June 8, 2014

Truth and Grace

I have to say that my days in college were some of the best in my life.  I love learning and the time in the classroom was like a dream.  I enjoy writing and so the writing-heavy curriculum my university had was a blast.  With two exceptions I met and became close friends with all the guys who were in Lisa’s and my wedding.  I grew a lot and learned a great deal about myself.  I don’t want to brag, but it fulfilled in pretty much every way what I think of as the ultimate college experience.  It was great.

There was actually one more aspect of my time in college that helped make it so good.  College was for me a time during which my faith grew deeper and richer and at a faster pace than at just about any other point in my life.  I came to a much fuller understanding of who God is than I had ever had.  I had a number of key spiritual conversations with friends who influenced my walk with the Lord greatly.  I was part of a campus ministry that hit its stride while I was there and saw many lives changed by the Gospel.  Most of the group of us who were student-leaders of the ministry have gone on to full-time ministry of some kind.  In some sense it was like a four year mountaintop high.  But, as good as all this was for me, I am fully aware that my experience was by far the exception to what has become the norm as far as the college-experience goes for students with any kind of a church background.

While there are a variety of different reports as to what the actual number is, one thing is clear about the experience far too many students coming out of church youth groups into their college years have: for the majority of them, their faith doesn’t survive the journey.  The reason for this is twofold.  First, the hard fact with which the church needs to wrestle is that it generally does a pretty terrible job of preparing students who have taken up the journey of following Jesus how to handle significant, targeted challenges to their faith.  We spend a pretty big chunk of time talking about the fact that students need to believe in Jesus and live a certain way, but we spend almost no time talking about why they should, why it’s reasonable that they should, why it’s more reasonable in fact to believe in Jesus and live life His way than it is to believe anything else.  We don’t teach them (in part because we don’t know ourselves) how to respond to common objections to the faith.  As a result, when they get to college and their faith gets challenged in an environment in which standing up for their faith even when they can’t answer all the objections coming their way is guaranteed to bring social consequences (and possibly even academic consequences) that are swift and severe, rather than standing strong, they fold.

The second reason for this mass exodus from the faith is that the environment of those campuses is openly hostile to any but the most generic expressions of the Christian faith.  The majority worldview on pretty much every campus is naturalism.  Naturalism, which is sometimes called materialism, is the view that essentially there is no God, that nature is all there is.  Those who are not naturalists usually subscribe to some form of postmodernism and its plethora of modern spiritualities.  Postmodernism is naturalism’s rebellious son and though it takes a number of different forms, it is perhaps chiefly characterized by the rejection of any kind of objective truth.  There are many professors at colleges and universities all over the country who might properly be called evangelists for one of these two worldviews.  Their goal, sometimes unstated, is to see their students come to think just like they do.  They are not interested in academic freedom or open intellectual inquiry.  They are interested in creating ideological clones.  And they are happy to use a variety of means to accomplish this end including deeply slanted lectures, public embarrassment of Christian students, and even assignments that call for students to violate the moral norms with which they were raised.   Now, there are certainly exceptions to this rule.  There are professors who are either Christian or genuinely interested engaging with people whose views differ from their own, but finding these sometimes takes a little bit of work.

The question I want to ask and answer this morning is this: how do we handle all this?  How should we respond to challenges to our faith that are both intellectual and existential?  What wisdom can we offer our grads that, if put into practice, will give them a leg up on the challenges waiting for them on campus?  I think one of the best answers to this query comes from a man who had faced a number of pretty significant challenges to his own faith of each kind by the time he sat down near the end of his life to do some writing.  The apostle Peter spent his entire life immersed in one culture or another that not only didn’t appreciate his faith commitment, but was openly hostile to both it and all those who held it.  It was a series of environments that while different in the particulars were remarkably similar to that of the average college campus.  Well, near the end of his life, he wrote a letter to some believers who were themselves in a hostile cultural environment to give them some advice on how to handle it.

The whole letter of 1 Peter is concerned with offering believers in a hostile cultural environment the wisdom they needed to stand strong in their faith in spite of the opposition they were facing.  The basic idea is that they should hold tightly to the lifestyle of faithfulness and let the results speak for themselves.  On several occasions, though, there is a question ringing behind his words: What happens when our lifestyle speaks well but they still don’t like it?  One such instance comes in the second half of the third chapter.  In this particular instance Peter wraps a couple of similar-but-different encouragements to remain faithful in the face of persecution around some advice on how to handle it when the persecution comes.  If you will find your way to 1 Peter 3 we’ll take a look at his advice here together.

