I often feel like people who have known me and my family for a long time may not take anything I say about a ‘personal faith’ seriously. I remember, when I was 12, having my brother’s friend as a form mentor. He had been round to our house, and I used to see him on the coach to school. One day he said to me ‘of course you believe all of that; your whole family do’, and said that was the only reason someone would believe something so obviously untrue. And, in some ways, it hurt because I feared that he might be right – not that it was all a lie – but that since I‘ve always called myself a Christian, maybe it was wasn’t really my own decision.
But somehow, as well as this uncertainty, growing up a Christian also left me filled with pride. I was convinced that there was something desirable about my actions - that I was doing something for God, and that he was lucky to have me.
Jesus tells a parable of a man with two sons. The younger, ‘prodigal’ son goes off with his inheritance, squanders it all, and returns seeking a servant’s job, only to be surprisingly welcomed back with a huge celebration. It’s the other brother, though, who I’ve always felt more like. Bitter, refusing to enter the party, he protests “all these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!” I think this demonstrates the mistake I so easily made - thinking that I was doing something for God, rather than simply accepting his great love and wishing others to experience it too.
A few years ago a youth leader from church agreed to meet up with me to read something. He brought along a little book on the history of the reformation. This seems particularly relevant today, on the anniversary of 31st October 1517, when Martin Luther sparked that change by publishing 95 problems he had with the church as it was then. The history there was pretty interesting, but more importantly it showed me the truths the reformers fought for – as Paul puts it in the bible: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.” Whenever I think that anything I do could bring me any closer to God, without him loving me first and sending his son Jesus to die on the cross to pay for all I have done wrong, I’m totally kidding myself.
I needed to see that.
I needed to see that I could not offer God anything to make me deserve this ‘gift’. And I needed to accept that, as much as I probably thought I was somehow more worthy of God’s love than my friends, it came ‘not by works, so that no one can boast’, least of all me. I think at this point I was intellectually aware of grace as a concept. What I’m not sure about is whether I’d really, truly understood that this was absolutely nothing I could boast in. I didn’t deserve it at all; in fact, the only thing my own actions could do was to make it necessary for Jesus to die to pay that penalty they deserved.
So, clearly God’s grace was not something to boast in. And if I could not boast in the best thing that’s ever happened to me, why would I boast in anything else? This feels massively at odds with everything my school and Oxford tells me: that I need to seek success, wealth, and happiness, in whatever way I can, and that I deserve these because of who I am and all I can do. This message feels so loud that it’s easy to forget what is actually most important in my life.
Our school motto, which would be sung in chapel and on the rugby touchline alike, seems rather odd in light of this: detur soli deo gloria – ‘let the glory be given to God alone’. It’s certainly not the message I was hearing. I don’t think it’s what I really, truly wanted to believe. Maybe God could have some of the glory, but surely I deserved some too, for always going to church, for being a nice kid, for getting into Oxford, etc etc. Yet soli deo gloria was also one of the key messages of the reformers, and although my pride is still fighting against it, I can now accept and even rejoice in just how wonderful it is!
I thank God that my parents and my brothers all know Jesus, because that is the most wonderful thing I could ever hope and pray for, for those I love most. And those doubts I mentioned at the beginning? The more I’ve read, seen, and heard, more certain I’ve become that Jesus really did live, die and rise again. This would be true even if none of my family believed it. I thank God that it’s not just us, but that anyone can receive this gift if they just accept it, no matter your background or how you’ve lived before. But especially I thank Him that this is totally free, unmerited by anything we have done, and as a result my prayer is to ‘let the glory be given to God alone’.