Courage in Christian Ministry, Ben Patterson

Desiring God 2000 Conference for Pastors

Courage in Christian Ministry

This is great. What a sight. I was reminded of something that happened in my church in Irvine. We were a young church. I think I was 42 and was on the senior end of the spectrum. And in the 14 years I pastored there, I didn’t bury one person who died of old age. And it struck me, about five years into the ministry that, if there was death, it would probably be tragic death. And it was. It was children who died. The Hart family lost three children, all their kids, over a period of seven years. First Michael, and then Jenny, and then Katie. I was involved in the services in the ministry with the last two who died. And mom, Sarah, asked me if we would sing “How Firm a Foundation” at the last of the deaths. And I said, “Sure, why?”. She said, “Well, the last line of the song is, ‘I’ll never, no, never, no, never forsake.’ That’s three times — Michael, Jenny, and Sarah.”

So whenever I sing that song, and I have the chance to bear witness, I do that. And it is about courage. Very much. The church that I was ordained in, I returned to last summer to preach, and was walking to church on Sunday morning, and walking by a lot of familiar scenes. La Jolla, California is a tough place to start off in. When we left, I told Loretta, “I think we’re leaving where we’re supposed to end.” I was reminded of all the things that had happened in those opening years of ministry, and what a jerk I was — the foolish and silly things I did. As I neared the church, I said, “Lord, thank you. Thank you. I was really in over my head, wasn’t I?” And he said, “Well, what makes you think you’re in your depth now?”

I do feel about this gathering, and this last season of my life, I’m only 57, but I do feel about it as Lou Holtz did when he coached here at the University of Minnesota. It’s not the end of the world, but you can see it from here. As God is my witness, I don’t want to waste time doing things that I can simply do by myself.

Who Am I?

I have an hour to speak. That’s a long time. It will be easy to get bogged down and lose our way if we’re not careful. So I want to be very clear with you and myself about what I’m going to do. I want to do five things. First, I want to quote some Scripture to you. Secondly, I want to preach for a while. Thirdly, I want to tell a bit of the story of my experience at Hope College. That’s the dangerous part. It’s very dangerous to speak of courage and give even the slightest indication that you are Exhibit A of courage. All I can say is that there have been plenty of opportunities for courage to be displayed, and I’m not so sure how well I’ve done.

I keep going back to the poem that Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote from his cell, “Who Am I?” He reviews the various descriptions that people gave of him, as he’s living out his last days as a prisoner for the Lord. And he finally says, “I don’t know who I am, but whoever I am, Lord, thou knowest, I am yours.” So I will talk about some of my story. Fourth, I want to identify some of the critical points where courage is required of a Christian — in higher education, but really in our culture, and certainly for those of us who are in the mainline church. And then, fifth, I want to preach some more.

##Fear Not

I have two texts. The first is from the Gospel of Luke 12:4–7. And I want to recite it to you because I just like it so much, and I invite you to hear it before you even look at it. Most of the Bible, I think, was written for the ear, and then the eye, and this is a great one. So I invite you to have your Bibles open to this first text but just hear it as Jesus speaks. Luke 12:4–7 says:

I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him! Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows.

My second text is from Isaiah chapter 40:27–31. It’s a famous and wonderful passage:

Why do you say, O Jacob,
     and speak, O Israel,
“My way is hidden from the Lord,
     and my right is disregarded by my God”?
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
     the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
​​     his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
     and to him who has no might he increases strength.
Even youths shall faint and be weary,
     and young men shall fall exhausted;
but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength;
     they shall mount up with wings like eagles;
they shall run and not be weary;
     they shall walk and not faint.

Be of Good Cheer

Now for the preaching. I was in Oxford the summer before last and walked by a spot where something very important and very moving to me happened a few centuries ago. I didn’t even notice the spot until my wife pointed it out to me. It was just a little plaque in the wall, just down Broad Street, from Blackwell’s bookstore, a little plaque indicating that across from the plaque, at the spot marked X on the road, is the place where three great and godly men were burned at the stake — Cranmer, Ridley, and Latimer. And the exchange that took place between Ridley and Latimer has always moved me so deeply, in part because they were friends. What would it be like to go to your death with your buddy? What would you say to each other? Well, someone wrote down what they said. Ridley said, as they approached the stake, “Be of good cheer, brother, for God will either assuage the fury of the flames or give us strength to abide them.”

Then, as they were being chained to the stake, Latimer said to Ridley, “Be a good comfort, brother, and play the man, for we shall this day light such a candle by God’s grace in England that I trust she’ll never be put out.” Of course, the candle was their bodies. And we won’t know until heaven whether God assuaged the fury of the flame or gave them strength to abide by it. He said, “Play the man.” What happens to your heart when you hear those words? Persecution, hardship, and suffering go with the territory of the kingdom of God. We took sides in a war. When we became Christians, we aligned ourselves against an enemy, and we put ourselves in a place where courage would be called for by the grace of God.

Jesus said it would be this way. I’m reading here from Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase in The Message of the Lord’s words in John 15:18–20:

If you find this godless world is hating you, remember it got its start hating me. If you lived on the world’s terms, the world would love you as one of its own. But since I picked you to live on God’s terms, and no longer on the world’s terms, the world is going to hate you. When they hate you, remember this: Servants don’t get better treatment than their masters. If they beat on me, they will certainly beat on you.

