When I was a teenager, I was the one my friends always sought out for advice. I do not know if this is because they sensed a wisdom in me they did not receive elsewhere, or if it was due to the brash self-confidence in my intellect, which masqueraded as blunt honesty. Either way, the more I talked to people the more I realized that I tried to pursue the “third side of the coin.” That unique perspective, or outlook, that made them reevaluate their situation and choices. In truth, it wasn’t discernment at all. It was only creativity impersonating as insight. And if I was creative enough, if I gave just the right analogy, I could talk almost anyone into my point of view.
This was a talent that I nurtured. One that I cherished and believed in.
And then I had kids.
For a while I was able to maintain this over-inflated view of myself, but last year my 16-year-old son ripped open the cocoon of my delusion with a simple statement that exposed me for the worm I am, not the butterfly I imagined I had become.
“I haven’t believed in God for a while,” he said. “If anything, I am more of a Buddhist.”
To some families this would be akin to saying they preferred tomatoes to watermelons. An odd choice, perhaps, between fruit, but negligible. But to me (an ordained minister) and my wife (a former missionary), this confession felt more like a refusal to eat altogether.
As I sat among the swamp of failure, love, compassion, anxiety, and loss, I had no words, no pithy analogies to give. I simply stared into my oldest son’s eyes and watched a memory of him as an infant float like a leaf upon a creek, until it disappeared around a bend in my mind.
We had named him Elijah, which means “The LORD is God,” as both a declaration of our faith and a hope for his future character. If any possibility remained of him living out this name, I knew my next words must be chosen well. All I could do was quietly ask God for wisdom.
“That’s okay,” I said, as the memory of a past sermon paraphrased itself in my brain. “Your spiritual journey is your spiritual journey. And I am not going to try to talk you into Christianity.”
He paused, cocking his head. “Well, that wasn’t the response I expected.”
Me neither, I thought, but I continued to follow the prompting in my spirit to completely release my son to God’s care.
“Think about it, son. If I can talk you into it, someone else may be able to talk you out of it. This has to be your walk, not mine.”
Since that day he has had discussions with both me and his mother about why he doesn’t believe in God. It’s a long story, and one I may decide to expound on in another post, but one of his main criticisms about God is that miracles no longer occur in our time, like they did in the Bible. In other words, God’s power is not on public display any longer. I disagree, of course, because I see God working in and around me on a continual basis. But I see where he is coming from.
No lepers are being instantly healed.
No seas are parted.
No dead are rising from the grave.
Suffering is abundant in our world.
And my interpretation of God’s alleged power is merely the religious filter through which I choose to view my life.
I admit it. Elijah had a point, and though he did not state it in this way, his reasoning stumped me: God was either powerful or He wasn’t. If God was powerful, His power would revolve around evidence. Since we cannot point to objective evidence (not mere hearsay) to support that this power exists, then we can conclude that God does not exist. Additionally, if God exists but is not powerful, then Christianity becomes just another philosophy in the pantheon of history. One you may choose to follow or reject, based upon your personal leanings. Without the power of God, we lose the miracles of God; and without the miracles of God, Jesus becomes a moral teacher, a lunatic, or a prophet, at best, but He cannot be God Incarnate.
But then, about two weeks ago, I ran across 1st Corinthians 4:20: “For the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power.”
At first, this verse disturbed me. As a Christian counselor, my job is to help others through their problems with sound psychology and theology by talking to them. If, as the verse says, “the kingdom of God does not consist in talk,” then what am I doing every day?
Upon further reflection, though, I realized that Paul was not trying to minimize the importance of talking. In fact, Paul himself went from city to city, preaching and teaching the good news. It was he who penned the words, “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” (Romans 10:14). Paul knew that talking was necessary.
He also understood that if talking alone were the vehicle through which people entered the kingdom of God, then it was no better than any other competing philosophy or religion of the day. It is like trying to ride a statue of a horse into a city, rather than the real thing.,Or like trying to sail a boat without using the wind. It is the power of the animal or the wind that matters, not one’s description of the journey.
Historically, the evocation of power has been God’s way to move people from unbelief to belief. How many times in scripture do we see a statement like, “I will do ___, then they will know that I am the LORD”? This is stated explicitly in verses like:
Exodus 7:5: The Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring out the people of Israel from among them.”
1 Kings 20:28: And a man of God came near and said to the king of Israel, “Thus says the Lord, ‘Because the Syrians have said, “The Lord is a god of the hills but he is not a god of the valleys,” therefore I will give all this great multitude into your hand, and you shall know that I am the Lord.’” (emphasis mine)
Isaiah 45:1-6: Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus,
whose right hand I have grasped,
to subdue nations before him
and to loose the belts of kings,
to open doors before him
that gates may not be closed:
2 “I will go before you
and level the exalted places,[a]
I will break in pieces the doors of bronze
and cut through the bars of iron,
3 I will give you the treasures of darkness
and the hoards in secret places,
that you may know that it is I, the Lord,
the God of Israel, who call you by your name.
4 For the sake of my servant Jacob,
and Israel my chosen,
I call you by your name,
I name you, though you do not know me.
5 I am the Lord, and there is no other,
besides me there is no God;
I equip you, though you do not know me,
6 that people may know, from the rising of the sun
and from the west, that there is none besides me;
I am the Lord, and there is no other. (emphasis mine)
Jeremiah 16:21: “Therefore, behold, I will make them know, this once I will make them know my power and my might, and they shall know that my name is the Lord.”
John 10:37-38: “If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me; but if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.” (emphasis mine.)
And more implicitly in verses like:
Acts 1:6-8: So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (emphasis mine)
Acts 3:6-10; Acts 4:4: But Peter said, “I have no silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!” 7 And he took him by the right hand and raised him up, and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. 8 And leaping up he stood and began to walk, and entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God.9 And all the people saw him walking and praising God, 10 and recognized him as the one who sat at the Beautiful Gate of the temple, asking for alms. And they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him…many of those who had heard the word believed, and the number of the men came to about five thousand. (emphasis mine)
I could go on and point out other examples where the Lord struck people with diseases, or rescued them from disaster, or healed them of congenital illnesses, or raised them from the dead, but for efficiency’s sake I will stop. You get the point. God’s power is expressed to effectively, sometimes painfully, move an unbeliever to make the confession that “the LORD is God, and there is no other.” But God wants more than a pouty child who has lost a game. Such surrender is compulsory and only touches the mind. God wants it to go deeper, to enter your heart, to transform your soul. He wants not only a confession of the mouth, but a belief in the heart that Jesus Christ is Lord. This change cannot come by talking alone. It must be done with God’s power.
This power must pour out of us, in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, changing the culture from crippled to strong, depraved to pure, confused to enlightened. We must live our lives in such a way that the evidence of God’s power is us. We are the new apologetic.
For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants[c] for Jesus’ sake. 6 For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.7 But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. (2 Corinthians 4:5-7)
God’s power must fill our speech, our actions, our choices, and even our sufferings, so that the unbeliever’s sails can be engorged and driven to the coast of the King’s country.
So, as I daily reflect on how to be an apologetic to my son, I understand that no analogy, no turn of phrase, no clever explanation that I could concoct will ever convince him of God’s existence or sovereignty or salvific gift, if it does not pour out God’s power like fresh water from a jar. That is why I am praying, not that I will have the right words to say, but that God will heave His power in undeniable ways on my son’s life. That one day Elijah will live up to his name and proclaim with both his lips and his life, “The LORD, He is God.”