Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Why I Believe Christian Faith is True, Part 6

Over the course of this series, I've articulated four major reasons for believing that Christian faith represents the authentic means of enjoying a relationship with God. Each of the first four installments have enumerated a reason. In yesterday's installment, I took a side-trip to explain what I saw as the significance of Jesus' resurrection for everyday living.

In today's installment I have two main goals:

1. To provide an overview of three different approaches to the same question I've been addressing--why Christian faith is true and therefore, worthy of our allegiance. Each approach will be represented by a major writer.

2. To lift up a suggested means by which doubters may come to believe that the claims of Christian faith are true and thereby, to enjoy a relationship with God.
The first major avenue to arriving at belief in the truth of the Christian witness is what I would call the empirical approach. This is well represented in a book by Lee Strobel called The Case for Christ: A Journalist's Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus. Strobel, holder of a Master of Studies in Law from the Yale Law School formerly served as legal affairs editor for the Chicago Tribune. In the late-1970s, his wife, Leslie, shocked Strobel when she began attending worship, got involved in the life of Willow Creek Community Church in Schaumburg, Illinois, and announced that she had become a Christian. Strobel was initially disgusted and thought that his wife's new-found Christian faith spelled the end of the marriage.

But, after a time, writes Strobel:

...I was pleasantly surprised--even fascinated--by the fundamental changes in her character, her integrity, and her personal confidence. Eventually I wanted to get to the bottom of what was prompting these subtle but significant shifts in my wife's attitudes, so I launched an all-out investigation into the facts surrounding the case for Christianity.

Setting aside my self-interest and prejudices as best I could, I read books, interviewed experts, asked questions, analyzed history, explored archaeology, studied ancient literature, and for the first time in my life picked apart the Bible verse by verse.

I plunged into the case with more vigor than with any story I had ever pursued. I applied the training I had received at Yale Law School as well as my experience...[at] the Chicago Tribune. And over time the evidence of the world--of history, of science, of philosophy, of psychology--began to point toward the unthinkable.
For Strobel "the unthinkable" at that time was that the claims made by the Bible and by Christians through the centuries are true: that Jesus, truly both God and human, lived a perfect life, died on an executioner's cross to atone for our sin, rose from the dead, and today offers forgiveness of sin and everlasting life wih God to all who entrust their lives to Him.

Strobel eventually came to believe those claims about Christ, later becoming a pastor.

The Case for Christ, in a sense, finds Strobel replicating for us the investigation into Christ that he once undertook for himself. Employing a journalistic style, he seeks out experts in a variety of disciplines--psychology, medicine, history, theology, scholarly Biblical studies--to demonstrate the plausibility of Christianity.

It's a fascinating study. But even if one is persuaded--and I mean, conclusively persuaded--by the evidence that Strobel collects and presents, it won't mean that the light of faith in Christ is necessarily going to be ignited in a person. I heartily recommend Strobel's book to all skeptics and doubters. But the most that it will do for you is open you to the possibility that Christian faith is the true pathway to God. Even Strobel, I'm sure, would concede this.

This leads me to consider a second approach, that taken by my favorite author, C.S. Lewis in his great book, Mere Christianity. The core of Mere Christianity's content is from a series of talks Lewis gave on BBC Radio shortly after World War Two. Lewis' is what I call the logical approach to faith in Christ.

He begins with the insight that, across cultures and through the centuries, there has been an amazing consensus about the existence of immutable rights and wrongs. While Lewis allows that there have been some variations in moral codes, what is more notable is the degree to which peoples have agreed on just what constitutes moral behavior and immoral. Of course, the appropriate question to pose in the face of this fact is, Where does this common moral code come from?

This moral code Lewis designates as "The Law of Human Nature" and asserts, I think with justification, that it is ingrained in us. But unlike other natural laws--Lewis mentions gravity-- human beings have the ability to act against it. In fact, Lewis talks about the irony of this Law of Human Nature: Most people, irrespective of their religious perspectives, affirm that it's right to do right, but all of us fail to do so consistently.

Lewis then asserts that it appears that there is "a Power behind the facts, a Director, a Guide," one who has implanted this Law of Human Nature in our DNA. But not even this assertion upholds the notion of God, let alone the Christian God, as Lewis is quick to point out. He has miles to go in his argument before making any assertions about the identity of this Power behind the Law of Human Nature.

Up to this point, Lewis probably describes a point of view to which all but the most rabid atheists--like I once was--could subscribe. As he points out, through the centuries, the vast majority of people have believed in the existence of some sort of Designer, Creator, or God.

