The One Thing

This Sunday I focused my attention specifically on the graduates we were honoring.  If you’ve got a graduate in your life, this is a great message to share with them.  Even if you’re not a graduate, though, this is a message you need to hear.  In what follows I offer an answer to the question of how we can be prepared to give a reason for the hope we have in an increasingly non-Christian context.  Thanks for reading.

The One Thing

I don’t know about you, but new things always make me at least a little bit nervous.  I thrive in environments that are stable and consistent.  I can tolerate a little bit of change…a very little bit of change…but it’s got to be within preset limits.  Beyond that, I’m outside my comfort zone.  Perhaps the most nervous I have gotten at various points in my life is when I have started a new job.  I remember starting work at OfficeMax in seminary.  The first week was nice because I got to sit in the back office and take training courses on the computer.  They were functionally meaningless since I didn’t remember any of them once I left the room and in any event I learned everything I needed to know while I was actually doing it, but I did get to spend the whole first week hiding out.  Once I hit the floor, that’s when things got scary.

Eventually I got the basics down pretty well, but then one night a guy came in a few minutes before closing and wanted 10 business cards right then while he waited.  I had never made business cards before.  I mean, I had ordered them from the company we used, but I hadn’t ever made any there in the store.  Yikes.  I fired up the computer, tried to remember what my boss had taught me about how to lay them out in the program we used, and after a couple of tries managed to send them successfully to the printer.  I even managed to cut them out the right way for him.  For all my efforts he actually waited very patiently, thanked me kindly, and even gave me a $10 tip which we technically weren’t supposed to accept, but he threw it down and left and I couldn’t put it in the cash drawer.  I’ll tell you: My confidence level after that night soared.  There was still stuff I didn’t know how to do very well and was learning, but being able to put my skills to the test and come out on top was really exciting.

For you guys who are graduating from high school or college, you have had the opportunity to put your skills to the test for the past few months and you’ve come out on top—some of you very nearly literally so.  You should be really excited and proud.  We certainly are of you.  Your hard work has paid off in spades and now you are on the precipice of something entirely new.  Well, I guess it’s not entirely new since it’s still school, but it’s a whole new phase of school in which you are the one who’s going to be calling the shots.  If you don’t want to study, nobody’s going to be looking over your shoulder to make you like perhaps they’ve been for the past several years.  If you don’t want to get up to go to class, nobody’s going to come and drag you out of bed in time to inhale some breakfast and slide into your desk before the bell rings.  In fact, there aren’t going to be any bells.  It sounds like life is going to improve mightily in the coming months, doesn’t it?

Well, let me give you the real story this morning.  Life ahead of you…probably is going to be really, really fun.  I’ll confess: I loved college.  I would have stayed there another ten or fifteen years if I could have.  I suspect that most of you—if you work hard and do the right thing—are going to have similarly great experiences (though perhaps without the desire to stay there indefinitely).  But, just because it’s going to be a lot of fun, doesn’t mean it won’t still be challenging.  In fact, if you make the decision to pursue your college experience from out of your faith in Christ—and nobody can make that decision for you—there is a fairly good likelihood that your college experience is going to be significantly more challenging than mine was.  This morning I’d like to tell you why that is and share with you one really powerful thing you can do about it.

First the why.  When the concept of a “university” was first developed the goal was twofold.  The first goal was that students were to learn the Scriptures and the attributes of God, so they were prepared to serve Him more fully for the rest of their lives.  The other goal, was for them to be a place where a whole range of different ideas could be discussed, debated, considered, and embraced or rejected on their merits.  From their beginning, universities were on the cutting edge of human thought.  New ideas that filter down to the masses always begin their descent in the academy.  This occasionally got some scholars in trouble when they pushed the boundaries of acceptable thought beyond what people in positions of authority were willing to allow, but for the most part, things went according to plan.

