Thursday, September 10, 2015

5 Tips For Getting Through Depression

Over the course of my life, I have experienced my share of adversity. From being raised in a very broken home to my struggles with self-esteem to the typical problems that accompany marriage, moving and rearing children, I know what it's like to be angry, sad, bitter, resentful, lonely, jaded and discontent.

But in the last year or so, for the first time in my thirty years of existence, I have experienced depression. Not just depression, but depression. And yes, there is a difference. At different points, I have felt despondent and completely lacking in energy, emotion and drive. In the past, when I was sad or 'down,' I still found joy in...writing, spending time with my family, playing basketball, going to church, or going out with my wife. But when I recently fell into these bouts of depression, I found joy in nothing. I remember more than once sitting on my bed and not having the desire or drive to even stand up...and feeling completely empty inside, like a zombie...just a mass of flesh, without a soul.

I'm not saying any of this to earn your pity. This is actually very hard for me to share with you. But I am sharing this with you because I know that there are a lot of people out there who are battling depression right now. Maybe you're even battling depression.

What I would like to do is briefly share with you five things that I have learned and experienced in my own life that may help you get through depression.
  1. Shore up your faith while you are strong so that if/when you fall on hard times or experience depression in the future, you are more equipped and prepared to get through it. The apostle Paul tells us to "walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil" (Ephesians 5:15). Do all that you can do now to properly strengthen the foundation of your faith (1 Cor. 3:9-11), so that if/when the storms of life come, you are not caught off guard. Do not take for granted the joy and strength of your faith now!
  2. When you are depressed, you are despondent and without energy/drive. When Sunday morning or Wednesday night come along, the last thing you're going to want to do is go to church. You may even tell yourself that it would be better for you to stay home. The temptation is to withdraw. And you probably won't want to study your Bible. Prayer may be the only element of your faith to which you desperately cling, but then you might find yourself getting more frustrated because no matter how much you pray, the depression may not get any better; it may even get worse. My suggestion is this: as much as you want to skip out on church and Bible study and even prayer (because it doesn't seem to be doing any good), understand that the worst thing you can do is withdraw from your usual spiritual activities. I can tell you from personal experience that even though I have found myself NOT wanting to go to church, that I have always benefited from going. Going through the motions and being around people and carrying on in our Christian duties will not only distract us and force us to think outside of ourselves, we will glean subtle strength that may just help us through that day. When Elijah was depressed, God told him to get back to work (1 Kings 19:1-4, 10, 13-18). A person who doesn't want to eat still has to eat to survive.
  3. While you don't need to broadcast your problems to the whole church, I would highly recommend finding at least someone in the church in whom you can confide. Galatians 6:1-2 tells us to bear one another's burdens. The church is described in the Bible not only as a family, but as a "body" where the members are that if "one member suffers, all the members suffer with it" (1 Cor. 12:26). If your church has elders, talk to them (James 5:14). Either way, find someone who can help you. And it's not just about getting advice; there is something special that happens when we know that we're not alone. Yes, we have God, but God has also given us a spiritual family for this very purpose! As hard as it might be to confide in someone, trust me when I say that you will be glad you did.
  4. Make time to worship! And I'm not just saying on Sunday. King David of the Old Testament was a man who knew what it was like to be depressed, anxious and frustrated (even in his relationship with God). But one thing we know about David is that when he fell on hard times, he prayed to God and he praised God in prayer, in thought, and in SONG. A simple perusal of the psalms makes this abundantly clear. Make time to pray. Thank God for what you have in your life (Phil. 4:6-8). And sing! Turn off the radio and sing your favorite hymns. In the car. At home. At work. The more you turn your mind's eye toward the Lord and the more you think about heaven and hope...the stronger you'll become.
  5. This may be the most important piece of advice yet: be patient! When you want to give up; when you think that you can't endure another day of the same old, same old; when you think that you've failed miserably and want to feel sorry for yourself - just be patient. "My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing" (James 1:2-3). When you're exercising or lifting weights, you have to experience and endure the burning sensation and pain of tearing your muscles down in order to become truly stronger. If you stop as soon as the pain sets in, you'll never grow. The depression will not last forever. The fog will clear. In the meantime, you have to be patient.
I cannot and will not speak to the medical aspects of depression. But as someone who has recently experienced depression, I can say that these five things helped me tremendously. And I hope they will help you, too. Depression doesn't equate a lack of faith, but it surely is a test of faith no matter how you look at it. If there is anything I can ever do to help you more directly, please let me know.

Monday, June 15, 2015

"Come Out, Come Out, Wherever You Are"

I’ll confess to you this evening that I was a nerdy kid. I was obsessed with video games and spent every dollar I had on new video games, controllers and strategy guides. I was such a nerd that my mother had to force me to wear blue jeans instead of sweat pants to school. I vividly remember her telling me one morning before school that I had to wear blue jeans that day – she put her foot down – and I was devastated. I’m pretty sure I cried. BUT…my childhood wasn’t all about video games and sweatpants. Our family went camping and hiking a lot during the summer. I threw crab apples at my sister and her friends. I made mazes in our neighbor’s corn field with our golf cart. I caught bullfrogs using a piece of paper or kernel of corn on the end of a fishing line. I rode my bike all over the neighborhood and built tree forts miles away from home. And I played games as a kid that I’m sure all of you played as well…games such as hide and seek.

Hide and seek is always a fun game to play…especially when you’re a kid and can hide under beds and in small, tight places. But every once and a while, there’s that kid who finds an incredible hiding spot and you end up looking for him/her for what feels like forever. And then you give up and you finally tell that kid to come out…and he/she still won’t come out. It’s almost as if that kid wants to rub it in. Then, when they finally emerge from their hiding spot, they have that smug, self-satisfied look on their face.

Sometimes, it feels like God is playing hide and seek with us, doesn’t it? And he’s that kid who has found the ultimate hiding spot…and He just won’t come out. So we’re left looking and looking and looking...behind every door, under every bed, in every closet…and we just can’t find Him. We finally yell, “Come out, God! We give up!” But He just won’t come out.

I can’t tell you how many times people have asked me why God doesn’t show Himself to us – why He doesn’t appear to us or speak to us or at least give us signs. This is something that atheists and Christians alike fail to understand. I, myself, have struggled with this question at times. Why doesn’t God just reveal Himself to me?

In high school, I remember lying in my bed one night praying that God would speak to me. There were other believers who claimed that God had spoken to them or appeared to them in a dream or vision and called them to some great task, and I wanted the same thing to happen to me. I wanted to feel special. So I prayed desperately for God to speak to me like He had spoken to them. I begged and pleaded to hear God’s voice. I even made myself cry, thinking that God would be more apt to listen to me if I was emotionally invested. I imagined myself in heaven at God’s throne. I tried to conjure up images of God. I did everything I could do to spark such a divine revelation, but nothing happened.

