If you have studied the Bible for a while, you realize that, in small and large ways, the Bible structures your autobiography. It provides the words, warnings, promises, and stories that guided and taught you. You could trace the beginnings of your spiritual journey by recalling the Bible stories and passages that were important to you when you began a life of faith—even of childhood faith. You browse through the book, and certain passages and verses stand out; divine promises gave you new insights; your spiritual journey can be traced among a variety of Bible passages. Your acquaintance with the Bible is like tree rings; you can pick out the ones at the “center,” when you began in faith, and circle outward as your understanding increases.
A show of hands: who has unused or seldom used Bibles tucked around the house? That’s not necessarily a bad thing: my family and I have several. My wife’s childhood Bible, from Lutheran catechism, sits upon the shelves; these days she prefers the newer Serendipity Bible. Our daughter’s Beginner’s Bible, with well known Bible stories rendered in appealing cartoon form, also sits on the shelves, a nice reminder of her childhood. Now she has an edition formatted for teens. We also have the childhood Bible of Beth’s first husband, who died young from leukemia; a leather-bound Vulgate New Testament that I picked up at a sale and used for a time; an old Bible that belonged to my dad’s stepfather, and my loose-leaf NIV.
Perhaps you’re like me; you associate stages and times of your life with particular Bibles. Whatever happened to the Bible you received when you entered high school? Or the one Aunt Rose of Sharon gave you? Bibles, like everything else, have a way of being misplaced, disappearing. Others sit unused on shelves, and a few are still cherished. You hate to relinquish Bibles with personal associations.
My Harper Study Bible (RSV), which I’ve used for thirty years, is third in a line of “favorite” Bibles. The first sits, a keepsake, upon my shelves. One day, when I was in second or third grace, my father and I were shopping in our hometown, Vandalia, Illinois, when he declared, “Paul, it’s time you had your own Bible!”
That was an unexpected announcement because Dad wasn’t yet a churchgoer. Like Ralphie’s “old man,” my father (but even more so, his mother) “worked in profanity the way other artists might work in oils or clay.” On family vacations, Mom and I visited churches while he sat in the car, reading Westerns. Yet he dearly loved George Beverly Shea, the singer on Billy Graham’s crusades. Purchasing me a Bible must’ve been his way of finding a role in my religious development. Amid Vandalia’s several clothing stores, groceries, restaurants, and other businesses that once lined the “main drag” Gallatin Street and its adjoining streets, one of our favorite stores was the G. C. Murphy, near Fourth and Gallatin. The store sold all manners of items from fabric and notions to LP records, candy, games, school supplies, kitchen utensils, books, and Bibles. My mother had worked at “the dime store,” as we called it, until she became pregnant with me. That was the store where Dad purchased for me a King James Version.
I was proud of that Bible and carried it to Sunday school and Vacation Bible School. Innocently I wrote Dad’s and my names on the title page, “Presented to… From …” and marked my parents’ and grandparents’ names in the center page for family information. Once or twice I tried to read the book, and I underlined a few verses. But the language was too archaic and lofty for a young person, and the two-column formatting was tough-going. Each sentence was its own little paragraph. Who ever sees books printed like that? You’d chuck even your favorite novel across the room.
Thus, one of my earliest impressions of the Bible was ambivalent. The Bible is wonderful to own and critically important—as everyone I knew said—so important, in fact, your eternal destiny depended upon its contents. And yet the book’s contents seemed highly resistant to being read as you could another, compelling book.
I didn’t think deeply about it; I just did what everyone else did, which was to assimilate some basic Bible knowledge from church, to which my mom made me go.
I turn in my Bible to Acts 10:38… “how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.” Why that verse? For years it was the only one I knew from memory (other than the gloriously brief John 11:35). I had to memorize that verse in a childhood Sunday school class, when we were studying the ministry of Peter; the teachers had written the verse on a chalkboard. (This verse represents a “primitive Christology,” that is, the divinity of Jesus isn’t stressed but rather his prophetic activity. I knew nothing about all that, however, until I got to seminary.) The citation had a nice “beat” to it: Dah, Dah, dah-dah Dah.
