Letter No. 1: How to Explore Your Faith in God

Introduction

Caleb’s school invited a Christian speaker to come in and talk to the students about how Christianity stacks up against other forms of belief, including non-belief. The speaker was prepared to take on all arguments against having faith in Jesus and respond with rational reasons for why Christianity makes sense. He made a big impression on the students and afterward they talked among themselves about what they found believable about Christian faith.

Caleb came home that afternoon and told me about the presentation and what some of his friends thought about it. A few of them announced they didn’t believe in God. Caleb listened to their opinions with great interest. He had never before had such a discussion with his peers. This led him to question what he believed.

I’ve always found doubts to be an opportunity for growth in faith rather than a hindrance. So instead of being alarmed, I was delighted at the opportunity this gave us to talk about faith in God from his perspective. I had been sharing my faith with him since he was a young child, so the subject was not new to him. It was, however, the first time that he, as an adolescent, approached me and honestly shared his doubts. It was a moment I had been praying for and by God’s grace I was ready for it.

I know that with teenagers it’s important to wait for an opportune time to talk about something as personal and as significant as faith. It’s also essential for a parent to be prepared and to listen and respond with grace and clarity when the opportunity presents itself. The following letter takes up some of the questions Caleb had that afternoon and offers advice on how to address enough doubts so that a way is cleared to take a step forward in faith.

Dear Caleb,

You were telling me the other day that some kids in school don’t believe in God. You said that sometimes you aren’t surewhether you do, either. I’m so thankful you feel comfortable telling me what you’re thinking about and that you can be honest about your doubts. I admire your truthfulness. Most of all, God is pleased you can be so truthful. He’s never put off by your questions or uncertainties. God welcomes them because He knows your honesty means you are willing to give Him a chance. Being honest with someone means you take them seriously.

It’s perfectly normal to have doubts as you set out to explore your faith in God. In a sense, doubt is like coming to a fork in the road and not being able to choose which direction to take.  But doubt is not the same thing as unbelief.  Unbelief is a stubborn refusal to believe. Doubt is an inability to make a decision.

When you talk about your doubts with people you trust, who are knowledgeable about God, you will probably discover they had doubts similar to yours. I reached a point, a number of years ago, where I felt I had enough of a sense of who God is to start walking forward in faith, despite some remaining uncertainty. I still don’t have the whole picture, but I’ve made my peace with the fact that I will never know about God completely, until I see Him face to face.

The oldest known image of St. Paul, from a Roman catacomb, c. 300 A.D.

Living with mystery and unanswered questions is all a part of our earthy journey of faith. The apostle, Paul, a man of deep faith, who wrote many letters in the New Testament, had this to say about unanswered questions:

Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. (1 Corinthians 13:12)

The one thing, however, I want to caution you against is setting out with a closed mind. As pastors, Dad and I run into this problem all the time. Someone with a closed mind starts with a set of demands or objections, instead of doubts. Such an approach will not get you very far. The best way for me to explain the difference between having objections and having doubts is to give a few examples based on conversations I’ve had over the years. I’ve changed the name of each person in order to keep their identity anonymous:

  1. Jake automatically rejects any statements made by the Christian Church which defy the laws of nature, like the ones about Jesus which say the Holy Spirit caused his mother to become pregnant and that after being put to death on the cross he was raised, bodily, from the dead. These statements conflict with what he knows to be possible.
  2. Lucy has her own idea about how God should act so when she reads the Bible she is always disappointed because God doesn’t live up to her expectations.
  3. Tyler points to the bad behavior of some Christians over the centuries and declares it doesn’t make sense to believe in a God whose followers don’t always behave well.

In each instance the person establishes a standard God must meet before they will proceed any further. This approach is insincere. If I declared I wanted to get to know you better, but I also stated I didn’t want to be the friend of anyone who had a dog for a pet, I would not be genuine in my interest in you, even if I didn’t know whether you owned a dog or not. I would be setting up a condition to our friendship that could rule out getting to know each other. It’s perfectly fine to have doubts about whether God exists or if He’s done all the things the Bible and other Christians say He’s done, but you’ve got to be willing to set aside objections or stipulations until you hear His side of the story.

It’s important to point out that human beings can be inconsistent when it comes to insisting a standard be met before they’ll believe in something. Dad tells the story about going to get a haircut while we were all on vacation a couple of years ago and listening to a customer argue with the barber about whether the United States government faked the moon landings by our astronauts.

The customer was absolutely convinced the moon landings were a hoax. However, he was dead certain the World Wrestling Federation matches were not staged in any way. Can you imagine that? I’ve met plenty of people whose mind is closed to God, but have no problem believing in, without question or concern, some very dubious things.

My point is this: if you want to explore faith in God do not set up standards or pre-conditions He must meet. It’s important we try to discover God’s point of view, and set aside ours, at least for the moment. If we insist that belief in God must not conflict with what our laws of science or nature say is possible, or must be dependent upon either finding  no objection to anything in the Bible or the behavior of all Christians acceptable, we won’t get anywhere.

