"Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls." Jeremiah 6:16
Oak Hill Academy, set in the heart of the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains on the southwestern border of Virginia, is nationally known for being a basketball powerhouse. It has won national championships and produced all-Americans such as Carmelo Anthony. At the age of eighteen, I headed there for my last year of high school with the sole intention of playing basketball with the best and the brightest young stars. My coach, Steve Smith, was a four-time USA Today High School Coach of the Year. My team and I traveled to Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and Las Vegas, and competed in exciting matchups against some of the most talented teams across the country.
Little did I know that God was going to teach me greater lessons that year than those I learned on the basketball court (and on the bench, which I often kept warm!). While I had expected to battle rival teams on the basketball court, I had no idea that the biggest battle would be the one for my faith.
At this Christian boarding school, I was required to attend chapel during the week as well as church on Sunday morning. One day in chapel, the pastor prayed something like this: "Dear God, some of us call you Father or Jesus, some of us call you Allah, some of us call you other names, but we know that you are the same God of us all-a God of love." Throughout the year, the pastor continued to pray similar prayers.
Many people didn't think anything was wrong with praying such an "inclusive" prayer. In fact, I truly believe that my pastor had a genuine heart of love for the student body. He was attempting to welcome students with a diverse range of spiritual beliefs. Some of the students of other faiths included my Muslim friends from Egypt as well as my buddy from Senegal, with whom I normally ate lunch. But the implication of my pastor's prayers and teaching was an attack on the religious exclusivism to which I held (more on that below).
Even though I had some good friends at Oak Hill, I felt alone at times. My beliefs were not always popular on campus. Most of my peers and even some of my teachers considered me narrow-minded and judgmental for believing that Christianity is exclusively true. Although I lived far away from my family and church, I realized that my pastor's prayer was contrary to what the early historical church believed about Jesus Christ: "There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved." I knew that Jesus Himself claimed religious exclusivity when He said, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me."
What I experienced as an eighteen-year-old at Oak Hill Academy is not unusual for many young Christians. In fact, today, if you claim that your religion is exclusively true, you are often regarded as an intolerant, narrow-minded, bigoted extremist. And many people don't know how to respond when their claims about Christ are attacked. As a result, they're walking away from believing and trusting the historic Christ of the Bible.
When my pastor prayed, "Dear God, some of us call you Father or Jesus, some of us call you Allah," etc., I did not know exactly what to do, but I knew I had to do something. I knew that his prayer was contrary to the Bible, so I started praying that God would use me to change the situation. I wanted to be spiritually prepared; I was not going to be popular claiming that Jesus Christ was "the way, the truth and the life."
As I continued to pray, I felt compelled to ask the pastor if he would allow me to preach for him some Sunday morning in church. Before this, I didn't have a strong desire to speak or teach, but I became convinced that the student body needed to hear the truth and love of Jesus Christ. To my surprise the pastor said, "Yes!"
I felt convinced that if someone discovered a cure for cancer, he should share that information with others to help those who are dying from cancer. As human beings we have something worse than cancer, called sin. We have proven ourselves to be selfish, prideful, and sometimes hateful. But God gave us the cure for sin through the person of Jesus Christ. Because of God's extravagant love, I was convinced that the student body needed to hear the truth about His love and mercy. So I called my dad, who is a minister, and asked him if he could help me prepare the outline of a message. I started preparing.
One day, as I was praying, I felt led by the Lord to go to talk to a particular student named Chase. I didn't know why God wanted me to go to Chase's room, but I thought that maybe God would use me to tell him about Jesus. So I showed up at his dorm and introduced myself. Chase recognized who I was. I guess I stood out on campus because I am six feet seven inches tall. As Chase and I talked, I mentioned something about spirituality to see how he would react. To my surprise, Chase told me that he was a Christian. We were both excited, because we didn't know many students who would talk openly about being a Christian. I suggested to Chase that we have a Bible study, and he agreed. However, we both had a lot of homework so we decided to meet another time.
As I made my way back to my dorm, I was overcome with a sense of urgency to do something. I felt that God was leading me to go back to Chase's dorm immediately and have a Bible study. I had no idea how to lead a Bible study, so I grabbed my sermon notes that I was working on and took them back to Chase's room. I said, "Chase, I know this seems weird, but I believe that God wants us to have a Bible study right now, even though we both have a lot of homework. I don't know how to lead a Bible study, but I am actually working on my first sermon and am a little nervous about public speaking, so I thought I could practice it for you. You could critique me, and then we could pray."
