AMAZING GRACE -
HOW CAN IT BE?
(By: Jacob Cheriyan)
In sorting out what is real in the puzzle of life, a question sometimes asked is - does God really exist? This is my account of finding an answer, which satisfied my intellect.
I grew up in a Protestant Christian home, and enjoyed singing hymns as a child at our family evening prayer time, attending church when possible, and decorating the house at Christmas. In 5th grade, our Bible teacher had us memorize a verse I remember well - "Wisdom is the principal thing, therefore get wisdom, and with all thy getting get understanding" - Proverbs 4:7. In my final year of high school, I went through confirmation, and took note of the teaching to not take the bread and wine of communion lightly. About this time in my life, I read about objectivity and having reason for what I do. I began to speculate if my feelings for church were out of sense of something familiar, or from true faith. I began to ask if I really comprehended the issues underlying communion - did I really understand why Christ had to die? Did I really understand what Christ's love is about? My upbringing was in a quiet, sheltered home, and these questions posed a significant challenge for me.
I did well in academics, and gained admission to a premier engineering institution for an undergraduate degree. I enjoyed the challenge of learning under gifted faculty alongside bright peers. I determined to live rationally, as far as I was able. I did not know if God really existed, but thought to myself that if he did, he would want me to live life correctly. If he did not, I reasoned that it was still in my best interest, in the long run, to live correctly. Either way, I did need to live correctly.
At this time, I attempted to deprogram myself of Christian tradition, in order to develop my rationality, and stayed away from church, as far as possible. When I did attend church, which was when I was home for vacation, I resolved to avoid taking communion, until I really understood what it meant.
My engineering curriculum required several courses in humanities. I took courses in Creative Design, Psychology, etc, but my favorite was Symbolic Logic. This is the science of determining validity of arguments. Arguments are broken down to individual statements, and truth-value assigned to statements. Logic is used to test the truth-value of conclusions. I learned that while logic is used to test an argument or the conclusion, it cannot prove the truth-value of statements. Logic needs truth established at the start. If the premise is erroneous, so will be the conclusions. A phrase I heard in connection with computer programming sums it up as - garbage in is equal to garbage out.
But how far could I take this in a purist sense? What really is truth? In the sense of pure, absolute truth, I accepted "I think, therefore I am" (Descartes) as valid. That is, the very act of thinking establishes my existence and admits that my thought process is real. But what else is real? What else is true? I strived for rationality in my thought process and in the life I lived. But how far could I take this idea of rationality?
I thought a truly rational principle of life would be one that is understandable to not just the learned or the aged but also to a child and the common man. I noted that every human is able to learn and therefore correct from mistakes and could improve. I also theorized that even the brightest mind would not grasp all the details of every life, so any human philosophy is necessarily incomplete.
In my upbringing, we did not discuss the rationality of Christianity. While we read from the Bible at church and family worship, I did not feel at ease reading the Bible openly as easily as any other literary text. Perhaps this was out of fear of being mocked as "holier than thou". When I entered college, I did hear of a high school friend, who was a year senior to me, becoming "born again" and taking up theological studies. I thought he had "gone religious" and respected his conversion, but did not think there was any relevance to my own life. I had no reason to believe my life was not satisfactory. I heard only praise from others for my academic excellence, and was treated with respect, so what reason had I to think I was lacking anything?
After I graduated from college I worked for six months in Industry, and desiring a deeper understanding of my field of work, took up a scholarship for Graduate studies. I also decided to begin a formal investigation of Christianity at this time. I was in a new city, and a close relative had put me in touch with a staff worker with Campus Crusade for Christ. He explained the concept of Christianity in terms of four spiritual laws, which I was unable to comprehend. I attended church with him, though, and found the worship music familiar and the sermon style non-threatening. The pastor wore a suit, not a robe, and the sanctuary, make-shift at that time, had folding chairs, not pews, which made me feel at ease, since I saw less of the outward trappings of religion I was so wary of. The pastor had a deep appreciation for the Bible, so much so, that for several Sundays he spoke on just two verses - Romans 12: 1-2 "Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God--this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is--his good, pleasing and perfect will".
In my search I was cautious about what to believe as truth. After all, nearly 2000 years had elapsed since Christ. I began with the assumption that everything I heard about Christianity is not necessarily true. It is not uncommon where I grew up to hear flowery speeches in public speaking as a sign of respect. I wondered what was really true and what was simply overstated flowery speech in Christianity.