Later on, in John 16:33, he says:

I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”

The apostle Paul identified these things as among the distinguishing marks of service to God. He said to Timothy, categorically, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted (2 Timothy 3:12). And then, there was that first missionary trip he took. He was stoned in Lystra, dragged outside the city, and left for dead. I wondered about that. Was he in a coma? Or was he faking it? But he was left for dead, and we’re told that, after the disciples had gathered around him, he got up. You have to stop and think about this for a minute. He just got stoned. This is not even the 40 lashes minus one. I don’t know why they say it that way. But this is not just a beating; this is execution. And he had been executed, they thought. He lives, and then he’s off to Derbe, and then we’re told he goes back to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch. And he goes on to encourage the brothers:

Encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God (Acts 14:22).

When he said that, I wonder, were the lacerations still on his face? The hematomas? The bruises? That sermon didn’t need any illustrations, did it?

A Resume of Sufferings

I’ve wondered about this passage in Acts chapter 18, where the Lord is sending him to Corinth. He’s had so many beatings. I want you just to picture him for a moment here. I read an extra-biblical description of Paul’s appearance. I’m sure he looks this way. He had a barrel chest, broad shoulders, and bandy legs. According to this extra-biblical description, he had a hawk nose and a monobrow, and he breathed friendliness. He was a tenderhearted man, and I wonder if he was wondering, “Lord, I don’t know if I can take another beating.” The Lord says three times, “Don’t be afraid. Speak out. Do not be silent. For I am with you, and no one will harm you, because many people here, in this city, belong to me” (Acts 18:9–10). And we know how significant numbers can be in the Bible. The Lord says it in three different ways: “Don’t be afraid, Paul. Don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid.”
 He included this kind of thing in his apostolic resume. In 2 Corinthians 11, comparing his credentials to the so-called super-apostles, did he list his academic training and his various appointments? No. He said:

With far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers . . . (2 Corinthians 11:23–26).

You have to like this guy. My first boss was a man who taught me a lot, I was having dinner with him near his retirement and I ribbed him a little bit. I said, “Louis, well now you’re going out to pasture.” And that’s not what he’s done at all. But I said, “You’re going to go out, and the rest of us will still be at work. What advice do you want to give us young guys? What do you most want us to know?” I was teasing him. I wasn’t really looking for an answer. And he looked up from his plate, and without missing a beat, he told me two things. I just wanted to tell you one at this point, he said, “I would tell every young man going into the ministry to not take it personally.” And I said, “Don’t take what personally?” He said, “Well, don’t take it personally when you get beat on. It’s a war. This is not about you. When you became a Christian, you took up sides in a conflict. You’re in a war.” And I thought, well that’s true. Don’t take it personally. I mean a soldier in battle, when he’s shot at, he doesn’t look over the foxhole and say, “Was it something I said?” It goes with a territory.

Grow up. Play the man. What happens to your heart when you hear those words? Do you wonder what you would do when faced with a situation Latimer and Ridley found themselves in? Courage is like a teabag, you don’t know what’s in it until it’s in hot water. But what does it take to be courageous?

Our Need for a Lord

I want to propose to you this morning, it takes two simple things really. To be courageous, we need a Lord and we need the Savior. We need a Lord. That means the presence of two qualities of heart. The first is fear. Ironically, to be fearless, one must first fear the one thing we all must fear: the Lord. The Bible says this is the beginning of wisdom, and it’s the beginning of courage.

I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him! (Luke 12:4–5).

That’s God. And then, there is this remarkable shift in his language:

Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows (Luke 12:6–7).

Fear God and you’ll fear no one else, including God. That’s the answer. So back to our friend Paul, when he pronounces anathema on false teachers, he said, “Obviously, I’m not trying to be a people pleaser. No, I’m trying to please God. If I were trying to please people, I would not be Christ’s servant” (Galatians 1:10). “And I care very little,” he said to the Corinthians, “if I’m judged by you or by any human court, indeed I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me” (1 Corinthians 4:1–5). I like that. He is saying, “I don’t care what you think about me, and I don’t care what I think about me. They’re both irrelevant. What God thinks is all that matters. And he hasn’t said anything yet. Wait for the appointed time.”

Blaise Pascal spoke of the folly of fearing what one should not, and not fearing what one should. To be courageous, we need a Lord, and that calls for fear and it calls for submission. Courage comes from submission to the will of the Lord. Ironically, the man most to be reckoned with, who will not back down, who will not submit in the face of danger and discouragement, is the man who has first submitted to God. This kind of person is scary. In humility, to submit to the Lord is to submit to no one else except in the Lord.

With Jesus at the Olive Press

Do you want to see how strong that makes people? We need to go to an olive grove outside Jerusalem, named for the olive press that is there. Maybe you’ve seen pictures of olive presses, they’re kind of crude. They’re just basically a big rock sitting on top of some olives and just squeezing every last drop of oil. And Jesus is there, on the eve of his execution. How does he feel about this? Have you ever thrown yourself on the ground? Jesus does. And listen to what he says. He says, “Father, Abba, You can do anything (this is Father and Son now). You can do anything. You can take this away from me. Would you? Yet, not what I want, but what you want.” And he does it again: “Father, you can do anything. Would you take this away? Yet, not what I want but what you want.” And he does it a third time. Does that make him courageous? Is that, in fact, courage at its deepest? Yes, it is.

There’s a prayer chapel at a Christian conference center where I worked for seven summers. I met my wife there. And for seven summers at this place in California — it’s called Forest Home Christian Conference Center — I probably went to the prayer chapel daily and prayed. I prayed about all the things that young men pray about. I prayed, “Who am I going to marry? And, what am I going to do?” Oh boy, I was walking with angst for many years, and I prayed and prayed and prayed, and I went to that chapel over and over again. It has six windows on each side, a window for each of the apostles, then a circular window at the front of Christ in Gethsemane.