From here though, Lewis describes the Christian conception of God. An intriguing argument that he makes comes in response to an assertion that atheist friends and acquaintances of mine have often made. Remembering his days as an atheist, Lewis writes:

My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? If the whole show was bad and senseless from A to Z, so to speak, why did I, who was supposed to be part of the show, find myself in such violent reaction against it? A man feels wet when he falls into water, because man is not a water animal: a fish would not feel wet. Of course, I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too--for the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my fancies. Thus in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist--in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless--I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality--namely my idea of justice--was full of sense. Consequently atheism turns out to be too simple. If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning; just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be a word without meaning.
Into this world in which human beings know that there is a right way to live but fail to do so, comes what Lewis calls "the invasion." The world is enemy-occupied territory. That is, it's a place where evil has an upper hand, enslaving the human race, making it susceptible to constant violations of the Law of Human Nature, violations both small small scale (like telling "white lies") and large (like the Holocaust), none of which are inconsequential. The invasion to which Lewis refers is the coming of Jesus Christ into the world. Lewis writes:

Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage. When you go to church you are really listening-in to the secret wireless from our friends...
Lewis then talks about the choice Jesus' presence in the world demands that we make. We must decide among three alternative views of Him. Jesus presses His case so emphatically that there is no escaping this choice. We must decide if Jesus is:

  • A liar
  • A lunatic
  • Who He says He is: God in the flesh and Savior of the world
Lewis then deals with the impact of Christ's crucifixion and resurrection and through the balance of this great book (to which I haven't done justice here) elaborates the practical implications for daily life that flow from the Lordship of Jesus.

I first read Mere Christianity shortly after I came to faith in Jesus Christ some twenty-eight years ago. I can't overestimate its importance to me. It articulated what I believed, felt, and thought about the universe.

But, as is true of Strobel's book, to think that Lewis presents a logically plausible argument for the existence of God will still leave the doubter in his or her doubt. Mere Christianity is a classic statement of Christian faith and it is a great work of art, in my estimation. As essential as clear thinking is for Christian faith, there is more to faith in Christ than clear thinking.

Ole Hallesby was a Norwegian theologian who lived until 1961. He is the author of a book I prize as much as Mere Christianity, called Prayer, which I've mentioned on the blog before. (And if I'm blogging fifty years from now, will still be mentioning.) But Hallesby wrote another great book, Why I Am a Christian.

In it, Hallesby talks about the movement from doubt about Jesus Christ to faith and how it happens.

His avenue to faith in Christ is the one that I believe is essential for all people: the experiential approach. The reason that most people doubt Christ and the claims of Christian faith, even in so-called Christian cultures or communities, is that they have never experienced the living and risen Jesus as a reality in their lives.

Hallesby asserts that truly experiencing Christ and thus moving from doubt to faith is not a matter of the intellect or the emotions. The reality of Christ can't be held captive to either thoughts or feelings. If Christ truly is a living being, then He must necessarily have an existence that is beyond our thoughts and emotions, just as the people in our lives have existences irrespective of what we may think or feel about them at any given time.

Faith is a matter not of intellect or emotions, but of the will. Not that we can will ourselves to faith. We can't. In a bad news world, we can't will ourselves to believe the Good News of Jesus Christ. But we can will to subordinate our wills to a Higher Will. We can will ourselves to be open to that invasion that Lewis wrote about, the coming of Christ into our lives.

This voluntary subordination or surrender of our wills to Christ's will for our lives is what the simple song so many learned as children is talking about, "Come into my heart. Come into my heart. Come into my heart, Lord Jesus."

When I came to faith in Christ, it was a slow process because my desire for God-like control over my life was so huge (an impulse that still rears its head every day) and because I am so slow to understand the obvious.

But as I investigated Christ and decided to try some of the pathways that are part of having an intimate relationship with Christ, I found myself moving from atheism to doubt to faith.

As I voluntarily submitted my will to Christ, I made a discovery: The more I submitted to Him, the more apparent it became to me that He truly was there, truly was and is the risen, living Savior.

This is precisely what Hallesby is talking about when he commends the experiential path to knowing God. Ultimately, it marks the path by which all come to faith in Him. Without an experience of Christ in one's life, there can be no true faith.

Hallesby says that there are two kinds of doubters. "First," he says, "there are those who love to doubt, because their skepticism shields them from the accusations of conscience..."

The others are what he calls honest doubters, people who want to believe in, trust, and follow Jesus Christ, but haven't found a way to do so. It's to these that Hallesby addresses the book, assuring them (and us) that it is possible to experience Christ and thereby believe in Him.

Here is the experiential pathway that Hallesby outlines:

"My first bit of advice," he writes, "is this: Read the New Testament." Of course, Hallesby anticipates, some doubting readers will object, saying that the New Testament, with its accounts of miracles and spiritual warfare, is precisely the reason they find it so hard to believe. But Hallesby points out disarmingly:

Jesus never required His listeners to accept and beforehand approve of a greater or lesser number of dogmas about Himself. He urged them rather to come to Him, hear His voice and follow Him.

What happened? All who honestly did so, experienced Jesus and soon became personally convinced of the truth of what He said about Himself. When they later gave expression to that which they had experienced and of which they became personally assured, the result was the New Testament Scriptures.
Contrary to the misguided pronouncements of people like the 'Jesus Seminar' or the stuff written in some popular magazines, the historical accuracy of the New Testament is increasingly affirmed by the disciplines of archaeology, history, literary criticism, and others. The Jesus you encounter on the pages of the New Testament is the real deal.

As you submit to meeting Jesus in the New Testament, accepting what you can and ignoring for a time what you find implausible, you will find yourself moving from doubt to faith. Without knowing what I was doing, I followed Hallesby's prescription and I can vouch that it works!