Besides, our point of view isn’t always clear-sighted. Like the man who thought the moon landings were a hoax, we may have something which gets in the way of seeing God for whom He really is. We should also be willing to admit we may be wrong about some things. This is a healthy approach to any kind of exploration.

From our human perspective God’s behavior does seem ludicrous, at times. For example:

  1. He created us with free will knowing we could use it to rebel against Him.                                                             (That doesn’t make sense.)
  2. God keeps forgiving and forgivingeven though He knows we’re likely to sin again.                                         (That seems so naïve.)
  3. God chose to live under our very limiting conditions on earth and allowed Himself to suffer rejection and finally death.                                                                                       (Wasn’t that just a waste of time and effort?)

It’s hard to for us to understand why anyone would do all that in order to save from death and destruction people like you and me, who don’t always appear to be grateful. Yet, if we want to be sincere about exploring faith in God, we’ve got to be willing to set aside our notions of how God should act and what God should do and find out what His perspective is.

Panel from the Isenheim altarpiece; Matthias Grünewald, 1515

Here’s what I’ve learned about God’s perspective: He loves us so much that giving up His life in order to save us from our sins is a sacrifice worth making. This is the purest form of love – and only God is capable of it. The Greek word for it is agapé. It means to love without self-interest. It’s a kind of love we’ve probably never really experienced before and it demonstrates for us that God will stop at nothing to win us back, no matter the cost to Him. The apostle Paul says in his letter to the Romans:

God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Chapter 5, verse eight)

Each person whom God has created is important enough to die for, from His perspective, even for those who are unbelieving and scornful. Although we may conclude this doesn’t make sense to us, it would be a mistake to end our exploration at this point. We need to find out why God’s behavior makes sense to Him. This is the way to go about it.

Paul addressed this subject in his first letter to the Corinthians:

So where can you find someone truly wise, truly educated, truly intelligent in this day and age? Hasn’t God exposed it all as pretentious nonsense? Since the world in all its fancy wisdom never had a clue when it came to knowing God, God in his wisdom took delight in using what the world considered dumb—preaching, of all things!—to bring those who trust him into the way of salvation. While Jews clamor for miraculous demonstrations and Greeks go in for philosophical wisdom, we go right on proclaiming Christ, the Crucified. Jews treat this like an anti-miracle—and Greeks pass it off as absurd. But to us who are personally called by God himself—both Jews and Greeks—Christ is God’s ultimate miracle and wisdom all wrapped up in one. Human wisdom is so tinny, so impotent, next to the seeming absurdity of God. Human strength can’t begin to compete with God’s “weakness.” (1 Corinthians 1:20-25, The Message)

Paul knew from experience people wanted to write God off because God’s actions seemed foolish, weak and unconvincing. So Paul devoted his life to helping people see things from God’spoint of view, instead of their own, and when they were able to do that, they discovered the joy and wonder of God’s love for them.  What this means on a practical level is that the best way to explore your faith in God is not by examining what makes rational sense about Him. Instead, you should try entering into a relationship with Him.

So here is my advice: Keep it simple. Forget the intellectual arguments and objections. Just try to get to know God better. You go about it as if you were trying to get to know a new kid in the neighborhood. That process always begins awkwardly because you don’t automatically know what to talk about. You don’t know yet if you share common interests like making videos, playing paintball, or fishing at Shelley Lake. But slowly, you begin to build a friendship each time you have a chance to do something together. You start discovering what you have in common and you build on shared experiences.

Can you remember back to when you were first getting to know Mikhael? You guys didn’t have much to say to one another. But now, you hang out together for hours on end. You know what each other likes — and dislikes. You can laugh about the crazy things you’ve done together. And sometimes, like when you’re both constructing something in the back yard, minutes may go by and neither one of you has said a word, but the silence is comfortable now, because you know each other so well .

It’s a lot like that with God, except you can’t see him and it’s not as easy to hear what he’s saying – but it starts out the same way. Kind of awkward, at first, and then, gradually, the more you spend time with Him and put some effort into getting to know Him – and telling Him about yourself – the more at ease you become being with Him. You’ll find that, soon, you’re past the point of wondering if you can believe in God and you’ll look back on that and wonder why you thought it was so hard.

Here’s a good way to feel more at ease with God: thank him. Don’t think about this too much, just make a point throughout the day to stop what you’re doing or thinking and say (in your head or out loud), “thank you.” At first it will be a bit of an effort. But like any new friendship you’ve got to put in the time and effort. Soon the day will come when you just naturally talk to God and you feel comfortable conversing with him at all times of the day.

Just to give you some ideas of how to thank God and build a relationship with him,I’ll share the kinds of things for which I thank God: When I’m walking our dog, Daisy, in the morning I’ll look up at the sky and thank God for its beauty. Sometimes, the sky is cloudless and endlessly blue. At other times, it has billowy clouds or it’s rather dark with a hint of rain or snow. No matter the weather, I look around for something beautiful, or dramatic, (and there’s always something) and give God thanks for his creation and for sharing it with me. I’ll say things like, “Wow, God, that’s an awesome sunrise.” Or, “You’ve outdone Yourself today; the leaves on the trees are outstanding!”