Over the last generation or so, though, the ideological diversity on college campuses has begun to dwindle.  I was reading an article this past week from National Review author David French about this very issue.  He writes this:

“Indeed, there’s no serious argument that elite American education isn’t an ideological monoculture at this point, with the ‘diversity’ of opinion almost entirely represented by differences among progressives.  The result (outside the STEM disciplines) is a peculiar kind of mindset—one that is simultaneously curious and proudly ignorant.  It’s curious about new theories and new ideas that further explore pre-existing narratives of race, gender, class, and sexuality.  But it’s proudly ignorant of contrary voices—to the extent that academics (and their students) often don’t know what they don’t know.”

How this happened was that new ideas came to power that were not classically liberal in their roots meaning they could not handle dissent and counterargument as ideas once could.  The people holding to these ideas couldn’t either.  But, they began to find themselves sitting higher and higher up the administrative food chain, so they not only received less and less pushback, but they were able to attract and install likeminded colleagues in similarly powerful positions all over their campuses.  Now, this was no sinister grand plan or conspiracy theory.  It happened very naturally.  But it happened all the same.  And the direction of these new ideas has been decidedly against the historic Christian theism out of which nearly all of these schools were born.

The result of this ideological foment is that today, the dominant worldview (and sometimes the aggressively dominant worldview) on nearly every college campus is some form of secularism.  As a confessing Christian—if you choose to remain a confessing Christian—your beliefs will not only be unwelcomed on your college or university campus, there is a good chance they will be actively opposed, undermined, and even ridiculed by student and professor alike.  If you make any kind of a public, principled stand for your faith, there is a very high likelihood that you will be called names, graded down unfairly, and even subjected to some kind of disciplinary action for triggering another student.  No longer are most college campuses the places of great ideological diversity that they once were where a universe of ideas are explored together, and, whether they are accepted or not, they are at least respected.  Rather, they are places of increasingly intolerant ideological uniformity where you are welcomed and encouraged to believe whatever you want as long as it falls within the broader circle of accepted diversity.  More to the point: Christianity doesn’t make that cut.

Sounds exciting, doesn’t it?  For some of you inclined to debate, perhaps.  For the rest of you who would be just as content to lay low and get your degree, maybe not so much.  I’m sure your parents are even more excited to be paying to send you off to a place where your faith will be challenged and, if you fall along statistical lines, dismantled.  Money well spent, yes?  So, what do you do with this?  Well, I told you I’d tell you one thing you can do to beat the odds, so let’s talk about it.  And, just as a bit of a disclaimer, while I’m going to be directing this mostly at our graduates this morning, as our culture continues to move away from the influence of historic, Christian orthodoxy, this is advice the rest of us would do well to follow too.

When you go off to school in the fall, many of you are going to be entering foreign lands.  The dominant worldview will be radically different from what you’ve known growing up.  The basic behavioral assumptions you’ve been taught to make will not only be not enforced, but actively flaunted.  If you do the right thing as far as Jesus goes, you will stand out like a sore thumb.  Even if you are headed off to a confessionally Christian school, people are still people.  There will still be plenty of opportunities—even on campus—to be involved with things that do not ring true with your own confessional identity.  In other words, you are going to be in a situation not all that dissimilar from what many first century followers of Jesus experienced.  Well, as it turns out, there is a letter in the New Testament that was written specifically to them—and through them to us—about how to live the Christian life faithfully and consistently in such a situation as this.  It’s the letter of 1 Peter, written to, “those who are elect exiles of the dispersion,” kind of like a Christian kid on a college campus.  And right in the middle of the letter, Peter offers a command that undergirds everything else he says.

After spending several verses talking through some basic advice on how to get along as Christians in a non-Christian context both in the public square and at home, Peter begins to wrap up this particular line of thought in 3:8.  Listen to this: “Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind.  Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing.”  In other words: Stand firm with the community of faith (which means, by the way, that you need a community of faith; if you try and stay actively committed to your faith on campus without being actively involved in some kind of a Christian community, preferably a church, your likelihood of success goes way down) and live with an unimpeachable character.