Since then, there have been times when I felt as if my prayers weren’t getting past the drywall over my head, or that the only one listening to my prayers was me. I’ve wondered at times if there was even anyone on the other end of the line. And I know that many of you have felt the same way…because you’ve told me.
Atheists see this as a powerful reason NOT to believe in God. If we cannot see God or hear God, how can we affirm that He exists? Because the existence of God cannot be proven using what they call “the scientific method” – because there is no empirical evidence – they see it as foolish to believe in a higher power of ANY kind. Until there is such evidence, they insist that they will only affirm that which they know exists, and that’s the natural world.

We as Christians respond by saying that God is a spiritual being and therefore cannot be proven by physical means. John 4:24 says that “God is a spirit,” and in Hebrews 11:27, God is said to be “invisible.” This is where faith comes in, right? Hebrews 11:1 says that “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” In other words, we don’t affirm God’s existence on the basis of physical evidence, but on the basis of faith.

But if we’re all honest, we’ll admit that faith isn’t always very easy. In fact, there are times when faith just doesn’t seem to cut it anymore. We get tired of being expected to “just believe.” As visual creatures in a physical world, it almost seems unfair at times that we’re expected to believe in a God that we cannot see or hear. When things are going well for us, it’s easy to believe that God is there. When we pray for something and it happens, it’s easy for us to thank God for answering our prayers. But when trials come and doubts arise, we almost can’t help but question whether our prayers make it beyond the drywall, or the roof of the car, or even the dome of our skull. We get frustrated. We become bitter. And if we’re not careful, these feelings can lead us away from God.

When I went through my “crisis of faith,” I prayed constantly. But don’t think that I did so with any degree of confidence. I think I prayed because (1) I thought it would be better to pray and hope that God was listening, would see my resolve, and send some help my way, and (2) I found prayer therapeutic, if nothing else. I had been praying for well over a decade, so why stop now? I was going to pray until I was absolutely sure that my Christian faith was a sham.

Maybe you’ve been there…wondering if your prayers are getting through, wondering why God won’t speak to you or reveal Himself to you. And maybe for you, this is an issue that has threatened or is presently threatening your faith in God.

So this evening, I’d like to address this issue both biblically and logically. By the end of our study tonight, I hope that you’ll not only understand why God doesn’t appear to us physically or speak to us audibly, but that you’ll see the incredible wisdom in it.

Hebrews 1:1 says that “God…at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets.” In other words, God did reveal Himself to the saints of the Old Testament…and He did so in a variety of very personal ways. Men such as Adam, Cain, Abraham and Moses heard God’s voice. Exodus 33:11 actually says that “the Lord spoke to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to a friend.” Joshua had an encounter with the “Commander of the army of the Lord” in Joshua 5:13-15. God appeared to Solomon in a dream in 1 Kings 3. Elijah heard God’s “still small voice” in 1 Kings 19:12.
Not only did many of the Old Testament saints actually hear the voice of God, they witnessed miracles that could only be attributed to God. Can you imagine seeing the rivers and water in Egypt turn to blood? God’s miracles in Egypt were so powerful and so obviously His that even the Pharaoh’s magicians – pagan men – said to Pharaoh in Exodus 8:19, “This is the finger of God.” Can you imagine seeing the parting of the Red Sea or God’s presence on Mount Sinai? Joshua commanded the sun to stand still in Joshua 10. Elijah called down fire from heaven in 1 Kings 18 to prove to the nation of Israel that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was real and that Baal was not.

The Old Testament is replete with miracles, signs and wonders like these. Angels appeared to Abraham and Lot, to Gideon, to the parents of Samson, and many others. Then there was the flood of Noah’s day, the Tower of Babel incident in Genesis 11, and the list goes on and on and on. And let’s not forget about Jesus’ ministry. He healed the lepers, made the lame to walk, the deaf to hear and the mute to speak, cast out demons, walked on water and fed the 5,000 with a few loaves and fish.

Now, I don’t want to leave the impression that all of God’s people heard the voice of God or saw His miracles. There were periods in Israel’s history when no one had encounters with the divine – there were no prophets, dreams, visions or miracles. In fact, with a few exceptions, many of these miracles and divine encounters were limited to a handful of people. It’s not like everyone heard God’s voice back then. That’s not what I’m saying.

But it is clear that God spoke to those people and dealt with those people back then more directly than He does with us today. In many ways, they had what we today crave so desperately. We say things like, “If only I had seen the parting of the Red Sea, I would believe,” or, “If only God would speak to me like He spoke to Moses and Solomon, I would never doubt again.”

Are you sure about that?

Did those people in the Old Testament – the ones who witnessed the miracles of God and heard His voice – have a solid, unshakable faith as a result of their experiences? The way people talk today, it must be safe to assume that the Israelites who came out of Egypt as well as the Jews of Jesus’ day were so reaffirmed in their faith that they remained singularly devoted to God for the remainder of their days. They must have had such conviction that they became bold spokesmen on God’s behalf to a world sick with paganism and disbelief!

Those who know the Scriptures know that this is not actually what we find.

After the Lord revealed Himself directly to Cain, we’re told in Genesis 4:8 that “Cain rose up against Abel his brother and killed him.”

After witnessing all of God’s wonders in Egypt, Pharaoh’s army overtook them at the shores of the Red Sea. In Exodus 14:11, “they said to Moses, ‘Because there were no graves in Egypt, have you taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you so dealt with us, to bring us up out of Egypt?’” Think about it. They had prayed to God for deliverance from Egypt…and God had answered their prayers by sending Moses and through a series of miracles that accomplished their freedom. This was a sign of God’s love for them. And yet when Pharaoh’s army appeared, they fell immediately into a state of disbelief and distrust.

But God parted the Red Sea and led them to safety. After wrecking the land of Egypt, He destroyed Pharaoh’s army. In the wilderness, God provided them with water from the rocks. Then, at Mount Sinai, Deuteronomy 4:12 says that they heard God’s voice and saw the mountain “completely in smoke.” God’s presence on Sinai was so convincing that “all the people in the camp trembled.” And yet after just forty days, the people said to Moses’ brother, Aaron, “Come, make us gods that shall go before us.” Then, after he did so, he told the people in Exodus 32:4, “This is your god, O Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt.”

I don’t have the time to get into all the Old Testament examples, but suffice it to say, this pattern repeated itself throughout Israel’s history.

And then there are the miracles of Jesus. In Matthew 12, some of the Pharisees, after seeing Jesus cast a demon out of a man who was also blind and mute, said, “This fellow does not cast out demons except by Beelzebub, the ruler of the demons.” In John 6, many of Jesus’ disciples – men who had seen His miracles – “went back and walked with Him no more” on the sole basis that they didn’t understand His teachings. One of Jesus’ own apostles betrayed Him for thirty pieces of silver, and Peter himself denied Jesus three times in the space of one evening.

