commitments contingent on their feelings. But feelings change and when we take our cues from emotions, we render ourselves unreliable as spouses, parents, and friends. We also risk missing out on the blessings that go with sticking it out and taking our life journeys with a few valued companions.

I see persevering love in Jesus Christ, God in the flesh. I can't imagine that as Jesus hung on the cross, He was taken with the curve of His executioners' noses or the sounds of people's angry voices. But I am sure that He loved us. (More on that later.)

If I regard Jesus' giving of Himself on the cross as the gold standard of love with its willingness to sacrifice Himself for our good, I come to see that I hardly know how to love. So, my condition of sin renders me incapable of loving with the kind of abandon and devotion that God commands. My inborn alienation from God is made worse by my acts of sinful selfishness and self-will.

Unpalatable fact number three: There is an immutable law of the universe that says, "the wages of sin is death..." (Romans 6:23) Death is separation from God, the source of life. Without a connection to God, we are all looking at an eternal death sentence. Not a pretty picture.

Unpalatable fact number four: I need someone to help me. It's unpalatable because it's such a blow to our pride. But assuming that I want to recover my true self, the self God wants me to be and the self that I want myself to be and sometimes pretend to be, I need to be rescued. Assuming that I want to live, really live, I need to be rescued.

Somebody needs to bridge the gap between God and me. I am incapable of doing it. The condition of sin, with the added weight of my individual sins, drives me away from God. Trying to claw my way to God is like stepping on the gas when your car is stuck in snow: you'll only wedge yourself deeper into the ground.

That's where Jesus comes in. Not even Jesus' fiercest enemies made the case that He had ever done anything wrong. Jesus was a man, but He was implanted in His mother's womb by the power of God's Holy Spirit. That means that unlike every other human being since Adam and Eve, the first to fall into alienation from God, Jesus was exempt from the genetic inheritance of sin.

This God-Man came into the world on a simple mission. He would take the punishment we deserved for sin, paying the price our crimes demand. But because He was undeserving of this punishment, Jesus wouldn't stay dead. On the cross, Jesus killed the power of sin and death. And anyone who will humble themselves, confessing their sin and asking for Jesus to rescue them, can have life forever with God, a wonderful new life that begins even now.

In this way, Jesus bridges the gap between us. It is an amazing thing when you think about it. The New Testament marvels at it:
"For while we were still weak [in our sin], at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person--though perhaps for a good person someone might actually die. But God proves His love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us." (Romans 5:6-8)
Why do I believe that the proclamation of the Christian faith is true?

First, because of its uniqueness.

Second, because I find the claims of Jesus to be God in the flesh compelling.

And third, because Jesus, a perfectly righteous man, took my punishment for sin on a cross, an act of unmatched love.

More in my next post on this subject...

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