On 9/11, Death, and the Crippling Effects of Fear

We were afraid of things before 9/11.

What happened over a handful of hours that Tuesday morning sixteen years ago did not suddenly render the citizenry of the United States of America apprehensive or fearful. We had things to be afraid of back then. Like natural disasters, school shootings, the rise of gangsta rap…

But what happened on 9/11 was not an “it-just-got-real” kind of awakening to global terrorism, or even the unsettling feeling that America was more vulnerable than we had long assumed. It was actually far more subtle a change than these. What happened was a shift in a basic narrative about our own existence, both as a nation as well as individuals. We did not simply learn new fear.

We learned dread.

The World of Dread

One of the main effects of the 9/11 attacks was how unexpected they were – how utterly blindsided they made the vast majority of us feel. None of us – save for conspiracy theorists and maybe a few people in Langley, Virginia – woke up that morning on high alert. Our eyes weren’t already nervously glued to cable news (which, yes, was alive and kicking even back then) for the latest updates out of the Middle East or North Korea. Most folks on the West Coast weren’t even awake at all when the world started caving in.

My own morning began as mundanely as any of that year. Rising with the alarm clock at the crack of dawn to shower and dress up nicer than I had been used to throughout my college career in order to look as professional as a twenty-one-year-old can look to the student body of San Marcos High School in San Marcos, Texas, where I was less than a month into my student teaching semester, and my final sprint to the finish line of graduation. By the time I walked in the classroom, the radio was already reporting that a small, private plane had crashed into the side of the North Tower. Another hour and two additional crashes later, I was standing in the hallway of the school trying to call my father on a cell phone that weighed heavier than the laptop I’m currently writing this on. I knew he had been set to board an American Airlines flight from Miami to Dallas that morning, and the breaking news reports – which we mostly kept muted on the classroom TV – were still speculating that the hijacked flights could have originated from as far away as Miami. It was another couple of hours before I finally heard his voice on the other end of a scratchy cell connection, assuring me he was fine, not to worry, just going to be stuck in south Florida for a few more days. As a pilot himself, my father had flown all over the country when I was growing up. However, weighed down by the chaotic series of events that morning, he had never sounded, or felt, farther away than he did in that moment.

That night, I drove two blocks to the gas station nearest to my apartment and waited in line for thirty minutes to fill up. Not for any reason other than increased speculation that gasoline could very well become as scarce for all of us as it was for The Road Warrior. I didn’t know that this speculation would quickly turn out to be false. I didn’t know that, while probably a wise thing to do considering the circumstances, it was nonetheless an overreaction. The point is, I didn’t know anything for sure.

For all I and everyone else knew, more attacks could already be in the offing. As the week drew on and the rubble smoldered and the President spoke through a loudspeaker and cable news gave airtime to every interpretation it could think of, reassurance of safety never came. We became increasingly aware that the world – or at least our place within it – had irrevocably changed. We were living in a new normal. Fear had struck, and in so doing it had released its most dangerous toxins: suspicion and anxiety. As a result, these became the main contributors to our opinions and our behaviors. When the identities of the culprits came to light, a lot of us promptly became experts at identifying suspicious people (or, at least, identifying anyone with brown skin, be they Arab, Persian, or Puerto Rican) because we had been reminded of stranger-danger and were compelled to be ever-vigilant going forward. We keyed in to newscasts and foreign policy reports with greater interest than before, not because we were interested in the news itself, but because we were as stressed and worried as we had ever been, and we craved even the slightest of assurances that corrections were being made and retributions were being paid.

We hadn’t expected anything like 9/11, but now we knew better. We knew that it could happen again, at any moment, at any time, and be the work of just about anybody.

Whether we were aware of it or not, we had been ushered into the world of dread, a state of existence that befalls any who allow fear to rule over their lives. The world of dread is a vast, lawless landscape of the mind where anything goes and the darkest scenarios are not merely possible, they are probable. So protect what is yours at all costs, and trust no one.

In the aftermath of 9/11, the primary narratives about our lives, the world, even existence itself changed, and not for the better. We became less trusting, more withdrawn and individualistic. Our sense of community was no longer driven by hospitality and inclusion, but rather a circling of the wagons. However, this shift in our perspectives was so subtle that most of us hardly noticed. We just assumed we had learned a tragic lesson about being more cautious as a society. About individual responsibility and the dangers of naivety. About the need to indulge our doubts regarding the alleged kindness of strangers.

The Damaging Effects of Dread

I know how far-reaching are the effects of dread. I have experienced first-hand what happens when we let fear rule over our minds and cloud our perspectives.

Thirteen years before the Towers fell, my own little world caved in. On 12/19 of 1987, my sister died suddenly and tragically, the victim of a freak accident during a Christmas-caroling hayride. Like all of us on 9/11, I don’t think anyone in my family, or any other family who belonged to our small town’s First Baptist Church, woke up that morning expecting anything but another chilly, central Texas day filled with holiday shopping and home decoration. But by nightfall, I found myself in the back of the family van as it barreled along county roads, my father praying aloud the same desperate words: “Jesus, please. Please, Jesus.” When we arrived on a neighborhood street near the center of town, I saw the swirling red glare of an ambulance. My parents made me stay in the car. I don’t know how long I was alone in there. It could have been five minutes, it could  have been fifty. All I remember is feeling jealous that Katy would get more attention – maybe even more presents – over the holidays because obviously with this accident she would be in some sort of cast. Perhaps encasing a broken arm, or maybe a broken leg. But everyone would want to sign it, and that meant a lot more focus on her than me. (I hope you will give me a break on this; I was eight years old, and this was the most selfish time of the year for kids my age.) But then the side door of the van finally opened and my parents were standing there and my father looked at me and, in a voice strangled by tears, he spoke my name and said, “Katy died tonight.” I cried, too, and held onto my mother. Neither she nor my father ever appeared more helpless than they did in that moment.

