I have a great job. I work for the Christian Union at the University of Canterbury (in Christchurch), teaching the Bible to students, talking to people about Jesus, and discipling and training young Christians. I love it. But sometimes ministry hurts. Sometimes, Christian ministry leaves you feeling like you’ve been kicked in the teeth.
Among the (relatively few) negative things about being a full-time, vocational gospel worker, there is one thing that, for my money, is far and away the worst: seeing one-time followers of Jesus give up on their faith and give up on Jesus. It just sucks.
Part of the reason I say this is that I once tried it myself.
I had the privilege of hearing about Jesus from an early age. But around the age of 16, life became busy and Jesus was squeezed out. Turns out I saw him as expendable. I’d heard plenty about Jesus, but I kept his bigger, more personal claims at arm’s length.
Over the next few years, I fooled myself into thinking that, somewhere out there, I could find greater meaning apart from Jesus than I could find with him. I thought I could fashion a life without Jesus that would be more intellectually satisfying – more emotionally fulfilling, more successful – than a life lived with Jesus. It’s easily the worst thing I have ever tried.
I wasn’t angry with God, and I didn’t publicly renounce Jesus. I didn’t care enough for any of that. I wasn’t dragged away by some major intellectual or moral hurdle (though I soon started using those kinds of issues to justify my defection). In the end, I just drifted. I wanted to do what I wanted to do. Jesus made demands that I wasn’t ready for, so I left him behind and filled my life with any old thing – drinking, work, sport, study, or the big overseas adventure. In my apathy I found plenty of excuses, and they combined to kill me softly.
Of course, it’s no surprise when people abandon Jesus. On the contrary, the famous ‘Parable of the Sower’ (Mark 4:1-20) guarantees it will happen – and for a variety of reasons. In recent years I’ve noticed a few typical exit doors for young adults. Some arrive at university calling themselves Christians, but it soon becomes clear they’ve been piggybacking off Mum or Dad’s faith and have never grabbed hold of the gospel for themselves. When push comes to shove, they decide they’ve graduated from Christianity. Some aren’t even this self-aware, assuring themselves that they “still have a faith” while wandering aimlessly into a vague deism.
Others decide it’s too unenlightened or awkward to follow the Bible’s ethical teaching. Some buy into pseudo-intellectual arguments, convincing themselves that these arguments are original and irrefutable. Some start their time at university with every intention of continuing as Christians, only to be enticed away by the party scene, the apparent enormity of their workload, or mere embarrassment (‘fearing the raised eyebrow’, as one Christian has put it). Some will do as I did and simply drift away slowly: no anger, no particular reasons, and no climactic moment of rejection; just a painfully pedestrian lack of decision – lured away one small step at a time by the shiny but empty promises of the world.
And I couldn’t write this piece without offering one specific reflection that’s particularly (but certainly not exclusively) relevant to women: the danger that comes from dating a non-Christian.
I’m not the first person to make this observation, but starting a romantic relationship with a non-Christian man is the classic way for young women to reject Jesus. Even when it starts innocently enough – perhaps even with the good intention of sharing your faith – it so often ends in disaster. Being attached to a man who doesn’t share your Christian faith makes Jesus seem smaller and less glorious. It becomes easier to be pulled away from Jesus, pulled away from Christian fellowship, and pulled towards the things of this world.
To my Christian sisters who are either single or dating a non-Christian man, let me plead with you: be careful. In fact, I might as well go all the way. If you’re dating a non-Christian man, please break it off. There’s just too much at stake. I’ll even give you the script: “I love / really like you, and I love spending time with you, but I love Jesus more. And unless you say yes to him, I can’t say yes to you. We can’t have a long-term future together. If you want to investigate Christianity and consider accepting Jesus as your Lord and Saviour, I’m happy to talk to you about it. And depending on what you decide, we can revisit our relationship. But it will be a lot fairer and less complicated for both of us if we stop dating while you make up your mind about Jesus.”
I can’t tell you how encouraged I’ve been by Christian sisters who have declined the advances of non-Christian men because they want to grow in godliness more than they want a husband. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it. Trust God, look to him, and find your satisfaction in him. Singleness is a noble calling, and far better than the compromise involved in wedding yourself to an unbelieving man who, by definition, can’t share what matters most to you and can’t actively lead you in godliness.
Anyway, what brought me back to Jesus? It was a combination of related factors, starting with the persistence of trusted Christian friends, who kept encouraging me to come back to church and to remember God’s place in my life. Nearly 20 years on, I recall very few details from those conversations. What I do remember is the overall approach my friends took. I was never made to feel stupid for having abandoned Jesus. Instead, they came alongside me with warmth and gentleness. They seemed to realise ‘there, but for the grace of God, go I’. They were unashamed of Jesus – confident in their Christian faith and clearly transformed by it – but kind and patient, rather than judgemental. They cared enough to prod gently, but were never condescending.
At the same time, my alternative sources of meaning had been tried and found wanting. Then there was a complete stranger, who boldly shared the gospel and planted a splinter in my mind. And, no doubt, the prayers of many were the hidden key to it all.
After several invitations, I eventually returned to the church I had attended growing up. The message hadn’t changed, but God graciously opened my ears so I heard it properly. This time, I wasn’t content to be ‘Christianised’. An occasional ‘spiritual boost’ from church or having a helpful ‘moral framework’ just wouldn’t cut it anymore. Jesus invaded my life, renewed my mind, and captured my heart. I trusted in him as my Lord and Saviour at the age of 21, and I celebrated 18 years of new life in Christ a few months ago. But I deserve none of it. I wilfully ignored the greatest gift a person can ever be offered, and in doing so I flirted with disaster. God was gracious, but I was foolish. Whenever I see someone act the same way, it’s like a punch to the gut.
Today, if you’re trusting and following Jesus, please do it again tomorrow. Please prayerfully resolve to keep trusting and following him. Do not harden your heart (read Hebrews 3-4). Fix your eyes on Jesus. Delight in how good and kind he is.
And if you’ve fallen into the same trap that I did, please come back to Jesus! He will never let you down. He will never disappoint. Yes, following Jesus takes courage and resolve, and he doesn’t promise an easy life. But he does promise ‘life to the full’, ‘abundant life’ (John 10:10) in a way that no one else and nothing else ever will. I know from experience that the things of this world are tempting, but there is nothing and no one out there to match life with Jesus.