So much for the idea that hearing God’s voice or seeing His miracles guarantees faith and devotion to God. These MANY examples teach us, in fact, that the mightiest of miracles do not even begin to guarantee faith.

And what’s even more interesting is that God has preserved these stories for us. I mean, if you’re in charge of marketing a business and creating advertisements, I doubt you’re going to cite bad customer reviews; I doubt you’re going to write a script for a commercial where the closing line is, “Come shop where the employees will ignore you and the products are overpriced!” That wouldn’t make the company look too good. But God’s word is very honest – and this is something that has always amazed me. If the Bible was written by mere humans trying to ‘sell’ religion, they didn’t do a very good job at it. These stories bring to light the failings of God’s people.

This raises two questions in my mind: (1) why did God preserve these embarrassing stories for us? And (2) why did the people not develop an unshakable faith in God after hearing His voice and/or seeing His mighty miracles? To answer these questions, I’d like to first of all turn to Scripture. Then I’ll flesh out my answer with some illustrations and analogies that will hopefully make this all very clear.
Open your Bible to 1 Corinthians 13. This chapter is best known for its dissertation on the qualities of love and is therefore read quite often at weddings. I’m sure you’re familiar with these words: “Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up” and so on. As I’ve pointed out in past lessons, the apostle Paul here isn’t writing about love as it relates to marriage; rather, he is explaining the nature of love to a church that was failing miserably at showing love. They were more concerned about how best to use their miraculous gifts – tongue, prophecy, etc. – to show off and bring honor to themselves, than they were about loving their brethren. Read with me, beginning in vs. 8:

“Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away.”

Paul here is speaking about the cessation of miraculous gifts – not miracles, per se, but miraculous gifts. You see, these miraculous gifts were given to the apostles and Christians of the first century by the Holy Spirit for the purpose of confirming the word. Mark 16:20 says that “they went out and preached everywhere, the Lord working with them and confirming the word through the accompanying signs.” Hebrews 2:4 adds that God was “bearing witness both with signs and wonders, with various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit, according to His will.” Because the gospel was brand new to the world, people weren’t just going to believe it. I mean, can you imagine the apostle Peter showing up in a pagan city and telling them that a Jewish carpenter was the Son of God, that He died to save them from their sins, and was resurrected on the third day? Would they have believed that? Of course not! The Christian message contradicted conventional wisdom in the Jewish and pagan communities. So these miraculous gifts confirmed the word in that they helped convince the people that this brand new and rather strange message was actually from God.

This relates to Paul’s point in 1 Corinthians 13. These miraculous gifts – prophecies, tongues and miraculous knowledge – were only temporary; in fact, Paul identifies them as “parts” of the whole in verse nine. And they would fade out of the picture when “that which is perfect [or complete] has come.” Because miracles were intended to confirm the apostolic message, the miracles would come to an end when the apostolic message was completely revealed and established…and that happened by the end of the first century. Jude 3 tells us that “the faith…was once for all delivered to the saints.” The miracles, signs and wonders were temporary constructs – like scaffolding – that were taken down when the project was completed. And that project was the New Testament revelation.

Now notice with me what Paul goes on to say in 1 Corinthians 13:11, and this is really the main point that I’m getting at here in this text. Let’s actually begin in verse ten:

“But when that which is perfect [complete] has come, then that which is in part will be done away. When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”
Now here’s the point, and this is very important, so pay close attention: the miraculous gifts – the signs and wonders and miracles that we so desperately want to experience – are considered by the apostle Paul to be “childish.” And the idea is that we have matured beyond childish things to manhood, or adulthood.

Think about it. Do you give a child Tolstoy’s War and Peace or Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities? Of course you don’t. Not only do they not have the intellectual capabilities to process such advanced writing, they are not mature enough to follow so much consecutive text. What do you give a child? You give them picture books…because not only are they easier to understand and more relatable, they are visually stimulating. There’s a reason children like video games and flashy, colorful cartoon shows. There’s a reason that our children’s classes use songs and coloring pages and activities to teach the children Bible stories and biblical morals and principles. Children need to be constantly stimulated because they have short attention spans and weak minds. And there’s a reason that as we grow, we typically set aside the picture books and the coloring books and the video games and turn our attention to more advanced material and activities.

Let’s bring this back to 1 Corinthians 13 and miraculous gifts. Those miracles, signs and wonders were only intended for the infancy of the church. They needed those pictures and visuals to fully embrace the truth of Christianity. And because the gospel hadn’t yet been fully articulated – and therefore, their intellect could not be fully engaged – the “wow factor” associated with the miraculous gifts gave them constant reaffirmation.

And it’s very important to understand that these miraculous gifts gave them the constant – key, word ‘constant’ – reaffirmation they needed. Like with a child, it’s not good enough to have a picture book that only has a picture on the first page. They need pictures throughout the book to stay engaged in the story, don’t they? That’s because, at that point, you’re not engaging and developing the intellect or establishing deep intellectual and emotional roots; what you’re doing is offering a flashy visual to keep one’s interest. For a child, this is a necessary approach…even though it’s shallow. Because even though the picture or activity is exciting in the moment, the visual quickly fades from their mind’s eye and the feeling is replaced by the next feeling that comes along.

Now…doesn’t this help us to better understand WHY all of the interactions with God and the miracles of the Bible failed to instill a permanent, unshakable faith in the hearts and minds of God’s people? Their faith was predicated on “childish things,” and Paul’s brief comments in 1 Corinthians 13, when understood, help flesh this out for us.

You see, even though the miracles and wonders were necessary to get the attention of the people, there was (and is) the danger of becoming dependent on such visual displays to maintain the attention of the people. This is the challenge that God faced and is the same challenge that we face with our own children; they are children and thus childish – there are certain things that they need – but we do have to help them transition away from the shallow, temporal constructs of childhood toward the deeper, more permanent (and better) constructs of adulthood. The difference between God and modern-day parents is that we are dealing with physical children who are designed to mature and progress intellectually as they develop physically. God, on the other hand, was dealing with people who were physical adults but spiritual children. That’s a much bigger challenge because they have already developed bad habits and deeply-entrenched worldviews.

Cain was a weak man. When he heard God’s voice, he responded in the moment. But as soon as God’s voice faded from the shallow soil of his mind, all it took was the emotions of the next moment to carry him off into sin. Emotions are powerful, aren’t they? The envy and hatred he felt toward his brother, Abel, were strong enough to block out his previous experience with God…and as a result, he murdered Abel.