In the weeks that followed, I found myself wandering into my sister’s bedroom a lot. It was the standard bedroom of a thirteen-year-old, eighth-grade girl. I opened and closed her music box. I ran my fingers along the spines of her collection of young adult paperbacks. I fiddled with her Garfield telephone that opened its eyes when you took the receiver off the cradle. Mostly I listened to the silence and allowed myself to exist in the sudden, gaping emptiness of the place.

I wondered where Katy was now. I wondered how soon it would be before death came for me as well.

For the next decade and a half, I lived with the knowledge that tragedy can strike at any time. And no one is safe. There was little I knew for sure, but I did know one thing. If death could befall a thirteen-year-old girl on a Christmas-caroling hayride, it could certainly come for me at any moment.

I had become acquainted with death, perhaps far sooner than children should be. It was on my mind a lot. I would lie in bed at night, paralyzed with dread, not so much by the standard closet boogeymen and half-dozen other nocturnal fears I was used to, but by the thought of my own candle being unceremoniously snuffed out. What did it matter how I went out, really? The simple fact was that, sooner or later, I was a goner.

It was this unrelenting weight of dread that eventually got me listening more closely in church. When talk arose of salvation and going to heaven (which was, of course, far better than the alternative), I perked up my ears and paid attention. Eventually, about a year after Katy’s death, I whispered some semblance of a sinner’s prayer beneath the protective shroud of my bed covers. Essentially, it was a get-out-of-hell-free prayer. I accepted that only Jesus could save me, and so I asked him to. But despite praying the prayer, my fears of sudden death were not instantly relieved. Quite the contrary. While I was happy to have followed the prescribed steps to ensure I wouldn’t burn for eternity, I was still destined to die, and that in itself remained a terrifying thing.

If anything, I became even more fixated on death, and the parasitic dread that had wormed its way into my mind continued to pump me full of anxiety. It got to the point that even heaven became an unsettling concept. Did eternity really just go on and on, never-ending, a perpetual, otherworldly existence? I couldn’t wrap my mind around such a thing, no matter how golden the streets were said to be, and so, ironically, I came to fear the unknown of a second existence as much as I dreaded the certainty that the first one would one day come to a most-assured end.

The Dwindling of Dread

It has taken a long time, a great deal of reflection, and the dismissing of a lot of bad theology to even begin to climb out of a self-dug grave of dread. But this is what fear does; it corrupts everything it touches. It can turn even the brightest hopes into unnerving shadows.

I believe this has been one of the most significant impacts of 9/11. For all our patriotic responses, I cannot help but recognize an undercurrent of dread in so much of what we think, say, and do as a country. We use the term “post 9/11 world” often, because we have accepted that things have changed. That life will never again be like it was in a pre-9/11 world. And the theological struggles of my youth have helped me understand just how difficult it can be to resist the relentless pull of fear upon our minds.

It is almost impossible not to feel overwhelmed by the prospects of impending disaster, or be swept up in the sensationalistic fear-mongering of cable news, social media, and presidential elections. The enterprises of suspicion, prejudice, distrust and dread are as robust as ever. In fact, it seems we have become expert practitioners in these unspiritual disciplines, to the point that no country in the world could ever claim greater proficiency in the neuroses of terror. We may barrel out our chests and insist that the terrorists will never win, but that’s only because we mostly judge the win-lose line according to physical destruction, not mental anguish.

Now, I’m not saying caution is all bad. And I’m not arguing that the dangers we perceive in our world aren’t real. While we had plenty to fear before 9/11, our cup does indeed seem to runneth over sixteen years later. We are afraid of terrorism hotbeds and lone-wolf attacks and mobs of white supremacists. We are afraid of rogue police officers and creepy clown sightings and all those killers and rapists who keep crossing our unwalled Mexican border. We are afraid of WikiLeaks and alt-right news and diplomats who hide their super-secret, society-crumbling schemes on private e-mail servers. We are afraid of the politics of Supreme Court justices, the inherent dangers in visiting crowded public squares, and the persistent reports that our oceans’ temperatures are rising. We’re afraid even of our own President.

As I compose this long and winding post, the unrelenting, peripheral winds of Hurricane Irma slam my house. I look out my bedroom window and see the trees swaying violently. So, yeah, there’s still plenty of natural disasters to fear, too. Maybe even more than there used to be, thanks to those (allegedly) warmer oceans. Sometimes it seems as unlikely that we can successfully resist fearfulness as it is that these trees will resist bending beneath the power of a hurricane.

One needs only a few seconds to take stock of how much we have to fear even in the present moment. As I write all this, half of Houston lies in ruins, a maniacal dictator aims his intercontinental ballistic missiles in our direction, and a catastrophic storm shakes my part of the country like a dog with a chew-toy. So it is that any reflecting I attempt to do on this 9/11 anniversary will of course be a reflection on the crippling, society-altering effects of fear. But at least these days my prayers are no longer voiced according to the language of dread. My supplications are not merely one despondent lament after another. No, I am learning how to pray hopeful prayers. They are honest, yes, and full of sincerity about the world I live in, but they retain an unabashed optimism about this present life.

Here are some of the things I pray for these days:

I pray that those like me – who have indeed repented of all their false narratives and embraced the salvation offered by and through Jesus – might exhibit the courage and the resolve so many people in this country boast about but don’t actually possess. That we would take a hacksaw to the shackles of future-fear, and vehemently refuse to let our perspectives become clouded by suspicion and anxiety.

