When my twin sons were about ten years old, one of them came home in tears, devastated, heart-broken, even faith-shaken, because some older kid had verbally assaulted him saying, “There is no God. The Bible is a bunch of fairy tales, and your parents are fools for believing in God and giving their lives to a God who is not real.” Of course, such a challenge was inevitable, not only because he and his siblings were known about town as preacher’s kids, but because they had marked themselves early as young people of belief, young disciples of Christ, nascent servants of God. So when my son came to me distraught, I knew I needed to fashion an answer that would help him explain the why of his belief. Even at age ten my son knew what he believed. But like many people much older than him, he struggled to articulate why he believed. After I gave him an answer, I realized that the basic outline of my response to him could help others articulate the logic of their faith when challenged. On this Easter morning I believe that all of us need to be prepared to answer the question, “Are you really a believer in the Christian Gospel?” with this answer . . . “You bet your life I am.”
First of all, I said, “My son, start with the obvious. You have already noticed that the young man who ridiculed your faith behaves quite differently than you do. He employs language that you do not speak, is drawn to entertainments that you do not share, makes light of things that you know to be serious, ridicules people that you know to be worthwhile. He mocks topics that you regard as sacred. This is no accident. My point is, my son, God is shaping your life and character in one direction; the absence of God is shaping his life and character in another direction. The reality of God can be seen in the impact that God has upon our lives. Okay, you have attended enough gatherings of Baptists to know that faith makes some people strange. But you’ve also found that the people you admire as the most loving, the most giving and forgiving, the most nurturing, the most wonderful and wise are the way they are because God has shaped them to live a certain way. That is not to say that people of faith don’t make mistakes. We do. But we make different kinds of mistakes trying to serve God than those made by people trying to ignore or rebel against God. We tend to trust people too much and let ourselves be taken advantage of. Our forgiveness is often not accepted, our grace is not appreciated, our compassion is spurned. We waste a lot of time and energy trying to make things happen that don’t and trying to transform people who won’t. But even our failures in behalf of the Kingdom of God leave their distinctive mark of faithfulness. Living as a person of faith leaves us open to making a great host of mistakes; yet our mistakes are of a different kind than those committed by people who try to be their own god.
Secondly, I said, my son, speaking from the depths of my own soul, I can tell you that the values of faith and the verities of God’s Kingdom have proved true for me. I know that Jesus’ words sound strange when he says that we will find our lives in losing it for God’s sake, that pouring ourselves out for others is the only way to find satisfaction in this world. But I’ve found through practical observation that those who selfishly try to define their lives by pursuing their own narrow purposes eventually lose hold of life’s true direction. Or they find their direction and become warped in the process. By contrast, I’ve found that a life of prayer, service to Christ, humility before God’s grace, and seeking the gifts of the Spirit – love, joy, hope, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, fidelity and charity – these spiritual verities do not lead us wrongly! Indeed, in my experience, they are the only virtues that lead us rightly, the only paths that lead to lasting satisfaction of soul. I then added, my son, wanting to do these virtues is simply not good enough – only people truly rooted and nurtured in the Spirit of God can truly practice and appropriate them. But if we do practice them, they give us a clear sense of life’s meaning and purpose. Indeed, one way I know convincingly about the surety of God’s reality is because the virtues of God’s Kingdom are the only values that make any sense of my life and communicate to me any sense of lasting purpose.
Then I said, third, my son, don’t fret too much about attacks upon God: God is not nearly as fragile as God’s critics have made God out to be. People have tried to kill God many more times than at the cross at Golgotha! But our God is a God of resurrection power. I told him, when you get older, given your love of reading, you will eventually discover the Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, whose chronicles of the horrific Soviet prison system won him the Nobel Prize for Literature. Solzhenitsyn noted that over the course of decades his country mounted a systematic attempt to exterminate the name of God from his culture and nation, but they were unable to do it. Solzhenitsyn noted that his country tortured, imprisoned and killed millions of believers, spent millions of dollars trying to eradicate faith in God, forbade parents and grandparents to teach their children the ways of God. But at the end of their long, bloody, tragic, expensive experiment, the system was blown away by the winds of time, and faith in God remained stronger, more widespread and vibrant than it was at the start of its persecution. God is not fragile! And God is not afraid of conflict and struggle! The Christian faith began amidst fierce resistance. Christianity developed within the crucible of official opposition. Struggle is, and always will be, a fundamental aspect of our faith and service to God. God will always give us strength amidst that struggle.
My fourth point was this: my son, what hurt you so greatly about your friend’s attack is that it contradicts a truth you have already experienced at the heart of your being. I reminded him, you have already found that in moments of pain and difficulty, in moments of great uncertainty and tension, God is there for you. Whether it’s been in an emergency room, or in a math test or in a baseball game, when overwhelmed by the pressures of life, you have been able to retreat to a quiet place within yourself and find God’s Spirit giving you assurance. I said, my son, at the heart of every Christian is that bedrock testimony. Of course this conversation happened long ago, when John McCain was just a U.S. Senator, but I noted to Mark that when McCain was a prisoner of war, shot down, tortured, beaten and thrown into a 6 foot by 9 foot solitary confinement cell, one of the prisoners who had preceded him into that pit had etched these words into stone: “I believe in God the Father Almighty.” These words, these words alone, sustained the young pilot in the depths of that excruciating experience. When life was at its most terrifying, that young pilot found God to be most real. “I believe in God the Father Almighty!” I reminded Mark that it is in those moments when our souls are most on trial, when life hangs most in the balance, when circumstances thrust challenges on us seemingly too great to bear, we must withdraw into the closet of prayer, whatever form that closet takes, and there find the sustaining comfort of God’s nearness. I reminded my son, “Lean on the words of the stone! ‘I believe in God the Father Almighty.’ Cling to those words; trust them; draw strength from them, and the Spirit of God will come to you like angels came to tempted Jesus in the desert and will see you through whatever trial you have to bear.” If life were all happiness and sunshine, perhaps none of us would develop a mature faith in God. But life is often struggle and storm, and in the midst of that storm, if we seek the solace of God, we will find God’s reality as the true foundation of our being.