A key to the puzzle fell in this way. Someone at church invited me to a weekend retreat where the speaker expounded on the first chapter of John. He referred briefly to the original Greek term for what is translated in English as "the Word". I noted down the term, and back at the university, checked the Encyclopedia for its meaning. Suspicious of the faith of even well meaning Christians, I did want to check what the non-Christian world thought of this term. I understood from the Encyclopedia, that the Greeks used the term, "logos", to refer to the unifying principle behind the universe. I understood that the Greeks were seeking to define this principle, and the apostle John, writing in Greek, started with this reference. That is - "In the beginning was the logos, the logos was with God, and the logos was God", and a few verses down, that this logos became flesh in Christ. As the English language does not have a direct equivalent concept to logos, Bible translators used the nearest equivalent, but with a capitalized letter - "Word". I had grown up speaking English, and had read John 1:1 before, but without understanding it. Since I was seeking a central rationale for my own life, this statement by John had quite a bit of appeal.
Jesus had said "I am the way, the truth, and the life..". Here again was a reference to "truth", which I was searching for.
As I consider Jesus' life, from my viewpoint 2000 years later, I realized that he is uniquely viewed as "true" by most people. While there are those who question beliefs of Christians today, and others question the accuracy of the information handed down, I find most people believe that Jesus did speak the truth. I find it hard to disagree, since Jesus' words have impacted his followers in such a profound way, and his words have come through the centuries, with such clarity- "the truth shall set you free", "turn the other cheek", "bless those who persecute you", "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do".
One of my challenges in developing a rational basis was who or what to believe as true, since I reasoned that each of us has limited perspectives, and each of us is also learning as we grow. In engineering drawings, three views are necessary to correctly define an object. I reasoned that a real truth should hold up as true, no matter what viewpoint I took. I believed I could accept the statement "Jesus is true" as a reasonably acceptable truth.
I needed a foundational truth, which holds up at all angles for my rational basis. Regardless of overstated beliefs, or information distortion over time, I believed "Jesus is true" is a statement I could accept as valid.
This, however, immediately raised another question - Why did the Jews execute him?
I believe the weight of history clearly shows Jesus lived on earth, and was crucified 2000 years ago. The annual observation of Good Friday is strong evidence that crucifixion happened. The significance of a wooden cross in Christianity is hard to explain otherwise. The change in significance of a cross, from an emblem of torture to an emblem of love, is equally hard to explain otherwise.
I thought that the answer that the Jews crucified Jesus out of jealousy was incomplete. My thinking is that while emotions play a part in inner motives, outward action is usually justified with reason. What reason did the Jewish leaders use as justification for executing Jesus? A key element of the Jewish faith is being the "one God" people. The most likely reason for the Jews to turn against such a one as Jesus was if he was believed to have spoken wrongly of God - and blasphemy was punishable by death. Again, I did not consider who was right or wrong here, or the precise charge, but reasoned that the one truth I could reasonably infer from all this is that Jesus did speak of God.
So then, I do not know whom I can trust, knowing that each of us has imperfections, and each of us is working with partial knowledge. I do not know if everything written about Jesus is true, but at a minimum, I do know that he lived on earth, and that he was crucified. Based on the beliefs and customs of the Jewish people, I can reasonably infer that the reason given for the crucifixion had to do with God. Therefore, I can reasonably infer that Christ did speak about God. But if Jesus spoke the truth, and his death testifies that he spoke of God, then God must surely exist.
I had started with the assumption that I did not know if God's existence was real, but now I had a proof I simply could not refute.
Is the cross really a "message from God" that he exists? Is such a severe price - the death of Jesus - worth the simplicity of this message? God will know. What I know is that this message did break through my outward shell of existence to reach my inner being.
But if God exists, then how should I respond?
I knew prayer was the appropriate means to communicate with God. I sought out the staff worker from Campus Crusade, who had befriended me earlier, and asked if he would pray with me. We met outdoors, and my friend prayed with me, and I took the step to acknowledge to God my sin, firstly that I had ignored his existence, and second that I fell way short of Christ's standard. The second half of Romans 12:1,2 was fresh in my mind "Be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is - his good, pleasing and perfect will". I prayed that God would renew my mind so that I could understand his good, perfect, and pleasing will.