My mother and I attended a Disciples of Christ congregation in Vandalia. My grandma Grace had a friend, Chester Griffith of Brownstown, Illinois, who had achieved 50 years of perfect Sunday school attendance. I thought that was cool and so for ten years I only missed Sunday school because of illness. The teachers at my hometown church were very good. I also attended VBS in the summer months. As I recall the classrooms of our small town church, I think of all the “basic” Bible characters that I learned. Noah, for instance, was not simply as a story about a big boat and animals. God is holy, and his patience is long but not unlimited. Noah, though, was faithful, and he and his family were chosen by God to save. There was a not-so-subtle moral lesson: we, too, can be faithful people whom God may choose for some great thing.
I learned about Jacob and Esau, and that dreamy, melancholy song “Jacob’s Ladder.” As I recall, our teachers used little, cartoon-like figures attached to a flannel board, so I’ve an indelible image of the two brothers looking like a small man and a big hairy man. David and Goliath were depicted similarly, even more like Popeye and Bluto than Isaac’s twin boys. David seemed smarter than Popeye, however, because he counted on God’s initiative without first becoming victimized by the giant opponent. Popeye always had to be defeated before he realized he needed his spinach…
“Tell me the stories of Jesus,” goes that old hymn, and another one, “I love to tell the story of unseen things above, of Jesus and his mercy, of Jesus and his love.” In Sunday school and VBS, I learned stories like the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan—stories of God’s love, and the love we’re bidden to show others. I wasn’t sure how, exactly, to show such love; how, for instance, do you “turn the other cheek” without getting a sissy reputation on the playground?
We children learned about the many faux pas of the eternally appealing disciple, Peter, who messed up, misunderstood, tried again, stumbled, but Jesus loved him all the more. Paul had the zeal and tenacity, but we don’t hear so much about Paul’s process of learning, starting again, regretting his mistakes, and so on. I don’t think Paul emerged with his faith full-grown; after all, he says that he, too, had to learn, take time, and grow (Gal. 1:17, Phil. 3:12-16). As an unlikely apostle, Paul had to defend and validate his ministry, and thus, even when he admits his struggles, he sounds self-important. Because we have stories of his efforts, Peter seemed more approachable. Plus, Peter was a working man, like the fathers of us small-town kids. If a man close to Jesus couldn’t “get it together” and was loved anyway, we all have hope!
Some of our Sunday school material was in comic-book format. We learned about Adam and Eve, whom to this day I picture as pale, cartoon figures standing in a wooded area where bushes and branches conceal the couple’s private parts. I also remember the artist’s version of the story of Naboth and his vineyard (1 Kings 21), and Naboth’s look of horror and confusion as people seized him to be executed. I learned the story of Stephen the same way: his figure kneeling in prayer for forgiveness as men raise large stones.
In one curricular series, two young men were Christians struggling to maintain their faith in the face of Roman persecution. I forget the name of characters and the series, but I remember that one of the men was forced by the villainous Romans to test his faith by holding onto a red-hot iron sphere with only leaves to protect his hands. If his hands were not burned, his faith would be deemed true and he’d be spared. Don’t try this at home, kids. The young man was rescued by his friends before the test, which made me a little disappointed; I wanted to know what would happen. I had a feeling that his hands would’ve been burned—and yet that wouldn’t have disapproved his faith. But that’s a difficult issue to teach little kids—God is still faithful, even though we don’t always see “success.”
Bible stories are toned down a bit for children’s Sunday school; the rapes, killings, mutilations, and other more fierce passages of the Bible come a little later in one’s religious education. I learned about Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones, but not his furious depictions of a Lord nearly insane with vengeance against his people (chapters 16 and 23). But I did learn about the plagues on Egypt. I mean, really, you can’t have serious Bible study without the plagues! And I learned the story of Jezebel, whose death appealed to my boyish appreciation for the gruesome: “Oh, cool, wild dogs!”
I learned about Moses, Solomon, and other characters: the venerable approach to Bible study through the examples of faithful but fallible Bible people. Fortunately I don’t recall much Sunday school memorization. I had to recite the Twenty-Third Psalm (my mother helped me a little, though her coaching make the assignment more nerve-raking), and we children learned the biblical books in order, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments.