The Israelites who came out of Egypt did not have a deep, firmly established relationship with God. They didn’t yet love the Lord their God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength. Again, they were spiritual infants. So while the miracles and wonders in Egypt and the parting of the Red Sea wowed them and caused them to praise God (in Exodus 15), those visuals – like the pictures in a picture book – were soon overpowered and replaced by the emotions and physical needs that came upon them in the wilderness. When the miracles and wonders stopped for forty days while Moses was on the mountain, they, in their childishness, demanded something that was visually-stimulating to keep their attention. So they said to Aaron in Exodus 32:1, “Come, make us gods that shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” And when Aaron made them the golden calf, “they rose early on the next day, offered burnt offerings, and brought peace offerings; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play.” They were like immature children. Sure, Daddy’s strong and impressive, but when he leaves the room for a few minutes, it doesn’t take long for them to get back into mischief.

This applies to all the aforementioned ‘experiences’ and miracles recorded in the Bible – when the people heard God’s voice, interacted with angels, had dreams and visions, and saw God’s miracles – even Jesus’ miracles. Jesus said to His apostles in John 16:12, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” They were grown men, but on a spiritual level, they were children.

So throughout the Old Testament, and even during the infancy of the church in the first century, God spoke to the people and gave them miracles and signs. These were times of incompleteness, imperfection and infancy. But the following passage reveals that God had a plan for completeness, perfection and maturity to come through Christ:

The prophet Jeremiah prophesied a new and better covenant and his words are very relevant to our current discussion. He says in Jeremiah 31:31, “Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah – not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them, says the Lord.” Now notice what Jeremiah says about the nature of the new covenant, beginning in verse 33: “But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.”

As we’ve studied, “God…at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets.” The Old Testament is replete with examples of dreams, visions, prophets, encounters with angels, and most of all, miracles. God “took them by the hand” and was very, directly involved in what was happening. Like a father with his infant child, God was very patient and went above and beyond to keep their attention. In Galatians 3:23, Paul says that the people of the Old Testament were like children under a “tutor.” It was a temporary system that was only ever intended to bring them along to a point of maturity.

But the old covenant – the Old Testament system – was to be replaced by a “new covenant,” and Jeremiah is clear that this new covenant has a very different structure and purpose. Whereas the old covenant was temporary, physical and shallow, the new covenant focuses on developing the intellect and advancing spiritual maturity. God said, “I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts.” Sure, the Old Testament made an appeal to the mind and heart, but that was the ideal…and it was rarely realized. But those who embrace the new covenant have this as their foundation. The Jews of old were born into it, but we today choose to make the intellectual and spiritual commitment.

And unlike the Christians of the first century (especially those earlier on) – we have the completed revelation neatly compiled as the 27 books of the New Testament. The “faith once delivered” is right there in front of us. Most of us have half a dozen copies of the very collection of books that thousands, if not millions of believers throughout history died to preserve for us. What an incredible thought!

This brings us back to 1 Corinthians 13…

After explaining that the miracles of old are actually inferior to the completed word of God – a point that we’ll come back to in just a moment – and after explaining that the miracles and spiritual experiences that we so often covet are actually associated with spiritual infancy and immaturity, Paul says the following in verses 12-13:

“For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known. And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”

The apostle here uses a second illustration to make his point. In his first illustration, as we’ve already discussed, he contrasted the expectations of childhood and those of manhood, or adulthood. Now, he uses the illustration of a mirror to make a point about clarity. In the era of miracles and infancy in the church, they could only see “dimly” the outline of the Christian message. As the word was revealed, they began to see the bigger picture more and more, but even then, the picture was imperfect.

If you give a child a picture-book about George Washington, is that child going to have a solid grasp of George Washington? No. It will be a “dim” picture of him – a picture that is incomplete and elementary. Likewise, the miracles and personal encounters that we read about in the Bible were impressive but offered a shallow presentation of God.

Think of it in terms of the contrast between dating and marriage. When two people are dating, their relationship is often based on newness, on physical attraction, on weekly dates to the movies, perhaps a little hand-holding and smooching. But in marriage, that’s when a permanent commitment has been made that allows the roots of that relationship to go much, much deeper. By gaining a deeper intimacy with your partner, seeing their true character, their flaws and bad habits…and by sharing in times of joy as well as hardship, the relationship flourishes and a mutual love blossoms that encompasses the physical, emotional, mental and even spiritual dimensions of man. While dating, the two people see each other “dimly,” but then in marriage, “face to face.”

The miracles and personal encounters that we read about in the Bible impressed the people and gave them a spiritual high much like a date is exciting to a young couple or a picture book to a child, but they allowed the people to see God but “dimly.” A relationship that depends on moments of exhilaration is destined to be shallow. But as Jeremiah explained in Jeremiah 31, and as Paul explained in 1 Corinthians 13, a relationship that is based on an intellectual and spiritual commitment to the word of God and by the word of God is one that will lead to the deepest possible relationship with God. And this is confirmed elsewhere in the New Testament:

Romans 10:17 says that “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.”

Paul, in praying for the Ephesians, said in Ephesians 1:17-18, “that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give to you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him, the eyes of your understanding being enlightened; that you may know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, and what is the exceeding greatness of His power toward us who believe…”

Paul likewise prayed for the Philippians in Philippians 1:9-11, “And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in knowledge and all discernment, that you may approve the things that are excellent, that you may be sincere and without offense till the day of Christ, being filled with the fruits of righteousness, which are by Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.”

Finally, Paul prayed for the brethren in Colosse in Colossians 1:9-10, “For this reason we also, since the day we heard it, do not cease to pray for you, and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding; that you may walk worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing Him, being fruitful in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.”

These are only a few of the many passages that tie spiritual maturity to the intellectual and spiritual commitment that we have made to the word of God. By studying and gaining knowledge about God and His will, we are putting ourselves in a position to deepen our faith in God, our love for God, and our hope to one day be united with Him in glory.

So while we want God to give us signs to strengthen our faith, and while we have convinced ourselves that hearing God’s voice would solidify our faith for sure, the Bible teaches us that (1) these things do NOT guarantee an unshakeable faith, and (2) the most effective driver of faith and conviction is the engaging of the intellect and a regular study of the Scriptures…the word of God. A faith that is predicated on inward acceptance, total surrender and that demands the total investment of the mind and spirit is more likely to be sincere and lasting.

Before I bring this lesson to a close, I’d like to address a few potential objections…

Someone might say, “It would really help if God only appeared to me once…just once.” If that’s your thought, then I’m afraid you’ve missed the point of the lesson. Because here’s what would happen: you’d be really uplifted and excited at first, and yes, that feeling would probably stick around for a while…until you went through some kind of hardship or trial. Then you’d pray to God and ask Him for a new sign; you’d pray to hear His voice just one more time. And if God didn’t grant your request, you’d begin to wonder if that first experience was authentic or imagined. And if God did grant your request a second time, and a third time, and so on, you’d be right back where the Israelites of old were – stuck in the rut of a shallow relationship.