I pray that even within this reality of ours, which some days feels as if it suffers under the sick compulsion to remind us that death is swift and inevitable, we would lean into a different set of disciplines – compassion, encouragement, patience, intelligence, mercy, advocacy, and self-control – and truly, truly become people who do not live inside self-made prisons of dread.

I pray that when doubts arise and fears assail, we would seize upon the greatest of all disciplines: love. And not just any love. Not a shallow, fleeting, self-obsessed love. Not a vacuous, tolerant, permissive love. The love we pursue must be much stronger than those. The love we choose to give must be a love that is resilient. It must not conform in any way to the patterns and prejudices of a frightened world. “There is no fear in love,” wrote the Apostle John, “but perfect love drives out fear, because fear expects punishment. The person who is afraid has not been made perfect in love.”

So, on the anniversary of 9/11, even as many of us sit amidst the rage of Irma, may we devote ourselves to a power that is as unexpected and society-altering as death, yet became the only force in the universe death could not defeat. May we learn His kind of love. Sacrificial, unconditional, irrepressible. A love that rejects every ounce of fear. A perfect love.

Free from dread.

Imagining the Divine: A Response to Tim Challies

Recently, author and blogger Tim Challies, whose articles and book reviews I read on occasion, wrote a preemptive review of the upcoming film, The Shack, which itself is based on the 2007 novel of the same name by William P. Young.

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Prepare to be Hallmark movie-ed!

Preemptive review may not be the best term. Challies’s piece, entitled “Why I Won’t Be Seeing (or Reviewing) The Shack,” is a critical review of the core conceit around which the story revolves – a grieving, guilt-stricken man meets and is counseled by the Triune God (i.e., Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) who manifests in different human forms. Challies contends that such a representation of God is iniquitous, if not heretical, and his choice not to watch the film is a way of escaping an act of sin.

Of course, Challies can make whatever decision he likes regarding whether or not to see, or review, a feature film. He’s a grown man, a devoted Christian, and I do not deny that his choice may stem from deeply personal issues in his own spiritual development.

However, I believe Tim Challies has made a fundamental error in labeling the film The Shack “dangerous” simply because it casts human actors in parts that are meant to represent the divine persons of the Holy Trinity. And, taken to its logical conclusion, this error is actually an unwitting assault on imagination and creativity, two incredibly valuable faculties gifted us by our Creator.

Allow me to explain…

What is Lacking?

Tim Challies puts forth one particular passage of Old Testament scripture that he believes explains why a film version of The Shack, in which human actors will visibly and audibly portray the three persons of the Trinity on giant movie screens, is hazardous to one’s true understanding of God.

I take this to be a clear, serious violation of the second commandment: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Exodus 20:4-6). I will not see the film, even to review it, because I will not and cannot watch humans pretend to be God.

I have to hand it to Challies. He has conviction. But you know who else had conviction? The Pharisees.

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Now, comparing someone to a Pharisee in this day and age is usually assumed to mean that someone has become so concerned with religious legalism that he or she has lost sight of the gospel of Jesus. But this is not what I mean when I compare Tim Challies’s staunch rejection of The Shack to pharisaical behavior. What most Christians often forget about the Pharisees – or never learn in the first place – is how incredibly devout they were, how deeply they committed themselves to personal physical purity, and how exceedingly inquisitive they were of the Scriptures. In almost every case within Greco-Roman history of the Jewish world, the Pharisees are the spiritual heroes. They insisted on faithfulness to God’s Word. They sought to interpret and explain every single word and verse of the Torah in order to more deeply commune with the Creator. They continually clashed with Roman and Jewish authorities alike out of an insistence that Jewish religious expression should maintain purity and ethicality. Thus, ninety-nine times out of one hundred, the attitude and behavior of a Pharisee was directly in keeping with what modern Christians would consider a righteous person. As such, the Pharisees really only lacked one thing.

Imagination.

Time and again, when the Pharisees clashed with the teachings of Jesus, it was not because his teaching style was suspect, or because he was openly rejecting the Torah. Rather, what the Pharisees disliked about Jesus was his way of portraying God, and, by association, the purpose of various aspects of the Law that God gave to Moses. Regularly, Jesus told parables that fleshed out certain characteristics of God, or certain actions of a faithful disciple, and usually these stories scandalized the Pharisees’ painstakingly assembled understandings of theology and spirituality. And it is also worth noting that, in these parables, God is often portrayed through human characters: a bridegroom, a gracious king, a searching shepherd, a celebrating woman, a wounded father.

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Thank God first century Jerusalem didn’t have a film industry. Imagine the carnage!

But the topper – the assertion that really drove a wedge between Jesus and the majority of the Pharisees – is when Jesus himself claimed to be divine. To their eyes, this was a poor, upstart rabbi from a suspect town, possessing a suspect education, and he had the gall to say to them, “I tell you truly, before Abraham was, I AM!” (Jn. 8:58). If Jesus was nothing more than a poor, upstart rabbi, his utterance of these words was an offense deserving of public stoning. And since the Pharisees lacked the imagination – the creativity of mind and the expectancy of heart – to see Jesus as anything more than what his physical appearance revealed, they went on seeing him as such, and their pious conviction endured that what Jesus needed was a good, public execution.

What’s the Purpose?

Tim Challies is concerned that the physical, visible portrayal of any member of the Trinity – except perhaps the Son (since Jesus was also fully human) – is tantamount to blasphemy. He argues that it is impossible to accurately depict the holy Other-ness of a divine God through any kind of human guise. He even cites the second of the Ten Commandments to further his point. All of these arguments seem pretty solid.

And yet, integral to the Christian faith is our understanding that God chose not simply to command and direct humanity from his position of Other-ness, but instead chose to become flesh and blood and live in our midst (Jn. 1:14). Even though the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth is not made out of stone, it would seem that God violates, or at least sidesteps, his own commandment in order to help his chosen people grasp his true purpose for them.