Look at the text with me starting at v. 13: “Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good?”  In a perfect world the answer to that question would be: nobody.  But, we don’t live in a perfect world.  In fact, we’re not even close.  As evidence, I suspect many of you already have a name in mind of someone who would hurt you for being zealous for what is good.  As a point of fact, there are lots of people who would harm you for being zealous for what is good.  Peter knew this.  He’s got his tongue firmly planted in his cheek.  He’d been hurt plenty of times for being zealous for what is good.  It is in this light that we can look at the next verse: “But even if you should [or perhaps we should say, “since you will”] suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed.”  In other words, “In a perfect world, doing what is right would lead to a smooth, easy life.  In this world, it doesn’t.  But even if you happen to experience one of these slaps from a world that doesn’t tolerate righteousness very well, blessing will still be the result.”  Or perhaps to put that another way, “Even if your professor stands you up and ridicules you in front of the rest of the class because you were willing to raise your hand and confess to being a follower of Jesus, blessing will still be the result of your efforts if you stick with them.”

Peter comes back to this idea at the end of the paragraph at v. 17: “For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.”  Now, this verse very naturally brings up the question of why God would will for us to suffer for doing good, and while there are a number of ways to respond to that, we don’t have time this morning to get into them.  The point here is that the blessings for our obedience are still coming regardless of the public reception it receives.  If you are suffering for doing evil of some kind, though, it’s tough nuggies for you.  Suck it up, take your consequences quietly, and do better next time.  In other words, though, as followers of Jesus, we are to be faithful to the lifestyle He commended to us regardless of the reception that lifestyle receives in the public square.

But still, it seems like there has to be some way to respond to all this.  I mean, yes, Jesus said we are to turn the other cheek, but nowhere are we commanded to suffer in silence.  As a matter of fact, Peter agrees, and in between these two bookends commending righteousness in the face of persecution he offers some wisdom on how to respond to it.  This wisdom actually comes in two parts.  Look with me at the text starting in the second half of v. 14: “Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you…”

There are three aspects to this first part of Peter’s suggested response to the persecution we face for living out our faith but they can all be boiled down to one word: truth.  We should respond to challenges to our faith with truth.  The first aspect of this, then, is that we should not fear the challenges.  To the high school grads, there is a very good chance that in the next year or two you are going to encounter a professor who makes it his or her personal mission to trash the faith of any students who come into class with it.  He may ridicule you.  She may bully you.  He will offer what seems to be compelling defeaters to everything you’ve believed up to this point.  Don’t be afraid.  What you have been learning in your time here is the truth.  And the truth is this: Jesus is Lord.  Anyone who proclaims something different is lying to you.  Have no fear of the challenges for when they are put to an honest examination—something they are not likely to get in class—they won’t hold up to the truth.  Jesus is Lord.  This is actually the second aspect of the response of truth.  Before you get into these challenging environments set your hearts and wrap your minds around this fact: Jesus is Lord.  He is Lord and there is no other.  Let this be your starting point for all the learning you encounter.  Make this your foundation and then have no fear in wrestling with the variety of challenges you will face.  They will not be strong enough to crumble this foundation stone if you hold to it tightly.

The third aspect is to be ready to offer up a defense of the truth.  This means that you have to actually know what you believe.  This takes some work, but, number 1. I can tell you that there’s nothing so encouraging as knowing the answer to a hard question someone asks about the faith; and 2. if you are a follower of Jesus you are commanded to be able to do this so it’s not really an option.  The fact is that you are going to both encounter and ask yourselves some really hard questions about the faith over the next few years.  You probably already have been.  That’s okay.  You should ask hard questions.  The Christian faith is the place for deep-thinking people.  Just know this going in: there aren’t any objections or hard questions you will encounter that don’t already have really good answers.  Don’t get lazy and ask without seeking an answer.  From your foundation point, wrestle hard and until you are satisfied with what you have found.  Just take three pieces of advice with you on the search process.  Don’t rely on the internet.  I know that’s easy, but while there is some good stuff there, there’s also a ton of junk and it’s sometimes hard to sort out which is which.  Also, don’t ask an unbeliever.  I don’t say this to sound arrogant, but on questions of the validity of the Christian faith an unbeliever isn’t going to give you the right answer because…they don’t think the faith is valid or else they would be Jesus followers like you.  Instead, ask a believer you trust to be honest and informed like, if I may be so bold, me.  I don’t know everything, but I know guys who do, and as folks who have taken time to talk about hard issues with me can tell you I get really excited about this kind of stuff.   Even if not me, though, find somebody you know and trust and who believes like you and wrestle with the tough stuff with them in order to land firmly on the truth.