Well, years later, I’m married, I had my first child, Danny, and we were back at Forest Home. I’m going to preach, and Danny, about 20 minutes before I go into the sanctuary to preach, he bursts into our cabin and he says, “Dad, there’s this little house where people pray.” And I said, “Really?” He said, “Yeah. Can I show it to you?” I said, “Sure, show me where it is.” And I was led down the path by my four-year-old, to the place I prayed so much. Sometimes you’re in something that’s wonderful and you don’t know how wonderful it is. Well, I knew how wonderful this was. So much of what I had prayed about is just embodied in that child. And he led me into the prayer chapel, and he said, “Dad, what are those windows for?” I talked about the 12 disciples. And then he looked at Jesus. And, “Oh, is that Jesus up there?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Is he praying?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “What’s he praying about?”

How do you explain that to a four-year-old? I thought, and I said, “Well, Danny, he’s saying to God, ‘I’ll do anything you want me to.’” And Danny said, “Is that all?” I said, “That’s all.” C.S. Lewis’s most important book, I believe, is The Abolition of Man. In it, he gives a striking picture of the kind of person our culture, our broken world, is producing. He describes this person as a man without a chest. He’s taking a picture out of antiquity, how Greeks thought about men and women. The head was the place where ideas were, what you think about things. The emotions resided in the viscera, in the belly. The chest was the place through which the head was supposed to rule the feelings. It’s the place of virtue and courage.

Our English word “courage” comes from the French word “heart.” He was saying, “What we’re producing is people with a lot of ideas. And, God knows, a lot of feelings, but no chest.” What a grotesque picture — big heads, big bellies, no chest. It was the most educated country in Europe that elected Hitler to be its boss. You get the picture. The Lord, the Lord will give us chests. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. And that simple phrase, “not what I want, but what you want,” is the most dangerous and explosive thing we can ever say.

A Personal Account of Courage

Okay, I’m going to stop preaching and tell a bit of a story. And this is the dangerous part, because I’m still very much in this situation, and I don’t want to unnecessarily inflame it by what I say. Hence, this is the first time I’ve ever spoken about it publicly. I know that’s rhetoric, I mean that can psych up an audience.

I was walking down Park Avenue in New York City, in 1993, the spring of it, and I was going to speak to a bunch of businessmen. And the thought went to my mind, “Remember when you thought you were going to work with college students?” I’m 51 now when this happens. And yeah, I didn’t want to work with college students when I was younger, and I thought to myself, “Isn’t it funny the things you think you’re going to do?” And now, I’m clearly too old for that. And so, I guess I’ll just chalk that up to the things you thought you were going to do.

Six months later, I was going to Hope College to be the first dean of the chapel at this college. Hope College is a very good school, academically. It’s a school that, in the last several decades, has drifted from its moorings, theologically and spiritually. Like a lot of colleges back in the seventies, they did away with compulsory chapel, which I’m not convinced is all that bad. But, as one could have predicted, over the years, chapel attendance might drop, and it did.

When I arrived in late 1993, there were about 40 or 50 students, on a good day, in the chapel. The trustees of the college were very concerned about this. Out of the 3,000 students there, they would hope that a few more would go to chapel. And they were looking for a dean who would come along. And it was an upgrade from the chaplain, you get to report to the president, and I’d have two chaplains working with me, and they really wanted to pump that up. I heard God’s call very clearly to go there. I was so tired when I got there that I really needed a sabbatical, but I couldn’t afford one. And as it turned out, the chaplain who had been there 15 years was in his last semester. So, I got to spend the semester hanging out and getting acquainted with the school. It was very interesting.

A Siege Mentality and the Need for Revival

Christians, that is, folks whose faith was at least vital to them, were very much in a siege kind of mentality. It was very much don’t ask, don’t tell. It was to carry on your private faith, but just keep it private. And that was the story. I was busy getting acquainted and hiring some staff, and I really wanted to find some people who would pray. Because, I told the college, “If I can’t do this job with the preaching of the word, with prayer, and with the building of relationships, I don’t want to do it.” So I looked for some folks who had those same priorities, and God brought them.

In March of the last semester the chaplain who had been there 15 years, and just before I’m going to start the next semester, I was asked to speak at a faculty luncheon giving a kind of thumbnail sketch of my vision for the ministry at Hope College. I was so naive, and I’m glad I was. It’s good sometimes to not know the impact of what you might say. Just to go and say it and just be genuine about it. Just smile and just say things. I’d actually written it on a three-by-five card. I had two points, and it was an alliteration. I was proud of it. I wanted a revival and I wanted reformation. Modest goals, and I can’t believe I said that, the way I said it.

But I thought, now they might have a bit of a problem with revival, that’s a loaded word, and so I’ll take pains to explain what I mean and what I don’t mean by revival, and I’ll really make it attractive, and something anyone, any sane person would want. I talked about it in terms of the sense of the presence of Christ everywhere, and people consciously, I mean, worshiping the Lord, that the community would come together to worship God, and all education would be done in that context. And then, I got to reformation, and I thought, “Well hey, I’m in Reformed land here. This is Dutch West Michigan. This is going to jack them up.” I quoted Abraham Kuyper in his inaugural address at the Free University of Amsterdam where he said, “There’s not one area in all creation that Christ does not lay his hand on and say, ‘Mine.’”