You may recall the story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16. While suffering in torments, the rich man begged Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his family about the consequences of their lifestyle. In Luke 16:30, Abraham told him, “If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.” We manage to find ways to forget the power of such signs, or to explain them away…but again, that intellectual commitment to the word of God is what allows for a truer, deeper faith…which is the point that we’ve been making.

Or perhaps you’re thinking, “If only God would take up a permanent, visual role in this world, everyone would believe and faith wouldn’t be an issue.” You might even use the example of your spouse, your parents, or your children. “I see them all the time and love them very much…so why can’t I have that same relationship with God.”
This is actually a great point, and one that I completely understand. I see my wife and children every day and love them deeply. A long distance relationship, or a relationship based on just memoirs, pictures and notes, would be admittedly harder. If this is true of earthly relationships, it should be true of our relationship with God, too, right? Sure, the people fell back into sin, idolatry and faithlessness after seeing God’s miracles and hearing His voice…but if He had stuck around more permanently, they probably wouldn’t have done so. Right?

Here’s the problem with that.

The problem is sin.

You see, Genesis 3:8 implies that God did walk with Adam and Eve in the Garden. Granted, this was most likely an early manifestation of Christ, not the Father Himself, but the point is still the same: Adam and Eve had daily, direct access to God. But they sinned, and because sin is such an egregious violation of God’s holiness, He had to separate Himself from it. Isaiah 59:1-2 says that our sins have separated us from God. So when sin came into the world, God withdrew from the world. And from that point forward, God’s redemptive plan was set into motion…a plan that unfolded throughout the Old Testament and culminated in the sacrifice of God’s own Son on the cross.

Paul, in Romans 8:18-21 says, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.” In other words, we live in a fallen world…a world that is not what it was intended to be. And our sin is to blame. But that will change one day; there is hope of deliverance and glorious liberty.

One day, the Lord will return and put an end to this fallen system. There will be a “new heavens and a new earth.” God will wipe away our tears, and we will be in the very presence of God once again. Revelation 22:4 says that then we’ll see His face. And Revelation 22:14 says, “Blessed are those who do His commandments, that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may enter through the gates into the city.” We lost access to the tree of life and to God’s presence when we sinned, and we’ve been living in a fallen world ever since…but one day, we’ll be restored to the tree of life and to God…at least those who have put their faith and trust in Him. Again, “those who do His commandments” are the ones who will be ushered into God’s presence in the end.

Listen, I would really like to hear God’s voice, see His voice or at least see a sign or miracle of some kind. That would be really neat. In fact, when I went through my “crisis of faith” a few months ago, I began wondering why God spoke to Abraham, Moses, David, Paul and all the others…but wouldn’t speak to me. And I’m like the rest of you in that there are times when I feel like my prayers don’t make it past the drywall…or even the dome of my thick skull. Sometimes, I just want to cry out to God, “Hey God…come out, come out, wherever you are!” I’m done playing hide and seek.

But there are good reasons that things are the way they are. In a fallen world where God, in His infinite, perfect holiness, cannot exist, faith based on the word of God – a deep intellectual and spiritual commitment – is so much more effective than a relationship with God based on ‘light shows’ and booming voices from the sky. History has proven it.

And I know – I KNOW – from my own personal life, that the word of God and a personal commitment to Christ have changed my life. And there are millions of Christians now and millions of Christians in history who would agree…Christians all over the world who have sacrificed everything for Christ…and not to gain virgins in paradise…but to simply gain access to the presence of the Savior we love so dearly.

I want to close with John 20:24-31:

“Now Thomas, called the Twin, one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. The other disciples therefore said to him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ So he said to them, ‘Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my fingers into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.’ And after eight days His disciples were again inside, and Thomas with them. Jesus came, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, ‘Peace to you!’ Then He said to Thomas, ‘Reach your finger here, and look at My hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into My side. Do not be unbelieving, but believing.’ And Thomas answered and said to Him, ‘My Lord and my Go!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.’ And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.”

“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” This is faith. And faith is “the evidence of things not seen.” In a follow-up lesson, I want to talk more about faith, but I hope that my lesson tonight has helped in some way to better explain why things are the way they are, how real faith is developed, and what faith really is.

Do you believe? If not, are you willing to believe? Faith is the first step. And if you’d like to take that first step this evening – if we can help you to find the Lord – please let us know while together we stand and sing.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Navigating My Crisis Of Faith

What follows is the transcript of a sermon that I preached at the Queen Way church of Christ on June 7, 2015. The audio of that lesson can be accessed here.

When a preacher takes command of the pulpit, it’s for the purpose of preaching the word. A spiritual topic is explained or a biblical text analyzed in an effort to nurture the faith of those in attendance. After all, “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” But this evening, I’d like to do something a bit different…and when I say “different,” I do not mean to imply that I’ll be leaving the Word out of it. Just as Paul, in Acts 22, Acts 23 and Philippians 3 related his personal story and experiences in an effort to illuminate key spiritual truths and direct people to a deeper faith in Christ, I’d like to share with you key events from my life in the hope that my story will help you in some way.

Specifically, I’d like to focus on a period in my life that occurred fairly recently. On a few occasions, I’ve alluded to my “crisis of faith” or my “spiritual crisis.” This was the darkest and most terrifying low that I have ever experienced as a Christian. I will tell you here at the beginning that I found myself on the brink of unbelief. My doubts and struggles during that time were so severe and unrelenting that I felt that it was only a matter of time before I abandoned the church altogether. That’s how serious this was, and tonight, I’d like to share with you, from beginning to end, how I navigated this “crisis of faith” and how, after all is said and done, my faith is so much stronger now than it ever was before.

It’s not going to be easy for me to share these things with you. I tend to be a very private person. As an introvert, I absolutely do not wear my innermost feelings on my sleeve. It’s difficult for any of us, I believe, to make ourselves vulnerable. But more than that, I cannot help but feel embarrassed and ashamed, as if I should never have let this “crisis of faith” happen, as if I should have been strong enough to handle anything. After all, I’m a preacher, and I should consistently exemplify strength and faithfulness. As James 3:1 says, “Let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment.” And in 1 Timothy 4:12, I’m instructed to “be an example to the believers in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity.” This “crisis of faith” shouldn’t have happened, not to me. At least, that’s how I felt at the time.

So why am I sharing my story with you tonight? Because it has become clear to me that I am not the only believer who has experienced these feelings or who has questioned his faith. I’m not the only one who has felt utterly alone in his doubts. Even if you haven’t been there, it’s safe to say that some of you will probably be there at some point in the future, and it’s a morbidly uncomfortable place to be.

