As is now becoming a typical preface to the American twenty-something story, I was raised in an Evangelical family. It wasn’t until high school though that these ideas began affecting my soul. But, being in my watered-down southern Baptist experience, the spiritual appetites this “awakening” had produced were never satiated. I longed for the deeper things of God that I had only then, 16 years or so down this journey, realized were even there: a God that cared about far more than “consistent quiet times” and “witnessing to my friends”. A God whose call for me was not first and foremost to fight the modern-day vicars of Darwin (my public school science teachers), but a God whose call for me was a call for me – a deity far more interested in my enjoyment in Him rather than my service to Him – who sovereignly and independently called out for me through the fog of my emotionally turbulent, perpetually “emo” high school existence into a new, vibrant, and abundant emotionally turbulent, perpetually “emo” high school existence. Me and my crew of fellow impassioned “youth groupies” who met at the JAM House (Jesus And Me) every Wednesday night longed for growing miles deep when the church seemed far more interested in growing miles wide.
Seven years later, I sit here in a Philadelphia coffee shop, having resisted the call of my church to go to Liberty University and instead opting for a large urban secular education in the middle of Richmond, Virginia. I’m a seminary drop out now, less sure now than ever in what “secondary” doctrines of the Christian faith I ascribe to. I still struggle now with nearly the exact same set of “sins” I struggled with during that time in high school – perhaps more, in fact. It seems my mouth is filthier, humor darker, eyes weaker, and checklist of sins-not-done shorter now than ever.
Nearly all of those youth group and “Christian” school friends have now either fallen into the depths of naivete and fundamentalism or have “fallen away” all together, most falling in the latter category. For nearly my whole life, my father–who taught Sunday School growing up–showed himself to probably not be a Christian and for years showed no signs of changing though he “longed” for it to happen. In college my campus ministry actively engaged the secular/atheistic student organizations exposing me to their ideas and stories of “leaving the faith”. I frequent various de-conversion sites, and read several atheist blogs. I am in email contact with a self-described “apostate” whose distractingly hyperbolic rhetoric hides a hurting man that was confronted with the intellectual short-comings of the brand of faith he had been sold. My life, current and former, is filled with pictures of a Christianity that does not “work”. So in light of all these things, I’m forced to ask:
Why the hell am I still here?
In spite of the theological inaccuracy of such a question, I’ve recently found myself wondering what would make me fall away? I’ve realized that none of the typical answers to that question would make me doubt my faith. I’ve heard every argument against Christianity, and frankly, I find them to be sincere but inadequate justifications for disbelief. I can honestly say: no amount of suffering (to myself or others), no attack on the “inerrancy” of Scripture, no level of hypocrisy, no philosophical or intellectual wrangling, no historical/textual/grammatical/archaeological argument would shake or has ever shaken my faith. So what would cause me to walk away?
If people can’t change.
Maybe it’s daddy issues, maybe it’s my own personal “struggles” (or failures, rather) with my own sins, or maybe it’s all the people I’ve known that have given the middle-finger to the cross and now live quite fulfilling lives – I don’t know. But regardless where it’s from, something in me needs to believe that for those that God has seized and made His own, they are forever actually changed. I need to believe that my mom can perhaps have a good marriage with this man someday. I need to believe that the darknesses in my own mind and heart can be healed. I need to believe that Christianity does with people what it says it does. Maybe that’s why I’m now a counselor and want to do more research and education in Psychology. Maybe it’s a backward way to my own salvation–to show me that people are pliable and hearts moldable. I need to know: does Christianity only leave us either naive or apostate?
Quick disclaimer for all the armchair theologians reading this: I know all the theology underlying what I’m saying. I know that Christianity is a process. I know the preciousness of the doctrine of Progressive Sanctification. I know that there’s a very real reality of “backsliding” that is not “falling away” and that many of the friends that I think now have fallen away are only in fact prodigals waiting to “come to their senses”. I know that the very questions I’m asking are theological absurdities and irrationalities that are not based on an accurate and Biblical picture of reality. But the human soul is a tumult of irrational anxieties, fears, and questions; and intellectual (and spiritual) honesty demands that these things are wrestled with and not just swept away under the banner of “my doctrine says this is wrong”.
(With that out of the way) So why don’t I fall away? A few reasons. God and the Bible have proven themselves as authoritative. Christianity has shown itself to be the most reasonable and beautiful picture of reality no one could have imagined. I believe I’ve been so deeply changed by God I could never not believe. Also, there’s not an absolute dearth of pictures in my life of a God that changes hearts. I know people with amazing stories, I’ve seen people come back to the faith, and I’ve watched my affection for God grow over time while certain addictions in my heart have lost some (though not all) of their power. But there’s one thing that has been keeping me here that inspired me writing this. The clearest, most plain and simple example of someone genuinely being changed by a sovereign spiritual act of God – my little brother.
He was never a “non-believer” per se. He was always very interested in apologetics and other more intellectual Christians pursuits, though he never wore it on his sleeve. In fact, he never really wore much of anything on his sleeve. All my life he’s been the quintessential “Eeyore” – the seemingly emotionless pessimist. He even walked around as a very young child repeating his mantra “I hate my life”. He would never talk about anything more than an inch deep. He was a hardened shell whose way of dealing with life was to keep everything inside and not let anyone know it was there. He just didn’t seem to care about anything. I think we all know the type. I remember being in college and people asking me if my brother was a Christian. I would just say, with a smile on my face, “No, I don’t think so. But for some reason, I’m not worried about him.” And then I would go and pray. I’ve always prayed often for that guy. I don’t think he knows that.
A couple of years ago, he went to some random church retreat with some people at his college and something happened. He was not looking for it. He didn’t think he needed it. He always thought he was a Christian. But nevertheless he was changed. He is, to this day, the only person I’ve ever been able to watch go from spiritually apathetic, to spiritually alive, to spiritually mature. What has happened in his life really and honestly can only be explained by some genuine experience with a genuine God and Gospel. His passion for the things of God is not necessarily unique among people I know, but it certainly is unique for him. He is, in such a short amount of time, a mature man that has dealt with the most difficult moments of his life only after this conversion and it has not shaken him, but it has only grown him into a man I respect, love, and look up to on so many levels. He prays for and with others often. He seeks accountability for the things that haunt and hurt him. He talks about and from his heart. He loves others dearly and seeks to serve when he can. He hurts and struggles openly and knows that it’s okay to not be okay. And this has freed him.
And it has also freed me. He is an amazing man of God now that God is using to save me and keep me. God has used my brother to keep me in this beautiful faith and show me that it does do exactly what it says it does: it connects people to the living God – an experience that can do nothing but change us. This shows us the importance of both relationships and true spirituality in the Christian faith. It seems that a watching world watching Christians act like what they proclaim is a picture that can overcome the darkest of doubts and the most severe of anxieties of faith. There will always be suffering in this world. There will always be the necessity of added nuance to our doctrines in light of further findings. There will always be diversity of thought and practice in the name of Christ. But a Church of genuinely changed people – a prospect I previously thought an impossibility – living out of the overflow of their changed hearts is something that can speak to these things and overcome them; all while bringing redemption, wholeness, and healing to a world seeking to make apostates of us all.