In the previous set of posts called Commonsense Approach to Faith, we went through a series of 8 commonsense attributes you already affirm to help you discern the flaws in various faith systems. We called this approach the “Bottom-Up Approach” because it allowed you to use your own faculties and experiences to evaluate various faith claims. Yet we also alerted you to the fact that the Bottom-Up Approach itself is not sufficient to know ultimate truth or to find adequate assurance your faith is well founded. So we need to advance to the Top-Down Approach next.
Before we explain the Top-Down Approach, I think it is only fair that you know where I’m coming from. So in this post I present to you a summary of my faith journey up till the present.
Faith is a delightful and beautiful reality to me personally. I am writing about faith because I enjoy it – at least most of the time. I am intimate with faith. I can speak about faith from personal experience and relate that experience to the subject more generally. I’ll start with a brief look at the formation of my Christian faith.
People have this wrong view that a person can be born a Christian. You can be born into a Christian home, but since Christianity involves making a person decision to follow Jesus Christ, no one is born a Christian. No one becomes a Christian until they are old enough to understand the Christian message and affirm it. So someone has to come to the Christian faith at some point in their lives.
My coming to the Christian faith was not too complicated, but it was surprising to me. Many people might think that it is not surprising someone who was born into a Christian home would eventually choose Christianity. If a person was born in a Muslim or Buddhist home, now that might be considered a surprising conversion. However there are plenty of people who have been born into a home which held a certain religious perspective and not adopted it.
In my formative years my parents were both regular church goers, one raised oversees with both Orthodox and Presbyterian influences, the other raised Methodist in the American south. When we came to live here in the States, our family attended a liberal Protestant church in Bethesda, Maryland. My parents were both loving and thoughtful people who knew there was a God but did not hold deep beliefs about the Bible or Jesus. We went to church but did not spend time talking about our religion at home. We did not grow up saying prayers in the home or holding family devotions.
My years growing up in that liberal church as a child then a teen did not result in my having any kind of serious or transforming grasp of Christianity. Intellectually I accepted the fact that there was a God and Jesus was God’s Son in some sense, but along with most of my young friends, that faith was not the kind that affected me personally. It was a general kind of faith – a cultural kind of faith if you would. I was Christian in name but not in mind or heart. I just accepted certain truths uncritically, then lived as I pleased. Religion did not affect my thinking or heart. I wasn’t even sure it was supposed to.
In those days I was not too much interested in applying myself to understand the Christian faith Truthfully I was not much of a thinker in general. My childhood friends and family would testify to that. I was a seeker of fun not a person in search of truth. Church and religion were mostly a weekly ritual that afforded me a social opportunity. So though there were nice people at church, my involvement with church did not move me, change me, excite me, or mold me in the direction of knowing God or living for God. On special and holy days like Christmas and Easter, or at Confirmation, I would absorb a bit more of the message and its import. I did ponder it some. So if you asked me if I were a Christian I would have affirmed it, but my heart was pursuing the life of fun, sports, and adventure in this world. Religion was a part of my life, not my life. It was there, but it was not heavily influential. Many call this Nominal Christianity. I think that is a fair assessment of where I was and how I was brought up. There were many like me who surrounded me. It felt normal.
Nominal Christianity was encouraged by the society surrounding me. Besides my parents, the people who most influenced me in my formative years discouraged much faith in the Bible. Whether it was the public schools, my friends and neighbors, my parent’s friends, TV shows, rock stars, or just the other nominal Christians themselves, no one I can remember in my formative years encouraged a strong belief in the Bible, the supernatural, or historic Christianity. We were more liberal-minded surrounded with more of the same. In fact I did not really even know that there was another kind of Christianity. I did not think of myself as liberal. I thought what we believed and accepted was just normal. There really was no debate raging around me concerning what to believe or even an awareness that I was in a liberal church verses a conservative Bible-believing church. I just was busy living life and having fun. Life was what it was.
