Hanging On For Dear Life

The other night, I dreamed that a grieving dad was telling me the following story about losing one of his children. He told me about taking his young son out for a jet ski ride, and he asked me to imagine the horror of losing his son when he lost his grip and flew off the back of the craft, and despite wearing a life preserver, somehow slipped beneath the waves and was never seen again. The water was too rough, the bumps too large, and dad never even noticed the precise moment when his son was lost.

As I awoke and considered this sobering dream I realized it has a very current context of our religious experience. As adults we develop coping skills for navigating the massive bumps and slams of the large waves. At some level we may even enjoy the challenge, even though it’s sometimes painful. But a child hasn’t got those coping skills, and may often find it impossible to hang on through the turbulence. We tend to forget this, and sometimes treat our children as if they should be naturally able to hang on thru the wild ride, and don’t even realize the moment when they’re lost. We just look back and suddenly realize, they’re not there any more.

This sounds a lot like “deconstruction” that we see across the church today. Many young people are disappearing, often unnoticed, simply never seen inside a church again.

The sobering thing is this: It’s fundamentally our fault. We didn’t adequately prepare them, and took them on a ride for which they were unprepared, perhaps even thinking that they’d enjoy it. It’s easy to blame someone who deconstructs or walks away from the faith for their part in the matter. But it’s much, much harder to realize that when they are given an unmanageable task, without preparation, the fault lies in the leader and the teacher.

Lately I’ve been reading about the doctrine of “universalism,” the idea that God will eventually bring everyone to salvation, even after death. It’s controversial among evangelicals, but hardly uncommon across the global church, and was actually more common than the evangelical doctrine of eternal torment until fairly recently. Here’s the important thing that I’ve been thinking that comes from that reading: a lot of us are taught a very crippled, incomplete, or frankly totally inaccurate concept of God’s character and nature. Every human teacher or pastor is flawed, and those flaws can easily lead someone to a similarly flawed sense of God.

If someone rejects “God” based on rejecting an inaccurate representation of Him, are they rejecting God Himself, or merely rejecting what they were erroneously taught about God? For example, consider a Muslim raised in an Islamic country and never accurately introduced to the Jesus of the Gospels, who refuses to become a Christian. Are they rejecting Jesus, even if they’ve had some Christian tell them that the only way to be saved is accepting Jesus’ Lordship? Having had no personal experience with God or Jesus Himself, and having been taught a lifetime of lies about Jesus, it’s no surprise to me that the Muslim would reject that false Jesus they were taught, despite a brief sermonette by a well-meaning Christian.

Given that this is the case, would the just and loving God presented throughout the entire Bible reject that Muslim and punish them for eternity based on their rejection of someone other than the true Lord Jesus Christ Himself?

Regardless of whatever I end up deciding about universalism or eternal torment, this leads me to think very carefully about how I portray Jesus to the unbelievers around me – and especially to those in my personal care. If my life is modeling a violent or unloving Jesus, am I giving or am I denying them access to the the real Jesus? I may well be the only person who ever introduces them to God, and if my portrayal of Him is false, even if I use Jesus’ name in my introduction, then I would assert that I’m using Jesus’ name in vain.

Exodus 20:7, the 4th commandment, says “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.” Consider the Hebrew in this verse. “Nasah,” the word translated “take,” can mean to lift, carry, transport, show, or bear. “Shem,” the word translated “name,” can mean fame, reputation, and renown. “Shav“, the word translated “in vain”, can mean empty, deceitful, lies, and worthless.

To put all these words together, this verse could easily also be translated “Your life shall not demonstrate an inaccurate representation of the reputation and renown and fame of the Lord your God.” The idea in Exodus 20:7 concerns lying about God by empty or deceitful representation or lifestyle, not merely using His name as a swear word. And I think that’s what is at stake here: Are my actions, not just my words, misrepresenting God Himself, His reputation, His renown, to those around me?

If so, I’m doing what this father in my dream was doing: failing to prepare those under my care for the bumps and waves of life, so that when they encounter trouble, their god isn’t the Lord, it’s some misrepresentation that I created in their mind and soul. So of course this false god will not – and cannot – save them.

And when that happens, and they look lost to us, I trust the infinite and boundless grace of an eternally just God to eventually bring to them an accurate representation of Himself, even if it means (as Jesus did between His crucifixion and His resurrection in the so-called “harrowing of hell”) ransacking the underworld to save them Himself, since nobody in their lives ever accurately presented Jesus to them.

But no matter how you might feel about this doctrine, the better way is for us to do our job, as explicitly given to us by Jesus Himself in Matthew 28:19 – to go and make disciples of all mankind. That doesn’t mean yelling at them from a pulpit, or knocking on doors of strangers. It means what “to disciple” meant to Jesus and His listeners: accurately reproducing His character in those who followed Him – not strangers, but those who had relationship with Him and followed Him around every day, even sleeping under the stars and depending on strangers for food.

And to do that well with those in my closest sphere of influence, I first have to allow Christ to accurately reproduce His character in me, so that those who follow me truly grow up to be “little Christs” who represent Him also. It’s the hard, hard work of becoming exactly like Him, by following Him daily, hanging on every word He says, doing exactly what we see Him doing in every moment. And then, accurately representing Him, I’ll fulfill Exodus 20:7 and Matthew 28:19, and bring many into the Kingdom with me.

It’s a lot to think about from a simple story of a jet ski, but there it is. That’s how the Lord has been speaking to me lately, and I’m glad to get a chance to share it with you.

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