My life underwent a change from this point. I found joy in attending weekly praise and worship meetings with Campus Crusade, and the adult Sunday school at church. I went through Campus Crusade for Christ discipleship material, which provided a very helpful foundation. Weekend retreats were especially meaningful. Some key Bible verses I learned -John 17:3 "Now this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.", John 6:29 - "The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent".
I searched the scriptures, especially the Old Testament, for reference to the term "born again". I found reference in Ezekiel 36: 26-27 "I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.". There is reference to a new covenant in Jeremiah 31:33-34 where God writes his law in our hearts and minds, and Joel 2:28-32 describes a time when God will pour out his Spirit on people. In the New Testament, new birth is referred to not only in John 3:7 "You must not be surprised at my saying, 'you must be born again'", but also in John 1:12-13 "Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God - children born not out of natural descent or a husband's will, but born of God", 1 Peter 1:3 "In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead", 1 Peter 1:23 "For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God", 2 Co 5:17 "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come", Gal 6:15 "Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything what counts is a new creation", Eph 1:13 "And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit..", and Romans 8:15 "For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption".
I am amazed at how accurately Job 28 describes modern man's achievements, and then asks "But where can wisdom be found?" (v 12). Job 28 concludes "The fear of the Lord - that is wisdom" (v 28). My search for wisdom drew me to the living God.
I learned that the Bible takes a different view of the claim that all men are basically good. Malachi 2:17 states "'You have wearied the Lord with your words'. 'How have we wearied him?' you ask. By saying 'all who do evil are good in the eyes of the Lord, and he is pleased with them'." The Bible says we "weary" God by claiming all are good.
I find in Christ's description of himself in Mat 11:29, the ideal teacher's heart, whom I can readily accept - "Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls."
When reading the Bible or listening to a sermon, I pray and ask the Holy Spirit to make my mind receptive to those things that come from God, and not to be misled by my own ignorance, or the ignorance of others.
As I look back, I am convinced it is God's grace that changed my life. I believe God raised Jesus from the grave, and in his resurrection find my hope for life today.
Clarification on Jesus
Recognizing that my testimony has not directly addressed the question - "is Jesus God or man?", and not wishing to leave any reader in doubt on such a significant question, I would like to clarify that the Bible describes Jesus as fully man and fully God. I see Revelation 5:5 describing our risen Lord in terms of his earthly lineage. Psalm 49:7 describes his deity as follows: The Bible refers to our sins as real - implicitly in Old Testament custom of sacrifices; explicitly in verses such as "there is no one righteous, not even one;" (Romans 3:10). And the Bible does talk of sin requiring payment - in the Old Testament - this is through sacrifices. Psalm 49:7 clarifies that "no man can redeem the life of another", but the Bible does speak of Christ's sacrifice as providing complete "forgiveness of sins" for everyone who believes (Acts 10:43). The outpouring of the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:6) shows Christ's sacrifice was accepted. Forgiveness of sins and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit could not happen without Christ's deity.
Parable of tenants - "Last of all, he sent his son to them, 'They will respect my son,' he said." (Mat 21:37). In my case Christ is the one I can respect.
2 Cor 5:20 "We are Christ's ambassadors .. with message .. Be reconciled to God" In my case being reconciled to God, is where the cross brought me to.
Isaiah 6:9,10 (quoted in Mat 13:15, Mark 4:12, John 12:40) - gives the message "turn and be healed". The message of the cross, caused me to turn around. 2 Cor 3:14,15 describes a veil over human hearts, which is lifted when anyone turns to Christ.
Romans 10:9b "And believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved". I hope the reader will understand when I say that believing Christ's death on the cross is a clear message reaching over the centuries to me, leaves my heart no options in believing that God raised Jesus from the grave. The central verse in the Bible for me is therefore "He has risen" (Mat 28:6).
May those who hope in you not be disgraced because of me, O Lord, the LORD Almighty. (Psalm 69:6)
May all who seek you rejoice and be glad in you; may those who love your salvation always say, "The LORD be exalted!" (Psalm 40:16)
Jacob's email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Dear Reader - are you at peace with God? If not, you can be. Do you know what awaits you when you die? You can have the assurance from God that heaven will be your home, if you would like to be certain. You can even have that assurance RIGHT NOW! Either Jesus Christ died for your sins, or He didn't (He did!). Are you prepared to stand before God on the Judgment Day and tell Him that you didn't need the shed blood of Jesus Christ on the Cross to have your sins forgiven and get in right-standing with God? We plead with you...please don't make such a tragic mistake.
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