The change began when my mother came to a solid and true faith in Jesus Christ and realized she had only been a churchgoer not a true believer. She then began to read her Bible, pray for me, and talk with me. I remember not being too interested in the things she was saying. I knew what I wanted; and what I wanted was a life of fun and adventure. Religion seemed irrelevant and boring. However her prayers had their impact. The tangible change for me occurred when I went off to college for my freshman year. I remained in my home state of Maryland but went far enough away from home to know I had to begin to make some life decisions for myself. My initial decision was to do what I did best – pursue more fun, drinking, partying, joking around, and friends along with whatever school work I was required to do. I was not pursuing religious things when my life took a definite and dramatic turn in one night. It occurred just a couple of months into my freshman year. Through a friendly debate a number of us were having about religion and philosophy, another collegian presented to me timely and challenging words. From these words I was awakened and the true God of heaven moved into my life for the first time. This young man spoke directly to me and made me aware of the morally wrong lifestyle I had chosen and the consequences before God I would one day face. He showed me the core teachings of Jesus, and I instantly was convinced that I was not living in a way which pleased God. God spoke to my conscience through the words of the Bible conveyed by this man. Though the Bible had been read to me at church many times before, I heard this differently. God, how is spirit, convinced me of my need for a Savior to deliver me from my wayward life and its eternal consequences. Since I saw so clearly that I was a sinner I did not resist embracing Christ as my new king and authority. I submitted to him by placing personal faith in Him.
The surprising thing about my encounter with the Lord Jesus that night was that I was not looking for God. I did not even know I was supposed to be looking for God. Nor was I suffering from any kind of trauma or major disappointment as many do when they claim to have a conversion. I was not lonely or neglected. My parents had been kind and generous toward me. My dad was someone I looked up to. So I was not slumping into a depression and looking for an “out.” My parents had provided for me and took interest in my life even calling me often at college. I had no tragedies or crises at the time. I was not dumped by a girlfriend or betrayed by a close friend. I was happy, well adjusted, keeping up with my studies (reasonably), and enjoying college freedoms. God just made himself very clear to me through a simple message from the Bible. He revealed to my mind and heart what was missing in my life and what the dangers would be going forward living without faith in His Son Jesus. I was shown that there is evil in the world, and that I had not resisted evil well. Some people are very evil but all of us have some evil we succumb to. I knew that was true of me. So that moment I was presented with the true Christian (also called gospel) message. The message was simple yet profound and filled with Bible references. I had read parts of the Bible before, but this time things opened up with clarity for me.
The message was basically this … God created me and loves me. I am not the produce of time and chance. As my Creator He has the right to expect me to live for Him the way He commands. But I failed to live as He intended or to give Him the honor He deserved. So I was a rebel in His universe. Some people were better than me; some were worse than me. That did not matter. I was a sinner, like all people. There were clear negative consequences both in this life and in the next for living contrary to God’s will. Jesus was God’s solution for bringing me and every sinner back to God. Jesus was the link to God. He came into the world to save anyone who would believe. He was not partial to any group of people Anybody could be saved. He then suffered and died on a cruel Roman cross to pay the just penalty I deserved, and He rose from the dead bodily to prove He could provide everlasting life. Since Jesus did all the work of saving, what God demanded from me was not some list of good works to earn my way back to Him. Instead he required a genuine heartfelt faith of trust in Christ. This faith God required from me was not to be some dead faith or inactive faith or faith only of the mind. God wanted me to trust Him with my whole being so that I would begin following the teachings of Jesus Christ in the Bible and tell others about Jesus too. He wanted my heart not mere lip service.
It was at that moment, as I heard the simple message, I was brought to true faith. It was simple yet deeply profound. The timing and manner of my coming to faith was by God’s design not my own. God kindly opened my spiritual eyes (my mind’s perception) so I could avert His wrath against my foolish decisions, and so I could experience His love and forgiveness in Christ. Instantly I was given new spiritual life with new desires and a new purpose. I literally began that very night and next morning to follow Christ and the teachings of the Bible even though I knew so little.
