Yesterday another Christian musician announced that he was leaving his faith, or that his faith had left him. Either way, he was no longer considering himself to be a Christian believer. Several other artists and authors have made similar announcements in the last year.
All of us have friends or family members who have lost or left the faith of their childhood or high school days. Statisticians tell us that the number of “nones” in America is rapidly rising, those who list their religious affiliation as “none.” Most of these are actually “no longers.” They check “none” now, but not too long ago they would have answered differently.
This trend reveals in real life a double Biblical principle: that faith is a gift and faith must be nurtured and protected to survive. In 2 Timothy Paul wrote to his young disciple: I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, dwells in you as well. 6For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands. (2 Tim 1:5-6).
Many of the young adults who are leaving the faith were raised in Christian homes, like Timothy. Godly nurture in childhood is a huge blessing, but it is not enough. We don’t know the details, but at some point, with the assistance of Paul and the laying on of hands, the faith that Timothy had received as a child, burst into flame, as it were, and became a living reality in his life. I have seen this happen in the lives of young people. Perhaps you have too. Or perhaps you have your own story to tell.
Using the metaphor of fire, Paul urges Timothy to take care of his faith, to “fan into flames the gift of God.”
There is mystery here. I can’t answer every question. Is faith a gift or a choice, a decision, a conviction? Yes. Can true faith ever be lost? Sure seems like it, though I know there are theoretical arguments to the contrary. All I can say is that I have seen people slide from vibrant, sincere, contagious faith into doubt and denial, and even become vigorous opponents of their former faith.
How does this happen? There are many factors (almost anything will do the job under the right circumstances) but it is usually a gradual process.
You’ve heard this old “joke” no doubt: “Man A: How did you go broke? Man B: Very slowly, and then all at once.” I think that is how it is with faith.
We can be in a gradual decline for a long time. We often do not even know it, or do not think it is serious. We imagine that we can turn it around anytime, that we are just taking a break, or maybe checking out other points of view. Then all at once, like a sort of dark epiphany, we suddenly realize we don’t believe any of that stuff any more, and we wonder how we ever did. The brave new world of unbelief makes perfect sense now. It’s not scary like we thought it might be, and feels like freedom. A freedom we have never felt before. Intoxicating. Bracing. Bold. A new community stands ready to welcome you in. It is all so simple and clear now. You wonder what you were so afraid of. You don’t need God after all.
The journey back from this place is very difficult, and not many seem to be making it, though we who pray for these lost ones hold out hope till the bitter end, and even beyond. The danger is not that they can’t return to faith, but that they will no longer want to or even feel the need. The Christian way becomes more puzzling. Some Christians seem nice enough, and good for them, live and let live, but really it just doesn’t make sense for you.
Today we are bombarded 24-7 with anti-faith propaganda, some mild, seemingly innocent and neutral, some darker and more direct. Nothing is neutral! If we do not take what most “normal” American Christians would consider to be radical measures, we are likely to lose our faith. No. We are going to lose our faith. If you think it can’t happen to you then you are already in great danger.
Don’t count on your spiritual gas gauge, and certainly don’t trust your emotions. We must guard our faith as vigilantly as we guard our money or our health. Most folks reading this are mature, even savvy, investors, wealth managers and retirement planners. Do you give as much attention to your faith as you do to your portfolio?
How do you fan the flames of faith? Top of the list is some combination of DAILY meditation on scripture and prayer. Worship. Holy Communion. Companionship with fellow disciples. Obedience. Doing the things that faithful people do, whether you feel like it or not.
For a while people wore WWJD bracelets. Jesus is a fine model. But here’s another suggestion: Not, what would Jesus do, but what would YOU do, and not do, if your faith were blazing brightly? What did you do back when it was? Start there and don’t stop!