So then, if the first part of Peter’s suggested response is truth, what’s the second?  Come back to the text one more time in the second half of v. 15 now: “…yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered [notice he’s changed now from “if” to “when”], those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.”  We are to respond to challenges with truth, yes, but we are also to respond with gentleness and respect—even when our ideological opponents deserve neither.  If I could sum this part up in a word it would be grace.  We are to respond to challenges to our faith with grace.  The reason for this Peter gets to at the very end of that verse.  The assumption of many of the folks who are challenging your faith from one direction or another is that it is invalid both intellectually and morally.  Far from believing that a little bit of faith can make for better people, there’s a good chance they believe having religious faith of any kind actually makes for worse people.  If we are anything other than totally gracious in responding to them (even and especially when they don’t deserve it) we will only serve to justify their negative assumptions.  Let me add this one more piece as well: grace is the proper balance to truth even as truth is the proper balance to grace.  Without grace truth becomes hard and unloving.  Without truth, however, grace becomes permissive and squishy.  Both are absolutely necessary if we are going to make well this defense Peter commends.

Let me speak right to the graduates again: the reality of the next few years of your life is that you are going to face challenges that are both more numerous and more significant than any you’ve faced before in your life.  This goes for both the high school and the college grads.  For the high school grads the challenges are likely to come from specific people who enter your life be they a professor or an unbelieving but really charismatic friend.  But, they will also come in the form of various experiences that are set before you but which run counter to the moral framework that comes part and parcel with your faith commitment.  They will appear to be opportunities to live large, but the truth is that they are merely doorways to smaller and smaller living.  For the college grads, you are going to be in a place where the expectations on you to live a certain way are as low as they will ever be.  You are in a place where you are setting up what your life will look like for many years to come.  If you haven’t already given up on practicing your faith you will have to decide whether or not you want to incorporate it into your new life.  The choice is a far more difficult and significant one than it now appears.  The opportunities to pursue life apart from it will be numerous.  Sometimes they will come subtly, but sometimes they’ll slap you right in the face.  This goes for all the challenges you are going to face from here forward.  But, when the world rises up to strike you in the face, we know from the wisdom Peter left for us that we are to respond to the slap with truth and grace.  When the world rises up to strike you in the face, respond to the slap with truth and grace.

If you want your faith to survive the college experience, if you want your faith to survive the transition into real adulthood, this is the approach that is going to allow it to happen.  When the world rises up to strike you in the face, respond to the slap with truth and grace.  Because the fact is: you are going to get smacked around by the world.  It’s going to happen.  You can’t avoid it.  Well, you can, but that means disconnecting from the world entirely and that’s probably not the approach you want to take.  The reason is: the world hates your faith.  Your faith is in and of itself an act of judgment on the world.  It is a bold declaration that the way the culture around you says people should live is not right.  Culture says: However you want to live is fine.  Your faith says: No it’s not.  There’s not really a middle ground there.  The thing is, though, the world, the culture is sitting in the power seat.  It’s making the rules right now.  It’s devising the punishments for divergence.  If you stand firm in your commitment you are going to get slapped in the face.  Jesus guaranteed it.  Paul guaranteed it.  James guaranteed it.  John guaranteed it.  Peter guaranteed it.  It’s going to happen.  But fear not.  When the world rises up to strike you in the face, respond to the slap with truth and grace.  Have confidence knowing that this reception was predicted and experienced long ago.  As Peter wrote a bit later: “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.  But rejoice insofar as you share in Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.”  Friends, He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world regardless of how it may seem.  Have confidence and courage and stand strong in what you believe.  When the world rises up to strike you in the face, respond to the slap with truth and grace.  Blessings on you as you journey.