I was now a true Christian, more than in name, trying to understand my faith and grow in it. I would have to develop as a Christian amidst a hostile intellectual environment which discouraged genuine faith in the Bible. My professors in college found their subtle, and not-so-subtle ways to mock the Christian faith. Old friends found the whole “new me” to be strange, and they quietly shunned me. Society was still what it had always been, but my perception was sharpened. Now I saw what was there.
The main support for my fledgling faith came from the campus Christian fellowships and my mother, who had been praying for my salvation. I know now, looking back, her prayers were critical in my coming to faith when I did. I would eventually also find a church which held to the truth of the Bible and had not compromised with the intellectual theories of the day.
It was also at this time I began to realize the wide range of wrong ideas others had about the Christian faith. I found it hard to sustain a meaningful conversation about faith when people had so many misconceptions. Each misconception had to be unraveled before proceeding. I did not always have the patience to work with people through that process. There existed back then, and still exists now, an unwarranted hostility and confusion about what Christianity really teaches. This created a barrier to communication. Many had only a cursory understanding of the true and historic message of Christianity. So many inaccurate ideas had to be set aside before a meaningful interaction could even occur.
However I knew that this faith was too good to let it be marginalized or maligned. It was bright, beautiful, all encompassing, energizing, calming, and delightful. It changed the entire direction of my life and opened new avenues, purposes, relationships, and understanding that I would never have known without it. I did not know it at the time, but the Christian faith even answered the hardest questions we all face in life about truth, God, meaning, purpose, human history, ethics, and suffering. It performed way better than any other philosophy or religion or worldview I learned growing up in the public schools or from society. I found that the skeptics had pounded away on this faith, but it was an anvil which survived every blow throughout history. The more it was attacked, the stronger it proved to be.
From that point onward (making a long story short) I went on to meet my lovely wife Susan, grow a family (four wonderful children), and increase in my understanding of Christian mission and ministry. I received two master’s degrees from Bible seminaries and became a church planter in Maryland. Today I am a pastor and preacher of this good news. Oh! And I love to write and blog too!
Through my life’s journey, faith has proven to be the most useful tool. It helped me build a family wisely (though I made mistakes), develop a strong work ethic at my job, treat my neighbors with kindness and fairness, overcome bad habits from my youth, understand my world and human behavior better, deal with setbacks and discouragements, counsel people with their problems, answer questions from skeptics and lots more. It has buttressed me with the confidence and endurance needed to start and develop a church in a very secular and liberal area of the country. It has helped me to make decisions as a church leader, to preach, give advice, and train others. More recently faith has been a loyal friend when I was diagnosed with Pancreatic Cancer, a disease which kills a great majority of its victims within 5 years. God gives me the confidence to face tomorrow with hope. Faith has sustained me even through that. Faith in Christ does not disappoint. It is strength and joy for the journey. Faith in Jesus promises to bring me to eternal paradise in God’s kingdom. This faith cannot be beaten!
Because of this experience with faith, I want to add three testimonies about my faith:
Testimony #1: I live by faith.
The Apostle Paul, one of Christ’s disciples, wrote in his letter to the churches in southern Turkey (what was called Galatia in Roman times) that … Galatians 2:20 “… the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.” This early Christian preacher lived by faith in the Son of God. Living by faith in Jesus Christ makes life easier and yet at the same time more challenging. It makes life simpler and yet fills it with deep contemplations. It is a thrilling life, but one which has many demands.
I too try to live everyday by faith in the Son of God. Some days I fail to be filled with the confidence I know has been mine before. Some days I dally with sin as if a fool who had never learned the truth. Some days I am weak because I don’t use this wonderful equipment called the shield of faith. However most days I find myself standing stronger because of faith. Daily I need to exercise faith in God and practice my faith. Faith motivates my prayers, my Bible reading, my teaching, my advice to others, and my outreach to hurting people.
Yesterday’s faith was good for yesterday, but it only sets a pattern for today. I still need to keep taking steps of faith everyday along the journey of life. I walk by the light of faith not by the sight of my eyes.
