Why I am still a Christian
Why I am still a Christian
Why I am still a Christian
The Pew Research Center published a stark report that Christianity in the United States has been declining rapidly. They also point out that globally, belief in Jesus Christ has and will continue to grow, but it will shrink in places around the world where it once thrived.
Now that I’m starting the decade of my 50s, I’ve seen these trends happen in real life, and I believe that one of the things that drives many people away from faith is a lack of good role models who demonstrate what being a disciple of Jesus actually is. To be honest, the opposite is true. Too many times people say they are Christian but their actions don’t match their words.
I grew up in a religious household, but what happened at home didn’t always match what was said at church. In fact, when I was a teenager I was asked to give a talk to the congregation about how my family tries to follow Jesus Christ. Instead, I gave a rather infamous (to my family) and humorous talk about the opposite. While the congregation appreciated my sense of humor, my parents didn’t. For example, I shared how my youngest brother got so angry playing video games, he would pull the floppy disc out of the disc drive and bite it in frustration. I held up an example of one with bite marks taken out of it.
What does it mean to be a disciple? It’s more than just a word.
It comes from the Latin word discipulus, which means a follower, a student, a pupil, someone in training. I like that last definition the best, because it’s an ongoing effort. For me, being a disciple of Christ has been one of the hardest things I’ve ever tried to do. It’s not a check-the-box sort of thing, a one-and-done effort, like being able to do a certain number of push-ups. The more you try, the harder it becomes sometimes. And that’s because the more you learn about Christ, the more you see the gulf between who you are and who He is.
So why would someone even want to try?
Because who you become along the way makes the effort intrinsically worth it. As you learn about the man from Galilee, it starts rubbing off on you.
I’ll try to explain through a story. When I was an 8th grader, I had a friend who was nerdy, smart, and sarcastic. We got along well. During PE one day, a 7th grader came up to him and shoved him. Back in the ‘80s, that wasn’t the worst that could happen to someone in school, however, it certainly wasn’t as bad as school shootings that happen in our day. Back then, students were often dumped head-first into trash cans or had their heads dunked into toilets. There was also plenty of verbal abuse. When I saw my friend get shoved for no reason, I went to the kid who shoved him and returned the favor. I pushed him hard enough to knock him down and since I was bigger than him, that was the end of it. I felt pretty smug about what I’d done. I’d defended my friend. But that’s not what Christ would have done.
That incident ended up winning me an enemy who would plague my life throughout high school.
It didn’t have to be that way though and here’s why. Our family had a sno-cone machine, and we used it to sell the treats for fundraisers at school and also from our front yard to earn money during summer vacation. With an extension cord, a folding table, and a chair, we would sit outside for hours and sell sno-cones to those going by. One particular summer day, when I was running the machine, the kid I knocked down came by on his bike. He saw the sno-cone machine. It was a hot day. He rode up and admired it. I had a distinct impression to offer him one for free. But I ignored it because he was that kid who had shoved my friend. I was cold to him, disdainful even, and he rode away without a sno-cone. I didn’t care at the time.
Fast forward to 10th grade. By the time he’d started attending high school, he’d grown a lot, and he was bigger than me. He remembered me from junior high. It always seemed that when I was about to leave school to go home, he and his friend were there, and they’d harass me. After he got old enough for his driver’s license, he not only harassed me, but my younger brothers too. Just thinking about him and running into him made me sick inside. This escalated for several years until I finally grabbed some friends and we delivered an ultimatum that if he didn’t stop threatening my brothers, we’d beat the crap out of him. Basically.
A sno-cone is all it would have taken to diffuse the situation and win someone over from enemy to, maybe not a friend, but at least no longer an enemy. But that is so hard, isn’t it? When feelings of resentment and disdain occupy our minds, do we want to do a favor for someone we dislike or hate? That’s why Jesus’s words are easy to read but so difficult to put into practice. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you. That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. (Matthew 5:44-45).
So many of the major problems in my life have been caused because I didn’t act according to what I knew to be true. I didn’t do what Jesus would have done. I often chose to do wrong because I was self-centered and thought about my own needs or desires. I know I’m not the only one. It’s hard to turn the other cheek, to pray for someone who persecutes you. To not covet what others have or how they look.