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Though, if movies are to be believed, he was most certainly chiseled.

After positing the commandment as his reasoning for not viewing the film, Challies admits, “I will grant that the primary concern of the second commandment is worship. It forbids creating any image of God in order to worship God through that image. Yet the commandment first forbids any visual representation for any reason. Whether that image is used to better worship God or better understand God, the commandment covers it.” He goes on to insist that while Jesus might get a pass, it is sinful to portray the other two Persons of the Trinity, the Father and the Holy Spirit (even though the commandment of course makes no such distinction).

Really, Tim? So, did you seek forgiveness that time you looked up at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (or viewed a photograph of it)? Did you shut your eyes whenever one of your history textbooks included an artistic rendering of God visiting Abraham at Mamre, or the Holy Spirit coming like fire at Pentecost? Did you run away screaming at the sight of Far Side cartoons or the trailer for Bruce Almighty when Morgan Freeman had the audacity to dress in a white suit and pretend to be God? Just how far does this self-righteous conviction, currently directed at a book you obviously don’t like, extend?

You are correct in your assessment that the commandment was chiefly concerned with worship. But like a Pharisee, you stretch it across as many specific cases as possible in a nervous effort to obey it.

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I hope this benefits your team, cuz you’re gonna burn for it!

It doesn’t take a Bible scholar to recognize that when you differentiate the application of the Ten Commandments based on the different Persons of the Trinity, you steer your boat into murky theological waters. Refusing to look upon any human portrayal of God the Father or the Holy Spirit is not simply imposing limitations on theological investigation – it is spurning human capacity for imagination and creative cognition which was given to us by our Creator! Nowhere in the entire Bible is there the stipulation that portraying the human form of Jesus is acceptable while any other representation is verboten. Why not? Because God understands there is a big difference between seeking to understand more about him by envisioning him in more familiar contexts, and actually fashioning an idol for the purpose of bowing down and invoking its power and authority for our lives. I mean, c’mon, Tim. Surely you can see this difference.

Look, I’m not a huge fan of The Shack either. I read it. I appreciated some parts, disagreed with others. I am a pastor, so, yes, some of the things the three God-characters tell the main character rubbed me the wrong way. But I understood that it’s a story. A work of imagination. It is as unlikely to be worshipped as this blog post is. So, at no point did I break out into an anxious sweat because William P. Young was tempting me to picture God in human form.

And if you don’t think there’s anything sinful about that act of imagination, as long as we don’t “flesh out” those characters on a movie screen, then the thin-ice semantics by which you are applying the commandment is astounding. Because, for all its little flaws (yes, little flaws), the purpose of The Shack is to spur people’s imaginations about what God is like. It is meant to challenge our theology not with blatant falsehoods but by asking us to consider whether we have unintentionally adopted a culturally acceptable view of our Creator, and, in so doing, collapsed into a lazy, shallow faith.

Does it get everything correct? Absolutely not. I wouldn’t expect it to. But I got to have some great conversations with church members and seekers about the nature of God when the book came out back in 2007. If the movie is at all similar in its impact, then this is all the more reason why a writer/reviewer as intelligent as Tim Challies should not refuse to review it. Perhaps his insights and corrections of what is portrayed on-screen could help people better process their own grasp of theology and soteriology.

Too bad Tim’s obedience to God’s command prevents him from offering such help.

Embracing Imagination

Again, I do not deny that Tim Challies’s decision is based on a desire to maintain faithfulness and obedience to the God he loves, and believes loves him.

But it is a dangerous thing to cite Scripture as a reason not to engage in theological exploration, even if it comes in the form of the movie version of a mediocre book. The commandments are not a leash. Rather, they are meant to set God’s people apart from a lawless, morally relative world. To obey God’s commandments is to live in such a way that people see the characteristics of God in you – love, goodness, forbearance, honesty, integrity, purity.

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Oddly enough, though, they shouldn’t lead you to do this.

In his “Sermon on the Mount,” God himself reminds us that true obedience is dependent upon the internalizing of each commandment. Thus, “You shall not murder” is as much about holding grudges and nursing hatred as it is spilling another person’s blood. “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy” is not simply a compulsory day-off as it is a directive that resting and relishing the rejuvenating presence of God is the only thing that will sustain us in this mad, mad world. And “You will not make for yourself a carved image” is an insistence that the creation should never attempt to comprehensively define its Creator.

In an essay entitled “Invisible Things,” the great songwriter-poet Rich Mullins writes:

He is the image of the invisible God. He is incomprehensible to our Western minds – as He was to Eastern ones. He came from that great beyond that no human mind has visited. When we true to squeeze Him into our systems of thought, He vanishes – He slips through our grasp and then reappears and (in so many words) says, “No man takes My life from Me.  No man forces his will on Me. I am not yours to handle and cheapen. You are Mine to love and make holy.”

Perhaps Tim Challies will read words such as this and think, “Exactly! Human actors should never portray God!”

But my understanding of God’s command is a bit more nuanced. No, I will not carve his image out of stone (or wood or sand or Lego bricks or George Burns’s face) and offer my worship to it. But I will keep seeking a deeper understanding of who my Savior is. Christianity is about a relationship with God, and I want to know the One to whom I am engaged. I want to think about Him more, and in more profound ways, and whatever medium will help enhance and mature my worship of Him, then I say, “Bring it on.”

May you not be afraid to imagine the divine. May you believe in a God who insists not on cold allegiance to law but rather ardent worship that flows freely from your heart, soul, strength and mind. And from your eyes, ears, nose, mouths, hands, and feet…

Why Do You Believe Jesus is a “Savior”? (Reasons Why: Part 3)

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.