I thought that would really turn them on. And I said, “Christ is Lord. And I can’t tell a chemist what his lordship means, but what an adventure for a Christian chemist to discover, to ask the question, ‘What does it mean to say Christ is Lord over chemistry?’ Or what about the arts? Science? Literature?” I said, “I don’t know, but can I remind you of this?” And I got done, and it was really quiet, and I remember thinking, honestly, I thought they were bored. This was so elementary, they were just bored. I should have juiced it up a bit. Well, you have to laugh a little bit.

I found out later that the faculty was polarized over what I said. This revival thing was very, very unsettling. But the reformation thing was heard as, well, an infringement on academic freedom. I kept trying to explain that wasn’t the case. It’s taken me almost five years to figure out why they were so upset about that. And it really came down to, “Who is this guy? I mean, he’s brand new, he doesn’t know us, and he comes in here and says, ‘We need revival.’” Well, yeah, I’d say that anywhere. I’d say it here at Bethlehem Baptist Church, I’d say it any place, I’d say we need revival. But it was deeply offensive to say, “We need revival. We need to be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”

Does that mean we’re not that good? Well, no, really it’s just, there’s so much more. There are some other lines of C.S. Lewis that speak to this. He said:

When we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it was him that our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We’re halfhearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition, when infinite joy has been offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased. I tried to explain that. This is more about an offer of a holiday at sea. But it didn’t work.

The Winds of Revival

Now, I think that had not God been so determined to bless the students of Hope College, that might not have been so difficult. And frankly, I would’ve settled for 80 to a hundred students showing up after 40. The administration would’ve been thrilled. I asked the president, I said, “What would be the measure of success?” I was afraid he was going to say lots of numbers. And he said, “No, just that what happens in chapel would affect the campus.” Well, we had 500 students immediately coming. We did some things right. We’ve made some good moves. But I want you to know, I’m not a humble person. I’m just not stupid. I’ve been in ministry too long to know you can tweak this, and you can tweak that, and it’s nice. But it was two plus two equals 10,000. This was the work of God. And by the end of the year, we had some 700 students there in chapel. I was thinking, “Man, I’ve been a pastor for so long, I’ve watered and waited and waited and waited and waited, and you get fruit, but I’ve never seen this before.”

Numbers aren’t everything, but these numbers were indicative. I thought this was great. Let’s just finish the year, praise God, and get ready for the next year. In fact, two of my staff went on vacation. It’s such a shame to tell this story fast, but I’m going to do it. And doggone it, while they were on vacation we had a revival. And maybe you heard about this. This was happening on a lot of different campuses, and it was very much like the Asbury revivals of the seventies. Students began to stand up spontaneously and confess their sins in public, and then be surrounded by brothers and sisters who would pray for them and uphold them. And it was amazing. It went on for three nights into the wee hours of the morning. The newspaper picked up on it and wrote an article that said, “The chaplain’s program went so well they decided to do it two more nights.” I thought, can you imagine a program, you’re sitting down saying, “I got it, let’s have people confess their sins publicly. You handle refreshments, I’ll do the publicity.” I mean, it was just amazing.

And oh, I would love to talk about that for a while. But, after it just happened, there was a huge backlash against it, then a wonderful affirmation of it. That was the first year. In the second year, attendance grew to well over a thousand, which is about all the chapel can hold. It’s about the size of this place. And it’s been that way ever since. There is standing room only.

Two years later, we felt God strongly saying, don’t say anything controversial. Well, too late for that. I just said one thing. But it was the mere fact that there are so many students worshiping God and hearing an evangelical message. Tension began to mount. And I thought, there were so many things I could speak about, but I just felt God saying, “Don’t go there yet, Ben. Just preach Christ, and stay with that.” And I did and I have.

Controversies Stirring

But in my third year, I decided I’ll just get my feet wet and I’ll just speak to one issue that’s troubling. And so, I preached the sermon in March of the third year on “Why God is Father Not Mother.” Someone asked me, “Why don’t you just don’t title it, ‘Why God is Father’? Why’d you say that last part, ‘not mother’?” Well, it was because people were calling him “mother” around there. I remembered a conversation I had with a friend whose church had been pastored for 40 years by a godly evangelical pastor, a Presbyterian church in the East. And when this ministry ended, and they got their next pastor, they got a raving liberal who immediately made the church into something else. They made it what they call a “New Light Church.” Presbyterians know what I’m talking about. They had “new light” on all kinds of things the Bible didn’t get yet. And I said to her, “Now how could this happen? They had 40 years of a godly evangelical pastor, preaching to them Sunday after Sunday. How could they switch that quickly?”

What she said was very wise. She said, “He told them what was true, but he never told them what wasn’t.” That’s so important. I don’t think we really know what is true unless we understand what can’t be. If that’s true. So I preached on why God is Father, not Mother. Well, there’s not a lot of news in West Michigan, but it was on the front page of the major newspapers. And there was a reaction, again, of a large number of faculty to that sermon. Well, this was the mild one. I thought, “Well next year maybe I’ll say something about pluralism — the idea that all religions are more or less true.”

Well, I did that for two Sundays. It got really nasty then. There were letters, emails, and protests. And I thought, “Okay, that’s enough, Lord, we got to the next one here.” And then, something happened at the end of the school year that only God could have orchestrated, because I certainly would not have wanted this to happen when it happened. One of our student Bible study leaders came to us and wanted us to know that she was a lesbian. She wanted to come out of the closet, and she wanted our support, and the support of her Bible study group in this. She asked if we would pray that her parents would understand. Do you see how important it is to say what’s true and what isn’t? I mean she knew us, but she hadn’t figured out yet how we would think about this.

