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Wednesday, 24 October 2018

Why I'm Still a Christian (Part 1)


My last post was the story of how, aged 15, I became a Christian.

When I was a teenager, I was aware of a lurking assumption that I'd fizzle out of this phase soon enough, just like I fizzled out of recording every single song in the UK Top 40 every.single.week. But while I eventually stopped being a Top 40 addict (I blame the break up of the Spice Girls), I haven't stopped being a Christian. And why not? *

There are two main thoughts that have tempted me to throw in the towel. One is, "it's not true" and the second is, "it's too hard."

I will discuss the elements of faith that have sometimes felt too hard another time: depression, singleness, the church, unanswered prayer. But if I had not found peace over the first question (is it true?), I never would have stuck around to figure out the second (is it worth it?).

EARLY DOUBTS
The first time it even crossed my mind that Christianity might not be true came about a year after I became a Christian.  I had enjoyed a year of joy and freedom, where every hymn I sung sounded fresh and glorious; the whole world looked hopeful in a way I had not imagined possible.Then I hit a bump. I went on a five week trip to Kenya with a team of other teenagers, where we ran kids' camps in partnership with local churches. One of the churches we partnered with was part of a tiny Christian population on a beautiful, largely Islamic island.  While we were there we stayed in a stone guest house in the Old Town. Bougainvillea hung on the lattice above us as we slept on the paved floors in sleeping bags, or on them, because even in the night the heat was clammy. Each morning we were woken up by the call to prayer. Long before we managed to get our weary eyes open to assess our mosquito bites, the song resonated across the island and our Muslim neighbours made their way down cobbled streets to one of the many local mosques.

SINCERITY IS NOT ENOUGH
During my first year of faith the thought that someone might be able to believe something with the same conviction as I believed in the trustworthiness of Jesus had not crossed my mind. But during those early mornings, I began to see that sincerity wasn't enough. I was sincere; these Muslims were sincere. We believed contradictory things; we couldn't both be right just because we were both sincere. It would be disrespectful to the Muslims who were worshipping Allah to diminish their beliefs and say, "well, really we're praising the same God." The smallest knowledge of both religions demonstrates that this is not the case (for example, Muslims do not believe Jesus died, Muslims do not believe Jesus is God... two points central to Christian faith). Somehow the question of the truth of my belief began to matter.

The same year I began studying philosophy at A Level, which threw up all sorts of intellectual challenges to the Bible. At the same time, my unbelieving friends upped the tempo. They'd let me have my faith for a while, but when my enthusiasm had outlasted the year, they began to ask probing questions. I am so grateful that they made me figure out what I believed and why; they were not willing to settle for any bluffing on my part. Just because it made me feel better didn't make it true.

WISHFUL THINKING
As a brief aside I should say that just because it made me feel better didn't make it untrue. Just because thirsty people find that water quenches their thirst it doesn't mean that water can't be trusted. Yes, Christianity dealt with my guilt. But if I really was guilty, then its dealing with it wasn't evidence it wasn't trustworthy, but that it was. If I was made to find joy in depending on my Creator, it shouldn't come as a surprise that when I depend on him, I find joy.

But I could see how easy it could be to believe something only because it made you feel better, with a complete disregard for reality. Yes, believing Jesus died for me had made my life better, but it might have made me feel better to believe that Keanu Reeves, over in Hollywood, was desperately in love with me, even if none of the boys in sixth form were. If it wasn't actually true (I am beginning to concede that it probably wasn't) then my believing it would just be delusional.

And so I wanted confidence beyond, "it makes me feel better." It wasn't enough for me to have people say, "I wish I had your faith" when what they really meant was, "I wish I was crazy enough to disengage from reality as much as you can." It became clear that I needed to explore whether or not Christianity could make a claim to truth, quite apart from my own experience. I couldn't shake my experience, but I felt challenged: was what I believed valid beyond my wanting it to be true?