Churches often measure their success and effectiveness in quantitative terms: “oh, we had 100 in our Vacation Bible School this year; we’re praying for 15,000 next year!” We must be careful not to forget that the Holy Spirit is the real grower and nurturer of faith and the Spirit is not so easy to measure quantitatively. Denominational statisticians can never learn about the lifelong religious foundation such VBS classes can lay, because those “results” are not numerical and are revealed in the future.
Nor can the effects of prayer be statistically analyzed. Even in the Bible, prayer is sometimes mysterious. Recently, in my present Sunday school class, an interesting point was raised about Stephen. Did Stephen’s prayer (Acts 7:59) lead to the conversion of the persecutor Saul? The text doesn’t say explicitly. But it’s intriguing to speculate. Perhaps you and I have faith in God today—even if it’s just a small bit of faith—because some adult prayed for us during our childhoods. I know for sure that the Spirit was able to use my church teachers, and that simple little verse from Acts.
Many of us have memories of a church youth group. Our church had an “awesome” group for a while but it didn’t sustain momentum after our volunteer leader transferred jobs to another community. While it lasted, the fellowship was terrific—I remember our leader’s house on Vandalia’s Johnson Street where we met weekday evenings in the summer for Bible study—but I had no dramatic experiences of God’s love which some of my friends recall from their own memories of youth groups, church camps, and campfires beneath the stars. Our church continued to have youth Sunday school classes. I remember times when we youth took up urgent social issues–especially whether Jesus had long hair and rock music was okay. We solved the world’s problems to our satisfaction.
I was thrilled recently to locate the Bible of my youth group period: my second “favorite” Bible, which I used until I was twenty and purchased my old Harper RSV. I’d not seen that second Bible for years and assumed it was lost; the book was tucked away in a dusty recess behind a desk in my mother’s home. The Bible is one of those Good News for Modern Man paperbacks, the New Testament in the Today’s English Version (TEV), which for a time proliferated like rabbits in churches. My 7th grade Sunday school teacher, Gene Hutchison, presented copies to the class. That was 1970: the year of the Kent State shootings, Jimi Hendrix’s death, the first Earth Day, and so on; the songs “Monster” by Steppenwolf and “Closer to Home” by Grand Funk Railroad stand out as favorites. That was also the year I was baptized. On the Bible’s inside front cover, I wrote my name with an arrow crossing the T of “Stroble,” the cheesy way I signed my name in junior high school. The Bible featured those wonderful cartoon line-drawings that illustrated the various stories and teachings, and also newspaper mastheads on the cover: The New York Times, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Times of India, and others. I always wondered, “Why newspapers?” but I suppose they symbolized the Bible’s contemporary relevance.
Perhaps those mastheads plus the general cultural tone of the period helped inspire my later interest in “social holiness.” But my memories of spirituality associated with this Bible are more negative. This Bible scared me terribly when I encountered some of Jesus’ teachings. For instance, I worried about his commandment in Matthew 5:48: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Now there’s a verse that connects me to a lot of early, negative ideas. Perfection? Is Jesus kidding? He didn’t seem like a big kidder, so … I couldn’t imagine measuring up. Even worse, though, was the Lord’s warning about the sin against the Holy Spirit (Mk. 12:21). What was that sin, and have I committed it? Why didn’t Jesus make such an important thing clearer? The matter was left cruelly vague.
At the time I focused on Jesus’ warnings about Hell. In portions of his teachings, he warned that people would miss the kingdom of God and would be cast into outer darkness or into the fire (Matt. 24:45-51, Matt. 25:1-13, 30, 46). He warned that people would call him “Lord” who would be excluded from the kingdom if they didn’t do his will (Matt. 7:21-23). Could my own imperfect soul be in danger, in spite of my baptism and public confession?
Now … I’d nothing to worry about. I was a very sweet, tenderhearted kid who barely got into minor trouble, let alone anything serious. If you were compiling a list of candidates for an eternity in Hell, I doubt I would’ve topped your list. You might have worried about my low self-esteem. Besides, the fact that I was concerned about pleasing the Lord evidenced a saving, beginning faith that God was pleased to nurture (Isa. 42:3).