Sometimes I face a challenge to my faith, such as the death of my father, the challenge of starting a church, betrayal by friends, painful arthritis, or my Pancreatic Cancer. Then I wonder why God allows bad things to happen. I wonder whether prayer is working as it is supposed to. I wonder if I have missed something. Yet through those challenges to my faith, my faith only grows stronger, because the One I trust proves Himself real and loving over and over again. Faith is like a muscle that needs to be exercised to build strength. After a workout, muscles first get sore. Then with nutrition they get stronger. Stronger faith, fed by the nutrition of God’s Scriptures, allows me to to get past future obstacles on the journey of life. I live by faith and keep living by faith as my faith grows stronger.
Testimony #2: I love my faith
Now that God has moved into my life and taught me so much, I would never want to go back to the life without faith I had before. I pray I never will.
Faith in God is a power which enhances my life in every way. I named my third daughter Faith Marie, for the faith Mary expressed when she agreed to the angel’s words and let God do the impossible inside her body. (See Luke 1 in the Bible) There she was told that with God nothing is impossible. The key is – the omnipotent God. Once He enters into the equation, everything changes with greater possibilities.
Almost daily I evaluate my faith and its condition. I truly do. The Christian faith can take lots of criticism and overcome it well. On my part I regularly hear people denounce or ridicule some aspect of my faith, but few critics who actually understand it or its basis. When people say my faith is a religious faith, I agree. However my faith is placed in reality not imaginary things. There is nothing I believe which I knowingly see conclusive evidence against. Unlike other faiths which appear at times to be no more than “organized pretending” or “self-delusion” I don’t make something real because I believe it. I believe it because it has proven itself through the conjoining of evidence and experience to be real. Faith, science, reason, Scripture, and reality all move along the same path with me. They agree. They’re friends, not enemies.
When I do exercise faith, God works and my soul is blessed. People around me are helped, prayer is answered, and I become even more excited to keep learning about faith. Love and joy increase with faith. As a healthy tree bears healthy fruit, so faith blossoms and turns into love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such wonderful fruit of faith, there is no law, Galatians 5 teaches. Faith enhances joy and peace due to the expansive and specific promises of God in Holy Scripture. Faith also makes me productive for the kingdom of God, laboring in a work which will transcend this present life.
Those are some of the reasons I love my faith.
Testimony #3: My faith defines me.
As you can see, my Christian faith is not a part of me. It is how my life is expressed and lived in totality. Take away faith, and there is no more me. I would slip into despair and purposelessness. My wife and children would not like me very much! Of course, that does not mean I always have strong faith and do what is right. I still have much to learn and many blemishes to be removed by God. I am a sinner being cleansed by God like all the rest. But faith is the battery that energizes me. It is the cleaning agent that washed the filth away. It is the fizzle in my drink and, at the same time, the philosophy in my head. It is the iron in my will and the kindness on my tongue. It is the motivation in the morning and the punctuation at night. It is my contemplation at work and at play.
My faith fills my mind even in the night watches when I can’t sleep or when I was laying in a hospital bed. There is no time or circumstance of my life where my faith does not inform me, guide me, challenge me, lead me, inspire me, or correct me. When I walked into the doctor’s office they told me I probably had to have my gallbladder removed. When I sat in there and got the test results they told me I had the deadliest kind of cancer. I did not flinch. I walked out of that office thinking the same thing I did going in – God is in control of my life and there is nothing to fear. I did not have to muster that up for the moment. That was the only way I knew to think. Faith defines me.
It is impossible to separate my faith from my relationships. I don’t even want to try. I know that my faith puts me at odds with some people, yet it unites me tightly with others. If people reject my faith, I forgive them, but the truth is they have to a large extent rejected me, even if they don’t realize it. I certainly try to live in peace with all people of all faiths, and I should respect those who ignore, resist, or oppose my faith. However I can only live in joyful unity with those who love the Christian faith. There is where the deepest relationships are forged …
… because that is who I am.
I hope that helps you place the remaining entries in the proper context.
Now … on to an explanation of the objective aspects of the Christian faith and a synopsis of its teachings. This may be the part some of you have been waiting for … 🙂