How To Keep Collegians from Losing Their Faith, Part 2

Written by Mark Farnham

On January 5, 2015

[Adapted from J. Budziszewski, “Off to College: Can We Keep Them?,” from Is Your Church Ready: Motivating Leaders to Live an Apologetic Life, edited by Ravi Zacharias and Norman Geisler (Zondervan, 2003).]

What They Need to Hear about the False Ideologies Lurking behind Temptations

Losing_faithThere are two ways to armor young Christians against ideological seduction. The first way is to anticipate and answer the ideologies they are most likely to meet. For example, I commented earlier that the slogan “Sex is just like everything else; in order to make wise choices about it, you have to experience it” expresses a philosophy of knowledge. Once they spot this philosophy, you can put it in the witness box and start cross-examining it. Is it really true that the only way to know anything for sure is personal experience? Are there any cases where personal experience works against knowledge? (How about suicide and drug addiction?) And is it really true that the test of experience is how you feel? Haven’t you ever felt good about something that turned out to be bad?

You will never be able to anticipate and answer every single ideological seduction, so an even better way to armor young Christians is to teach them to spot them on their own. To give them practice, throw them “lines.” After each line ask, “What philosophy lies behind this line?” Let them conduct the cross-examination on their own. Encourage them to develop discernment, that spiritual and intellectual sense of smell that tells them “something is rotten here.”

What They Need to Hear about the Desires and Devices of Their Hearts

Jeremiah remarks, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). Unfortunately, this is also true of Christians. Our old fallen nature continues to compete with the Christ-life that is taking shape in us; we may “put to death” our fallen nature, as Paul exhorts (Romans 8:13; Colossians 3:5), but even then it twitches with galvanic life. Until heaven, when our sanctification is complete, we will be prone to self-deception.

A young woman once asked me for a letter of recommendation to a theological seminary. I asked her why she wanted to enter seminary. She told me she was desperate to hold on to her faith but drowning in unanswered questions; she hoped that in seminary she would find the answers Yet when I glanced at her application form, I found that she had chosen perhaps the most way-out seminary in the country, a den of disbelief. Through conversation I learned that in her last year of university she had avoided taking courses from believing professors (who were rare enough in any case), instead seeking professors notorious for their enmity to faith. Moreover, when I asked her what her unanswered questions were, they turned out to be fairly simple.

“I think you are mistaken about your motives for going to seminary,” I told her. “You’re behaving not like someone who wants answers but like someone who wants to avoid them. Could it be that you’re seeking reasons to lose your faith-that you’re manufacturing a dramatic crisis-so that you can lose your faith and say afterward, ‘I couldn’t help it’?”

My experience is that no college student loses her faith unless at some level she wants to; the slip lies not in the intellect but in the will. This may imply that it’s easy to hold on to faith. Not so: The difficulty lies in recognizing what we really want, because we really do not want to recognize it. College students need to learn that we sinners cannot fully trust our own perceptions; all of us must pray as David did:

Who can discern his errors? Forgive my hidden faults. Keep your servant also from willful sins; may they not rule over me. Then will 1 be blameless, innocent of great transgression. Psalm 19:12-13

What They Need to Hear about the Limits of Good Intentions

I’ve already explained one limit of good intentions-they may not be as good as we think. Even when they really are good, however, they are not enough. By way of example, I mentioned earlier the absurdity of a Christian boy and girl having every intention of remaining chaste but spending every waking moment alone together. The problem here is not just that they have no sense of their own weaknesses (which is pride), but that in a sense, they are setting themselves against God’s design for human sexuality (which is presumption). Being alone with the beloved is supposed to be arousing; that’s how God made us. Aloneness is what one seeks with one’s spouse; it is a precursor to intercourse. To be alone with the beloved but trying not to be aroused is like turning on a powerful rocket motor and saying “Don’t lift off.”

What usually happens next is that the boy and girl try to deal with the resulting temptations by praying together about them. I can’t think of a faster way to wind up in bed, for now they are combining the sexual drive with the spiritual drive, and their rocket has shifted from chemical propulsion to warp drive.” By now, of course, their good intentions have turned bad, because they have committed a particularly attractive sin and may find it difficult to repent. It’s at this time that faith begins to seem “unreal,” and the best apologetics in the world may do no good.

This cautionary tale shows why even knowing the reasons for God’s rules is not enough (see pages 110-11). College students also need a generous dose of godly common sense–what God in the book of Proverbs calls wisdom.

What They Need to Hear to Avoid Sentimental Misunderstandings for Christian Virtue

My generation bears most of the blame for sentimentalizing Christianity. “When I read in Mark how Jesus cursed the fig tree, I feel much closer to him,” said one woman in a Bible study group. “Jesus is a sinner, just like me!” No argument could convince her that she had drastically misinterpreted the passage. “Feelings are neither right nor wrong,” runs the misleading mantra, “they just are.”

Among college students, sentimentalism has run amuck. Consider faith, for instance. Because young Christians confuse faith with warm feelings toward God, when their feelings are running cool, they think they must be having a crisis of faith. Soon it becomes a real crisis of faith; like those who refuse to believe what they cannot see, they refuse to believe what they cannot feel.

Or consider hope. Because young Christians confuse hope with feelings of optimism, when they hear theories that presume that humans can somehow fix their problems and “save themselves,” they think they should go along. Hope then becomes complacency about the course of this present broken world-or a utopian idolatry of the “human spirit.”

Consider finally the greatest spiritual virtue, namely, love. Because young Christians confuse love with trying to enter into their neighbors’ feelings, when people who espouse disordered ways of life express feelings of pain and anger, they “feel” they ought to take their side. It may never occur to them that the pain might be self-inflicted, or that the anger might be a way to avoid the real issue. This helps explain why the gay rights movement can be such a source of anguish for young Christians.

What the younger members of your congregation need to hear is that the spiritual virtues are not feelings but deep-seated dispositions of the mind and will. Faith means continuing to believe and trust the promises of God, even when the feelings of trust have faltered; God uses the cool seasons of our feelings to exercise us, like a muscle. Hope means fixing our eyes on heaven even when the feelings of confidence have waned; now we see as in a mirror, darkly, but then we shall see face to face (see I Corinthians 13:12). Love means acting for the true good of other persons, even when their hearts desire what poisons their souls and they can only hear the words of love as hate.

Sentiment is shifting sand. You can have warm feelings toward God without faith, you can have feelings of optimism without hope, and you can have feelings of sympathy without love. Our God is not sand; he’s a Rock.

[Adapted from J. Budziszewski, “Off to College: Can We Keep Them?,” from Is Your Church Ready: Motivating Leaders to Live an Apologetic Life, edited by Ravi Zacharias and Norman Geisler (Zondervan, 2003).]

In the next post J. Budziszewski continues talking about ways the church can help college students keep their faith in the face of opposition.


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