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“It’s best if you let me come to you.”

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.

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Or whoever this Jesus was supposed to be.

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).

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“It’s like he was speaking directly to me.”

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…

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.

politicians

“It” referring both to his message and the unlikely scenario that someone offering us solutions to our problems is even capable of 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…

war

But you go on thinking there’s a war on Christmas if that makes you feel better…

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.

This is why I believe Jesus is my Savior and yours as well.

Why Do You Believe in God? (Reasons Why: Part 2)

Starting this series by attempting to tackle this question seems silly, but there really is no better place to start. Of course, the ability to bring this post to an end is what makes me nervous. This can be a very broad question.

But the point of this series is not to comprehensively explain everything I believe. It  is to provide the reasons why I believe some of the things I do – in particular, some of the things that a growing number of people in the world do not.

So, why not start at the point where all the rest must begin. Belief in God. “Why?” inquires the skeptic. “Why do you believe in God?”

It would be easy, at the outset, to launch into some previously prepared apologetical defense, in which I point out specific evidences that validate faith in a divine being while simultaneously poking holes in arguments to the contrary. I’ve come across many defenses like this over the years – some mean-spirited, others genuinely thought-provoking – but the majority of them lack the very thing I am intending this series to contain: personal testimony. Rarely have I heard the defenders answer the Why question; more often than not, they seem caught up in how they believe in God. I could go on and on about what Christians believe and how that belief is configured and structured, but if my words do not emerge from my own personality, emotions, inclinations and experiences, then all I have done is offer a formula, not a testimony.

My goal is to sound as different from these guys as possible.

My goal is to sound as different from these guys as possible.

Why do I believe in God? Because in God I find meaning.

“Meaning” is a tricky word. Allow me to clarify: purpose, motivation, intentionality, objectivity, inspiration, and grounds for justice.

It is in God – and, without meaning to separate the two, the idea of God – that I find these things. Each of them are integral to human existence, but all of them can be gathered up within the word “meaning.”

Since humanity’s beginning, there have always been individuals who believed that any or all of the above terms could be experienced outside of a reality in which a divine being reigned over our existence. Some of them have dismissed the concept of God completely, while others have been content with thinking this God set existence in motion but then eventually took his hands off the steering wheel and abandoned the vehicle. Either way, if these individuals wanted to determine their purpose, or be inspired, or appeal to some foundational rule of order, they had to go about it by entirely human means. They had to take cues from either the biological impulses within them or the natural world around them (or both).

I am the opposite. I do not determine meaning in this life merely by the instincts and urges of my body, nor by the functions and occurrences of the natural world alone. I point to something outside of these realities. I point to something Other than these things – a Something that is separate from them. And, aided by millennia full of humans who have thought similarly, I refer to this Something Other as “God.”

It just sounds better than

It just sounds better than “Roger” or “Steve.”

Further assisted by particular human traditions, I have embraced a particular viewpoint about this God, the details of which are legion. Suffice it to say, this viewpoint includes core beliefs such as:

  • Monotheistic – meaning there is only one God who oversees all, rather than multiple gods who each oversee some
  • Transcendent – meaning this God acts from beyond my own reality, or, perhaps more accurately, from a reality that is higher than my own perception allows me to experience
  • Intimate – meaning that despite this God’s transcendence, “He” (to use a human pronoun) intentionally interacts with humanity, seemingly showing interest and concern regarding our existence
  • Personal – meaning that, as an extension of Intimate, this God wills that I would be intimately aware of, and even dependent upon, His existence

This, of course, is where personal testimony must kick in, lest I fall into the trap of qualifying and quantifying my belief in God in only clinical, philosophical language. It is not enough to leave my explanation at a short list of characteristics. I must claim them as important to my own existence.

I believe in God and in the particular details above because I believe they sufficiently explain how I experience existential meaning. The above characteristics are a source for purpose in life (my own individual one, and the world’s comprehensive one), for motivation to go on living, and for the significance of intentionality in the way I speak and act. I can trust in these things because I believe this God is objective – not acting on mere whim but according to His determined will. As such, I receive inspiration to live according to that will. The Latin root of inspiration is spiritus, after all.

And, as everyone knows, peppering in words from a dead language is the rhetorical equivalent of a mic drop.

And, as everyone knows, peppering in words from a dead language is the rhetorical equivalent of a mic drop.

Finally, I believe and uphold a certain standard of justice. I insist in an absolute right and an absolute wrong. Because of my own fickleness, and the capricious will of humanity in general, I know that this absoluteness must proceed from an objective Other, not a subjective me.

Now to respond to what I believe are some natural follow-up questions…

Isn’t your belief in this “Other” simply the result of your unique upbringing?

I have known some skeptics to ask me, if I had I been born in 12th century Saudi Arabia or 14th century China, do I think I would have a completely different concept of God or spirituality in general? After all, are not even the details of my theology that are listed above the natural result of being born into a time and place that is heavily saturated with people who think likewise? Isn’t my belief in the Christian God dependent on the specific cultural and religious influences within which I grew up?

No doubt. But the fact that I was born at a certain time and place and within an arena of particular influences does not, in and of itself, invalidate the existence of the God I believe in today. It may sound callous and narcissistic to some people, but I believe that had Bo Bowen grown up in 13th century Central America and accepted that culture’s most prominent belief system, he would have been mistaken. My faith in God and in His characteristics is such that I intentionally reject contrary belief systems.

Sorry, Ek Chuah, Mayan god of war, human sacrifice and violent death. Can we still be friends?

Sorry, Ek Chuah, Mayan god of war, human sacrifice and violent death. Can we still be friends?

If that sounds theologically small-minded, I’m sorry. Once again, I’m just being honest.

Why do Christians say they believe in one God when they actually believe in three?

