As soon as I completed my last post, in which I sought to articulate the reasons I believe in God, a string of tragic events unfolded across the globe that caused me to think long and hard about whether I really believed what I wrote is true. These events included…
In late October, a drunk driver plowed into a Homecoming Day gathering in Stillwater, Oklahoma, killing four people, including a two-year-old boy, and injuring dozens more, many of which are children.
A few weeks later, ISIS-linked gunmen and suicide bombers attacked Paris, France, killing 130 people and injuring hundreds more.
Our heads still spinning from that tragedy, we reeled from reports that an Al Qaeda cell had taken hostages in a hotel in Bamako, Mali, killing twenty-two people.
Two weeks ago, Chicago Police released a dash cam video of a police officer unloading his weapon into an African-American teenager well after the young man’s body had crumpled to the asphalt.
Right on the heels of a national day of thanksgiving, a gunman targeted defenseless people at a healthcare facility in Colorado Springs, killing three people including a responding police officer.
The following Wednesday, two individuals with alleged terrorist sympathies opened fire at another healthcare facility, this one for disabled people, killing fourteen and wounding over twenty others.
And yesterday, another terrorist attack in London left three people stabbed to death.
And so I must ask myself, What do you think, Bo? Do you still believe in God? Do you still think this life has any meaning? What were the words you used in your last post? Purpose. Inspiration. Justice. In the face of perpetual violence and constant tragedy, do you really believe there is a God who provides those things?
Yes. Yes, I do.
But I am a Christian. And at its core that means my belief in a God who gives meaning to life is the starting point, not the final declaration. The tragedies of the past month reveal that human beings seek solutions to our existence in a variety of ways. In our pursuit of purpose, reason and justice, we become deeply emotional. We despair, we get angry, we turn fearful. Such emotions not only drive those who act violently, but also those who react to the violence when it takes place. As such, these feelings are like cataracts preventing us from seeing through or beyond hardship to hope. At times, as individuals and as a society, we can feel like we’re lost in the woods. There seem to be no clear answers (at least not any that everyone can agree on), and the people we look to for leadership only seem to be pointing us deeper into the thicket. We start to believe the only real purpose in life is to endure, rather than to thrive.
So, if God is to give our lives true meaning, he must first save our lives.
This is where my belief in God meets my belief in Jesus, and it is the reason I believe Jesus is Savior.
Now, the person of Jesus and the vast tradition of stories about him have been told a thousand times over. And for every time someone speaks of those stories well, with humility and reverence, someone else is twisting them to mean something they never meant, or watering them down so they are easier to swallow. As such, it is just as likely to feel lost in the woods when you go to church as when you watch cable news. Across denominational and cultural lines, “Jesus” has become either a cosmic authoritarian principal writing disciplinary referrals on our souls, or an upstart first-century revolutionary whose life is mostly myth and whose teachings might momentarily comfort but ultimately prove impotent within modern society.
But neither of these manifestations accurately portray the Jesus who shows up in the Bible. Read the first four books of the New Testament. Set aside what you think you know about Jesus, and really consider what you read. You find a man who, at the very least, is quite confident he is intimately connected to the Divine. He seems deeply concerned about the present and future life of individuals and whole communities, and he also seems to think that the quality of those things hinge on his impending death and subsequent resurrection. He often speaks in allusions and metaphors, but none are too difficult to decipher; his message almost always revolves around who he is and what authority he possesses:
Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full… I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father” (John 10:7-10,14-18).
Now, it’s easy to explain away his words as the delusion of a guy with a messiah-complex, or to decide that he was only speaking abstractly – that what he was ultimately describing is a feeling, a sense, of hope or belonging. A person can persist in believing that the fullness of life Jesus brings is simply an inner conviction in the face of hardship. Happy thoughts despite ample reasons to be unhappy. Holy stubbornness.
Or you can believe that what this man was saying is true. You can believe that when he said those who “enter” through him will be “saved” (the Greek word also means “healed” or “rescued”), he knew this to be true. You can believe that when he said he had “come that they may have life,” there was indeed a plan in place. There was a real solution in the offing. And when he claimed God to be his “Father,” that wasn’t mere sentiment, but rather a claim of genuine relationship with the Creator of the universe. If anyone would know the kind of meaning God desires human beings to have, it would be Jesus. You can believe that, as outlandish as it may seem to our modern intellect, Jesus was telling the truth.
To believe this is indeed an act of faith, I cannot apply it to my life as truth by reason alone, because reason is a human institution. It is earthbound, the product of humanity’s limitations. Just as I believe in a transcendent God providing meaning to life, I believe that my life is saved by something equally transcendent of reality. It is something different than the typical flow of human cognition and problem-solving. It must be different.
And because it is different, my faith in it doesn’t waver when I watch newscasts or glance down at notifications on my phone that report the latest deadly attack or human tragedy. These events are evidence of human fallacy, not the absence of God. I do not doubt this life has meaning because I do not depend on human reason to find life meaningful. While I can sometimes still feel lost in the woods, this only happens when my finite mind forgets the transcendence of God’s salvation. Clarity comes through prayer (i.e., articulating my emotional impulses to God) and stillness (i.e., retreating from the stresses of life that cause emotional reactions). When I rest in the promises of Jesus, I find true meaning in life. The prophet Isaiah recorded God’s own endorsement of this practice, as well as the struggle for human beings to avail themselves of it:
“In repentance and rest is your salvation,
in quietness and trust is your strength,
but you would have none of it” (Isaiah 30:15).
As a matter of fact, this message circulates throughout our communities quite prevalently around this time of year. The other day in a department store I heard playing quietly over the warble of electronic credit card readers, cash register draws and hundreds of hurried conversations, this refrain:
God rest ye merry gentlemen, let nothing you dismay.
Remember Christ our Savior was born on Christmas day
to save us all from Satan’s power when we were gone astray.
Oh, tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy…
I believe the answer to lasting hope and purpose in life cannot be found inside myself. I believe any inward search, however calming and well-intentioned it might be, will ultimately come up short. I cannot heal or rescue myself. I must be healed. Someone must come to my rescue.
This is what I believe Jesus was telling people. This is what I believe to be the fundamental message in the books about him.