At first this was hard to do simply because I was not in the habit of looking around me and giving God the credit. I used to take such things for granted, or I didn’t even notice them at all. But now, I’m always thanking God – and I have fun with him. Like when I say, “God, I bet you’re just so pleased with Yourself about that awesome rainbow!”

Now I talk with him throughout the day. For instance, as I’m writing this, I pause every few minutes just to remind myself that I’m not alone. I’ll say, “Thank you God, for being with me at the computer. Please look over my shoulder and let me know what you think!” When something pleasant occurs in the day, I thank him for it. When something unpleasant occurs, I thank him for sticking with me through it. If I’m worried about something, I tell him about it and add, that no matter what happens, I know he’ll work for good in it.

This last thought is actually a verse from the Bible:

“In all things God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.”

It’s in the New Testament, from Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 8, verse 28. This brings me to tell you about another step in getting to know God: reading the Bible and learning by heart verses that mean a lot to you.

When you read your Bible regularly, you find out more and more about God: How mighty and powerful he is (Isaiah 40:28-31), all the incredible acts he’s done (Nehemiah 9:5-25, Chronicles 20:15-30, Job 38:4-41), and how much he loves you, Caleb (Psalm 139:1-18). Try looking up these passages in your Bible; they are all from the Old Testament. As you read you’re likely to come across a verse, or maybe even an entire chapter, that really inspires you. Underline it, maybe even make a note in your Bible about it, and then write it down on one of the spiral-bound note-card books I gave you. Soon, you’ll have a whole collection of favorite verses. And, God will bring them to mind when you need comfort, or encouragement, or guidance.

Years ago, when you were having bad dreams at night, I underlined a verse in your Bible that I thought would give you comfort. Do you remember it? It’s a favorite of mine because it reminds me that God is our constant Companion and Protector. It’s found in the New Testament, in the letter to the Hebrews, chapter 13, verse 5:

“Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” So we can say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?”

I’ve written it down, along with many others, in a spiral-bound note-card book I keep for myself. In fact, that one is filled with favorite Bible verses and I’ve started on another. I take one with me in my purse and read from it when I’m waiting to pick you up from school. On the day when I’m cleaning the house or doing our laundry I leave it on the kitchen table, so that as I walk by the table I read aloud a verse and then mull it over as I continue with my work.

This is God’s way of talking back to us. He’ll speak to you through the Bible stories you’ve read and the verses you’ve memorized. In fact, if you make a habit of reading the Bible every day you’ll begin to sense that certain stories or chapters or verses are printed there just for your benefit! It will seem, at times, as if they were written with you in mind. (And they were – but more about that later, when we talk about the Bible in greater detail.)

So, it’s possible to get to know God better. The process is similar to making a new friend in school or in the neighborhood. You’ve got to do your part in building the relationship because, as with any friendship, it doesn’t happen automatically. You have to put effort into finding out about God, just like you would do with a new friend. You have to spend time with him. Keep in mind that God doesn’t want to force himself on anyone. That’s why it’s up to us to take some initiative. In a sense, we have to start walking forward in faith despite our doubts. Yet, when we do, he’ll be right there to join in with us. In fact, he’s by your side even now, just waiting for a signal from you.

To sum up, here are my five suggestions for exploring your faith in God:

  • Begin with a mind that isn’t already made up against him.
  • Try to understand God’s point of view by seeking to get to know him better.
  • Make a point of noticing God’s handiwork in the world around you and in your life. Thank him. Praise him. Talk to him about what you’re seeing and feeling. Share with him your concerns. Give thanks for what you see he’s done.
  • Read his word to us in the Bible and with some of those words, try to commit them to memory. This helps to form the basis for a trusting relationship with God.
  • And when you have questions or doubts, don’t hide them from God. Also, talk about them with Dad and me, Mr. Sutton, your school chaplain, or with Mr. Solomon, your church youth director. You will learn a lot from how we worked through our own uncertainties (and we all have had them at one time or another). Your confidence in God will grow from hearing about our struggles and how we worked through them.

Finally, here’s a Bible passage for you to let you know how much God wants you to get to know him – and what a great blessing it is to be such good friends with God. It’s a prayer that the apostle, Paul, prayed for his friends in Ephesus. I pray this for you often:

I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us who believe.  Ephesians 1:17-19

Love,

Mom

Discussion Questions for Letter No. 1: How to Explore Your Faith in God

  1. Is there anything about God you find easy to believe? If so, what?
  1. What doubts do you have about God?
  1. Why do “pre-conditions” get in the way of exploring faith in God? Have you, or any of your friends, set up any? (See the first installment for three examples of pre-conditions.)
  1. Ask someone you trust, whom you know has already started walking forward in faith, how they were able to do so. (Parents, this is an opportunity to talk about your own faith journey.)
  1. What did you learn from this letter? Has it made you think about God in a new way? Please explain.

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