I didn’t see it that way, and I’d yet another ambivalent impression of the Bible: it contains passages that aren’t easy to understand. As in this case, a verse can even mislead you if you’ve no one to help you sort it all out. However, that “sin against the Holy Spirit” business did make me look for other passages that would assuage my anxiety. Here’s one: “my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:30). Here’s another one, an old favorite, “that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life …” (John 3:16). Whew!
But oh no, here’s another scary one: “don’t lust in your heart …” (paraphrasing Matt. 5:28), and I was quite attracted to a pretty suntanned girl in my history class … Maybe it’s hopeless for me! God must have impossible standards.
Amid my teenage angst, I stumbled upon a venerable hermeneutical principle—Scripture explains Scripture—without realizing.
Why didn’t I have a happier, more accurate version of the Gospel, especially given my faithful church school teachers, in children’s and youth classes? The Bible, after all, contains abundant stories of people who followed Jesus and were overwhelmingly happy. Not only had they escaped God’s wrath, but they had abundant, loving power from God in their lives that would carry them all the way through life and death to eternal life. Adolescence can be a terrible time: of trying to fit in, of facing pressures and expectations. Parents—with whom one can too easily confuse with God—can issue harsh punishments for seemingly minor behavior infractions. I can’t blame my younger self for being confused.
But a certain notion is very deeply ingrained in many of us: we’ll go to Heaven only if we’re good enough. It’s as if Jesus actually said that he’s preparing a place for us in Heaven but he’ll only do so if we provide the lumber, drywall, and wiring (John 14:2). Perhaps a certain emphasis that you do find in churches—the Bible peoples are “heroes” whose faith and character you should emulate—has something to do with it.. We think that the Gospel is primarily something we have to do; we have to live the Gospel; it’s a program for moral- and character-development. We think that the most important thing about Jesus is the decision we make to follow him. In turn, the characters of the Bible become subjects of moral lessons (e.g., Abraham’s call to go to Canaan symbolizes our need to be flexible; David and Goliath symbolize the way we can stand up to big problems) rather than primarily examples of God’s work.
In other words, the emphasis is upon us and our behaviors; even the extent to which we psychologically surrender to Christ becomes an essential factor in God’s power becoming operative. Decision, surrender, and behavior are certainly important things, but with the emphasis upon ourselves, we unintentionally undervalue the actual Gospel: the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and the power of God given to us through the Holy Spirit. A well known Christian author was once asked when he was saved, and he replied “On Calvary.” He realized the true Good News is the power of God on which we rely and which we can never earn.
Who knows why so many of us, subconsciously at least, think our moral efforts earn for us God’s eternal grace? Would anyone you know decline a winning lottery ticket with the sadly self-depreciating little response, “Oh, maybe I’m not good enough”? The conditional approval that we experience all around us—in our homes, our jobs, with our relatives, and with our religious leaders and church friends, too—becomes a model, though a completely erroneous one, for how we perceive God.
Unfortunately, we thereby, if unintentionally, deny the truth of the loveliest and most freeing Bible passages: the Prodigal Son, John 3:16, Romans 3:21-26, and many others.
Often, in Christian experience, a conviction of sin precedes acceptance of Christ. I wonder if a special sin for which we need repentance is an inadequate, works-oriented view of the Gospel, where Jesus is primarily a teacher of character and values, and the Gospel is a list of dos and don’ts. Not much freedom and grace in either of those, compared to the Gospel of freedom and peace.
Several years ago, a student in my world religions class raised his hand.
“Hey, Dr. Stroble!”
“Did you know that the word %&@# is in the Bible?”
Questions like that make me glad that I’m happy and unflappable as a teacher. Fortunately I knew the answer. In Philippians, Paul recites his heritage: a Pharisee of the tribe of Benjamin, a blameless observer of the Torah. But the gain that he had before, and indeed everything, is counted as loss “because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead”
The Greek word translated “rubbish” is pretty strong, if not as strong as my student’s translation, at least carrying the connotation of “excrement.” Paul is not saying that his Jewish heritage is %&@#. Paul understands himself as a Jew and understands Christ as the fulfillment of all God’s promises to his people the Jews. Paul is simply saying here in Philippians that nothing compares to the blessing of having Christ and his grace and power; all else is worthless compared to Christ.