EVIDENCE, PLEASE
So I read a lot, particularly about the resurrection of Jesus. I read "Who moved the stone?" and "The Case for Christ", both books written by men who had become believers through the process of trying to disprove the existence and resurrection of Jesus. I listened to a number of talks by Michael Ramsden on truth, suffering, and the historical record regarding Jesus. I compared the historicity of Christianity with that of other religions, looked at tables comparing ancient manuscripts, and thought frequently about how the evidence surrounding the resurrection might be explained, apart from the resurrection. Like many others before me I couldn't find an explanation more compelling than the obvious one: that Jesus was alive! (Of course this was also corroborated by my own experience of the living Jesus). I also asked questions, a lot. At youth group, time and again I would say, "this is probably a stupid question but...." How I must have tried my poor leaders! I'm still glad I asked.

By the time I was 18 I had decided I was going to study Theology at a secular university (shout out to Nottingham!). Several people warned me that studying this course would be the death and burial of my faith - but my conviction was growing: there was no point in believing in something that wasn't true. I decided that if the course threw up legitimate objections to faith, then in the end I would be doing myself a favour. Life without the Jesus of the Bible would be most brutal if the Jesus of the Bible really existed. If he didn't, and academic study proved it, then I could get on with living life my way. Reality might hurt, but it still mattered. In the end, all of us want sanity more than happiness.

WHY TRUST THE BIBLE
At university, Theology was a big (though not the biggest) challenge. Some doubts were knocked on the head forever: did Jesus really exist? (Of course he did!), was the New Testament good history? (Luke was remarkable!), was there anything to the God Delusion (ranting, but not much more!), was Islam comparable in terms of the scrutiny its texts had been through? (not even close!), was it possible to be an intellectual and a Christian? (yes, and humble, gracious and kind too - shout out to Dr Chad Van Dixhoorn whose faith, faithfulness and glorious selection of bow-ties helped many of us through second year!).

Looking back I could have been more rigorous in my approach to some of the questions I was presented with during the course. It was difficult to pursue every one to its end, what with living university life and everything. Sometimes I took the short cut of putting my trust in other Christians, well known intellectuals, who had engaged with the cutting edge debates and come away with robust, inspiring, evangelistic love for Jesus. I had three evangelical lecturers who were honest about their own doubts, but who were unwavering in their confidence in Jesus. Sometimes I let them do the hard work for me.

I also had some excellent Christian theologian friends, and we'd sit in the cafe in the Trent building, sipping hot chocolate and helping one another figure things out, or extensively discussing Chad's bowties. At some point during this time I read a fantastic little pamphlet by John Stott who argued that our confidence in the Bible is rooted in our confidence in Jesus. Did we believe that He was the Word made flesh as he claimed to be? If we did, trusting the Bible was ultimately about trusting Him: given He had conquered death, could he be trusted when he saw the Old Testament as authoritative, the New as his commission? The question was more about whether I could trust this person, than whether I could trust the book. In my life outside of theology lectures, I was experiencing the faithfulness of Jesus and getting to know him better, so the call to trust Him was reassuring and made sense to me.

One of my lecturers was an atheist who taught us the "Life and Teachings of Jesus" module. He taught us that Jesus didn't really believe he was the Son of God, that he probably didn't do any miracles, that none of the grand claims of John's gospel could possibly be true. But when he came to the session on the resurrection, he admitted that he could not find an adequate explanation for the birth of the early church, the emptiness of Jesus' tomb, the witness of the women- that wasn't the resurrection of Jesus. He said he thought it was some kind of mass hallucination, but admitted the flaws of his own position. "It's a real problem," he said. I wondered whether, if he'd allowed himself to go in the direction of the evidence, his other views on Jesus might have shifted. Christianity makes the resurrection its own cornerstone, after all. Paul wrote to the early church in no uncertain terms: "if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless, and so is your faith."