Hallesby urges, "take your New Testament and read it for the purpose of ascertaining the 'will of God.'" As you observe God's will as seen in Jesus as conveyed in the Gospel books (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) or in other writings of the New Testament, Hallesby asks that you attempt to enact that revealed will of God in your life. He says:

If you will begin to do this, you will gain some entirely new experiences, experiences which will help you out of doubt into personal assurance. The reason that people doubt Christianity is simply this: They only think about it instead of living it.
Hallesby then recommends a second means of experiencing God: "My next bit of advice is this: Begin to pray to God. Begin at the same time as you begin to read the New Testament."

Hallesby advises that even if you feel uncertain about prayer or doubt its efficacy, pray anyway. Since prayer is nothing more than speaking "candidly and confidentially with God," Hallesby says that if you are doubter, you should simply acknowledge that in your prayer conversation with God.

Such a prayer isn't unprecedented. Once, for example, a distraught father asked Jesus to help his son, often convulsed by a demon from the time of his birth. The father's request of Jesus--a prayer--from a heart grieved and frenzied was, "'...if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.' Jesus said to him, 'If you are able!--All things can be done for the one who believes.' Immediately the father of the child cried out, 'I believe; help my unbelief!'" (Mark 9:23-24)

Had the man faked a level of faith that wasn't there, I wonder how Jesus might have responded to him. But in his will, this man wanted to believe in Jesus. Just so, Hallesby suggests, if we will honestly pray, indicating to Jesus that we want to want Him in our lives, we want to believe, He will take pity on us as surely as He took pity on that father.

Hallesby also advises that we shouldn't allow the fact that we can't see Jesus get in the way of our speaking to Him candidly. "He is invisible, it is true; but is not the real person in men [sic] also invisible?" he asks.

As you will to make contact with the God we can know through Jesus Christ, you begin to perceive His presence. You start to accept the truth of His promise to be with His followers always.

While employing reading and applying the New Testament and praying as two avenues by which to experience the presence of Jesus, he also suggests:

Search yourself daily before God. To do this, he suggests praying often the "deep and fruitful prayer" found in Psalm 139:23-24:

Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my thoughts.
See if there is any wicked way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.
Hallesby assures that, "Every time you come in contact with the saving truths of Scripture, a sanctifying influence is imparted to your soul." In other words, as we stand under God's Word and let it penetrate our consciences, we're open to becoming more like the people God wants us to be and that we want to be.

A fourth pathway to experiencing God of the Bible which Hallesby talks about is receiving the Sacrament of Holy Communion. Hallesby says, "In the next place, I advise you to participate in the Lord's Supper."

There are many varied understandings of what happens in Holy Communion (also called the Lord's Supper, the Eucharist, and other names). In my own Lutheran faith tradition, we take a very literal view of Jesus' words in the New Testament where He's recorded as instituting the fellowship meal. Jesus uses bread and wine and we Lutherans believe in using bread and wine as we do what Jesus tells us to do. Jesus says that the bread is His body and the wine is His blood and we believe that these two elements are mysteriously and simultaneously bread and body, wine and blood, respectively.

But whatever understanding one may have of the elements, there is a broad consensus in the Christian community about what happens in Holy Communion. It brings Christ's presence and it brings forgiveness of sin. It draws us closer to God and to all other believers. As Hallesby points out, its effectiveness doesn't depend on your ability to understand it. Who can understand something so mysterious anyway?

Hallesby says that we shouldn't wait to receive Holy Communion until we understand it or everything about Christian faith. He writes:

You have a spiritual right to attend the Lord's Supper if you are a sincere disciple of Jesus, that is, one who would conceal no sin from Him but openly confesses to Him everything that troubles your conscience, one who trusts in Jesus...
The important thing is not to understand the Sacrament, but Hallesby says, "your confidence in Christ and your obedience to Him" when He says, "Take and eat; take and drink."

"Finally," says Hallesby, "I would advise you to seek the fellowship of people who, you are convinced, live wholeheartedly with Christ."

Speaking from personal experience, it was people like this--people who lived wholeheartedly with Christ--who finally tilted me from doubt to faith. Ordinary, humble people who lived with the same daily struggles, hopes, challenges, and joys that are the common lot of the human race, who were nonetheless empowered to cope and hope because of their relationship with Jesus Christ, made me willing to let Jesus into my life. They also encouraged and supported me as I posed my questions, owned my struggles, and invited Jesus to be my God and Savior.

Strobel and Lewis have, in their works, shown that faith in Jesus Christ is warranted by the evidence of history and by the rigors of logical examination. But until you we allow ourselves to experience the reality of Jesus Christ, faith will elude us.

I invite you to open yourself to experiencing the reality of the risen, living Jesus Christ. If you do, I believe that you will move from doubt to faith, and from faith to deeper faith. You will believe that Christian faith is true. It will be the most rewarding experience of your life!

To summarize the five pathways to experiencing Christ, they are:

  • Read the New Testament
  • Pray honestly
  • Submit to a searching evaluation of your life by God
  • Participate in the Lord's Supper
  • Get connected with those who have a deep relationship with Christ

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