After saying this, he asks an interesting rhetorical question in v. 13: “Now, who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good?”  Umm…lots of people.  Considering the sheer number of Christian martyrs over the centuries—including Peter himself—this seems like a silly question to ask.  The fact is, there are lots of people who will be willing to do us some kind of harm if we take a principled stand for what is good, right, and true.  In a perfect world, this wouldn’t be the case, but that’s not the world we live in.  Peter knows this too.  The very next verse reveals the purely hypothetical nature of his question in v. 13.  Look at v. 14: “But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed.  Have no fear of them, nor be troubled…”

Now, that sounds really nice, but it almost comes off like a pat on the head when we’ve broken a limb.  “Don’t worry about it.  It’ll be okay.”  Sure, perhaps someday it will be, but what are we supposed to do about it in the interim?  When we are facing the social firing squad because we’ve taken an unpopular stance on campus—one that has perhaps even triggered someone—what are we supposed to do?  Knowing we’re set in the long run doesn’t offer much relief in the moment.

Thankfully, Peter knows this and in what comes next he tells us something we can do to be active in the moment as we stand for what is right.  Look at v. 15 now: “…but in your hearts honor the Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered [there’s that reality we were looking for], those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.  For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.”

Got all that?  Set Christ firmly as number one in your life.  Move forward with gentleness (which, as we talked about recently, doesn’t mean to be soft, it means to use the proper amount of strength the particular situation you are facing demands) and respect (always seeking to honor the image of God in the other person or people).  Know well that getting abused for doing good is always better than doing so for doing evil.  But above all, always be ready to tell why you’re doing it.  This is the one thing that will make the challenges you are facing more bearable.  You’ve got to be ready to give an answer for the hope that you have.  If you’re going to follow through on your commitment to live out the life of Christ publically, you’ve got to be able to explain to someone who asks why you’re willing to do that.  And, just so we’re clear, your answer needs to be good.  “Because my parents told me to,” isn’t good enough.  Neither is, “It’s what I learned at church growing up.”  Even, “because the Bible tells me so,” isn’t going to be enough to satisfy your critics.  In fact, that last one will be particularly unhelpful because your critics don’t believe the Bible is worth anything.  Before you leave for college, you need to be prepared to defend your faith; to explain to someone else why you believe what you believe.  The one thing to do before you depart, is be prepared to share your heart.

And before you even get a chance to wonder, let me give you three ways to make sure you are ready when the moment presents itself.  The one thing to do before you depart, is be prepared to share your heart.  If you’re going to be prepared to share your heart, you first have to know your heart.  To put that another way: If you’re going to share what you believe, you’ve got to know what you believe.  This is the first thing you need to do if you’re going to be always prepared to give an answer for the hope that you have.  You’ve got to know what you believe.

I wonder, then: Do you know what you believe?  If pushed, could you give me a description of what you believe.  Better yet, could you tell me why you believe those things?  Let’s say you accept the claim that Jesus is the son of God.  What is your evidence for that?  If you believe the Bible is the word of God in some capacity—as about 75% of Americans confess to believing—what exactly do you mean by that, why do you think so, and what are the implications of this belief?  If you believe that Jesus rose from the dead, beyond the fact that it’s mentioned in the Bible, what leads you to this conclusion?  If Jesus is the only way to God, what leads you to this conclusion over and against the claims of the various other worldviews you will encounter, is this an arrogant thing to claim, and what does it mean for your life and the lives of the people you will encounter?  If the moral claims and trajectory of the Scriptures—drunkenness is a sin, sex is only permissible within the confines of a marriage, homosexual interactions in any form is are not permissible, abortion is impermissible, and gender really is a binary thing just to name a few you might encounter on campus—are to be taken seriously, how are you going to back that up?  What makes this particular path better than the other available paths?  Why are those specific things wrong and what should be our approach toward folks who believe differently?  I think that’s probably enough for now.  Knowing what we believe isn’t as simple as saying, “I believe in God,” or “I think the Bible is true.”  If you are going to gain the respect and work to change the hearts of the people you encounter with worldview beliefs that are determinedly the opposite of your own, you need to be able to explain winsomely (with gentleness and respect) why you think you’re right and why you think they’re wrong.  “I believe it,” won’t cut it.  The one thing to do before you depart, is be prepared to share your heart.