It is also totally disappointing when someone you once believed in, who you thought was a role-model or good example, lets you down. That’s happened so many times in my life. I’ve known people who were great leaders and wonderful people and then learned later they made choices and abandoned their faith. They stopped the difficult uphill trail of being a disciple and went down instead of up. I’ve watched family members struggle with their faith. And lose it completely.
I am a devout member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints because it has helped me and encouraged me to become a better Christian and a more deliberate disciple. None of us are perfect and you may know some members of my church who have lived its ideals and some who haven’t. Hypocrisy is common in every religion. But here is why I’ve stayed with my faith, and why I’ve kept walking that difficult path even when people I know and care about have chosen to leave.
First, I believe in the Bible. I’ve read it and I think often about what Jesus said and did. The scriptures are full of stories of disciples, and I find inspiration from reading about them and how they dealt with their problems, successes, and misfortunes. Bad things happen to good people all the time. We learn wisdom through suffering. My determination to live a good life and be a disciple has been strengthened by studying the Bible.
I also believe in the Book of Mormon. It has even more words of Jesus Christ and more stories of His disciples. Like the Bible, it has strengthened my belief in Jesus and has inspired me to be stronger and to keep walking up the path, no matter how many times I stumble. There are people in that book who have been role models to me. Those who made it to the end of their lives, keeping the faith. We need more of those kind of stories, don’t we?
The Book of Mormon is different than the Bible, but mainly because of geography. The Bible takes place in the Holy Land and the Book of Mormon takes place in ancient America. Out of many passages, one verse in the Book of Mormon has probably helped me the most in my own journey of discipleship: For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father. (Mosiah 3:19).
That verse talks about the ‘natural man’ (our selfish desires) as well as the attributes of Christ—submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love and willing to submit to God’s will. It’s a tug of war inside us. But it is those Christ-like traits that I try to work on, and it will be a lifelong effort. The more I have tried to learn what they mean and work on them, the better person I’ve become and the better I’ve felt about myself. I have fewer regrets, deeper friendships, and inner peace.
In addition to scriptures, I find the talks given during the twice-a-year general conferences of the church to be very inspiring and helpful in learning about the attributes of Christ. Many contain stories of people who have tried to live those values. These conferences happen every April and October. I take time to watch and listen to these talks and then watch them again because I don’t always get things the first time. The stories and role-models have inspired me for decades. A talk given in October 2020 by Apostle Dale G. Renlund is an excellent example of lessons I’ve learned from these talks: “To be Christlike, a person does justly, behaving honorably with both God and other people. A just person is civil in words and action and recognizes that differences in outlook or belief do not preclude genuine kindness and friendship.” He also told a great story about two physicians at John Hopkins Hospital. It was a great example of applying principles found in Micah 6:8: “what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.”
The church has given me a lot of opportunities to practice these attributes. I’ve had to teach church classes to 12- and 13-year-olds. Patience is required! I’ve taught early morning seminary for teenagers where they study the scriptures before school in the morning. I’ve been a bishop as well and helped people struggling with marriage while working on my own. That’s not easy, especially when some of your fellow members can be less than perfect. Or they make decisions which blow up their lives and cause emotional pain for themselves and their families. I’ve also been taught principles of provident living, like having a budget and not living paycheck to paycheck and having a little set aside in case of an emergency.
Again, it’s hard to be a disciple. CS Lewis once said, “No man knows how bad he is till he has tried very hard to be good. A silly idea is current that good people do not know what temptation means. This is an obvious lie. Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is. After all, you find out the strength of the German army by fighting against it, not by giving in. You find out the strength of a wind by trying to walk against it, not by lying down. A man who gives in to temptation after five minutes simply does not know what it would have been like an hour later. That is why bad people, in one sense, know very little about badness — they have lived a sheltered life by always giving in. We never find out the strength of the evil impulse inside us until we try to fight it: and Christ, because He was the only man who never yielded to temptation, is also the only man who knows to the full what temptation means — the only complete realist.”
For me, the greatest thing that has motivated me to stay firm in my commitment to Jesus is the temple. Maybe you’ve seen one of the church’s temples in your area? Maybe you’ve driven by or gone to one of the open houses the church holds at the end of construction. Maybe you’ve walked the grounds and felt something special, something sacred being there. I know I have. I’ve definitely come closer to Jesus Christ by going to the temple and learning about the destiny of my family, to live again with God and His Beloved Son someday. It motivates me to keep trying to be a better person, a better dad, a better husband.