It’s hard to “feel” the same excitement. We’re all churchgoing Gentile Christians, with no dire threat to our comfort. I suspect that we’ve domesticated the Gospel so much, and are so accustomed to believing the central Christian truths and relying upon our own strength and character, that we’ve become practical agnostics.
Sometimes the Gospel jerks us awake, though. In Acts 2:37, Peter’s audience is “cut to the heart” concerning Peter’s message. The people had a sound reason; they realized they were accessories to the killing of an innocent man, indeed a man sent by God! We can be “cut,” too, in a more positive way when particular scriptures speak strongly to us.
That happened to me in an introductory course in religion, taught by Dr. Jim Reinhard, during my freshman year at a small Christian college. The course was during the autumn of 1975. Among other subjects we did a quick survey of the Gospels. I don’t think we read Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship in that class, but the book was certainly discussed on campus and at the time I owned the familiar 4-by-7, dark-green paperback, 1975 edition. With these influences dovetailing with my earlier church instruction, I became challenged, excited, and “cut” by several passages that had to do with Jesus’ call of discipleship.
“For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from them who have not, even what they have will be taken away” (Matt. 13:12).
This idea was so important, apparently, that we find it again later in the same gospel: 25:29. As an eighteen year old with a variety of interests and talents but no clear idea what to do with my life, such verses challenged me to devote my own modest “abundance” to Christian discipleship in some way, whatever my life’s work became.
“When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Matt. 9:36-38).
Who will go? Matthew and other disciples took up Jesus’ call (Mk. 1:20; 2:14). The rich man of Luke 18, though, was given more of a challenge than “follow me,” and at that point he wasn’t ready. But Philip responded and brought Nathaniel along (John 1:43-45); Nathaniel in turn followed, after he had the assurance of his question answered (John 1:45-51). I wasn’t sure what discipleship would entail, but I wanted to respond, as long as I could search out answers to some of my own questions.
Among those questions were the expectations of Jesus. His commands still seemed difficult; his demands for an all-encompassing discipleship that reached all the way into the heart’s most stubborn places seemed out of reach.
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15).
Okay … but what are they? (This is serious: John 3:36 reiterates the consequences.) But keep reading: not long after John 14:15, Jesus explains: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another” (15:12-17).
So Jesus’ commandment is to love! Not just to love—and not just to try to make ourselves love in a self-giving way as Jesus did—but to love through the power of the Holy Spirit so that the Spirit can use our imperfect love in ways far beyond our imaginings.
The story of the Judgment in Matthew 25:31-46 spelled out Christ’s commandment of love very well, as did the story I’d learned long before, the Good Samaritan: we love and serve those who are in need, regardless of who they are. When we do so, we serve Christ himself.
Jesus upheld the Ten Commandments but, even more, the Two Commandments: “One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength’, and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself’,—this is much more important than all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any question” (Mark 12:28-34).
As our class studied the Gospels, I had a very strong, positive impression of the historical quality of the gospels: the way the authors used historical materials and collections of stories and sayings in order to draw an account of Jesus’ life. The accounts of Jesus seemed thereby more real and true. In turn, if the Gospels were sound historical accounts, then Jesus’ call of discipleship seemed all the more urgent.
So did the messages of Jesus’ love. Jesus did not exclude the religious “athletes” but he reached out to all kinds of people: the good folks, the dregs, the well-off, and the seriously-sinful sinners. The twelve fellows he chose for students were a slow-to-get-it crew whom he never ceased to love.
“Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light (Matt. 11:29-30).”
Being “yoked” to Christ also meant learning from him. The word “disciple” basically means “student,” although our modern conception of a student as a classroom-bound person narrows the word’s setting. We learn from Jesus—we are his students/disciples—as we assume the responsibilities of showing Christ in our daily activities.
From Dr. Reinhard’s class I learned my first “cool” original-language word, splagchnizomai, which in Greek means “moved with compassion” (e.g., Luke 7:13) but literally means “to have the bowels yearning.” The compassion that Jesus showed was no superficial thing or a “pose” assumed by a distant sovereign: his love permeated his deepest being.
