12/16/13 “Tim” 22
Our churches have many visitors during the holidays, many of whom are only there out of obligation to family members. That was the case with a young man I’ll call Tim, 22, who was sitting alone after church while people were in conversation all around him. He didn’t look too happy, so after the usual pleasantries I asked directly, “So what do you think of all this? How would you describe your relationship with God?” “You don’t want to know. I’m not even sure I believe in God”. Tim has attended church all his life with his family and was baptized at age 17, but is now away in the military and is seriously questioning his faith. “What would you say are some of your biggest questions?” I asked. “Well, first, I’m not going to let the fear of hell scare me into accepting God. And I’m not about to believe in a God who has to threaten me to get me to believe in Him”. I could relate. For years I felt I was somehow “above” fearing God, and believed I had a right relationship with Him only because of His love and my response to it. To speak of His wrath and the idea of hell was revolting to me, and it is still not something I enjoy speaking of, writing about, or even being associated with. It is not, in fact, intended to be a topic for polite conversation, but just ignoring it won’t make it go away. Besides the sheer horror involved, I believe the topic of hell is also repulsive for the same reason that the cross is repulsive – it reminds us that as good as we want to believe ourselves to be, there is something so horrible about us and our sin that it can only result in one of these two outcomes. It’s a gospel truth that is hard to fathom so it is often ignored. I suspect that is what happened in Tim’s church experience. When the hard doctrines of the faith are ignored or sugarcoated, it leaves the impression that we are free to reject God without consequence or to “accept” Him only on our own terms. But God is a “consuming fire” – not only because of His love, but also because of His justice. Focusing on one of these attributes while ignoring the other leads to the cheap religion people can and should reject. So I didn’t hold back on sharing these truths with Tim. There are those who would disagree with this; they would say that relationship should trump truth, that a visitor to church should not hear hard truths like this, that we will scare people away. But if our goal is not just relationships, but right relationships based on the truths of the Bible, then these are truths that we simply can’t ignore.