I’m making a long story short, but we bent over backward to be pastoral with her. And finally, we had to say, “If you can’t see why this is wrong, you’ll have to step down as a Bible study leader. Would you pray about it?” So she went to a faculty member who was an openly practicing gay, got his advice, and came back defiantly and said, “No, this is the way God made me. I am going to do this, and you have no right to take leadership as a Bible study leader from me.”

We assured her that it wasn’t a matter of right, but just a matter of responsibilities, and that she had to step down. We wouldn’t embarrass her. We would do it quietly. And we did. But then, her friends found out, and there were demonstrations on campus the next week. Again, we were in the newspaper. Do you know how much private Christian institutions hate this kind of publicity? Do you know who usually gets blamed for that kind of behavior? Think about it.

Slander Coming Close to Home

As the school year came to a close, there were demonstrations, people on public radio, and newspaper stuff again, my son, Dan, who graduated last year was an art major and he was at a masquerade ball, and people were encouraged to act out their costumes. And so, one student got up dressed as a televangelist. I’m not sure what he had on, but he was supposedly dressed as a televangelist, and he had one of my books in his hand. And he did a parody of me in front of Dan and 300 other students. Then Dan looked across the room, and there were three people with a photo of me who had blown it up into big masks, and they were wearing Ben Patterson masks and were mocking me. My son Dan is a big kid and capable of violence, I suppose. I’m really glad the way it turned out, but he looked at this girl he was with and he said, “Now, is it just me or should I be feeling bad right now?”

So he went over to them and took them by the arm and said, “You’re going outside.” And when they got outside, they took off their masks, one was a faculty member, one was an administrator, and one was a friend. They must have seen in his eyes what I know to be true about him. And he said, “What do you think you’re doing? I don’t have to defend my father, I agree with him, but I’m a student here. I shouldn’t have to put up with this. Don’t you think about wearing those masks anymore.” And they didn’t.

Four days later, my son, Joel, who at this time is a freshman, got a series of obscene phone calls threatening rape. Now, I have to say something about all this. Clearly, it still affects me, but you need to know two things. One, your family always gets hit. It’s not about you. It’s not about your family either, but it’s not just about you. But secondly, I was really bitter for a while about this. These are college kids. They’re supposed to have fun, right? But then it struck me, and I think this is so true, I think, what an opportunity for my sons to find out something about the kingdom, and what an opportunity for my wife and me, by God’s grace, to live this in front of them. So, they’re doing just fine.

Well, with all this going on, trustees don’t get these kinds of things, and they ordered an internal review of our department. So people came in from the outside and interviewed various segments of the college community about us and discovered that about half the student body goes to chapel now — 1,500 students, either every day or once a week or something like that. They’re very, very positive about chapel. It took a survey to figure that out, but it was there. The surveyor said he had never seen such a negative response from any group he’s ever surveyed, from the faculty, about this.

There are so many mistakes I can make in this address, but the college has steadfastly wanted to define the problem as relational, not theological. Now, in a sense, it is relational, but I’ll talk about that later. We addressed the issue of homosexuality last spring. It was the messiest thing I’ve ever been a part of. And in reaction, again, the faculty brought Mel White on campus, if you know what I’m talking about, you know what that was like. Here I am in my sixth year. We have a new president and he’s got a lot to figure out. Well, that’s a bit of the story.

The Issues That Call for Courage

Let me talk about what I think the issues are. Well, these are the issues that we see. Ultimately, our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. But these are the masks, the issues, that present themselves in higher education, I think. Before I came to Hope College, I asked a Christian historian what he thought the chances for renewal were in the mainline church. And he said, “Frankly, I’m not very optimistic.” I said, “Why?” He said, “Well, because, historically, the mainline church has been so tied to higher education, it really reflects it.” He was right.

So, let me ask a question as I wrap this up. I may not get to my little sermon at the end, but let me just give you what I have here. At what point then have I discovered courage to be required of a follower of Jesus Christ in higher education, and also in the mainline church and even in our culture?

1. Truth

Let me touch on five areas: Truth, the cult of diversity, the idol of dialogue, the inevitability of the ad-hominem argument, and the felt needs and demands of Christian institutions.

Regarding truth, it is costly to announce the truth. Duh. But think of this, in our current intellectual climate, truth is regarded as more or less a subjective notion, a social construction, the result of one’s experience, gender, race, etc. Now what’s the logic of that? Well, it’s this, if truth is the result of one’s experience, if it is a subjective notion, then any claim to proclaim objective truth (Truth), especially in the realm of faith, is generally regarded as scandalous and outrageous. No matter what the truth is, to simply say this is objectively true, is to say something that is by definition outrageous.

One philosophy professor said to me, “Ben, if you were to step into the pulpit and say, ‘Now I’m going to give you my opinion, and there are other opinions, but would you now listen to mine,’ we would be fine. But you get up and say, ‘Thus saith at the Lord.’” Now he said this with complete candor, he was not being sarcastic, because it seemed to him to be outrageous that any mere human could get up and say, “Thus saith the Lord.” I do that. Because I believe there is objective truth, and as philosopher Peter Kreeft put it, “Our likes and dislikes do not change reality. We do not make the universe hold its breath by holding ours.” It could be any subject really. Well no, there’s some you could say is objectively true, but I won’t get into that.

