...And Why I Am a Christian
[This post is the second part of an essay constituting one chapter of a forthcoming book of apologetic writings. See part one here.]
In 1985 I was working a part-time job in Austin, Texas and taking classes at the university. As a self-absorbed, deeply insecure, increasingly alcohol-addicted and yet mildly religious young man, I was desperately in need of God and just as determined to keep him at a safe distance. One day my supervisor, David Drum, began to share with me the good news of the gospel. He told me quite boldly and straightforwardly that Jesus had forgiven his sins and changed his life, and wanted to do the same for me. (I will always be grateful to David for this, because in the intervening twenty-nine years I have never again been directly presented with the gospel message at a personal level.) Although I dismissively muttered something about being a "good person," I knew with deep conviction that what he was saying was true. Prior to my conversion, I had read bits of the New Testament, and despite not knowing exactly what I was reading or what it meant, I had always been awestruck by the words of Jesus Christ. Like the people of Jesus' own day I was "astonished at His teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes" (Matt. 7:29).
One of the first reasons I am a Christian, then, is this immediate and inescapable conviction that God exists and has revealed himself in the person of Jesus. My faith ultimately is not the result of an argument or a scientific inference, but more like the sort of properly basic belief mentioned earlier. For me the existence of God has always been something of an axiom, a self-evident truth that holds prior to any evidence adduced either in favor or against it. But as the prophets and apostles make so clear, one may know the truth and yet "suppress the truth in unrighteousness." Although before conversion I believed in an abstract sense that God existed and Jesus was his Son, I had not exercised the sort of saving faith that acknowledges Christ as both Savior and Lord in the "real world" (where practical priorities are established and difficult decisions are made.)
For days after hearing the gospel message I wrestled with the terrifying alternatives before me: Surrender completely to Jesus and begin to live my life according to his will, or refuse the rule of Jesus and risk eternal suffering in a hell created by God for Satan and his rebellious followers. (The prospect of living forever with God in heaven held no attraction for me at the time). I knew instinctively that there were no other options. To those who might allege that Christians choose to believe only because they want Christianity to be true, I would answer that in 1985 the very last thing in the world I wanted was to repent of my sins in the face of otherwise dire eternal consequences. These thoughts and convictions hounded me incessantly despite my desires to the contrary. Tense with trepidation but dreadfully resolved, I finally broke down and decided to do this Christian thing—whatever it was—with all of my heart. To the extent that I understood where he was going and what he was doing, I would follow Christ and do his will. I am a Christian to this day in part because by God's gracious leading I made a lifelong commitment to Christ. The completely unexpected result of that fateful decision was a sense of great joy, a profound realization that knowing God was my ultimate purpose for being born into the world.
Even if thoroughly sincere, however, my commitment to God would not have taken me far without the empowering of his Holy Spirit. In my pre-conversion days I had tried to commit to lots of things—projects, relationships, and other endeavors—almost always without success. The very fact that I have remained a Christian for almost thirty years testifies to the power of God at work in my life. I say that with special emphasis in light of the challenges I have faced as a believer. In the interest of truth I must state here that as a Christian I have experienced not only my greatest joys but my greatest sufferings and heartaches. Contrary to the particularly Americanized version of Christianity—in which the ultimate virtue is "happiness" and the ultimate testimony a recounting of material successes—my life in the faith has often proven exceedingly difficult. My wife and I have endured hardships we can scarcely begin to describe to others. This of course is just what Jesus and the apostles promised in their countless references to the trials, testings and temptations certain to confront every disciple. Again let me say that the appeal of Christianity is nothing worldly: not money, fame, success, ease or temporal pleasure. Like the apostles, I desire that all would come to know the spiritual life and joy of Jesus Christ; but at the same time, to anyone who seeks relief from real-world problems I would not recommend Christianity.
Rather than an escape from reality, Jesus offers new life in a real spiritual kingdom over which he personally rules as king. There are tremendous joys to be had in the discovery that God is alive and all-powerful and yet loves us unconditionally; that he sacrificed everything, as Paul said, to "demonstrate his love for us." God leads us out of sinful bondages and psychological snares with the grace of a loving Father. He fills us with hope, and gives us glimpses of his eternal glory by the power of his Holy Spirit. In an age of rampant fatherlessness and divorce he teaches us what it means to love our families—and what it means to be loved as his own. (I thank God daily for my lovely wife and my two precious children.) He teaches us how to work hard and be honest, how to be thankful for little things, how to rejoice and laugh during bitter disappointments, how to love and forgive our enemies, how to find contentment in the present world precisely by seeking a better world to come. All this makes life in the kingdom, as Jesus said, a hidden treasure and a pearl of great price. So, another reason for my remaining a Christian is simply that the joy of knowing Jesus is worth any cost.
Finally, I should mention that there have been times when my faith has confronted intellectual challenges. In fact, I became an atheist of sorts for a brief period while still a college student (and after my conversion!), the result of naively accepting the drastically secularized teachings of my professors and textbooks as undisputed truth. That experience of disillusionment led me to seek out the intellectual grounds for the faith I had so recently embraced, if indeed there were any such grounds. I thereupon discovered perennially influential Christian writings like Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis, popular apologetic treatments like Josh McDowell's Evidence That Demands a Verdict, and various insightful critiques of an evolutionary history of the world widely (but wrongly) regarded as a "fact of science" that falsifies the creation story of Genesis. Realizing that Christian faith was not in fact groundless, I repented of my unbelief and determined never again to be so easily taken in by the voices of skepticism.
My reasons for believing from a rational or evidentiary standpoint are now legion. These would include, in no particular order: The correlation of the creation story in Genesis with the basic facts of cosmology and the "fine-tuned" structure of the universe; the astonishing levels of specifiable, functional complexity observable in living creatures, suggesting their deliberate design; general human acknowledgement of a transcendent moral law, pointing to a transcendent moral legislator; the origin and prophetically foretold history of Israel, as preserved in the Scriptures and still unfolding today; countless archaeological confirmations of the narratives of both testaments; the miraculous ministry and uniquely authoritative teaching of Jesus Christ, attested in the accounts of many thousands of early Gospel manuscripts; the birth of the early church in Jerusalem (the very site of the crucifixion) through the preaching of the bodily resurrection of Christ in the face of violent persecution; and perhaps more than the others, unforgettable direct experiences of God's loving presence and healing power.
Ultimately, though, any reasons I have for being a Christian always come back to the revelation of Jesus himself. When I read the words of Jesus and the accounts of his ministry, when I recall the facts of his death and resurrection, when I think upon who I was before trusting in him and who I am now, I know there is a God and that he loves me dearly. I am a Christian because of Christ.