PART ONE -- Eight Bottom-Line Truths
Inner Direction Needed
Does a Car Need a Driver?
Ask any ten people what makes a person a Christian and you'll get ten different answers.
These words came out of my mouth unexpectedly at a dinner table where a group of friends, old and new, were relaxing over a third cup of coffee. The air was filled with lively conversation on an array of subjects. My wife and I knew the hosts well, but the others were new to us. Unexpectedly, one of the guests turned to me and asked what I was writing on. At that moment all I could think of to describe the ideas for this book was the above statement: "Ask any ten people what makes a person a Christian and you'll get ten different answers."
My new friend nodded his head with genuine sincerit)4 saying, "I'd be interested in having it boiled down for my thinking, too." As we talked, this gentleman soberly posed some stimulating questions about God and faith and how we acquire these ideas. We met again later and it was evident he was starting on a quest to sort out the true from the false.
Without overdoing it, here is a sampling of definitions I've heard in fraternities, university halls, and other places as I've traveled with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. Some ideas may have a grain of truth; others give a far-from-accurate picture.
I've heard a Christian is:
a. A Gentile: anyone not Jewish or an adherent of one of the world's major religions.
Would an atheist like Madeleine Murray O'Hare want to be called a Christian?
b. Someone who was born and raised in a Christian home or country or who inherited their faith.
Can faith be passed on through childbirth?
c. A person who goes to church.
Does going into a garage make you a car?
d. Someone who practices rituals such as baptism, Communion, or Bible-reading.
These activities may have value, but is the all-wise, personal God in the picture?
e. One who follows the Golden Rule, and leads a moral life.
Many good, moral people try to live by the Golden Rule yet make no claim to be Christians. Does merely following the teachings of Jesus give us a one-on-one connection with Him?
f. A person who abstains from specific external, so-called "worldly" practices.
A long list of "don'ts" or prohibitions might be seen as characteristic of some Christians. How does an emphasis on negatives fit in with Jesus Christ's message: "I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full" (John 10:10).
g. Someone who gives casual intellectual assent to a certain list of beliefs.
This could be a casual assent to the idea of God and Jesus Christ, like saying, "Oh yes, I believe all that I heard in church." Is belief a tentative list of ideas without a personal interchange or connection between the individual and God?
Other ideas may come to our minds, but they further emphasize the importance
of providing a clear answer to our beginning question: What makes a person a
Christian? Some time ago I gave a talk at
I was riveted by the young man's honesty. Christians "bother" because truth is at stake. None of the definitions above gives the full picture of the Christian message. Our understanding of the truth determines what we believe and trust. Coming to know the truth could be like the difference between being in a dark room and suddenly finding a light. It does matter what we think of God and Jesus Christ.
To illumine our thinking, these pages will lay out the bottom-line truths on which the Christian faith rests. The focus will be on the basics. What defines an authentic, inside Christian—not a superficial, casual type? We'll avoid discussing liturgical differences or minor doctrinal spin-offs and concentrate instead on the essentials, using the Bible as our truth source. We will find that the Bible spells out the extraordinary impact of Jesus' life, teaching, and identiryWho He was will naturally be the hub of this "Christian story."
We Need Direction
Our first bottom-line truth is "Inner Direction Needed." Jesus Himself advanced this idea to a group of highly religious people of His day. He saw the lives of some well-meaning people entirely absorbed with ceremonial rules and practices. They had strict procedures for washing their hands, the proper utensils to use, the kind of food to eat, and other endless rituals. Jesus told them: "Nothing that enters a man from the outside can defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and so passes on" (Mark 7:18). He went on to say it's what comes out of our hearts that matters. Who we are on the inside was of utmost importance to Him. I think you will agree it is to us, also.
It is interesting to note that Jesus discussed thoughts and actions in almost the same breath. For instance, He spoke of hatred and murder as equally culpable. He told people it is the inner heart that senses a need for help and poses the questions. Poet John Donne echoed that thought:
How little of a man is his heart
Yet it is all by which man is.
Who of us hasn't had inner churning, wishing someone would listen to us, or even wondered if there anyone we can trust. Are my friends and family trustworthy? "at do ideas about God and Jesus Christ have to do with me in my everyday life? Does it matter what choices I make, what friends I hang out with, or what career I follow? Can I personally connect with God and Jesus Christ for certain in my inner self? Some of us may have gone to a church or looked at the Bible hoping for answers.