2. The Cult of Diversity

If truth is more or less a social construction, if there is no objective standard by which to measure it, then there can no longer be any truth under which the members of the community can stand and submit. Right? It’s everybody’s truth and anybody’s truth. The immune system breaks down and a kind of spiritual AIDS develops. Anything can happen, and it does. And theological diversity is considered not only inevitable but necessary. It takes on creedal significance, it becomes self-justifying. Not only is it unavoidable, it is good. Very good. And the corollary of this is that a chaplain or a minister should not so much say what is true, but listen carefully to this, as to reflect and support the various truths of the community. To do otherwise is the risk of being accused of divisiveness.

There’s another feature of this diversity thing worth noting. It’s the useful vagueness of the word “centrist.” The word centrist has been a buzzword in the mainline church for the last two or three decades. What it says is, “Don’t get hung up on your differences. Hold to the center.” It’s a very revealing metaphor because the center can be an infinitesimally small point, really a lowest common denominator. The question is, should not a center also have a circumference, a point beyond which one is no longer in the center?

3. The Idol of Dialogue

Question: What can possibly hold so much diversity together, especially if the diversity includes the heretical and the apostate? Answer: Keep the conversation going. Give all outlooks an equal voice at the table. Keep the playing field level. Let a commitment to respectful, egalitarian dialogue be the glue that holds the community together.

A lot of people really believe this will make it happen — if we just agree to keep talking. What we’re not willing to let the word of God do, we think conversation can. There’s an old preacher story, and I’ll tell you this because it illustrates it so well. It’s about the battleship coursing through the foggy waters of the North Atlantic. It picks up a signal out in the distance and radios in that direction: “Alter your course 10 degrees to the south.” A signal comes back, “Alter your course 10 degrees to the south.” The captain of the battleship is a little angry and says, “This is Captain Jenkins. I order you to alter your course 10 degrees to the south.” The signal comes back, “This is seaman first class Smith, alter your course 10 degrees to the south.” Now the captain is really mad. He says, “This is Captain Jenkins, this is a battleship. I command you to alter your course 10 degrees to the south.” The signal comes back, “This is first class, Smith. This is a lighthouse. Alter your course 10 degrees to the south.”

Now here’s the point. The post-modernist would like to keep the conversation going between the ship and the lighthouse. And if the furniture of dialogue is a round table, its anti-furniture is the pulpit. Now, I know I’m preaching to the choir, but I think there are some things a Christian college should no longer have dialogue over, as though they were still open questions.

4. The Inevitability of the Ad Hominem Argument

This is where it gets nasty. Since truth is a highly personal social construction, people are very involved personally in their truth, but in a special way. For me to say, I know the truth, is to be heard as saying, “My truth is better than your truth.” It’s a personal assault. It is by definition arrogant to say that what I believe is better than what you believe. And it is. But it just so happens, on some key points, that what I believe is that there are no more my beliefs than the Apostles Creed is my creed. But that’s the way it’s heard. It’s my views versus your views, and the resulting debate often moves away from the issues to the person. It’s ad hominem, to the man. And thus, incivility is the byproduct of subjective truth. If anyone claims they have the truth and are perceived as it being my truth versus your truth, then such claims are also perceived as acts of power, even coercion and violence. The logic is, that if he thinks he’s right and I’m wrong, he’ll probably impose his views on me, and it can get nasty.

Our Need for a Savior

I’m going to skip the fifth point. It can come up in Q&A if you want it. I want to preach just a little bit before I close.

I said to be courageous, we need a Lord. We also need a Savior. Let me read you a few verses from Romans 8:18–23:

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.

It makes a big difference to fear the Lord, and to say, “Not what I want but what you want.” But it’s critical to know that we have a Savior who stands at the beginning, the middle, and the end. And therefore, all this stuff, Paul says, is like childbirth.

Now, I stood at my wife’s side as our four children were born. Someone said I was helping her by doing this. I got the distinct impression that this was a rather difficult thing to do. Call me intuitive, I know, but I just sensed that this was hard, and, especially in the first birth, I thought like a lot of men do, “This is not efficient. We can improve on this.” Because, when she was exhausted, the doctor said, “Push.” Now shouldn’t the pushing be when you’re rested, and then, the other stuff? But it was the other way around. And it was hard. And how could she possibly do all this when she’s so tired? Is it Lombardi who said, “Fatigue makes cowards of us all”? I mean it gets them tired.

Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. In fact, they will soar on wings like eagles. They will run and not be weary. And that’s it. I close with this picture. I’ve watched eagles soar. One of my favorite places is at the Navigator’s Headquarters in Glen Eyrie, Colorado. And you can see a lot in these canyons. I trudged up to the place where Dawson Trotman is buried, and what a contrast between my trudging up there and watching these eagles do their thing.

I have a buddy who explained to me how they do this. They’ll sit perched up on these rocky crags, waiting for the thermals to be just right. Then they will fold their wings to their sides and literally throw themselves into the chasm. They have these little sensors in their beaks that can tell them at just the right moment to spread their wings. Eagles, as far as muscles go, don’t have much in the chest. Hummingbirds do, but not eagles. But that’s all it took. Abandon yourself to the grace and the mercy of God. In 1 Peter 2:23, it is said of Jesus:

When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.

Brothers, as near as I can tell, that’s the only thing I know that can keep me from bitterness and self-righteousness and things like that. If I die, I die. Whatever I do, whatever we do, is to simply cast ourselves, abandon ourselves, to our Lord and our Savior, Jesus Christ.