WISHFUL THINKING PART 2
Now I should make clear that these questions concerning the truth of Christianity did not happen in a vacuum. As I asked these questions I was also continuing to read my Bible, continuing to pray for my friends, doing my best to obey what I found Jesus asking me to do, and finding great freedom and joy as I did. I was doing my best to tell others about him and finding that my friends were also compelled by his person. I was going to church and singing hymns written hundreds of years before my lifetime that spoke of a Jesus whose faithfulness resonated with my own experience. As I read more of the Old Testament and saw more of the intricacy of the way the Bible held together, Jesus became too good not to be true, good beyond what one writer could make up- let alone what countless writers from across the centuries could bear witness to! As I got to know Jesus, I found it increasingly hard to believe he was a fantasy. He just did not behave in a way the God of my imagination might behave- like a bigger version of me. He was consistently surprising. He said things I didn't like. He disagreed with me! And like very few people had been able to do before, he managed to change my mind. He commanded me to! And he proved himself to be consistently (sometimes irritatingly) right.

 All  this to say that all of these factors contributed to my perseverance too. I was not asking, "is it true?" from a neutral position. But is anyone, really?

You might read this with the thought, "you had an incentive to believe what you did- it made you happy." And I would agree that believing in the love of Jesus has done me good beyond expression (although my experience of happiness has been complex- as you'll see in the next post!). But I would argue that most people's faith positions are held by an incentive. My lecturer had a reason to want to discount the resurrection- if he did, Jesus could stay as a misunderstood teacher who had no claim on his, or anyone else's life. In fact the Bible says we all have an incentive to want to disbelieve God: if we can dismiss him, then we can go on living lives our way. But if Jesus really did conquer death, he cannot be ignored.

Once I was chatting with some fellow students about the existence of God. They said, "you want me to believe in God when he just swept thousands of people in to the ocean with a tsunami?" The legitimate question of suffering aside, they were blaming the suffering in the world on a God they didn't believe existed! That's quite a tough position to hold! But it was convenient. And we are all very capable of believing what is convenient over believing what is true. What strikes me about Jesus is that he doesn't say, "come follow me, it's convenient." He says, "come follow me to the cross." And many do, all the way to death.

None of this is to say that I have found 'proof' for my faith. But whether or not it is true matters to me, whether its something rooted in history rather than wistful longing (although my wistful longing must be for something!), whether or not it really makes sense of the world as it is, rather than as I would like it to be. Could I have read more? Yes. Do I have unanswered questions? Yes. Do I think I'm a Christian because I was clever enough to figure it out? Absolutely not! I have scratched the surface of theological study. I know countless people who are significantly cleverer than me, many of whom were mentioned in this post, who don't believe. And I didn't even consider the evidence for Christianity until I'd already started following Jesus. But did seeking answers to the question, "is it true?" help me to stay a Christian? Yes, I think it did.

RESOURCES THAT HELPED ME
And I hope they may help you too:
(If you have better suggestions, that's what the comments are for!)

- Read the New Testament: does it sound made up to you? 
- Do Uncover with a Christian friend: what impression do you get of Jesus? 
- Why trust the Bible? Amy Orr- Ewing
- The Case for Christ, Lee Stroebel 
- Who Moved the Stone, Frank Morrison 
- More Than a Carpenter, Josh Macdowell 
- The Reason for God, Tim Keller 
- Making Sense of God, Tim Keller 
- Tim Keller "Overcoming Objections" Podcasts
- Glen Scrivener: Debates from Sam Harris (prominent atheist) and Jordan Peterson 

*Of course, the answer to both the how I became and why I still am a Christian is the same: because God is alive, gracious, and committed to me. I think this will become far more evident in next time's post! 

Friday, 12 October 2018

Joy Story



Today I am giving my testimony at youth group, and decided to write it down to get it in my head. I also decided to share it with you all, because it's probably about time.

Q: What does your life look like when you're not helping out here on a Friday?
When I'm not at here, I am mainly doing a Masters in Creative Writing. This means I spend a lot of time staring out of windows hoping for inspiration, or travelling across town to find new places with different windows I can stare out of, and hope for inspiration.

Q: What was life like for you growing up?
I guess I had a bit of an unusual life growing up in that I lived in Africa until I was 12. My parents were medical missionaries working in Rwanda, and then Tanzania and Uganda, and then I was away at school in Kenya from the ages of 5-12. We moved back to the UK when I was in Y8, where I went to a local Cardiff comp.