But, while those kinds of apologetic details are important, they’re not the only thing.  Remember: You’re giving a reason for the hope that is in you.  You’re not talking about somebody else’s hope.  You’re talking about your hope.  You need to know what your story is.  I wonder, then: Do you know why you have hope?  I’m not so concerned here with why someone generally should have hope.  I’m curious why specifically you do.  Another way of putting this would be: What’s your story?  In sales, employees are often encouraged to have an “elevator pitch.”  The idea here is that they should be able to make a clear, concise, compelling presentation about their product to someone in 60 seconds or less.  You may not have your own story boiled down so neatly, but being able to share it over the course of, say, a meal with another person is worthwhile.

The thing is, if you stand consistently as a follower of Jesus, eventually somebody is going to ask you why.  Why is it that you believe and behave the way you do?  And while giving them a set of apologetic reasons may at times be appropriate, it is important also to be able to quickly share the story of why you believe it.  Do you accept it because of what God has done for you?  What has God done for you to lead you to this place?  How has He demonstrated His faithfulness to you?  We live in a narrative culture.  Stories have incredible power.  Your story is almost something sacred.  Nobody else can touch it.  If you have experienced God in a powerful way—and you wouldn’t be following Jesus unless you had—what was this experience and what was it like?  People may not buy your apologetic arguments, but when you combine your story with the kind of unimpeachable character Peter commends here, they’ll likely be a lot more interested in what you have to say.  The one thing to do before you depart, is be prepared to share your heart.

Still, while sharing your heart is important by itself, part of being prepared is knowing your audience so that you can share in ways that will be more likely to be received and heard.  This means you need to know at least a little bit about the various worldviews you are likely to encounter.  Is the person with whom you are engaging influenced by secularism, Marxism, postmodernism, some kind of new spiritualism, or another more robust religious worldview like Islam or Buddhism?  Do you even know what those things are and the kinds of answers they have to the big questions of life?  The person with whom you are engaging may or may not, but I guarantee you she’s been influenced by one (or, more likely, a combination of them) and if you go in aware of the kinds of assumptions about life and the world and God she might be making, you have a huge advantage when it comes to gently leading the conversation in a direction you want for it to go.

I know of a guy who was involved in campus ministry for many years.  He spent a lot of time visiting with students in their dorm rooms.  Often, they would espouse some form of postmodernism (which basically holds that morality is relative and what’s right for you may or may not be right for me).  Without giving away his trick, he would visit with them for a while, wrap up the conversation, and then make certain he grabbed something electronic and expensive on his way out the door.  When the student naturally protested this act, his response (before returning the item) was that he was simply agreeing with them that morality is relative and his particular morality held that stealing was not morally wrong and who were they to judge him for living out his personal code?  His point, of course, was that morality isn’t relative, and by understanding something about the student’s worldview beforehand, he was able to demonstrate its weaknesses in a way that was humorous, but also impactful.  If we are going to be prepared to share our heart, we’ve got to know at least something about theirs before we start.  This is actually a powerful way of demonstrating respect for the other person.  If we have taken the time to learn about what they believe, we’re likely to be willing to listen to what they have to say.  And, if we are willing to listen to what they have to say, there’s a pretty good chance they’ll be willing to extend to us the same courtesy.  The one thing to do before you depart, is be prepared to share your heart.

Here’s the truth: You are going to be learning a lot over the next few years.  You’ll feel at times a bit like you’re trying to drink from a firehose.  You’ll encounter ideas that will challenge what you’ve always believed to be true.  At the very least, you are going to be fully immersed in a cultural tide that is moving quickly in a certain direction and that direction is not the one you’ve probably been told for much of your life is right and true.  If you aren’t prepared for this, you will be swept away.  You won’t be able to stand and hold your place without a firm foundation.  Take time between now and when you go to make sure you have this in place.  If you’re interested, this is something I can very much help you with.  I’ve done a fair bit of studying myself and I have a ton of great resources.  Not only will this be a wise thing to do, but it’s something we’re commanded in the Scriptures to be doing.  The one thing to do before you depart, is be prepared to share your heart.  Waiting before you is the opportunity of a lifetime.  The things you will see and do and experience are beyond what you can imagine sitting where you are.  May you go on this journey with confidence in what you have known to be true and ready to share it with others who are looking for something true and real to believe.

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