Questions and Answers

Can you give us your fifth point?

It’s the felt needs of Christian institutions. It’s very hard for Christian institutions to deal with these kinds of matters for obvious reasons. Christian institutions are dependent, heavily they think, on the perceptions and opinions of their constituencies. The constituencies and trustees aren’t always noted for their ability to draw fine points. I call this “institutional codependency.” It’s very easy to blame the bad behavior, in our case the pro-gay folks on campus are one example, of those who “made them do this” by saying it was wrong. And it’s very tough.

The number one priority of most institutions, and I include churches in this, can easily become self-preservation. The question is often, “What’s good for the institution?” not, “What’s faithful to the kingdom of God.” I say this, I hope, without rancor: It’s just hard for institutions, especially if you’ve built a career out of selling yourself, and colleges have to do this year in and year out. It’s called admissions. It’s called advancement. I have become keenly aware of how easy it is for a non-profit to become a non-prophet. Again, churches are not exempt from this, believe me. Denominations aren’t. This becomes a point where courage is required of servants of Jesus Christ.

Could you help us to understand, in your own experience, what has helped you not to take the ministry so personally and be thin-skinned?

Well, I’m not thin-skinned, I’m really not. I remember something I heard from Helen Roseveare. Some of you may have heard of Helen. She was captured by the Simba Rebels in the Wars for Independence in the Belgian Congo and was raped and beaten repeatedly over a long period of time. I was interviewing her for a radio program, and when she got done, she told me, “I’ll have nightmares tonight about this.” And I said, “Helen, I’m sorry. I would not have interviewed you if I thought you’d have nightmares.” She said, “Oh no, no, no. The Lord told me that if I’m to tell a story, I can’t be a phonograph record. I need to feel it.”

I don’t believe it’s a good thing to have thick skin. Read the Psalms. Your only hope is not in your ability to be tough and cussed — and I’m pretty cussed and stubborn, but I’m not that stubborn — our only hope is the mercy of God. We keep coming back to him and looking at his hands. I guess it’s never a done deal. It’s a continual coming back to the Lord.

If modern man has a big head, a big belly, and no chest, does post-modern man have a big belly, no chest, and no head?

No, I think he has a big head too. I’m amazed at the split that I see in, at least in my institution of higher education. There are some big heads. I mean, I’m not talking about pride here, I’m just talking about lots of cognitive stuff going on. Major stuff is dichotomized completely. And I think the heads are still big.

I’m probably the only Hope graduate here. Who are the people who have come with you and have stood with you to be courageous? Because I know there are many people who are with you on the other side of the polarization. How can we come behind you and support you in these endeavors?

Thanks for asking that question, because that’s something my wife said I had to say and I forgot to. It is incalculable, the value of a community of servants — of Paul and Barnabas and Silas and folks like that — who are in unity with one another, and who are pray-ers, who pray together. I have to say the staff that God’s assembled, I’ve just never experienced such unity in prayer. The Lord loves it when we join together in prayer and we are in unity. My staff has been remarkable. There are good people in the community. There’s a percentage of faculty that’s very supportive, and the students are thrilled. But I can’t speak enough about the importance of finding people with whom you can walk in unity, and pray in unity, together. That has been the difference through all this.

Could you address the issue of dialogue again? Where is that balance between God’s word and how we engage the culture? And where do we stop?

I have a bad taste with the word “dialogue” right now, but I want to rescue that because it’s a very good word, a very important word. Let me emphasize the point I was trying to make when I said what I said about the idol of dialogue. In a Christian institution or Christian college, it seems to me that it is proper to expose students to all the options out there. But it should be by one who professes the faith. To treat them in a Christian institution as open questions, still up for agreement, is to do a terrible thing. So that kind of dialogue I’m really opposed to because it sends a message to students that’s devastating. But should we learn how to have respectful dialogue, and learn how to listen, and to have Christian ears and a Christian mouth? Absolutely.

I think it’s important. It’s gotten blown out of significance, and especially where dialogue becomes the preferred method of engaging the truth. Preaching is just a scandalous kind of thing, if that is the way. See I’m still critiquing dialogue and I apologize for that. I wish I was at Michigan State, then I could maybe be more positive about dialogue with non-believers, with non-Christians. I think that can be a marvelous mode of evangelization — genuine dialogue. There’s a certain pride involved in it, that simply by talking about it, we’ll discover what the truth is. That doesn’t hold water to me. We can clarify the truth, maybe.

I’m a pastor of a campus church at Brown University, which was an Ivy League school. It started as a Baptist church, and it’s far more advanced in its liberalism than Hope College. When I heard of Hope College, I was kind of shocked to hear some of the things that are happening, because I’ve always thought of it as a very conservative school. I’d just like to ask you for some advice. When you’re in Hope College, at least maybe some of those trustees are still wanting to go back, and you have half the student body that might want to do that. But maybe there are other people who are in ministry where the institutions have sold out, and have gone to the enemy. When you’re behind enemy lines, not just on the battlefront, how would some of these things play out? I ask for some advice for myself.

I don’t know how valid my advice is, because I’ve just not been in that kind of situation in a long, long time. I’ll confess, it sounds neat to me, the situation you’re in, because it’s a little clearer where the lines are. It’s very confusing when it is professing Christians who are your greatest antagonists. That’s what is so very difficult. So, I look at Brown and I think, “Cool, let’s go to Brown. There’s no pretense here.” That’s not helpful. There is a great line here in scripture though. It’s in Mark 9. It’s where Jesus had cast the demon out of this boy that the disciples couldn’t cast out. Remember? And they asked him, as he went into the father’s house, “Now why couldn’t we do that?” And he said, “This kind comes out only by prayer.” And in some manuscripts, it says, “and fasting.”