This question is worth its own post (or its own blog), but in lieu of that I will just respond to the alleged discrepancy itself.

The Christian faith is indeed predicated on the concept of “a Triune God” – that is, a God who is one nature, but acts as three expressions, or “persons.” God’s nature is what He is. The “persons” reveal who He is, specifically Father, Son, and Spirit.

Why would any faith system add such a confusing mind pretzel to its theology? Because of that millennia of human tradition I mentioned above, most notably the thoughts and experiences collected in the Bible, which continually refers to the who of God in three distinct ways. It may seem like needless muddling of an idea, but the doctrine of the Trinity, which developed during the 2nd and 3rd centuries A.D., actually helped Christians think more clearly and profoundly about God.

“I’m not really interested in a God who forces me to think profoundly.”

Isn’t it easier to simply find the meaning of life in life rather than outside of it?

When I have been asked this question, the person I’m talking to usually appears frustrated, as if my beliefs are too burdensome for any normal person to accept. Belief in God seems too technical, too complicated. I try to remind them that they were the ones to press me for a satisfactory answer for why I believe in God.

It’s not like I wake up every morning with the words purpose, motivation, intentionality, objectivity, inspiration, and justice at the forefront of my mind, or the concepts of monotheistic, transcendent, intimate, and personal plastered mentally across the bathroom mirror. For me, belief is experiential, not formulaic. Even the most left-brained, mathematical mind does not see all religious faith as a series of ones and zeros, but as something with which a person identifies, has a relationship with.

The only thought I have in this moment is,

The only thought I have in this moment is, “Why does my daughter’s school bus come so freakin’ early?!”

Sometimes the question is asked with a tone of offense, as if it is terribly rude of this God to expect our belief without giving us proof of His existence. I was speaking once with a college student who bluntly declared, “I won’t believe in God until he gives me a full-proof reason to believe in him?” Setting aside the nonsensical premise of this statement, I asked him what kind of proof he was interested in? Was it an audible, otherworldly voice in our ears every day saying, “Hey, don’t forget, I’m God and I exist”? Was it an unequivocal physical manifestation of God walking around in our midst? Or is it the scarcity of violence, sickness and despair we want, the presence of which seems to be all some skeptics need for dismissing the idea of God? His response: “I don’t know. I just want more proof. More evidence.” I clarified that he meant he wanted evidence that had no logical explanation or couldn’t be explained away by science. “I guess so,” he said. I told him that’s exactly what I meant by this feeling – this inkling – of meaning I had been talking about.

He wasn’t satisfied. At that point, there was nothing more for me to say.

“So… um… I guess we’ll just sit here and look at our phones?”

Finally, sometimes the question is asked in exasperation, suggesting a control issue. The skeptic is not interested in embracing the concept of Something Other because that would mean there is a power and a will operating outside the bounds of human reason. That will could be imposed upon humanity. Belief in God is an act of submission – it is accepting that my will is not central – and whether he admits it or not, the skeptic finds this difficult. If only he knew that he is not alone. It is as difficult for the believer as it is for him. The only difference is that I have chosen to do what is difficult in order to gain something greater.

That “something greater” is the feeling – the intuitiveness – that my existence is not random, nor is it pointless. I do not agree that this notion is merely the firing of neurons or a side effect of evolutionary development. No, I have value beyond my suit of flesh and my immediate environment. I was designed for a reason by a reasonable mind, and created for specific place within a grand Creation. There is something to all this; we’re all headed somewhere. It was so before me, and it will be so after.

That is why I believe in God.

Reasons Why: A Long and Winding Series

Pastors live with a unique tension. We want our teaching to inspire people – to lift them into new, higher perspectives – but we also want to teach in a way that clearly articulates the faith we profess. We want our interpretations and explanations to be as reasonable as they are rousing, as practical as they are impassioned.

Christianity is widely misunderstood in America today, by those who do not profess faith in Jesus Christ as well as by many who do. We live in a post-denominational age. Neighborhoods and communities don’t know what to do with twenty different churches in their midst, from the Presbyterians on Main Street to the Methodists around the corner, the Lutherans up the road, the Assembly of God folks down the lane, and a half-dozen Baptist plots scattered in between. When you throw in the Kingdom Hall and the Latter-Day Saints, is it any wonder our culture, with its ever-developing spirituality, shrugs its shoulders at the whole “Christian” thing? What people know is what they see on television, and what they see on television – the sanctimonious politicians, the stubborn cable news pundits, the late-night televangelists, Oprah – has been contorting and contradicting real Christian truth for decades.

Pictured: Today's Christian role model.

Pictured: Today’s Christian role model.

Despite this, society still maintains certain expectations for Christians. We’re supposed to be kind. Generally speaking, we’re suppose to uphold a sense of abiding love for all people. We’re not supposed to use cuss words. We’re not supposed to drink alcohol, or, if we do, not too much and nothing too hard. If we preach specific virtues like compassion, mercy, justice, and forgiveness, we darn well better live that way. When we fail at these virtues, we’re considered hypocrites. People seem to experience catharsis when a well-known Christian is caught in his transgressions. Why is that?

Haha! Look at all that shame!

Haha! Look at all that shame!

The misunderstanding and misrepresentation of Christianity in America is nowhere more prevalent than in our own worshipping communities. Some of our pastors will rage against abortion, yet adamantly support capital punishment. Some churches specifically prevent same-sex couples from becoming members while at the same time allowing divorced persons to chair their committees. Intellectually, we appear schizophrenic. Some Christians vehemently reject the theory of evolution, while others have few to no qualms with it. Most of us insist on belief in a Triune God, but when a non-believer presses us to explain what that means or why it matters, few of us even attempt to clarify or expound on the Trinity, instead falling back on the knee-jerk response of a lazy mind: “It’s just a mystery we won’t understand ’till we get to heaven.” Try feeding that line to a skeptic, and watch as his or her last morsel of respect for you dissolves.

