I remember several times in my roller coaster walk with Jesus, wanting to throw in the towel. Many times I attempted to walk away because the words of Bonhoeffer above and the words of Christ in Mark 8:34 asked too much of me. Jesus asks for all of me and that is more than I care to give sometimes.
There where other times when I just wanted to do my own thing, so I remember twisting scripture to justify drinking, drugs and sex. I really wanted God to be ok with my lifestyle so I didn’t have to feel bad about it. My friend Jim calls this practice of butchering the scriptures, “verse-itis”. My father would always gently remind me to “read on” when I stopped early in a verse just to prove my point.
Even though I’m not the sharpest knife in the drawer, I once attempted to walk away because I couldn’t make sense of science and faith. I had so many questions and so few answers that ever made sense to me. I’ve also wanted to jump ship right after getting on the ship later in college. I experienced a raunchy type of legalism from a few people who threw me into a tailspin, but God provided some great folks who reached out and slathered me with authentic grace. They showed me that good kind of grace that Jesus showed the adulterous woman in John 8.
Over the years I have had several friends and students call it quits with Christ. Each time I grieve, I become a bit irrational and then I remember what it was like to be in their shoes. Here are a few thoughts about leaving Christ.
Distorted Views: One of the classic youth ministry lines is “tell me about this God you don’t believe in, because I probably don’t believe in him either.” A favorite book of mine called “Your God is Too Small” highlights several distorted views of God that tend to harden our hearts or send us packing. Another popular distortion is what I descrbe as being so enamored with the horizontal that we miss the vertical. This is when we are so baffled by the actions of Christians that we take our eyes of Christ. I remember talking to a lady from France at the Sundance Film Festival and she jumped all over me when she found out that I worked at a church. Her first comment was “how can you and the Pope keep condoms out of Africa, that is insane!!!” What? How did me being a youth minister turn to condoms in Africa? I kindly said, “the Pope puts on his underwear the same way you and I do.” This was a classic example of someone who was intrigued by Jesus yet offended by some of His followers.
Conversion: In the late 1800’s, Francis Thompson wrote a poem called “The Hound of Heaven.” The imagery is of God’s hound who keeps after us when we stray and he continually pursues us even when we have given up. This hound is the Holy Spirit. I’ve known students who have denounced their faith yet I know they have had a previous life altering experience with the living God. I actually find great hope in these situations because I know that we as humans are good at letting go and being flaky, but God is not in that business.
We also must remember that it is God who does the converting and who is the final Judge. I’m thankful I’m not the judge, so I”ll leave that up to someone who is more fair than I. To be honest, some students who are done with Jesus never really started. They have often bought into a dry, life-less religion, which I can’t blame them for wanting to leave.
Reason and Fear: Simply put, you cannot argue or fear someone into an abundant life with Christ. I had a conversation with a 75-year-old man named Ed one day about his nearly perfect church attendance. He told me that he could count on one hand the number of times that he missed church. Being the rebellious preacher’s kid that I am, I asked him “why didn’t you never skip Ed?” He responded by saying “I was afraid not to go.” My heart hurt for Ed that day because his faith had been oppressed by church attendance and making God out to be a cosmic statistician.
You might think this sounds like a Hallmark card, but we can only love people back to Christ, trusting in the Holy Spirit. It is crucial to empathize with a friend when they are frustrated with a God who hasn’t shown up. When the doubter has lost the ability to see the goodness of God, we become a new set of glasses for them to see God’s presence. I was reminded this past week that we don’t love people for what they do or don’t believe and we can’t speak truth into the lives of others if we don’t know truth for ourselves.