Chase said, "Go ahead; let's do it."
I asked Chase's roommate, Ethan, to join us, and even though it was a little awkward, I started preaching to the two of them. I gave a simple sermon, similar to the style of Billy Graham, on John 3:16 (NKJV): "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life." At the end of my message, I practiced giving an invitation for anyone in the audience who wanted to accept Christ.
When I was finished, Ethan said, "That's really good. When you give that message at church, I am going to pray to receive Christ."
I looked at him, a little astonished, and said, "You can pray to trust Jesus as your Savior right now." I said a prayer out loud, and he repeated it as he prayed to trust Jesus.
As we finished praying, a couple of guys walked by the room. They seemed surprised to see me there. They asked what we were doing. I said, "Guys, we're having a Bible study. Come on in!" I gave the same message on John 3:16 to them, and when I was done, one of the guys said, "Dave, that makes sense. I need to believe in Jesus." Once again, I led this student in a simple prayer for him to trust in Christ. I told these guys to come back the next day and bring some friends. When I arrived the next day, there were several new people in the room, and as I practiced the same sermon, two more young men prayed to receive Christ.
I announced to the group that we needed to start a weekly Bible study and asked them to bring some more friends the next week. That night, I set an important goal for myself: to personally tell every single student on that campus about Christ. On one occasion, I was having a conversation with a friend of mine in the library who was an outspoken lesbian. I shared with her about the love of God through Christ. She started weeping when I started telling her how much God loved her. I was a little shocked at the sight of her tears, because I didn't think I said anything offensive. She shared with me how much she was hurting on the inside and that she became convicted of her sin and wanted to receive the love of Christ.
The group grew, and people started coining who I didn't expect. A couple of my Muslim friends showed up, one guy who claimed to be a Satanist dropped by, and others who were agnostics and atheists attended, too. We had a question-and-answer time after each session, and some people started to ask tough questions. They asked about the truth of the Bible, about other religions, about salvation by grace (as opposed to salvation by works), and about religious exclusivity. These were hard questions, and I didn't have all of the answers.
Weeks later, I preached at the church, and people responded very positively to the good news of salvation through Jesus. Even the pastor was encouraging of my message. Doors started opening for me to speak at other small churches in the area, and people also started asking more questions about Christianity.
Again, I didn't know all of the answers. Even though it was exciting at times to see people become interested in Jesus, it was not always easy. In fact, sometimes it got downright discouraging, because some of the people that prayed to "trust Jesus" ended up walking away from Christianity and some people stopped coming to Bible study.
As I struggled with these disappointments, I was challenged to continue trusting Jesus. I faced some issues in my life. I knew that I had a relationship with Christ that was true regardless of what I was feeling, but I also knew that I needed to continue in my pursuit of knowing Him more deeply. Even though I didn't discover every answer, I developed a conviction that truth was absolute, regardless of what I felt. My assurance of absolute truth remained firm, even if some of my friends would judge me for not being a relativist or pluralist.
That year, my basketball team ended up winning the championship ring. We were declared national champions by ESPN and USA Today. But my greatest victory that year was the opportunity to share the reasons for trusting Jesus with others and to grow in that trust myself. God taught me so much about trust in the process. Almost a decade later, I'm still searching for answers to some questions, but fortunately, I've also discovered some profound spiritual truths.
My life's message to all people (which grew out of the trials that catapulted me into a search for truth) is simply this: God loves you. He loves you so much that He sent His Son to die for your sins, and He has given you a heart and mind to passionately follow Him. It is possible to know truth.
Life isn't always easy, and sometimes circumstances don't work out the way you think they should, but even in the midst of some uncertainties, you can be sure of certain truths. You can trust Jesus. He will reveal himself to you when you seek Him with all of your heart, soul, and mind. You can have this certainty in Christ, because God has first given us a sureness founded on the basis of the knowledge of reality.
Faith under Fire?
Even though Christianity is spreading more rapidly worldwide than ever before, if a person living in the United States claims that Jesus Christ is exclusively the Truth, he or she will appear absurd to many, Born in India, Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias writes:
We are living in a time when sensitivities are at the surface, often vented with cutting words. Philosophically, you can believe anything, so long as you do not claim it to be true. Morally, you can practice anything, so long as you do not claim that it is a better way. Religiously, you can hold to anything, so long as you do not bring Jesus Christ into it.