Fifth, I warned my son that one day he would meet people who would tell him that Christians just believe in God in order to be rewarded with heaven. I said he needed to know how wrong that accusation really is.
First, I said, to him, your heart knows better. I said, you have witnessed your parents spending their lives working with children who have so much less than you do. You have seen us invest in them so as to improve their lives by sharing with them stories of faith. We have dedicated our lives to that enterprise because our faith in God shapes us to see the face of God in the face of those needy children. In other words, our faith drives us deeper into the world, not out of it! A Christian named William Wilberforce first spoke out against slavery with effectiveness, a preacher named Martin Luther King gave voice to the civil rights movement. True faith drives a Christian deeper into the world, not out of it! I said, my son, you will come to find that throughout history people of faith were the first to start hospitals, the first to develop schools, the first to create organizations to aid the poor. Faith doesn’t thrust our vision out of the world but deeper into it, to see a spiritual kinship with the needs of even the least of our brethren.
Then I made a statement to my son that I knew he wouldn’t fully understand at that age but would appreciate later. I said to him, certain rewards are consonant with certain pursuits. I reminded my son that at that time he was a great baseball pitcher. I said, let’s say your passion for baseball continues, and you excel as a pitcher in high school, in college and in the minor leagues, all the way up through A, AA, AAA ball. What if, at the end of your journey, you received the call that you’ve been waiting for all your life, and the voice said, “Congratulations, we’re going to give you your own television show.” You would know that such a reward would not be consonant with the pursuit in which you have been engaged. But if you have spent your life loving the God of resurrection power, serving the God of love, if you have spent your life communing with this God daily, being shaped by the values of God, then it makes perfect sense to live in the expectation that our relationship with this God cannot be broken by so small a thing as death. When your grandparents of faith pass from this earth, when your parents of faith pass from this earth, you can take comfort in knowing that the God who has provided for us throughout our lives will provide for us in death, too. Heaven is a consonant reward with our lifetime of love and service to God. The God who has created us, the God who has sustained us, will be the God who receives and rewards us. The lilies you see surrounding us this morning symbolize the fact that those who have passed from our fellowship are not lost to us; for the communion of the saints cannot be broken by death any more than crucifixion could squelch the ministry of Jesus Christ. We serve a God of resurrection who gifts us with eternal life as a reward consonant with our life’s pursuit.
Sixth, I told my son, people will tell you that too many horrible things happen in life for God to be real. Certainly, many terrible things will happen around you, and some will happen to you. But when evil things happen, my son, your heart will tell you that they have the feel of unreality. I do not mean to imply that these evil things are not real; they are as real as are the good things around us. But they have a feel of not really belonging to God’s universe. Murder happens every day. But murder never ceases to shock us. Murders are real acts, they truly happen, but they shock us because we know they ought not to happen. Evil feels like an intrusion and a contradiction of God’s universe. My son, you will meet people who advance the curious argument that because bad things happen, God is not real. The fact of the matter is, many of the bad things that happen happen not because God is not real, but because we refuse to acknowledge God’s reality. We do violence to each other, we betray love, we break trust, we steal and lie and cheat, we are governed by selfishness, not because God is not real, but because we don’t want to answer the claim of God’s reality upon us. Evil abounds, not because God’s verities are not true, but because we refuse to humble our lives to acknowledge God’s claim upon us. Sin and evil are always the consequences of that rebellion.
Seventh and finally, I told my son, some people say that humanity invented God. I laugh at that notion. For the Christian God is the antithesis of the sort of God that humanity would desire. Humanity would never have created a God who bids us to pray for our enemies and love those who damage us, to live with a creative love toward those who wrong us. One way we can feel the reality of the true God is that we find God challenging us to live in ways that we find profoundly uncomfortable. The true God stretches us out of ourselves to live with creative, sacrificial love that marks the way we approach every aspect of our lives. We would not create such a God; such a God could only be revealed to us through the person of Jesus Christ. This real God has ways that are not our ways, whose logic is not our logic, and whose identity is certainly not of our making.
Finally, I said, my son, I wish that I could tell you that there is some scientific experiment that could prove God’s reality for you. There is not. As Hebrews says, this world was created by the word of God, and that which we can see has been created by that which we cannot see. That is what makes faith faith. God always transcends our material senses, which makes God truer than all other truths. Is trust in this God a gamble? You bet your life! Christ went to the cross betting his life that his Father God was trustworthy. We bet our lives that God is indeed real. We bet our lives that this God is a God of resurrection power. But trust me, my son, trusting the call of this God is the only way to true fulfillment. And that is not just a word to my son on this Easter morning, but it is a word spoken until you all.