Finally, that erroneous element of fear—of feeling I had to earn God’s grace—changed into happiness and excitement. I felt freed and chosen by someone who died for me and others. Of course, I’d known this all along; Jesus was not foreign to me. In one of his lectures in 1980, my professor, Luke Timothy Johnson, called theology a process of “catching up.” God has already done more than we can imagine, but we have to catch up to it. As a freshman college student, Jesus seemed newly real and I wanted to deepen my faith and to discover ways of serving Christ. So I leafed through my Good News for Modern Man and began to study.
Understanding the Gospel in “head and heart” was not a quick process for me. I was in my late teens, early twenties. My first, shy efforts at witnessing were pitiful. “I led him and his family to Christ, right there in their living room!” noted a college friend concerning acquaintances of his. I hadn’t a comparable gift of evangelistic gab. I recall talking to a local friend about faith, but I really didn’t know the best way to approach the subject. I had the right idea: to share how wonderful is Christ’s presence in one’s life. But our conversation was like a bad blind date with long awkward silences. Later, I tried a different approach; I invited another friend to Sunday school. I got a very defensive reaction, as if I’d made a value judgment upon the person’s character, but I’d meant no such thing. My extended family loved to talk politics and religion, and some of these folks asked me about fine points of doctrinal debate. But since I was just starting out, I didn’t know how to respond, which in turn made me shyer about witnessing. Fortunately no one asked me to carry a red-hot iron ball.
Remember Jesus’ story about the man healed from an evil spirit, but shortly several other evil spirits returned to him (Luke 11:24-26)? I didn’t have an evil spirit, just a growing sadness about my faith, and a growing sense of inadequacy, after such a lovely, liberating renewal that I’d experienced in that college class. A very common experience in Christian faith is a spiritual low that follows a positive encounter with God, a phenomenon that people, for instance, discover after they‘ve enjoyed a spiritual retreat weekend. We quite possibly will discover sinful aspects of ourselves after a spiritual transformation, and so we set ourselves up for disappointment and maybe even unbelief if we mistakenly think that faith will always be upbeat and “successful.”
Memories of awkward attempts at witnessing make one cringe. One time a person witnessed to me by asking if I knew the Four Spiritual Laws.
“Yes,” I said, a little hesitantly, because I couldn’t remember their wording.
“Well … you’d better!” the person said.
Another time I was depressed about something, and a person asked me, “Well… do you think you’re saved?” That, of course, made me feel worse. A major reason for my shyness in witnessing was the fear of saying something insensitive and therefore being hurtful rather than helpful.
Many of us spoil our witness by insisting that our experiences should be normative for others: this particular process, or spiritual retreat, or experience, or church (or this particular style of music or worship) worked for me, and therefore it should work for you, too (and you should be as committed as I am). Thank goodness the Holy Spirit is freer and more tender and innovative in working with each of us individually. Pressuring people to perform—or conform—can cause lasting damage to a person’s religious life.
If you find witnessing easy and natural, that’s wonderful. But over the years plenty of my parish friends have said that they feel uneasy witnessing and even dislike praying aloud. Such shyness may have nothing to do with the depth of faith. It may have to do with your personality, the things that nourish your faith, the amount of affirmation or discouragement you received from other Christians, and so on. You may feel so deeply about your faith that it’s hard to articulate. Perhaps you feel like your faith is too meager to share. Perhaps you fear that you’ll damage someone’s faith even though you tried to be helpful.
If I was re-embarking on Christian faith right now … well, I’d have a thicker skin and more self-confidence, but that’s a matter of personal growth. I’d also give myself time to grow spiritually and to understand, to absorb more from the wonderful Vandalia church we attended. I wanted a faith that genuinely verbalized itself, but I hadn’t such a thing. I love this verse:
“[A bishop] must have a firm grasp of the word that is trustworthy in accordance with the teaching, so that he may be able both to preach with sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9)
That’s excellent advice for any Christian, not only church leaders. Faith is knowledge but it’s also a “holding on” firmly to God, a whole orientation of living in God’s truth and of clarifying aspects of faith and doctrine. God touches our lives richly, through God’s own initiative, but we don’t always know how God’s power is real in our lives or how to express that fact to others. I definitely didn’t want to “fake” my witness (though even a poorly-worded witness, or a witness though example alone, might be a way the Spirit plants seeds through us and then brings about that growth later).