My lesson is intended to remind you that you are not alone, but more importantly, that there is a way to work through these doubts and fears. I want to address the mental anguish that is associated with such spiritual crises and address it from both a psychological and biblical perspective.

I’ll try not to let my emotions get the best of me, but please bear with me if they do. With that being said, I’d like to start at the beginning…
In 2012, I moved from the “Bible Belt” to live and preach here in Sparks. At that point, I had been active in Christendom for about 13 years but had been living as a faithful Christian and preaching the gospel for about eight years. I had studied the differences between evolution and creation, was familiar with the prophecies in Scripture, and knew of strong evidences for the Christian faith, but I had always operated under the assumption that the core foundations of the Christian message are true – that there is a God, that He sent His Son to die for our sins, and that “all Scripture is given by inspiration of God.” I had talked briefly with a handful of atheists and skeptics over the years, but had never really been exposed to “the other side.”

Not long after I moved to Sparks, I started tabling at the University of Nevada, and for the first time in over 13 years, I really encountered “the other side.” It all started one day when a member of the Secular Student Alliance walked up to my table and asserted that the Bible cannot be true because there are contradictions between the creation account of Genesis 1 and the creation account of Genesis 2. She was very adamant about this. I simply opened my Bible, explained Genesis 2 to her, and showed her why there were actually no contradictions at all. Her demeanor changed immediately and I remember her saying to a fellow atheist, “Hey, this guy actually gave a good explanation of this.”

Other members of the Secular Student Alliance (as well as independent atheists and skeptics) came up to my table as the semester progressed. We would discuss and even debate the merits of evolution, the details of the biblical creation account, the nature of morality, the character of God, and a number of other hot-button issues. I think they were a bit excited to encounter a Christian that would actually discuss and reason through these questions with them in a logical way.

As I befriended many of the SSA members, they began inviting me to their bimonthly discussion groups which met on Tuesday nights from 6:00-8:00. Certain members from the church here went with me at various times, but usually I was the only Christian there. And our debates were epic. I remember one discussion on the topic of ‘hell’ that was particularly fiery. Get it?

In addition to the discussions we had when I tabled and the bimonthly SSA meetings, I was also meeting a few of these guys for coffee on occasion to discuss these same issues, one on one. I did a series of weekly podcasts with two other atheists who were NOT members of the SSA – those podcasts are on YouTube, I believe. I was debating these same issues online daily in a Facebook group that I started called “Apologetics Anonymous.” And then, of course, there was the debate I did last September at UNR with my friend, Ben Drumm – again, that video is on YouTube as well as the church-website. So needless to say, my “work” with the atheists became a MAJOR focus in my life. I saw it as my mission field. These people wanted to hear a Christian perspective; they were asking me to share with them the teachings of the Bible…and I felt that God was calling me to be there, to help them, to answer their questions…and my daily hope and prayer was that God would open their hearts. “With God, all things are possible,” right?
In regard to all these debate topics – evolution, alleged Bible contradictions, morality, the character of God, hell – again, these were issues that I had studied before and had even considered from a defensive position. I knew that atheists viewed God, especially the God of the Old Testament, as a hateful, vindictive bully. I knew that atheists viewed the concept of eternal hell as unjust. I knew the difference between secular morality (which is rooted in relativism and subjectivity) and biblical morality (which is absolute and objective). But because I had always interacted primarily with Christians, my understanding of all these issues was mostly one-sided. Now, with the SSA and my other atheist friends, I was hearing questions that I had never heard before and seeing angles and perspectives to issues – even biblical texts – that were brand new to me. Not only did I relish the opportunities to share the Scriptures with these people, their questions and angles helped me to develop a much deeper understanding of my faith. I enjoyed being challenged, because in my mind, that meant that I was growing, too. And I did grow. I did benefit from those discussions. Remember, truth doesn’t fear honest investigation!

For a while, I was able to keep my focus; my faith remained strong and my zeal for God didn’t waver. But that began to change in the fall of last year.

I believe there were two factors that contributed to my “crisis of faith.”
1.     From mid-July to late-September, I spent almost every waking hour preparing for my debate with Ben. I woke up early to study vestigial organs and stayed up late to study the supposed evolution of whales. And this was on top of all of my other work – my sermons, my Bible classes, preparing material, having studies. When the debate ended, I was burned out; I was mentally drained from having expended all of my energy; I was weak…like a runner after a marathon or a soldier after a hard-fought battle. And because I was weak and broken down, I was vulnerable.
2.     I had spent so much time all year debating my atheist friends that their rhetoric started to take root in my mind. All of their comments about the injustice of hell, the cruelty of God, the supposed inaccuracies and absurdity of the Bible, just cycled through my mind over and over and over again. And in my weakened, vulnerable state of mind, I started to wonder…what if? At this point, none of these questions gave me serious doubt, but the way was paved for skepticism and unbelief.

In 1 Corinthians 15:33, we’re told that bad company corrupts good morals. Of course, it’s always good to reach out to people. Jesus ate with the tax collectors and sinners. Paul spent time in the idolatrous city of Athens wrangling with the pagans. But too much exposure to negative thinking, to skepticism, to worldliness, is bound to affect even the strongest among us. Even from a secular perspective, if you spend too much time with cynics, you’re bound to become cynical; if you spend too much time with people who are always depressed, you’re bound develop some negative thinking. Even Jesus made it a point to spend quality and quantity time with His disciples, and even Jesus made time – a lot of time – to pray in solitude. To be clear, it’s not that we’re to avoid interacting with the world, but we do have to guard our hearts, use wisdom, and do all that we can to offset the effects of the world by focusing on spiritual things.
And again, this is true in principle for everyone, including atheists. Take away their atheist groups and organizations. Take away Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and the other new atheist leaders. Take away all of the pro-evolution and anti-religion YouTube videos and websites. Then, once you’ve stripped them of all their church, preacher and Bible equivalents, once it’s just them and their independent thoughts, throw in a few sermons and religious texts and Christian voices. I can almost guarantee you that some of their thinking will change or at least be challenged.

So it’s not that the questions and doubts I developed were due to my being freed from the protective bubble of religious cultism, nor was it my sudden exposure to so-called rational thought. As I explained before, it was information overload on an already overheated and overworked system.

The droning voices of skeptics were so constant and so unyielding that I found myself developing real questions about my Christian faith by the onset of winter. It didn’t help matters that I was so busy with my work – especially in preparing class material for the high school class – that I didn’t make time to reinforce my faith through prayer and Bible study. I was on empty and the best I could do at the time was go through the motions of my work and obligations. My faith spiraled downward as my doubts ramped up.