Zacharias continues, "If a spiritual idea is eastern, it is granted critical immunity; if western, it is thoroughly criticized. Thus, a journalist can walk into a church and mock its carryings on, but he or she dare not do the same if the ceremony is from the eastern fold. Such is the mood of the twentieth century." In today's atmosphere of intolerance toward Christianity, followers of Christ must have the foundation of knowing the historical Jesus (who, by the way, was not Western, but Eastern). If we are ridiculed or even hated for our faith, we must have a base of knowledge that's unshakable. We will speak of the true Jesus in the chapters to come, but it is important that we have a foundational understanding that reality is indeed knowable. If truth is knowable, then our trust in truth has greater conviction.
Exclusivism isn't a popular word today. In our society, we face opposition when we claim that our religion of Christianity is absolutely true. Religious exclusivism teaches that one religion is exclusively true, as opposed to religious pluralism, which teaches that multiple religions, often contradicting religions, are equally true.
The Oprah Winfrey Show presents a good example of religious pluralism expressed today through popular media. Often on this show, a guest will talk about his or her experiences with spirituality or morality. Sometimes Oprah will ask the audience for their opinions about the topic. On one occasion, when a member of the audience responded by referencing a biblical example, Oprah respectfully said, "One of the mistakes that human beings make is believing that there is only one way to live, and we don't accept that there are diverse ways of being in the world." She added, "There are many paths to what you call God. Her path may be something else, and when she gets there she may call it the Light." When another audience member disagreed with Oprah and said that Jesus was the only way, Oprah responded by saying, "There can't possibly be one way. I can't get into a religious argument with you right now."
Religious pluralism claims to be open-minded, but is it really? When we stop and think about the claims of religious pluralism, we discover that this worldview doesn't accept any faith expression that is not pluralistic. Even though pluralism is touted at many universities as "open-mindedness," it's actually just another form of religious exclusivity. Why? Because it excludes anybody who doesn't believe it. Therefore, religious pluralism excludes the beliefs of hundreds of millions of Christians who claim that Jesus Christ is the only way for salvation.
Interestingly, it's not just Christianity that claims to be exclusively true. Muhammed, the founder of Islam, claimed Islam to be the true religion, and the teachers of Hinduism say it is the true religion. Then some Hindus decided to reject certain teachings of Hinduism, so they split off and started a new religion called Buddhism. Buddhism today includes hundreds of sects, each of which has its own set of spiritual beliefs. Religious pluralism rejects any of these religions that claim that their way is the one way that is true and correct. When you think about how many billions of people in the world follow these religions, you realize that most people are not true religious pluralists.
In addition to the fact that many are attacking our beliefs in the historical Christ and His claim to be the giver of salvation, many Americans are apathetic about or ignorant of spiritual things. Many of the people who are interested in spirituality are simply longing for a quick fix or an emotional experience. I heard a story in which someone was asked, "What is the greatest problem in our culture: ignorance or apathy?" To this, the person responded by saying, "I don't know, and I don't care!"
Consider the words of pop singer Britney Spears: "I think I'm more grounded, you know, and I know what I want out of life and I'm, you know, my morals are really, you know, strong, and I have major beliefs about certain things, and I think that has helped me." Her words echo the thoughts of many celebrities in our culture whose actions tell us that, "I really don't care about the most important things in life."
Many people continue to look to celebrities and Hollywood for guidance. J. P. Moreland, who holds a PhD in philosophy from the University of Southern California, summed up the recent spiritual thought of many in Western culture:
Spirituality is in, but no one knows which form to embrace. indeed, the very idea that one form may be better than another seems arrogant and intolerant. A flat stomach is of greater value than a mature character. The makeup man is more important than the speech writer. People listen, or pretend to listen, to what actors-actors-have to say! Western Civ had to go and, along with it, the possibility of getting a robust university education. Why? Because political correct ness so rules our universities that they are now places of secular indoctrination, and one is hard-pressed to find serious classroom interaction from various perspectives on the crucial issues of our day.
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Excerpted from Why Trust Jesus? by Dave Sterrett Copyright © 2010 by Dave Sterrett. Excerpted by permission.
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