Well, what were they doing? They weren’t praying, whatever they were doing. Jesus said, “You have to pray. This kind comes out only by prayer.” And I think we need a renewed recognition that the world is full of “this kinds.” These things are absolutely intractable. They will not budge by our programs and our clever ideas. We need the power of the Holy Spirit to break through. I think there are two things: We have to pray and we have to lay our lives down. We need to be willing to take whatever comes at us, for giving that kind of witness. So I would say those two things, but I would also speak of Hope College on that point.

I’m sure that many here feel the heat of the battle. They’re involved right now in the heat of the battle, but they’re also probably many here who do not feel the heat of the battle right now. Their churches are at peace, the people are behind them, and the word of God is being faithfully proclaimed. What would you say to those pastors who are in that kind of situation, who do not feel that? Should one feel guilty for not being in the trenches? Or not having someone shooting at them? What would you say to those people?

Great question. It often doesn’t make an interesting address. You have to laugh at yourself. I mean, you find yourself in these situations and think, “How did I get here?” Another Christian friend of mine was the director of one of the nuclear power plants in California, and you can imagine what his life was like. He told me once, he said, “I used to think that the normal state of affairs was peace and quiet and that abnormal was conflict and struggle. I’ve come to realize that it’s when it’s quiet and peaceful that that’s just a nice little interlude in the real thing.”

I say be thankful to God. Give God glory and thanks if indeed the peace you’re experiencing is a God-given Shalom, and this is great. Just don’t be surprised if it ends at some point, and not because there’s some kind of cosmic balance scale that says, “All right, you’ve had enough good times. Let me give you some bad times.” But it’s because that’s just what the war’s about. So I’d say praise God. Stay on it. Don’t get sleepy. Stay on the balls of your feet.

There are those who want to fight for the truth in the churches, and sometimes they come up against phrases that are very disarming, in my estimation. The reason they’re so disarming is because there’s an element of very important truth in them. But the phrases that I’m speaking about are things like this: “Don’t run ahead of the Holy Spirit,” or, “Don’t try to do the Holy Spirit’s work.” Those phrases really need to be taken to heart, whoever they come from, and I realize that, but it also concerns me, because it seems to me that so often they derail any aggressive pursuit of the truth. They assume that those who are willing to do battle — very much aware of their feet of clay — are not seeking God, are not humbling themselves, are not in prayer, and are not willing to be corrected along the way in the course. I find this really troubling to me, and I’m just wondering if there’s anything that you can say to encourage us. I know that pride, and this whole area of pride and humility, is the bottom line.

Well, of course, I’m sure there’s a story behind all this. So I can’t respond to those details except to say, that pride and bitterness are deadly sins that those who suffer for Christ can fall into. We can keep on doing the right things for all the wrong reasons, and just out of anger and bitterness. I guess I want to commend to you Revelation 12:11, which says:

And they have conquered [the accuser of the brethren] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death.

Now, there’s something about those things. There’s the blood of the Lamb and a witness that is not afraid to suffer, and is willing to lay one’s life down that sure can help keep away from the unwanted pride. Now, it sounds to me like maybe in your situation, someone is saying, “Don’t say anything, wait for the Holy Spirit.” And that translates into a kind of passivity and quietism that’s not appropriate either. But it is hard for me to say much more without being involved in the situation.

Have you had an opportunity to do some discipling of others at Hope into courage? And can you give some insights to pastors who are leading boards or consistories or what have you, to help their leaders become courageous? Are there ways that you’ve been able to disciple people into that?

There’s no substitute for simply having to be involved in conflict. And this has been so great. Students have watched, and it’s just those with whom you’re in a relationship with. We’re always involved in small groups, and we’re in discipling relationships with students. As they watch this unfold, they’re learning, as I hope my own children are. But as to a specific program, at which I’m sure you weren’t asking, for discipleship and courage, I don’t have one. If you’re in a situation where it’s required, well, there you have it. It’s there.

You used the illustration of a pastor who, for 40 years, preached the truth in the church and then how quickly it changed after that. I was wondering if you could maybe identify two or three issues today that you feel we should be proclaiming, both what is true and what is not true.

I don’t want to make too bold a declarative statement here, but I didn’t realize how many people in West Michigan have imbibed the ideas of religious pluralism. And you might be shocked at the people in your own church. You just can’t live in this culture and not start soaking it up. I would urge you all to be thoughtful in your preaching on this subject, and help your people think about the challenge of world religions on their doorstep now, and here in Minneapolis. How can we as Christians be thoughtful and deep about what we do in response to that? I think that is the big one.

The homosexual issue needs thoughtful teaching on it. It’s not because homosexuality is itself the core of the faith, though it’s not on the periphery either. But it happens to be maybe the key place, right now, in our culture, where people are trying to say what’s wrong is right. And that’s what makes it so important. Again, we tend to get blanket condemnations of the behavior and so on, but not thoughtful. I mean, the condemnation is deserved, but we need to be thoughtful about it in the sense of addressing these things with our people. Because, the other side, especially the Mel Whites of this world, are very skilled in arguing and deconstructing Scripture on this. And we need to be as skilled in our ability to lay forth the truth. I would say those are two big ones that you may not think are settled issues for your people, but they may not be. You might be surprised.

is the campus pastor at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California.