“Why I am a Christian”
(or “Why I am Not Thirsty”)
Richard J. Alberta
When I was in college in 1968, I read a book by the renowned British philosopher and atheist Bertrand Russell. Its title was Why I Am NOT a Christian. His arguments were interesting. They included all of the usual objections that are made to Biblical Christianity. Things like: “The world is filled with evil, so if there is a God, is this the best he can do? Religion has been the cause of so much of the world’s conflicts, why would anyone embrace it? As for Jesus, who can know what he really said anyway? Besides, much of what he said was very obnoxious…speaking of Hell and eternal punishment. And what kind of fellow was Jesus going around cursing fig trees for not blooming? And the miracles? Really? We are supposed to believe accounts of healings and resurrections?” In short, Russell found the idea that anyone would be a Christian quite puzzling. Entirely irrational.
These doubts probably resonated with me all the more because the Sixties were a very depressing time to move into adulthood. In my personal life, my parents had a nasty divorce. My mother had been suicidal and family unity was only a concept not a reality. At the same time, the Vietnam War was raging, student protests were taking place everywhere, three assassinations had brutalized America and the idea that “God is dead” or at least had gone away made sense. So, I decided I would declare myself an atheist. Actually, I was really an agnostic who was not prepared to insist that there is no God, but not at all sure about the issue. I decided to live as if God did not exist.
That was somehow strangely unsatisfying. For one thing Russell, for all of his passion, did not really answer several critical questions. For example, if Christianity is so absurd—and I mean by that the belief that God took on flesh and lived without sin in the person of Jesus of Nazareth and went to the Cross and was Resurrected—if all of that is nonsense why have so many very bright people believed it? Beginning with Augustine and Aquinas and Luther and Calvin and many others, were they all simply childish, wishful thinkers? And what about the curious reality that such a “myth” would compel millions through the centuries to serve Christ even at the cost of their lives? They were all deluded? Russell gave me food for thought but rather incomplete answers. I sensed that actually he did not want to deal with the real questions which might have been: “Okay, there is much in the Bible that is difficult to understand and believe but what if it is true? If there is a God who is powerful enough to make the planets and all of us out of nothingness…then would it be hard for him to part the seas or have a man survive inside a whale or take on flesh and walk on the water? Would a resurrection be hard for a God who made everything from ladybugs to the Grand Canyon, to the thousands of miles of nerve pathways in my body, to the billions of brain cells that allow me to find my way to work in the morning?”
I also wondered about something that I would learn much later. Could it be that Russell and the others who mock the Bible and deny the claims of Christ simply do not want to consider them? Perhaps the idea of God would mean giving him the worship that was rightfully his and properly fearing him? Perhaps the unbeliever is simply determined to be his or her own Lord? Anyway, I lived as if God was not there. If it turned out that he was, that would be okay too. But I thought I could not know for sure so why trouble myself further?
Ten years went by. My wife Donna was carrying the first of our four sons. At the close of the pregnancy, which was very welcome to me because I desired children, I became extremely anxious. I was simply not prepared for fatherhood or living on half the income we had enjoyed. I was sleepless many nights and acutely aware of “something missing” in my life. I did not know at the time but I was experiencing what Pascal called “The God-Shaped Vacuum”—the place in the soul that can only be satisfied by a relationship with God. I loved Donna and I had a nice home and cars and career…but something was missing leaving me ill-at-ease.
Maybe it was God that I needed. I asked a friend who was a minister what he thought. After hearing me out, he was worried about me. He gently recommended that I see his friend, a psychiatrist. Okay. (When you do not sleep for a couple of weeks you will talk with anyone.) So I made an appointment but the doctor was away. His partner invited me in but he was Hispanic and only knew a few words of English! The only Spanish I knew were words that were not used in polite company so we didn’t get very far. All I heard him say was “Si…Si!” He meant well but that was not helping. So, I decided that since Russell was no comfort and the doctor was no help, I would buy a Bible and have another look.
I had read much of the New Testament as a 16-year old when I was hospitalized for three months with tuberculosis. Some of it now came back to me. But there I was with a King James Version sitting in my little room shivering from anxiety wondering if I was going crazy. I was reading Psalms in a language from four centuries ago and understanding almost nothing. Hmmm…I had a beautiful wife and a lovely new little son a few weeks old and I was in an emotional spin. And that empty spot? It was still there! So I did something no true atheist would do. I don’t know why or how but I went to my busy banking office and at mid-morning, as I watched the customer traffic in the lobby, I silently prayed “God…I seek you! Amen.” I even recall thinking “Did I pray that?” The thing is…I meant it!