What is a pastor to do with this condition of our culture? When it comes to Christianity, our society has scruples, and I believe this is a justified hesitation. How can we break through the fog of inconsistency to convey a well-reasoned faith, let alone express things in such a way that people’s hearts and minds take flight in wonder and excitement?

How about a vindictive billboard?

How about a vindictive billboard?

For an indeterminate number of weeks to come on this blog, I will be striking out into that very fog of hesitancy and irresolution. My desire is to be one small voice within the murk, one sensible yet resolute reporter who is willing to respond directly to a skeptic’s exasperated, “But why? Why do you believe that?” I want to give the reasons why. Those who doubt the validity of the Christian faith (or the exclusivity of it) may not agree with me, but they will at least have been offered an explanation that is forthright, a defense of the faith that is honest rather than contentious.

Always available though rarely used is the comments section of this blog. If you follow my writings, I would appreciate your own honest thoughts at any point in this series, counterpoints and all. All of it is useful. All of it belongs.

I will start with basic theological ideas as a way to introduce the spiritual foundations I’m coming from. However, I’ll soon venture out into specific beliefs regarding Christian rituals and ethics.

Of course, I am quite intimidated by this whole endeavor. After all, I think, who am I to speak for true, historical Christianity? And yet it occurs to me that if I am a Christian, I have a responsibility to not only believe something, but to express that belief. A pastor is worthless if his humility usurps his willingness to proclaim truth. That goes for all people of genuine faith. Our understanding of Christianity is not simply a result of believing its tenets, but examining them – holding the magnifying glass up to each and every side of belief, studying the incidental cracks and the unrealized crevices, seeing our faith for what it really is. There are always surprises, aspects we never noticed, elements we never expected to see.

So, let’s examine this together. Lean in with me, if you will, to take a closer, more patient look at this odd system of belief we call Christianity…

Thaw

icy oak tree branches 8546n copyright chrisazimmer feb 22 2011 s

Today, the trees were turned to glassy silver.

This was the result of a collision between two of the most ubiquitous realities of the present season: dreary precipitation and bitter cold. In some places, like New England and New York over the last few weeks, the ratio is such that what you get is heaping after heaping of white snow. In other places, like the region of central Texas where I grew up, you get sleeting rain and slick ground. Today, in Georgia, I woke up to crystalline trees.

Underneath the early morning cloud cover, there was something dismal and austere about them. They stood there, frozen and gunmetal gray, hardly moving in the still morning air. Creation itself seemed appalled by the cold. And yet, as the day unfolded, the overcast sky began to dissolve, and patches of pale blue were made visible. And through those patches, here and there, spilled sunlight. It had been there all along. Only hidden. Not absent.

And those trees, their limbs encrusted in ice, began to sparkle. Beneath those paroled rays of sun, all that had been frozen became lively, ebullient. They caught the eye not with gloom but with hope.

And I thought to myself, how beautiful it is when something is frozen.

But then I realized that what made the limbs of all these trees beautiful was not the fact that they had been frozen, but the fact that they were in the process of being unfrozen. It was not the ice itself that dazzled my eye and filled my heart with promise, but rather the thaw.

The sunlight played within those crystals of ice in extraordinary ways, while the slight rise in temperature began to soften them. The trees were slowly, methodically warmed, and their limbs were, little by little, liberated.

So it is with my own life, and, specifically, my own selfishness. On the eve of Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the season of Lent, I cannot help but see myself as one of those frozen limbs, and the Church as that great tree appalled by the turn of coldness in the world – a world from which we do not stand separate. There is so much selfishness, it seems. It lays as close to us as a winter chill on the skin. We feel hardly able to move, sitting numb under a leaden sky and a bleak horizon.

Ah, but the Son is peeking through. He is not absent. He sees us, shines on us. He is the One who begins in us a great and liberating thaw.

He makes us beautiful.

Style Points: The Gospel According to NCAA Football

Yes, you read that title correctly. I’m about to uncover biblical truth within college football. Hold on to your hats (or big foam fingers)…

If its a Florida State finger, enjoy it for a couple more days.

If it’s a Florida State finger, enjoy it for one more month.

We find ourselves approaching a turning point in college football. This is the first year of a college football playoff system for Division I football, in which a twelve-member committee, composed of current and former university athletic directors, former coaches, administrators, a professional athlete, a reporter, and a former Secretary of State, wields the power to choose four Division I college football teams they believe to be the creme de la creme de la conferences to play for a national championship. Their preliminary selections over the past month have stirred much controversy, as some teams feel their successes and talents have been unfairly ignored by the committee members who seem to reward the almost identical successes and talents of other teams by ranking them in the top four spots.

The committee’s chairperson, Jeff Long, has been pressed to defend the selections by highlighting certain factors the committee believes to be the most impressive qualities of a team. In press conferences, he has gone on about two things in particular: game control and style points. Simply put, game control refers to a team’s ability to maintain a comfortable lead throughout the game, preferably by at least fourteen to twenty-one points. And the second is related to the first. Style points refers to when a team is able (and willing) to run up the score so their win will seem like total domination, because apparently the College Football Playoff selection committee is taking their cues from Sensei Kreese.

Mercy is for the weak.

Mercy is for the weak.

And so, that’s what’s being talked about now by game commentators, radio hosts, reporters, and, of course, fiercely loyal fans. It is no longer good enough for the team you root for to win. They must win big, and that big win must never be in doubt. Otherwise, they cannot be considered one of the best teams. It used to be impressive for a team to win the majority of its games, and perhaps even claim their conference championship. But all of a sudden there is a new dimension necessary for those teams angling to be considered the best. Not only must they score more points than the team of talented athletes lining up in front of them week after week. They have to score enough points to effectively gain the praise of twelve specific people.

