Ryan knocked tentatively on my office door. “Can we talk?” “Sure come on in and sit down.”
His steps were slow and deliberate as he walked over to take a seat. With one great sigh he unloaded his backpack on the floor and it hit with a thud. Then he sunk in the chair and unloaded his heart. “I thought I believed in God … I mean, I’ve gone to church, since — well — forever, but I don’t know if I really know God or not.”
After some further conversation, Ryan unloaded even more doubt and questions about what it meant to believe in God in today’s world. 9/11 had happened. Buddies of his were pressuring him to “hook up” with his girlfriend of a short time. He looked around and saw his parents struggling, and an older sister divorced after six months of marriage. The weight of his backpack was not even close to the weight he was carrying inside.
Ryan (not his real name but his story is real) is typical of some of the students that come through the doors of the Focus on the Family Institute. He has been battered around by the world, and his faith has been put to the test. In the midst of the daily battles, he is desperately trying to find out what it means to be a Christian in today’s culture. From the church, he hears a nostalgia that talks about how much easier it was in the “good ol’ days.” From the professors at his secular university, he hears about the diminished role of the truth and the constant reinforcement of any truth. In that context he tries to figure out who God is and how He matters to his life.
The Institute at Focus is committed to that very idea: Who God is and how He matters not only to your lives, but to the entire world, generation after generation. Ryan’s questions and doubts were indicative of what I have found in both secular and Christian colleges and universities for the last decade.
There is a sign on the wall of the classrooms that states our motto, “Equipping tomorrow’s leaders for family, church, and society.” We are, in essence, a leadership institute. The courses in worldviews, parenting, marriage and transforming the culture are geared toward answering Ryan’s questions.
I see so many Christian students walking around with an air of, “I’ve got it all together.” Ryan was afraid to share his doubts and fears about God because of those students, who most regrettably, would have met his questions about God with a look of disapproval, questions of Ryan’s spiritual commitment, or out-and-out rejection: “Real Christians don’t ask those questions!”
Yes, they do. In fact, their faith becomes all the more real when the Ryans of the world bring those questions before brothers and sisters in Christ who can help him work through them. Most importantly they all can take those questions before God, who desires, in our most intimate of relationships to be the one we run to when we question whether He is there or not.
Let’s get specific here. There were some hefty things that weighed Ryan (and maybe you) down. I literally asked Ryan what was in his full-to-the-top-seams-almost-bursting book pack. Ryan unloaded his bag. He started with a book that he had on his shelf from his English classes that, through its analytical approach to literature, questioned the existence of an absolute truth; the story meant whatever you wanted it to. With this book and a couple of others Ryan was demonstrating the weight of the intellectual challenges to Christianity that strike at the very root of who we are. They strike at the nature of an all-powerful, all-knowing, God of Truth. It is the burden of a world that seems to “know” more than God could possibly know.
The next set of books he brought out were books about how to get in touch with his “spiritual” self . There was a book on spiritual “karma” and how to create an environment where one could be at peace with the self and the world. There were books on spiritual healing from gurus and to top it off, there was a “Christian” book about some number of steps to be closer to God. Each offered some “secret” to the challenges we all face about spiritual connections with the Maker of the Universe, our Creator.
The last batch of books he unloaded were books about service. He was especially confused by the high level of commitment these secular authors had to the concept of serving one another, and how little commitment there was in his realm of experience among Christians about serving others. He had gotten these books out of frustration with hearing Christians speak all the right words, but rarely follow through with actions. “Where are the hearts of Christians?” he asked. The line that struck me most was when after a long pause he said, “I guess in my lifetime I’ve seen a lot of Christians, but very little Christ.” Ouch!
Ryan may be very much like you. I know he echoes some of the seasons of my own life. We talked. We prayed. We read God’s word. In the weeks to come our conversations moved from the easy (and popular) topic of sports to conversations about topics that mattered eternally.
I watched Ryan figuratively take each of the books out of his bag and lay that challenge down at the foot of the cross. He turned over his intellect to God to be used in not only discovering His Truth, but sharing it with others. He turned his spiritual questions over to God, acknowledging that there may be times that they are so intimate that they can never get enough of one another, and there may be times when to sit in a quiet spot together may be enough. He turned his questions of the heart and service to others over to the Christ who made a life (and death) of serving others in complete ways.
The final challenges I had for Ryan were tough ones. He needed some genuine, authentic and real Christians to turn to. He found some in his fellow students at the Institute. He found others in mentors and guides. He found still others in his church family. He admitted it was hard finding those “real” people (a sad and unfortunate reality), but when he found them, they stood out like a “sore thumb.”
The other challenge I had for him was to take his situation before the Lord. Ryan was to put aside all the pretenses of a God was the King so busy He couldn’t be bothered with another peasant request; he was, instead, to pour out his heart before the throne. This King listens, cares and wants you to reach out to him and be “real” to Him. In turn, this King becomes more real than anyone can imagine.
In the final week of classes here at the Institute, Ryan graced my doorway, smile plastered on his face and made himself at home in the now, familiar chair.
“Notice anything different about me?”
It wasn’t a new shirt, shoes or haircut. I gave up.
“No weighty book bag!” he exclaimed.
“Who’s got it?” I asked.
Ryan paused briefly, gave me a wink, and in an energetic tone said, “I gave it to someone who was better prepared to carry it, who wanted it, and promised it would make my load lighter.”
After another pause, he continued. “I was thinking — would you mind praying with me? I think I want to rededicate my life to God.”
In my first year at the Institute, I have seen our faculty and staff go to great lengths to create a curriculum and environment where leadership qualities and attributes are developed in these great college students. On that day, though, Ryan equipped himself better for leadership than anything we could teach in a classroom. He realized the amazing and compelling call that Jesus has for each of us in Matthew 22:37 — “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind.”
Our backpacks get so full of the weight of the world and the challenges to our minds, hearts and spirits, that at some point we have to un-shoulder the burden of the pack and lay it down at the foot of cross. Christ, along with the burdens of so many others, finds a way to bend down and shoulder our pack. We just have to put it down.
How heavy is your backpack today?
Copyright 2002 Chris Leland. All rights reserved.