The Bible itself gives warrant for treating one’s own faith with patience. We don’t know what Paul did following his conversion (or, as he himself puts it, his call), but we do know that he went to Arabia and then Damascus, and only afterward met with Jesus’ disciples (Gal. 1:15-18). Interestingly to me, Paul considered himself a person of unimpressive speech compared to the orators of the Greek world; he trusted in God’s Spirit to demonstrate God’s power (1 Cor. 2:1-5). Much is always made of Peter’s boldness in the beginning of Acts, but Peter wasn’t just starting out with highly effective sermons the moment he became a follower of Jesus. “Effectiveness” had nothing to do with it; nor his natural extroversion. An earthen vessel (2 Cor. 4:7), he was empowered and matured by the Holy Spirit (who worked with his natural extroversion and abilities) after a long time of learning, making mistakes, looking stupid, losing his nerve, starting again. God’s Spirit, not our best efforts, is the way by which the Gospel takes root and grows in people’s lives.
When I was twenty, I purchased my Harper Study Bible RSV, which replaced my Good News for Modern Man. Studying it at our Vandalia home, I began to underline and yellow-lighting passages and continued to do so for several years. I leaf through those pages today and remember my efforts at understanding the Gospel. How would a person explain the good news?
* God is holy, and we are not: we’re sinners. Because God is holy, he holds us accountable for violating his will. But we cannot do enough to pay the “fine” incurred by our many sins. Thus God created a system by which animals could be killed humanely and other food products could be offered as types of sacrifices. The blood of animals was particularly potent, because blood is a source of life and the release of blood from an animal was believed to have spiritual consequences.
* But, of course, such sacrifices would go on forever. Those sacrifices were also authorized for God’s own people, the Hebrews, and God related to non-Jews in other ways. So how can sin be satisfactorily “covered”?
* Jesus died under terrible circumstances as a condemned sinner who was, nevertheless, innocent. His death, while not caused upon an altar, did involve the shedding of his blood. Jesus was not simply a blameless human being; he was also the incarnate God. In Jesus, God became human and was sacrificed so that the power of his blood—the fully human blood of God become flesh—would be shed for the forgiveness of sins, for all who believed and for all time.
*But Jesus’ death was not the end of the story. He soon rose from the dead, conquering the ultimate destructive power of both sin and death. Although we still commit sins, suffer various difficulties in our lives, and eventually experience physical death, these forces have no power to affect our eternal destiny, which is life with God through the power of Jesus.
*But that’s not all! We need not feel regret that Jesus lived long ago. He himself said that he was more effective for us if he died and returned to Heaven. Now, through the power of the Holy Spirit, we have a close relationship with Christ, daily and for all time.
We have all kinds of wonderful blessings in Jesus’ name. Here are several that I’ve mentioned and several others.
§ Jesus defeated the power of sin and death (1 Cor. 15:51-57)
§ He dealt a killing blow to the powers of evil (1 Cor. 15:24-28).
§ He has reconciled us with God (Rom. 5:10-11).
§ We receive mercy and grace from God (Rom. 6: 23, Heb. 4:16).
§ We’ve confidence in approaching God (Heb. 4:15-16).
§ We’ve assurance that God will never forsake us (Rom. 8:31-39),.
§ We’ve gentleness from God (Heb. 5:2)
§ We’ve freedom from being “good enough to please God” (Rom. 3:21-26).
§ God gives us power for living (1 Cor. 4:20, 1 Thess. 1:5).
§ God removes all the barriers between us and other people (Eph. 2:11-22); those barriers remain because we insist that they do!
§ God gives us fellowships that sustain us (Eph. 4:11-16).
§ God gives us spiritual gifts and power for growth (Gal. 5:22-23).
§ God frees us from the need to be anxious (Phil. 4:6).
§ God gives us a peace which is even better than “peace of mind” (Phil. 4:7), it’s the peace of a right relationship with God.
If we’re going to share the Gospel well, we need to understand why this good news is momentous: it’s the good news of God’s favor and love for us, the power God provides us for living, and the life that God gives to us which never ends.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him”
“Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26).
How can you ever beat these words? Or these:
“The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15).
“…since all have sinned and falls short of the glory of God, they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood, to be received by faith…” (Rom. 3:23-25a).
“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1).
“Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God” (Romans 5:1-2).
“Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance….Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:7, 10).
“He is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness” (Heb. 5:2)
A related, long passage, 1 Corinthians 15:35-58, practically bursts with joy and anticipation. That passage is appropriate for funerals, but why should we limit the passage only to situations of grief and loss? That scripture provides wonderful confidence for day-to-day muddling-along, too: what a wonderful life God provides for us, now and always.
Have you ever thought of “relief” as an essential Christian emotion? I mean relief that you are justified before God, the kind of relief you feel when your medical tests come back negative, or when the lawsuit against you is dropped, or when a good job comes your way after a time of unemployment, only more so? Archbishop Desmond Tutu puts it well, “There is nothing you can do that will make God love you less. There is nothing you can do to make God love you more. God’s love for you is infinite, perfect, and eternal.”# We don’t necessarily need a crisis to feel that love—sometimes that’s true—but we often find God’s love especially meaningful at different situations, or when we’re feeling unlovable or vulnerable for some reason and need desperately to believe God cares.
One thing that puzzled me was the fact that the disciples gave up significant things, and in some cases everything, in order to witness to God’s love as shown in Christ. In many cases, these people chose misery and suffering over comfort, as for instance in Acts, where the disciples suffered abuse, rejection, and imprisonment. Their choice of God’s love was far from the comparatively domesticated versions of discipleship today: joining a particular church, pursuing a particular career path, perceiving yourself as persecuted when someone disagrees with you on a political or cultural issue. Christian faith was potentially deadly—yet it was something that people chose eagerly and freely.
Why did they? The early Christians realized that being rescued from God’s wrath and judgment was better than any momentary comfort (Rom 5:9, 2 Cor. 5:10, 1 Thess. 1:10). They saw the opportunity for a loving, eternal, abundant relationship with the creator of the universe—a relationship filled with power.
“For the kingdom of God depends not on talk but on power” (1 Cor. 4:20).
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel: it is the power of God for salvation to every one
who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16)
” …because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction” (1 Thess. 1:5a)
As I wrote earlier, there were times in my Christian life when I wanted the Spirit’s power and conviction but nothing seemed to happen. We should realize that the Spirit doesn’t always exercise divine power at the moment we want, or in a way that registers with our emotional feelings. Sometimes the Spirit does so, and sometimes the Spirit works through us to plant seeds in another person’s life that will grow imperceptibly. Or alternatively, we may be a positive influence upon someone else for Christ, but their “soil” is not ready for God’s power (Matt. 13:18-23), at least for the time being.
Whether or not we “feel” God’s faithfulness is, in a way, irrelevant. Feelings can be poor barometers; for instance, you might have many friends but, for one reason or another, you feel lonely. The reality of your life is God’s divine life that is given to you and for you.
“I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20)
“Because I live, you also will live” (John 14:19).
Why does God share his divine life for us? According to Paul, God wanted to “prove himself.”
“But now, irrespective of law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:21-26).
In Paul’s letters, righteousness is God’s quality of his own faithfulness to the covenant: now, in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. God declares us righteous “in and through Jesus.” It has nothing to do with us or our deservedness or our own righteousness. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8-9).
I love that word “boast.” What if we considered Bible words as the common “DNA” that we share? We Christians quickly divide ourselves among denominations, political convictions, personality traits, race, economic status, theological interpretation, a lack of empathy toward each other’s struggles, and other things. But if we share a love of God’s promises, then we’d have no need to boast; we could focus upon the love of God which unites us, and my story might not be so different from yours in the aspects that truly matter.
All these underlined and “yellowed” verses in my old Bible were important as I first tried to articulate the Gospel in head, heart, and life. Thirty years later, these passages are as helpful as ever when I need assurance and a clear view of life’s essential truths. That doesn’t mean I’m an amazing Christian or a daily scripture reader; in fact, I take comfort in the fact that consistently wonderful religious people tend to be treated harshly in the Bible, but humility, need, repentance, and a desire for growth count for more in God’s eyes. Whatever is the quality of our spiritual journey, we all rely upon the constancy of God’s Spirit. The pressures of life might blind me to that constancy if I didn’t visit the Bible frequently. The book provides us eternal promises on which we can lean as the Spirit guides us amid our own times and places.
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