In his song "Is Anybody There?" singer John Hiatt tells us of his inner feelings and at the same time strikes a chord of truth:
Well, I'm out here on my own
Followin' a star
Asking on my knees, for some direction, please
And, God, You know that's hard.
In his heart Hiatt knew he needed help. Life was not going the way he felt it should, and something inside drove him to turn to God for an answer. If God doesn't care, who does? Hiatt got down on his knees and spoke to God through Jesus Christ. He poured out his heart. He sought Someone outside himself to bring relief. Someone BIG!
God’s love is more than you think.
Such petitions germinate from the inner soul.
Let me assure you, there is hope. Throughout the Bible we see our Creator God directing, guiding, encouraging the people He created. He intended us to be in close relationship with Him—and this, in turn, affects our relationship with others. From the beginning pages of the Bible, God reached out to the people He created. He desired a "family" relationship. At one point in the story of the first couple, God Himself called to them, "Where are you?" (Gen. 3:9). God didn't want to be separated. Likewise, He calls to every one of us whom He created. "Come to me, and I will give you rest (Matt. 11:28)
Does A Car Need A Driver?
Imagine for a moment you are going into a car dealership and checking out a new car. The technical brilliance and the shining exterior of a new car are hard to resist. The latest model blows your mind with all the add-ons. But this enticing new machine has one unalterable deficiency. It will function only if it has an intelligent driver behind the wheel. Without a driver, an automobile is a mere museum piece. If you shoved one of these cars down a steep hill without a driver, it would careen and reel downward, wreaking damage along the way, and finally crashing.
Similarly, we human beings were made to be directed and led in life's path in close connection with our Maker. We function best when we get our cues from God. Unfortunately, each of us has individually shoved God out of the driver's seat of our lives. We continue to ratify this decision and handle our lives without reference to God. From early childhood, the knee-jerk reaction we follow is "I'll do it myself." We live our lives with this same kind of independence. "Don't drive me, God, I'll drive myself."
Trying to live life without God, our incredibly wise Creator, is really as silly as being upset because we are dependent on air to breathe—and then holding our breath in rebellion! Cutting ourselves off from the one available Source of divine, nurturing power is like a tree cutting off its roots.
A car does need a driver; a tree does need roots; we do need air!
Author E. Stanley Jones quoted Carl Gustav Jung, famous European psychiatrist, as unexpectedly agreeing that we all need God:
"Those psychiatrists who are not superficial have come to the conclusion that the vast neurotic misery of the world could be termed a neurosis of emptiness. Men cut themselves from the root of their being, from God, and then life turns empty, inane, meaningless, without purpose, so when God goes, goal goes, when goal goes, meaning goes, when meaning goes, value goes, and life turns dead in our hands."
We do need God! When God, "the root of our being," takes the wheel of our car, starts the engine, revs the motor, steers it in the right direction, and feeds us the right amount of fuel, life does not turn dead in our hands. Whatever our previous conceptions of God may be, our Creator's true, revealed purpose is to guide us onto the best road and in the wisest direction. Jeremiah describes it like this:
"This is what the LORD says, he who made the earth, the LORD who formed it and established it—the LORD is his name: Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know" (Jer. 33:2-3).
To such an everlasting love, our best answer must be to tell Him with open hearts, "I need your divine direction, Lord God." The call from God today has not changed. To each of us He says, "Where are you?" He initiates the call. He is interested in the details of our lives. Even in minor things He offers help to fill the "hole in our souls." This is the magnificent connection—you can actually know personally the God in whom you believe!
"My Presence will go with you, and I win give you rest" (Ex. 33:14).
"I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with loving-kindness" (Jer. 31:3).
One young student, a Generation Xer, wrote openly of his final recognition of need and his honest cry for help: "Now—here is my secret: I tell it to you with an openness of heart that I doubt I shall ever achieve again, so I pray that you are in a quiet room as you hear these words. My secret is that I need God—that I am sick and can no longer make it alone. I need God to help me give, because I no longer seem to be capable of giving; to help me be kind, as I no longer seem capable of kindness; to help me love, as I seem beyond being able to love." (Douglas Coupland, Life After God, 1994)
What Is God Like?