The Bible tells us that Satan is our adversary. In 1 Peter 5:8, we’re told that he walks about like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour. But his tactics are not always overt. Paul, in 2 Corinthians 11:3 wrote, “But I fear, lest somehow, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, so your minds may be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ.” In other words, Satan knows what he’s doing; he’s been doing it for a long time. To discourage us and lure us away from the light of God’s fellowship, he’s not necessarily going to throw adultery at us; he’s going to slowly weaken our resolve with marital problems, with lust, and perhaps pornography. In my case, Satan was very patient. He waited till I was at my weakest point, then weakened my defenses by throwing a multitude of doubts and questions my way. Then he used only one question – one difficult question – to send me sprawling to the mat. It wasn’t a question about some peripheral issue; it was a question that struck at the very heart of my Christian faith…a question that threatened to undermine everything I believed in. And to make matters worse, it was a question that, in many respects, could not and cannot be fully answered. Again, Satan’s good at what he does.

Now, I’m sure you’re dying to hear what the issue was that caused me so much consternation. Well…I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I’m not going to tell you because (1) it’s a difficult and sensitive issue, (2) it would take a lot of time to explain the issue as well as how I worked through it, (3) it’s not necessary to the overall point of this lesson, and (4) I don’t want it to detract from my main point. What I will say is that my question had to do with the history of Christianity and how to reconcile certain truths about the kingdom of God with the history of the church. I’ll also say that I resolved the issue in my own mind through intense study of God’s word. As a result, I preached a number of sermons on the grace of God. Many of you may remember those sermons.
But let me share with you how serious this was for me…

This question was so critical and my doubts so unrelenting that I found myself on the verge of unbelief. I remember thinking, “This is it! I’ve been wrong all these years. Christianity is a sham.”  I remember thinking about how this would affect my family, the church here, and my livelihood. I was plotting how best to work through this while hurting the least amount of people. It was to that point. It was all I could think about. I remember car rides where I would do nothing but beg God for help and guidance, where I would search desperately in my mind for an answer to my question, and where I would ponder all the different outcomes. At times, I cried. But more than anything, I felt empty and despondent.

I want to clarify that I never doubted the existence of God; I knew that this world couldn’t be the result of chance, and not once did I think that evolution was the answer (it continues to baffle me that so many intelligent people believe so strongly in Darwinian evolution). If anything, I was on the verge of deism, not atheism. My doubts and questions were not directed at God or Creation, but at Christianity itself. But that didn’t matter because the fact is, becoming a deist would have been as devastating as becoming an atheist.

My mental anguish was excruciating. I felt weak, and worst of all, I felt utterly and completely alone. I didn’t talk to the elders; I didn’t even talk to my own wife about this because I was deeply ashamed. This shouldn’t have happened to me. Of all people, I shouldn’t be having these doubts. But more than that, I dreaded their reaction. I didn’t think they’d understand what I was going through. I didn’t think they’d be able to see it and understand it from my perspective. I knew that it would overwhelm and frighten them. How would the elders react if the preacher came to them and confessed that he was on the verge of unbelief? They’re the shepherds of this church. I didn’t want to put that on their plate if I didn’t have to. And how would my wife react if her spiritual leader lost his spirituality? What about my six children? The very thought of confusing them and letting them down only exacerbated my mental anguish.

And if I’m honest, pride was an issue. I didn’t want to appear weak to people who expected me to be strong. I didn’t think I needed anyone to guide me through this; I felt that I needed to handle this on my own. I didn’t want people praying with me and telling me to trust God. I wanted to work through this logically and rationally, and in my pride, I didn’t think that anyone would or could.

So I kept it to myself.

You see, my decision wouldn’t only have affected me; it would’ve affected my family, my church, and all of the good Christian people I had drawn close to over the years. It would be a bombshell announcement. It would circulate throughout much of the brotherhood. There would be no hiding from it. So perhaps you can imagine the burden of responsibility I felt. The guilt was out of this world. And I felt alone in it all because I was too afraid and too proud to say anything to anyone.
I want to be very clear about something at this point. I was wrong to keep this to myself. I should have told my wife first and foremost. In 1 Peter 3:7, Peter tells me that my wife and I are heirs together in the grace of life. It was wrong of me not to open up to her and to allow her wisdom and grace to aid me in my time of need. And then I should have told the elders. They are, after all, my shepherds. James 5:14 says, “Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church.” Brethren, I was spiritually sick, and the elders are appointed by God to help those of us who are sick. I didn’t allow them to bear my burdens. I didn’t confess my faults to them. I didn’t seek their counsel. Proverbs 24:6 says that in the multitude of counselors there is safety. So again, let me be clear: I was wrong to isolate myself. I ignored the wisdom of God. I made matters worse. Sharing my doubts would not have been easy, but it would have been the right thing to do. Likewise, if you’re struggling with something, talk to someone in the church; go to the elders. Seek help.

Alright, so up to this point in my story, I’ve done very little right. I overextended myself. I surrounded myself with too much skepticism and negative thinking. I neglected my own personal spiritual growth. I isolated myself. And so because of a series of bad judgments on my part, I put myself on spiritual life-support and was on the verge of causing a whole lot of collateral damage.

That being said, I did work through it. It was a lot harder than it needed to be, and it probably took a lot longer than it should have…but through a lot of personal reflection, pouring my heart out to God in prayer, and studying the Bible, I slowly but surely emerged from the darkness.

So often what happens in situations like this is that we allow the things we don’t know to distract us from the things we do know. During my “crisis of faith,” I allowed the most difficult questions – the mysteries of God’s plan and purpose – to take center stage. The one thing that I just couldn’t bring myself to understand at the time became a deal-breaker for me…and that’s neither logical nor fair.

Think of it in terms of marriage. When you’re married to someone, you love them, you have memories together, and you’re best friends. Your relationship with your spouse can’t be reduced to just one thing; it’s like a 1,000 piece puzzle that you’re piecing together day by day. Now imagine coming across one puzzle piece that doesn’t seem to fit – one argument or disagreement – and allowing that one thing to define everything.

As I worked through my “crisis of faith,” I had to stop, take a deep breath, and remind myself of what I knew to be true:
·        I knew that there is a God. David put it best in Psalm 19:1 when he wrote, “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows His handiwork.” I couldn’t escape the undeniable fact that there is a God; His majesty is everywhere.
·        I knew that the Bible provides the very best explanation of what I observe in the world around me. Mankind is special. We have dominion over the earth. We have a moral compass, as Romans 2 says. The alternative of brute materialism and Darwinian evolution fail miserably at explaining these things. The Bible explains so succinctly what I observe about the world and the human experience.
·        I knew that the Bible is a transformative collection of writings that has impacted me over the years more than anything else. It’s honesty. It’s intrinsic beauty. It’s comprehensive address of the human condition – temptation, love, relationships, morality, hope and purpose. Again, Psalm 19 says in verses 7-10, “The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple; the statutes of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes; the fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever; the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb.” And Hebrews 4:12 says that the word of God is living and powerful; I’ve seen and felt the pages of the Bible come to life. So even though I didn’t understand certain things, I kept coming back to this.
·        And finally, I knew that the prophecies in Scripture – especially those in Isaiah and Daniel – only made sense in light of divine inspiration. There was/is just too much evidence to ignore.

