Questions of Faith
by Bryan Loritts
My name is Bryan. I’m a Christian, but I’m not so sure how it happened. Oh, and I’m also a preacher’s kid. Which means, among other things, while my friends on the block were spending their summers riding their bikes, making mud pies or experiencing Atari or the Atari 5200 (Color!) for the first time, I was sequestered in our small no-central-air-condition-having Baptist church, embroiled in sword drills and Scripture memory contests with my church buddies. My competitive drive to win these sword drills put me at odds with Mrs. Conley—my teacher and the head of the program—when she found out I had smuggled in a Bible with 66 little strips of paper encased in plastic protruding from the edges, each strip having a book of the Bible clearly marked, and conveniently located right at said book. When Mrs. Conley caught me, she looked at me as if I were the man formerly known as Heathcliff Huxtable. In her mind, I was one step away from hopeless.
I’m not so sure if she did it to punish me, or if it was just part of the core curriculum, but later that day I found myself and other young kids watching a film on hell. For the life of me I can’t recall the name of the film, or even tell you what the actors looked like. Although I’m sure one of them had to be Kirk Cameron (Maybe not, that was a little before Growing Pains). Later that night, I told my parents about the film and if that was anything close to what hell was actually like, I wanted out. Right there at the dinner table my father led me in the sinner’s prayer. I prayed with the earnestness of a small business owner whose only way of coming up with next week’s payroll was to bet it all at the craps table. Not a great way to start a relationship with God, but it is what it is. Oh, and to show how serious I was, I threw my “cheater’s Bible” in the trash.
Well, that’s “how it happened,” you may be saying. That’s how I became a Christian. I said some words, heartfelt words, spawned by a totally age inappropriate film on hell. But there was always an inner sense of disequilibrium I felt about “my decision.” The same church that scared me into heaven, also weekly tried to scare the hell out of me. The preacher (who happened to be married to the woman who caught me cheating) used the Bible every Sunday, but by the end of every message I was overwhelmed with an acute guilt that said I was once again coming up short. Remember going to the amusement park as a kid being all excited to ride the rollercoasters, until you met the fake person with the measuring stick demanding you be a certain height that just happened to be six inches taller than you, and how deflated you felt? That feeling. I always felt as if God was perpetually angry with me. I didn’t read my Bible enough, pray enough, witness enough. And on the other side of the moral freeway, I was going too far with my mouth and with girls. Of course there were times I felt my performance measured up to God’s standards (oh how delusional I was), but my self-esteem was directly tied to my performance. If I did good I felt good, if I did bad I felt not so good. Words like abiding and resting might as well have been German.
My name is Bryan. I think I forgot to tell you that I’m also a pastor, which makes all of this very confusing, and quite honestly I don’t think I’d want to have a pastor who wasn’t really sure about all of this faith stuff, trying to help me with my faith. But I figure if doctors have their own practice, then maybe that’s how I should view my life in the ministry. Practice.
Neil Gaiman says he writes to figure out what he really thinks about a subject. That was an ah-ha moment when I read this bit from him. In the 26 years I’ve been preaching, I think I’ve spent countless hours preparing and delivering sermons to find out what I really think about faith. Now certainly there’s more to learn, but three things have gotten pretty clear during my practice in the ministry when it comes to faith:
God says to me the same thing He said to His own son, Jesus, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). Now He says this before Jesus began His public ministry, heals anyone, preaches a single sermon or performs a miracle. To be adopted into God’s family means He’s proud of you. End of story.
God has way more mercy than I have mess, which means no amount of performing can ingratiate myself to Him. If the worst we’ve ever done is covered by grace, and the best we’ve ever done is because of God’s grace, then where is the shame? Where is the boasting?
Grace is not the absence of effort, just earning, so says Dallas Willard. It’s really true. Out of God’s incredible grace He wants me to talk to others about Him, give generously of the money He’s entrusted to me and extend mind-blowing forgiveness to those who have wounded me. But all of these things are out of the incredible joy for what He has already done for me, not to make Him proud of me. He already is. As one pastor says, Christians work from approval, not for approval.
Now I’m sure there’s more to faith than this, but if I would have known these three pretty big truths back in my sword drill days I wouldn’t have needed to see the Kirk Cameron film on hell, or have spent so many years Cupid-shuffling to get God’s approval. Although I am convinced I would have still smuggled in my “cheater’s Bible,” awakening the ire of Mrs. Conley. But even then, I would have just confessed my sin and kept it moving, never doubting for a single moment God still loved me. And who knows, maybe He would have laughed.
Bryan Loritts is the Lead Pastor of Abundant Life Christian Fellowship in Mountain View, CA. He was recently voted one of the top thirty emerging Christian leaders. Loritts is the co-founder of Fellowship Memphis, where he served as Lead Pastor of this multi-ethnic church for eleven years, helping to grow the church from 26 people in a living room to several thousand. Pastor Bryan served as Pastor for Preaching and Mission at Trinity Grace Church in New York City. He is the President of the Kainos Movement, an organization aimed at establishing the multi-ethnic church in America as the new normal. He has written several books including: God on Paper, Letters to a Birmingham Jail, Right Color/Wrong Culture, A Cross Shaped Gospel and his latest, Saving the Saved. Pastor Bryan sits on the Board of Trustees for Biola University and Board of Directors for Pine Cove. He is the husband of Korie and proud father of three boys—Quentin, Myles and Jaden. You can follow Pastor Bryan on Twitter @bcloritts.
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