A few years ago, I remember teaching a class of teenagers one Sunday about forgiveness. That is probably the hardest aspect of being a disciple. I’ve struggled to forgive others who have hurt me or those I love deeply. It is one of the challenges of discipleship that just doesn’t ever end. Well, during the class I felt inspired to share with them the story of the boy I pushed down and how I wish I’d given him a sno-cone. I explained about the years of bullying that happened after and how I regretted not listening to the prompting back then. One of the teens asked me if I’d ever heard from that boy again after high school and I confessed I had never even tried.
After class, the question nagged at me. Could I forgive him after all those years? Could I apologize for my lack of kindness? Every time I talked about him, or remembered the bullying, it made my chest constrict, and I’d experience those emotions of being afraid.
Thanks to the Facebook, I managed to track him down. I had to gather my courage to reach out. This is what I wrote:
You may not even remember me. But I remember you and have regretted over the years some of the events of the past. This last weekend has been one of introspection for me and has caused me to think about lost opportunities. I can barely remember what started our conflict. It was long ago. But there is one memory I have which has stayed with me all these years and haunted me because of how I handled a situation. I wanted to apologize for it.
After our initial clash of personalities, I recall that you used to ride your bike in my neighborhood delivering newspapers. I used to sell sno-cones on the curb in front of my house and you would pass by. I did not like you very much and was resentful – stupidly so. One day in the summer you stopped by and tried to talk to me – in a friendly way. I treated you disdainfully and you left. If I could turn back the clock, if I could go back in time, I would have given you a sno-cone for free and been a nicer person. How that might have changed things between us.
You may not remember any of this, but I have carried these memories for many years and after some personal events in my life this weekend, I remembered it again and thought that maybe, through Facebook, I could reach back in time to you and virtually shake your hand and say I’m sorry for being a jerk to you. I have no hard feelings against you – only regrets that I wasn’t a better human being when I was a younger.
All the best to you,
I felt such relief after sending that note. The burden I’d been carrying was gone. And I can honestly say that since then, I haven’t felt that tightening of the chest, the fear, or the regret over what I’d done or what we’d done to each other.
Later that night, my Facebook pinged with a response from him.
Jeff – I remember you, but not the snow cone stuff. That was a long time ago! I recall us not really getting along, but it’s water under the bridge. We never caused physical harm nor property damage towards one another, so was just normal adolescent behavior. Hope whatever caused you to speak up wasn’t anything tragic. Was nice of you to unload all of that. Take care of yourself!
I never would have reached out to him if not for Jesus Christ. Trying to be a disciple has benefitted every aspect of my life. It’s still a hard road. My family was recently thrown a challenge which has rocked us to the core and I’m not ready to talk about it yet. But every hope I have for the future has come because of who Jesus Christ is and what he means to me on a personal level. Just about everyone has let me down at one point or another. But not him.
With Christianity in decline in the US, I think believers from different denominations should stop criticizing each other or arguing over doctrinal interpretations, but instead should just try to love one another and try to be the best example we can be. When I was a missionary for my church serving in the Midwest, people honked at me, yelled at me, argued with me, and even chucked their sodas at me because I was a different kind of Christian than what they believed. Many people still say that members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints aren’t Christian at all. It’s not true. I love the new TV series The Chosen because it is accessible to anyone and uses the New Testament as its source material, not any specific denomination. It was not created by my church but rather by an evangelical Christian named Dallas Jenkins who wanted to show how Christ changes us when we encounter him. The show has encouraged me to want to be better and to be more understanding of other faith traditions. It is time for hostility to end and for us to link arms and actually try to be Christian. Submissive, meek, humble, patient, and full of love.
However you find a way of doing more of this—good for you. For me, being part of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has helped me on that journey. We all need to remember the source of goodness in the world and give away more sno-cones, help someone stranded on the road, or chip in and pay for someone’s groceries. The world would be a better place if more people actually acted like a Christian instead of just pretended to.
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“Therefore, hold up your light that it may shine unto the world.
Behold I am the light which ye shall hold up—that which ye have seen me do.”
– Jesus Christ (3 Nephi 18:24)
(updated Nov 2020)