If praying (talking to God) is new to us, we would naturally want to know who God is. Apart from definition, "God" means little to any of us. Without a clear description, our alternative would be a God of our own construction or imagination. There are a lot of wild guesses being sold in our bookstores and newspapers today. Some say God is an impersonal force, a hall of fire, and we are the sparks. Others see God as a celestial Santa Claus. We don't need idle guesses. We need certainty. Lets start with some tested and tried basics.
God Is a Person
We can talk to Him. God is not a ghost or a puff of smoke. He has personality, mind, heart, and Spirit. As human beings, He created us in His image with individual personality, mind, heart, and spirit. Our all-powerful Creator is alive and approachable and is waiting for us to call on Him. He says:
"The Lord will guide you always" (Isa. 58:11).
"Come to me ... for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls" are the words of Jesus (Matt. 11:28).
God Reveals Himself
He has chosen to show Himself to us in a number of ways. We call this His "self-revelation." Most obviously, God can be seen as a superb artist in the magnificence of our created world and the complexity of our physical bodies. In everyday minor areas, I am thankful when my contact lenses feel dry that God created eyelids to blink and moisten them. I also marvel at the structure of my thumb and four fingers, telling me Someone ingenious designed them.
“God shows Himself not only in the Bible... but also in the trees, flowers, clouds, stars.”
God revealed Himself specifically to the biblical writers and told them what to write. He used their individual personalities and their skills as poets or authors, and they recorded God's thoughts. He directed their entire lives. He told them He had plans for their lives, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future" (Jer. 29:11). He unveiled His character and His will for them; He told them how to live productively. The entire message of the Bible, our source book, gives numerous details of God's regularly interacting with people. He sought them out, spoke to them directly, taught them, comforted them, and brought light to their lives. He gave national help and intervened in governments.
God directed individuals. He brought Elijah to full-blown victory when enemies challenged the nation's faith in God. He gave Job strong fortitude and deep spiritual insights when trouble hit him. In the New Testament, God spoke to a Christian named Ananias and told him to go to a Hebrew-trained man named Saul, who was praying. This Saul was transformed into the vibrant apostle Paul (Acts 9:11).
Then, supremely, we see God's love expressed in His sending His Son Jesus Christ, to earth to communicate to us. In this act, He gave the fullest expression of His love. The eternal God reaches out to us, showing His desire to keep a close connection between Him and US' "This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him" (1 John 4:9). Isaiah gives a moving expression of God's initiative and care for His people (63:9).
In all their distress he too was distressed, and the angel of his presence saved them.
In his love and mercy he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.
God Is Love
He loves each of us personally. Motivated by love, He reaches out for a connection with us; He values what we do with our lives. Jesus tells us God numbers the hairs of our head and cares for our deepest needs. The Bible tells us His love endures forever. He will not leave us when we face temptation, but His love draws us irresistibly to Himself. And most eloquently, "His steadfast love never ceases, His mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning" (Lam. 3:22, 23).
God is not about to short-change us in life.
God's love is not expressed merely in propositional terms. His love is shown unmistakably in His actions. The Old Testament weaves persistent covenants and protection for all who would call on Him. The New Testament recounts detailed fulfillment of God's promises and actions in sending Jesus Christ, His Son. "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son," Jesus Christ (John 3:16). This was love that gave. Here is a brief sample of the many pictures of God's love in action.
Through the Son, God made the universe.
The Son is the radiance of God's glory.
He is the exact representation of God's being.
He sustains all things by His powerful word (Heb. 1:2, 3).
He is the One and Only, who has made God known (John 1:18).
"God's love is stronger than fire and destruction, and even in the valleys of deepest darkness, His rod and staff are put into our hands and bridges are thrown across the abyss." This was the moving declaration of German theologian Helmut Thielicke.
God Is Holy
God's nature is inherently without flaw. His instructions—His laws—are for our benefit, solely for our good.
It is not easy to fully comprehend God's holiness, Our world is shattered by senseless and vicious acts of evil that defy explanation. "God, why?" we ask. A simple answer is that God has given each of us the dignity of choice: choose to follow His path or choose evil and defy the Lord who made us.
Our own standards tell us to judge and punish mass murderers and terrorists and to feel justified in it. The little white lies or cheating on taxes we might forgive and feel no guilt about them. But down deep we know little sins become big ones and a second lie is often needed to cover up a first he. Before we know it, lying becomes a habit. All of us want the other person to be honest. The fact is, Jesus said, all of us need to learn God's standard of holiness and we need forgiveness. Any sin separates us from our holy God. And His holiness is for our benefit.
