taking the words of Jesus seriously

There are both honest reasons and dishonest reasons for young people giving up on God, and there are remedies for both.

The most common honest reason cited for losing faith is that it becomes impossible to believe in God if God is defined as being simultaneously all-powerful and all-loving.  Thoughtful students often ask, “Where was God when Jews were being thrown into ovens at Auschwitz and at Dachau?  If there is a loving God who had the power to stop it, how could such a God not act?”  Or even more recently, “How could God allow such devastation to the people in Japan and Haiti?” These are fair questions. Often I have heard young people say that if that is what God and Religion are like then I want no part of it (the picture to the left captures some of those young peoples thoughts).

A good mother of four lovely children who had already lost her husband in an automobile accident is dying of cancer and her 16-year-old son asks, “God, if you are there, why don’t you heal my mother?”  Another good question.

A soldier in Iraq watches as a suicide bomber drives his dynamite-rigged truck into a crowd of people in a marketplace and sees innocent people blown to smithereens, and asks God, “Where are You?”  Another good question.

Ivan, the cynical brother in Dostoevsky’s novel, The Brothers Karamazov, says simply, “It is not God that I reject, it is His system, it is His way of doing things.”  Have you not thought similar things?

All of these questions arise from one basic fallacy and that is that God is simultaneously loving and infinitely powerful.  Strangely enough, most Christians believe that both of those assertions are true even though it should seem obvious that reality is otherwise.  There are those who will call it heresy, but there is little question that the God who is incarnated in Jesus Christ is a God who is not all-powerful.  Instead, he is a God who has given up power in order to express his love.

Thoughtful reflection would lead anyone to realize that it is impossible to express and exercise love and power at the same time.  Whoever is exercising the most power in a relationship is expressing the least love, and whoever is expressing the most love is exercising the least power.  That is because a person must give up power to express love.  Love makes a person vulnerable.

Consider a particular married couple.  She loves him and will do anything to keep her husband in her life.  He, on the other hand, does not love her very much and is unconcerned as to whether she stays or leaves him.  Who, in this relationship, has the most power?  Who can dictate the terms of this relationship and call the shots and control the decision-making?  The answer is clear.  He has all the power.  But note that his power is contingent on his lack of love.

Christians should have no difficulty in understanding this relationship between love and power because the Bible posits a God who, in order to express His love, had to give up his power.  That is what we Christians believe happened in the incarnation.  We believe that 2000 years ago, the Almighty God set aside His power in order to express His love.  We believe that this is why the Christ entered history not as a conquering Caesar, but as a defenseless baby in a manger.

The passage of scripture that speaks to all of this most clearly is in Philippians 2:5-8:

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”

The second member of the Trinity described in this passage shows us a God who refuses to use His power in order to save the world.  Instead, this God seeks to establish His reign in us and in the world, not through a triumphalistic imposition of His will, but through sacrificial love expressed on a cross.  When Christ hung on Calvary’s tree, his enemies taunted Him and shouted, “Show us your power and come down from the cross and then we will believe in you” (Matthew 27:39-42).  But the way of Jesus was not to coerce humanity with His power, but to draw humanity unto Himself through sacrificial love.  He said, “If I be lifted up (crucified), then I will draw all men and women unto myself” (John 3:14).

When I say such things in sermons, those in the congregation say, either silently to themselves or out loud, “Amen!” yet it seldom follows in their thinking that if they believe this passage of scripture, then they have on their hands a God who has chosen to set aside His power.  If they understand that, then they will have to accept the fact that what goes on in the world is not totally under God’s control.  Nevertheless, I hear them say such things as, “Whatever happens is part of God’s plan.”  When something terrible happens, like a child being run over by a bus, they respond with such offensive statements as, “We just have to accept this as God’s will.”  William Sloan Coffin, the one-time chaplain at Yale, has a son who died in a car accident.  The preacher conducting the service said just these words, to which Coffin responded with a shout, “The hell it is!  When my son died, God was the first one who cried!”