Q: If someone asked you back then who Jesus was, what would you have said?
I might have said, "the Son of God", but the honest answer from my life probably would have been "irrelevant." Of course I never would have said that... but I did spend a lot of time thinking about big questions about God, and even wanting to live in a way that pleased him. But I never thought much about Jesus. I spent a lot of time feeling frustrated by how distant God felt, how hard loving him seemed and how some Christians seemed to be really joyful. I kind of scorned them for that joy because I thought they were unrealistic about the real world... but of course deep down I wanted that joy too. But I didn't get what Jesus had to do with it.

Q: So what changed for you, and when?
The big change came for me when I was 15. I went to a big Christian festival and there were a few things that happened that week that completely changed how I thought about Jesus, and therefore, everything. Firstly, I heard a talk where a guy was saying "there's a difference between knowing about Jesus and knowing Jesus"...and I realised that I easily fit the first category, being an MK and all, but that I definitely did not know him. Secondly, for the first time in my life someone explained the cross to me and I understood it and saw how wrong I'd got God. I understood that at the cross all of my sin was dealt with, but also my shame. God wasn't stingy and grumpy, waiting for me to jump high enough. He was generous,  and kind. In Jesus, he had dealt with the whole burden of sin and shame. Seeing this made me realise how beautiful Jesus was to know.  And then I guess the third thing is what really blew my mind. I remember sitting in my tent crying, with this really strong image in my mind of Jesus standing in front of me, holding out his hand and saying, "Philippa- follow me." I was overwhelmed that Jesus would want anything to do with me, that he'd know my name, speak it- and want me with him! A year or so later I came across this bit in Luke 5, right after Peter meets Jesus. He sees something of who Jesus is and says to him, "get away from me, I'm a sinful man." The wonder of that passage is that Jesus knows he's a sinful man- but he calls him anyway, and uses him to build his kingdom. When I read that it took me back to how I'd felt in the tent- totally humbled and utterly joyful to be called, seeing the kindness of Jesus and thinking: why would you want anything to do with me!?  As I've been remembering all this I've just been struck again by the incredible privilege and grace of the call... I don't deserve to have Jesus know my name, let alone to have him call me to follow him! But He does. And that's what's so unrelentingly wonderful about him. One thing, anyway!

Q:What difference has knowing Jesus made in your life?
I guess the most immediate change was that I felt joy- sometimes bubbling over, sometimes still and steadfast- but I distinctly remember rejoicing in a physics lesson as I remembered- the way to God is opened up, my sin is dealt with, I'm loved! A physics lesson.  And I still feel it now- it's not always a rush of exhilarating emotion- but it is this unshakeable and glorious conviction that my biggest problem- my big old stinky pile of selfishness and sin has been dealt with, forever, by my Saviour who loves me. Before I'd seen Jesus I felt like God didn't want anything to do with me, but I could think why not. Once I'd seen Jesus I knew God did want everything to do with me, but I could not understand why. I saw him and saw my own unworthiness. But seeing his love for me inspite of that brought me great, unshakeable joy! Now I've had depression for most of my adult life, so I wouldn't exactly say the years since I was 15 have been sunshine, rainbows and lollipops, far from it (I mean I grew up in Wales so sunshine was always unlikely...) - but knowing Jesus has brought me joy. Whatever else is going on, I've been forgiven- completely forgiven and called by someone who loves me. Jesus.

Q: Who would you say Jesus is now?
Whatever the opposite of irrelevant is! It is baffling to me that I missed it (though I guess that is what blindness is!). He is the definition of relevance- the central character in the story of the world, the King of glory, Lord, Saviour, God. I mean, I cannot articulate his importance but thankfully he did himself. He said, "I am the way, the truth and the life." - and so much more. Read John's gospel to be staggered by Him! And the wonder of all this is that though He is reigning, though all reality is all about Him, though all of life finds its ultimate meaning in Him, He's also my friend.

"I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I might gain him..." Philippians 3:8 
 
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