The next day my niece Lynn came home from college for the weekend. She was at the house to see our new baby. She was always a smart and sweet girl that I had teased about being “born-again.” She never took offense or was fresh in return. I guess she just prayed for me and my proud and hard heart. Imagine her shock when I asked if I could go to church with her on Sunday before she returned to school. She was pleased and agreed to “take me.” Two days later there I was with 150 people. They were singing and worshipping and I was observing and wondering why they were so at ease and I was so anxious. Then the Pastor began talking about Jesus as if he knew him personally and they went fishing together or something like that!
The brick wall had one of those ubiquitous Jesus pictures on it. For some reason that really caught my attention. I had never thought of Jesus as a person, a man to whom I could relate. Yet if he was alive as the New Testament claimed, present through the Holy Spirit, perhaps I could know him? But I had no idea how to “get it done.” No one said to me “You need to simply admit that you’re a sinner (I would have had no problem with that part) and ask Jesus into your life.” I did not know how to enter into faith in Christ. I was simply lost in a spiritual and emotional cul de sac seeking an exit!
Being a totally unchurched fellow, I had no idea that it was “Communion Sunday.” This was all very foreign to me not having been raised in church. I listened as the Pastor gently explained how it was right and fitting to take the elements, bread and juice, in obedience to the command of Jesus to do so in remembrance of him. I actually sat there thinking about my Catholic friend as a kid who told me one day that he had taken his “First Holy Communion.” He was all exited about it. So, when the bread and juice reached me in the back row I took my “First Holy Communion.” That was my way of saying “Jesus…I don’t know what the heck I’m doing but if you’re really there I want to know you because I need help in my life!” He was there!
On my ride home I felt a strange but calm excitement. I sensed that I had done something very meaningful, and that “something missing” feeling was already receding. I told Donna about it and she was polite. I can’t blame her that in the weeks that followed she thought I gone from almost crazy to weirdly religious. But she came along a month or so later and gave her life to Christ and experienced the same super- natural joy that had come upon me.
God was gracious to me and began a new work in my heart and my mind. I came across another famous Brit named C.S. Lewis (a former atheist himself!) His book Mere Christianity included a profound insight that I needed to hear. Russell had said, correctly, that Jesus was regarded by many as a great moral leader and teacher. But, in his view, that was all that Jesus was or could have been. Yet Lewis demolished that argument by asking this: If Jesus was only a great moral leader and teacher, why did he claim to be so much more than that? Why did he claim to be the Son of God, the sinless Savior? If he was not what he claimed to be then he was a liar or a lunatic! Yes! Exactly. I realized that Jesus must be worshipped as God incarnate or dismissed altogether. I was already a Christian but my new faith was greatly enhanced by that insight. I was on the right track with Christ even though I understood very little.
It was not long before I began to share with Donna something that she did not want to hear. I was feeling God’s call to drop the idea of law school and go instead to seminary. Since her maiden name is “Pastor” (seriously!) I thought the idea to be great and even amusing…but she wanted no part of it. Over the months that followed the Lord changed her heart. That was 35 years ago and we’ve been in ministry ever since. I could not have had a better life partner than my Donna.
One more thing though. When I started seminary in 1978, I made a list of all of the things I hoped to come to understand about God and His ways. I had a whole page of questions. All these many years later, I still have most of them. Why do we see so few miracles in our day? Why does God allow evil? Why did God make Adam and Eve if he knew they would fall into sin? And so on. Since then, I have tended to families whose kids were killed in car crashes and combat. I have presided at funerals for 99- year olds and babies of two weeks. I have preached a thousand different sermons and watched people grow in Christ and seen others walk away. I have pleaded with God for my sons and their kids and he has not always been quick to answer.
I have watched God heal marriages and ached when He seemed to be totally distant from those who were hurting. I do not understand much more about God and his ways than I did the day I was saved. But I do know this. Jesus is just exactly who he said he is and I have eternal life. I am at peace! I do not fear death and I could never leave my relationship with Christ. I have experienced exactly what he said to the woman at the well. In John Four, Jesus tells her:
13 “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” ( John 4:13-14 NIV)
That day, in that country church, was February 6, 1977. My thirst was quenched—forever! God be Praised!