If God is in control of everything that happens, then there would be no such thing as human freedom.  Without freedom none of us would be able to love God—and loving Him is what God wants from us more than anything else.  Love is, by its very nature, voluntary.  It is never constrained.  What I am saying is that God deliberately gives up power in order to be able to express His love for us and to give us the freedom to choose to love Him in return.

The concept of an omnipotent God came from Greek philosophers and not from the Bible.  The prophets of the Old Testament declared that their God was almighty, and to them, that meant that He was more powerful than all the other gods.  But the ancient Jews did not define God as a puppeteer controlling all of our actions.

In the story of Hosea, we get the picture of a brokenhearted God who suffers because of the unfaithfulness of His “whoring” beloved, but who never stops loving her.  This God is not the unmoved mover such as the creator force of Aristotle.  Instead, He is the passionate God, marked by deep emotions.  He is a God who painfully pleads with His people to do justice and to live out love.  The biblical God is a God whom the Christians call “The Servant King.”

I am sure that there are times when God must wonder if the price for giving us the freedom to love, on the one hand, or to disobey His will, on the other, is too high.  The bad news is that great evil has come from this freedom.  It is a wonder that God doesn’t just call off creation, decrying it as a bad idea.  But the good news is that instead our God is at work in the world, driving back evil through those who acknowledge Him as Lord of their lives; and that the day will come when He shall reign on earth as He does in Heaven.  Also, we must realize that the God who is among us now in love is going to return someday.  When He does return, according to scripture, He will return in power, and in His power destroy that which did not respond to His love.

I think that if honest questioners, such as those whom I cited earlier, could understand that God has deliberately chosen to set aside His power in order to create a people capable of love, they might be able to overcome their doubts about whether or not there is a God.

It is one thing to give up, to lose faith, because of honest questions.  It is quite another to lose faith by being dishonest about oneself.  Blaise Pascal once said, “Doubt arises from disobedience!”  By that, he meant that there are those who grow up believing in a God who has certain standards of righteousness and wills obedience to the laws that He has designed to enhance our lives.  When someone lives in opposition to the known will of God, that person is likely to give up on God out of a propensity to be rid of a cosmic lawgiver who opposes that lifestyle.

A young man came into my office several years ago and told me that he grew up as a Christian, but that he no longer believed in God.  I immediately asked him, “How long have you been messing around sexually with your girlfriend?”

He was indignant at my question, but I went on to explain that he grew up believing that using someone sexually without a commitment was contrary to God’s will.  In order to resolve the tension between what he believed, on the one hand, and what he was doing sexually, on the other, he had to change one or the other.  He could change his behavior to bring his behavior into conformity with his beliefs about God’s will, or he could change the God who opposed what he was doing.  In either case, he would no longer be troubled by his behavior.  I explained that it was probable that he had chosen this latter course.  He had given up on God, but he should not ascribe his atheism to honest doubt.

Unquestionably, there are a host of other reasons why people give up on faith.  What is crucial is that what we believe and what we don’t believe be determined honestly.  To doubt is not sinful.  One of our poets wrote, “There lies more faith in honest doubt than in all their creeds!”  I often tell those who honestly doubt that one of the best ways to overcome doubt is to go on acting as though you do believe—living out love and justice in everyday life—and it is likely that what you do will determine what you believe.  Actions influence what you believe more than is generally supposed.

I have this final suggestion for any who doubt.  Give yourself some time.  Your doubt may be a temporary thing.  Faith and doubt often come and go in my own life.  There are days when, for no reason that I can explain, believing comes hard.  There are other days when it comes easy.  And remember this—even during those times when you don’t believe in God, God still believes in you and will not let you go.

About The Author


Tony Campolo is Professor of Sociology at Eastern University, and was formerly on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania. For 40 years, he founded and led the Evangelical Association for the Promotion of Education, an organization that created and supported programs serving needy communities in the Third World as well as in “at risk” neighborhoods across North America. More recently, Dr. Campolo has provided leadership for the Red Letter Christians movement. He blogs regularly at his own website. Tony and his wife Peggy live near Philadelphia, and have two children and four grandchildren.

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