Children feel hurt if we see them playing with a box of colored pushpins and
we take the pins away. Is that fair? The child might wail and object, but you
know it's right. Your desire is to protect the child.
Likewise, God could not have slide-rule holiness. He knows where to draw the
line. A student at the
God's standard is logical. Would God's presence and practice in heaven allow us to vote on our preference: shall we allow white lies or not? Imagine for a moment if God would allow even little lies into His presence in heaven. It would be certain to cause arguments, don't you think? God is 100 percent perfect. By definition He is completely without evil in thought, word, or deed. We may be better than someone else, but the other person is not our yardstick.
God's holiness is far above ours—total, unflawed goodness, a fixed incompatibility with inner or outer evil. Truthfully, when we understand His character, His holiness is a comfort. Anything less than perfection would not be God; it would be an imperfect human.
"I never knew God was an option in my life." This was the summary of a young man who had finally realized he needed to find out about God. He began his search with a determination to comprehend and act on the basics. We met in a large church meeting, struck up a friendship, and divulged our life stories to each other. In the end, the above potent phrase capsulized Bob's story. Of all his options in life, God never entered his mind. Would God—or could God—make a difference? He found the answer at a time when life was feeling like a tough ride.
On the surface, Bob seemed like a "together," archetypal man of the new millennium-educated and carefully groomed. He stood out as intentionally polite. Growing up in a financially well-heeled home, he believed appearances and wealth headed the list of necessities. His exterior made this evident. Underneath, his story revealed rougher waters. His father was rarely civil to him, and his mother lived on the opposite coast.
Although he looked like a highly cultured person, Bob repeated over and over his evil habits: his covert stealing at work, his passion for gambling, his expertise at lying—all lifelong habits, he confessed with an inconsolable sadness. He ended by talking about his two failed marriages, brought on by his own stinging hardness. When I asked if he had ever prayed to God or talked to a counselor, he replied, "When have I not been in counseling?"
Bob and I went to a small Bible study group together, and he seemed to be making valiant strides in attentively studying the life of Jesus Christ and the character of God. On and off I saw him, sometimes studying and regularly looking sad. Bob was known for a large-sized scrapbook he carried and in which he was determined to record the long list of regrettable habits of the past. One day he asked me to read his book with the remark, "These are things that I know God wants to change in my life. What should I do with them?"
"First of all, pray to God, in Jesus' name, tell Him you need His help to lead your entire life. Then, one by one, talk to Him about each of the habits you've struggled with. Ask Him for forgiveness. He'll tell you what to do," I told him. "God will also give you the power back-up that you need to follow Him, to go His way." I could see the wheels of his brain churning, but with a look of hope.
Almost six weeks passed before we had time to talk again. This time he said, "It's been hard. I haven't been certain I wanted Jesus to have my whole life, but now I'm ready. I want my entire life to be led by Him." Then he handed me his fabled book and asked if I would read it while he went to get us some coffee. When Bob returned, he told me he wanted to try to pray. "Take that book and burn it. It's all behind me," he said. We both prayed—Bob haltingly, but unmistakably sincere. I'll never forget his words to me as we parted: "Tell everyone about Jesus Christ, God's Son. He's the best option of all!"
This unforgettable line sums up one person's story of life change. Where we are in our journey matters to God. He is calling to each one of us, "Where are you?" We will find His open arms and unparalleled love waiting for us.
The next seven chapters will round out the eight bottom-line truths to make the magnificent connection and truly know personally the one in whom you believe—God. There is no greater relationship for any of us. And as G. K. Chesterton said: "Joy is the gigantic secret of the Christian."
1. Jesus' words: "It's what's inside, in the heart, that matters."
On a scale of 1-5, rate yourself. With reference to God, do you tend to emphasize external conduct or internal relationship? Circle.
2. From the chapter, describe some reasons you've learned for believing that "God's holiness is a comfort."
3. Considering that God is waiting for us with open arms and unparalleled love, which of these statements best describes where you are?
a. I have already given God the wheel and He is driving my life's car.
b. I would like to come forward and ask God for His direction.
You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.
—Know Who You Believe