“Always be ready to give a defense (answer) to anyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear, having a good conscience….” (I Peter 3:15-16).
Knowing you believe is not enough.
You should be able to state why you believe.
(And, it’s not enough to say, as a Mormon did to me once, “This is true because it gives me a warm feeling inside.”)
Most of us would require more reason than that to stake our lives on a teaching or doctrine.
I’ve been loving the last chapter or two of John Ortberg’s 2008 book “Know Doubt.” And I’ve been doing something I rarely do: Reading the final chapter of a book I never actually finished.
I have hundreds of books I never finished.
In most cases, life intervened and something came up and I just never got around to finishing that book. At any given time, I’ll have a half-dozen books going. (At this moment, there are 10 books on the table beside my bed. Ten. I’m embarrassed to admit this.) And some books just get lost in the shuffle and I never finish them, although I enjoyed them and had good intentions.
While searching for comments and insights from Christian writers on the Trinity for a recent article, I found myself absorbed in Ortberg’s chapter on “Why I believe.” I read a page or two and stopped. I would read more and stop. I found myself wondering: How does Ortberg do this? How can he know these things? How can he read those books he talks about and understand them? (Some I started on, but could not understand and abandoned, but here he is quoting some profundity I had missed.) How can Ortberg fill one page with so many delicious quotations?
His book is so dense, I want to mark up every sentence and memorize every paragraph.
It’s a special writer who can do this to us.
Ortberg, author of some unforgettable best-sellers such as If You Want to Walk on the Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat and When the Game is Over, It All Goes Back in the Box, pastors the Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in the California city of that name.
Here’s a line from Ortberg’s final chapter, the paragraph that set me off: “I believe there is a God for a pile of reasons: dreams, arguments, banana cream pie, umpires, Hotel Rwanda, complicated telephone mailbox systems, Little Nell, the happiness pill, and one other reason, one reason that trumps every other reason and leaves them all in the dust.”
For the rest of the chapter, he takes that sentence apart and says why each of those “reasons” matters to him, and what they bring to his faith.
Reading him, I thought, “Anyone can do this. Anyone can make a similar list of reasons they believe in the existence of God and the reality of the Spirit world and the truthfulness of the Word.”
So, before revealing Ortberg’s “one other reason,” the one that “trumps every other reason and leaves them all in the dust,” I’ll posit a few of my own.
I believe in God because of oysters. Theology professor and longtime friend Fisher Humphreys, speaking in my church, said, “Who but God would have thought of oysters?” He added, “One reason I know Heaven is going to be so interesting is that earth is so fascinating.”
I believe in God because of worship. Once in a while–how I wish it were regularly–I will experience such an uplifting, soul-shattering moment of divine elation (I’m piling up words here because describing those moments is impossible) when my soul is yanked right out of my body. Last Christmas, I sat in the sanctuary of the First Baptist Church of Jackson, Mississippi and took in the experience of the great orchestra, the massive choir, and the uplifting sights and words of inspiration, all combined to pluck my heartstrings like it was Arthur Godfrey’s ukulele, and I wanted to cry. My soul yearned for more of this, and I knew it was just for a moment, perhaps 30 seconds at most, and then I would sink back into being myself. And that’s when I know: There is more. We live in that which is partial, but one of these days, I shall see and know as I am seen and known. The partial shall be done away with. And I will join with the worshipers and singers and musicians of the ages and worship the way it was intended. Revelation 5 pictures just such a magical moment when this will happen. I can’t wait.
I believe in God because of certain saints who have touched my life. I could tell you what Marguerite Briscoe and Maude “Maugie” Sparks and my Grandma Bessie Lowery McKeever did for me, what they said to me, but you would not be impressed and you would say that was not enough to make this list. But the fact is they didn’t have to do anything. They just touched my life, and when they had passed, I knew I had been with God. I believe in God because of them.
I believe in God because He has spoken to me. At several critical points in my life when I needed direction, an inner voice directed me to a scripture that turned out to be so perfect and so right that I know it was God. God found me as a 21-year-old college senior, singing in the church choir and He said, “I want you in the ministry.” Six years later, while I was on my knees praying in a San Antonio hotel, He told me I was not to teach history in college (while pastoring on the side, as had been my intent) but I was to pastor churches. He spoke to me about marrying Margaret when I was 22, spoke to me about not going to certain churches and again about going to several over the years since, and spoke to me about retirement and a hundred other things. Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice” (John 10:27).
I believe in God because of the incredible testimony of Scripture. Having devoted my adult life (and much of my youth) to reading and studying the Bible, I come now to my 76th year on this earthly sod to say I am far more impressed by the Scripture’s existence, its miraculous contents, its stunning wisdom, its amazing applicability to every situation, its unity throughout, and a thousand other traits. God’s Word is in a class by itself. I defy anyone to find a book written thousands of years ago that combines such diversity and yet is so unified, and that is so appropriate to our daily lives in the year 2016. This book is unique. Moses told the Israelites, “What great nation is there that has such statutes and righteous judgments as are in all this law which I set before you this day?” (Deuteronomy 4:8).
And John Ortberg’s one big reason for believing in God…
There is no one else more worth trusting than Jesus.
This, he says, is the best reason for believing. “There is simply no other source–no book, no guru, no hunch, no personal experience–worth betting the farm on.”
Ortberg’s quotations are keepers. Elton Trueblood (Quaker theologian of a past generation; his books are wonderful; we used to have him at our annual meetings of Southern Baptists) said, “A Christian is a person who, with all the honesty of which he is capable, becomes convinced that the fact of Jesus Christ is the most trustworthy that he knows in his entire universe of discourse.”
George MacDonald, who had such an influence on C. S. Lewis, said, “I can only say with my whole heart that I hope we have indeed a Father in heaven; but this man says he knows.”
John Ortberg tells of Bill Moore, of whom he learned in one of Lee Strobel’s books, The Case for Faith. Bill Moore grew up in poverty, lived as a criminal, and killed a man for five thousand dollars. He was sentenced to death and sent to death row in the prison. That’s where some men from church found him and shared the gospel with him. Until that moment, Bill Moore had never heard the message of Jesus.
Moore turned his life over to Jesus and then began telling others about him. Eventually, he became known in the prison as “the peacemaker.” Outsiders began sending people to him on death row for counseling, if you can believe that. The man became such a loving and strong believer, he even had an influence on the family of the man he killed. People began writing letters on his behalf. In time, his sentence was commuted and then he was paroled.
These days, says John Ortberg, Bill Moore heads a couple of ministries in housing projects. When Strobel met him for the first time, he said, “Bill, what in the world turned your life around? Was it a new medication? Was it some kind of rehab program? Was it a new approach to counseling?”
Bill said, “No, Lee. It wasn’t any of that stuff. It was Jesus Christ.”
Ortberg concludes with this: “Atheism really has nothing to say to a guy on death row. Because when you’re living on death row (and we’re all living on death row), there’s really only one thing you want to know.”
Funny way to end a chapter. But there it is.
Let me add something to Ortberg’s “one big reason to believe,” and that being that “Jesus believed.” I love what the Lord said to Nicodemus…
–If I told you earthly things (which you can verify) and you do not believe me, how can you believe when I speak to you of Heavenly things? (John 3:12).
–No one has been to Heaven except the One who came from there, even the Son of Man. (John 3:13)
–The Old Testament thing about Moses putting a serpent on a pole and anyone who looked at it was healed is a picture of Me. “Even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:14-15).
–“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).
If you know what people on death row are dying to learn, please tell them, friend.
There is Jesus, He is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), and that’s it. No other way (Acts 4:12).