So what did I know? I knew that there is a God, that there is a higher purpose, and I knew that the Bible is inspired by God. Now…if these three things are true…then it is true that Jesus Christ died for my sins and that the message of Christianity rings true.

When I set aside my concerns and focused on what I knew, I was able to find my footing. Now, it was no longer a question of whether Christianity and the Bible were valid. And that had been the storm cloud looming over me and threatening to carry me “somewhere over the rainbow” to a strange new world. Once I unloaded this incredible weight that had been bearing down on me, threatening to crush me, I could now deal with the issue that had been plaguing me. Now I knew that either there was an answer, and I would find it, or that there wasn’t an answer and I just needed to trust God. And if the latter was true, that was okay with me. Not ideal, but okay.

“The secret things belong to the Lord our God.” (Deut. 29:29)

“Lord. My heart is not haughty, nor my eyes lofty. Neither do I concern myself with great matters, nor with things too profound for me.” (Psalm 131:1)

Romans 2:16 refers to “the day when God will judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ, according to” Paul’s gospel.

And again, Romans 11:33 says, “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out.”

There are going to be some things that we don’t understand. I get questions all the time along these lines. Where did God come from? Can God create a rock that’s too big for Him to lift? How could Jesus be 100% human and 100% divine? You get the idea. And when these questions come up, it’s okay to say, “I don’t know.” But these things don’t change what I do know, and because I know that there is a God and that He is wise beyond anything I can comprehend, I’m willing to trust Him on these “unknowables.”

At this point, atheists are going to accuse me of falling back on “blind faith.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard atheists tell me that religion discourages honest inquiry and investigation, that religion is the antithesis to science and reason. An atheist is going to say that I was heading in the right direction when I questioned my faith, and that my return to faith was nothing more than a copout and a compromise of my newfound intellectual honesty. I disagree. I struggled and reasoned through all of this and settled on what I believed – and what I believe – to be the truth. But more than that – and this is very important, so pay close attention – for all of us, including atheists, (1) there is a limit to what we can know, and (2) there are a lot of important things that we don’t know, and maybe can’t know. Does the atheist know how everything happened in history, how everything works now, and how things will work out in the future? Not even close! If we allow the mysteries of the world to overwhelm our thinking, we’re ALL going to go crazy. So we have to fall back on what we know and work from there. Does that involve a degree of faith? Absolutely. All people have a degree of faith. It’s not a copout; it’s unavoidable.

Once I was humbled by this fact and returned to my foundations, I was able to deal with the issue that was causing me so much doubt and frustration. I studied the Bible and found the answer. As it turned out, the problem wasn’t with God or His word; the problem was with me and my failure to properly understand His word up to that point. When I understood this, the storm passed, the waves abated, and I could exhale.

It’s been a few months since my “crisis of faith.” I’ll admit to you that even after my question was answered, it took me some time to regain my full focus and zeal for God. There wasn’t a magical, feel-good moment where everything clicked and I was again seated in the heavenly places, basking in the radiance of God’s glory. My very active imagination still wanted to play the “what if this” and “what if that” game even though I knew the answers and had confidence in my foundations. I still felt battle-weary and a little reluctant to climb back in the saddle and wave the banner of the cross. But at least the smoke had cleared and I had a sense of direction.

It was around that time that I gave the invitation that many of you may recall in which I alluded to my “crisis of faith.” By that point, I had shared some of my concerns with others and no longer felt alone. And since then, my faith has only grown. In fact, I feel stronger and more confident now than I ever have. James 3:2-3 says, “My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience.” All I can say to James’ remarks here is “amen!”

As I bring this lesson to a close, I’d like to quickly recap the key lessons that I learned and that I think we’d all do well to remember:
1.     It’s not unusual or wrong to have questions and even doubts about the foundations of your faith. In fact, all those who think deeply about their faith and have a hunger for truth are bound to have doubts at some point. If/when these doubts arise in your mind, don’t act rashly. Be patient.
2.     Do not allow the business of life to keep you from developing your faith. If you do not MAKE the time to pray and to study, you WILL grow weak. We’re bombarded with so much skepticism and negative thinking on a daily basis, and to counter that, we have to actively choose to nourish our spirits. Philippians 4:6-8 says, “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. Finally, brethren, whatever things are noble…just…pure…lovely…of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy – meditate on these things.”
3.     If you’re struggling, don’t keep it to yourself. Confess your struggles to the elders. That’s why they’re here, to shepherd us. If not them, seek the help of a mature Christian individual. But don’t try to fight these battles alone. Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes 4:9-10, “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their labor. For if they fall, one will lift up his companion. But woe to him who is alone when he falls, for he has no one to help him up.”
4.     It’s noble to seek truth and understanding – after all, we’re told to love the Lord our God with all our minds – but also accept the inevitability of faith. Faith is not something to be ashamed of; it’s an HONEST and incredibly rewarding way of life that will strengthen and comfort us as we grow. “These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For those who say such things declare plainly that they seek a homeland.” (Hebrews 11:13-14)

In the end, I can only echo the words of Job, who after navigating his own “crisis of faith,” answered the Lord and said:

“I know that You can do everything, and that no purpose of Yours can be withheld from You. You asked, ‘Who is this who hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. Listen, please, and let me speak; You said, ‘I will question you, and you shall answer Me.’ I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees You. Therefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”

It’s hard for me to read these words and not get emotional…because I can relate; those are my words as much as they are Job’s. Rather than allow the things we don’t understand to wreck our faith; they should humble us before God. What an amazing God we serve!

And to think that in spite of our constant doubting and disbelieving, our weaknesses, our frailties, and our downright sinful behavior, the God of this universe loved us enough – He loved me enough – to send His perfect Son, Jesus, to die on a Roman cross for our sins.

“In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has seen God at any time. If we love one another, God abides in us, and His love has been perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in Him, and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent the Son as Savior of the world. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God.” (1 John 4:7-15)

Brethren and friends, our faith is predicated on and nurtured by the love of God which has been poured out through Jesus Christ. We can’t see God. We can’t hear His voice. There are a lot of things we don’t understand. But God’s love is real. It can be understood and felt and experienced. And if you haven’t confessed your faith in Christ; if you haven’t put your trust in Him, you can do so this evening and begin your journey of faith. It won’t always be easy, but I can promise you that there is nothing more rewarding.