Don’t look now, folks, but this playoff selection committee has ruined college football as we know it.

That is not hyperbole, and it is not sarcasm. I’m completely serious. I truly believe that the sport so many of us have loved all our lives has taken a turn for the terminal. Not because the committee is corrupt, or their system is illogical, but because they’ve surgically removed nail-biting excitement and edge-of-your-seat tension from games that we used to hope would play out exactly that way. Those were the kinds of games we enjoyed watching the most! The back-and-forth battles in which game control shifted as dramatically as a playground seesaw. The down-to-the-wire finishes in which one set of players triumphantly rushed the field while the other set lowered their heads under the combined weight of exhaustion and defeat.

I sure hope a photographer isn't taking a picture of our misery.

I sure hope a photographer isn’t taking a picture of our misery.

If I had to choose the most entertaining bowl game I’ve watched in my lifetime up until now, I would easily choose Boise State versus Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl, but it wouldn’t be because Boise State won and I was rooting for them. It would be because that game was extraordinary: a David-and-Goliath match-up that, unlike the biblical story, went back-and-forth with each team claiming and then losing the lead on incredible, gutsy plays… and that was in the fourth quarter alone! Boise State finally won in overtime, 43-42, on a perfectly executed Statue of Liberty play for a two-point conversion (which means rather than easily kicking an extra point, they took the risk of either winning or losing the game on one trick play).

Those games, at least in regard to significance, are quickly going the way of the buffalo.

Not that Buffalo.

Not that Buffalo.

Oh, sure, we might still see something like it in a bowl game, when there is nothing to be gained from impressing the committee after the regular season is over. But consider the fact that endings like the one I described, as extraordinary as they are, have now been deemed unimpressive, especially when compared to a team that blows out its competition 43-0. Wins that come with great difficulty may be respected, but they are no longer proof of a team’s strength. This is what the College Football Playoff selection committee has already imparted to us, and I don’t like how easily I’ve conformed to their views.

For instance, last Saturday, I watched my favorite team, the Baylor Bears, white-knuckle a 48-46 win against one of their rivals, Texas Tech, who played with such desperate passion the team reminded me of a certain Fiesta Bowl champion from 2007. Baylor never trailed in the game, but ended up having to make two clutch defensive stops to prevent the Red Raiders from pulling off the upset. It was the kind of game I used to love watching, especially if the team I was rooting for ended up on top as Baylor ultimately did. However, for the last quarter and a half, as Tech mounted an improbable comeback, I was aware of a deep-seated anxiety rising within me. Not only had I become angry at my team, but that frustration lingered long after time expired. Baylor was currently ranked #7 by the playoff committee, three spots shy of that privileged top four, and I knew grinding out a two-point win over an inferior team was not going to rouse even one shred of admiration from the newly appointed supreme court of college football. So, despite a wild game that ended with a Baylor victory, I was left feeling disappointed and nervous for how their performance would affect their ranking.

And that was when I knew that college football, as I knew it, was over.

When all you care about is style points, you’ve lost sight of what the game is really about. If a genuine show of vigor from the opposing team is now only evidence of your own team’s mediocrity (rather than natural competitiveness between two forces that transcend statistics and rankings and the opinions of thirteen people in a boardroom), you have been led astray by a sports heresy. This is Neopelagianism on the gridiron.

Modeling next season's new uniform styles.

Modeling next season’s new uniform styles.

And this is where God comes in.

If the travesty currently befalling college football has taught me anything, it is that game control and style points have no place within the Christian faith. While Jesus called us in the Sermon on the Mount to “be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect” (Mt. 5:48), he left out any condition that said being perfect was the only way to get God’s attention or something you have to do in order to garner acceptance and praise.

For years, I tried to live my life as if game control and style points were what mattered most. I tried to live in such a way that my good behavior, faithful prayer life, regular church attendance, and increasing understanding of the Bible would get God to notice me and, in turn, bless me. I read ridiculous books like The Prayer of Jabez that essentially told me I had to pray for certain things a certain way if I wanted to get the good blessings God had to give. Much like the playoff selection committee, I felt what mattered more than anything (particularly those incremental improvements and small victories) was my “full body of work.” Had I done enough to impress God? Enough to warrant his favor and earn his endorsement?

And when the losses came (as they inevitably do), I was my own worst critic, a diehard fan who boos and jeers his own team. Those away games when I fell short of obedience, and those shocking defeats when the opposition exposed my weaknesses – they cultivated nothing but shame and self-loathing, a reminder that I would never be good enough. I would never be the kind of man I wanted to be.

In reality, it doesn't matter how hard you play. A loss is a loss.

In reality, it doesn’t matter how hard you play. A loss is a loss.

Sadly, there are a lot of Christians today who are still slaves to style points. They may call God full of grace and love, but, by the way they live their lives, they reflect a belief that he is as capricious and fastidious as a thirteen-member playoff selection committee. For them, grace, mercy and compassion have become nothing more than hollow, ineffectual terms relegated to Sunday School classes and hymn books. They have no place in the “real world.”

But the God I believe in – the God of the Christian faith – is full of those things. He looks upon us with kindness, forgiveness and generosity.

We don’t always live in control of our lives. In fact, most of the time we feel like life is a down-to-the-wire nail-biter, where anything can happen. Style points are a mythical luxury we are incapable of claiming. Praise be to God that grinding out a win is considered as virtuous as blowing out the other team. Even greater praise be to Him for sending his son to be the victor for us – to put the game out of reach and rack up more style points than we will ever need.