When Brandon arrived on campus with a full-ride scholarship, he made the top 10 of the smartest freshmen I’d ever met. Take my SAT scores, multiply them by two, and my score would be lower than his first and only attempt. Because he loved learning from history, he decided to major in it. His love for his home youth ministry group drew him to our campus ministry.
Sitting in my office one crisp fall morning, Brandon and I were getting to know each other. He unhesitatingly told me he wanted to be more involved in our ministry, to even take on a leadership role. The sparkle in his eyes as he talked about his youth group experience communicated how much he loved his church and how connected he felt to the people he’d met through his church.
During our talk, which lasted the better part of an hour, I realized that for someone so committed to his church, he hadn’t mentioned Jesus Christ once. Not a big deal, I thought. I didn’t know him very well. But I asked him, “Brandon, you’re a history buff, let me ask you this. If you were to find out today that some anthropologist had unearthed the body of Jesus on the outskirts of Jerusalem, proving the resurrection a hoax, would that affect your belief in Christianity?”
His wheels turned for a moment and then he responded, “No, I don’t think it would.”
“Really? Why not?”
He went on to tell me that his faith was made real by the shared experiences with his church youth group friends. Discovering that Jesus didn’t rise from the dead would have little consequence for his faith. He’d still have his friends, and he’d still have the church.
I was a bit taken aback at first. How could someone so intellectually astute and motivated by the truth associated with historical events separate the truth of Jesus Christ from the historical person of Jesus Christ? You would never separate the truth of Abraham Lincoln from the historical person of Abraham Lincoln, would you?
Experience over Truth?
Brandon’s experience represents a gap between what’s true about God and what’s not true about God. His hierarchy of needs dictates his personal priorities. It’s more important for him to bridge the truth gap with good feelings associated with established youth group friendships than to bridge the gap with what is actually true about Jesus Christ. The truth about Brandon is that he grounds his faith in the experience of church more than the truth of Jesus Christ.
Brandon’s method of bridging the truth gap is common. We try to bridge the gap of truth in other ways, as well. For example, we use information overload â€” correlating input of data with revelation of truth. Bible study, Scripture memorization, doctrine distribution, and a list of Christian dos and don’ts, if not grounded in the truth of Jesus Christ, can easily drive us further into the gap between what’s true about God and what’s not.
Henri Nouwen expressed that the only way to know the truth of Jesus Christ is to be transformed by an intimate relationship with Jesus Christ. “Truth does not mean an idea, concept, or doctrine, but the true relationship. To be led into the same relationship that Jesus has with the Father; it is to enter into divine betrothal” (Making All Things New, 54).
Grace and Truth
John sets the tone to the true relationship Jesus offers by beginning with a prologue of grace and truth, characterized by God taking the first step to bridge the gap between what’s true and what’s not true about God.
“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John testified to him and cried out, ‘This was he of whom I said, “He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.”’) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” (John 1:14-18)
John ends his gospel with an event of full grace released and full truth revealed â€” the restoration of Peter. Peter finds himself in the gap of truth, a gap many of us know. We don’t question the facts of Jesus’ resurrection; we only question whether the forgiveness it brings is really for us. Even witnessing the undeniable reality of the resurrection of Jesus didn’t break through the deep shame Peter felt for disavowing Jesus. Only an after-breakfast, face-to-face conversation with Jesus, in which Jesus graciously allows Peter to own his love for him, provides the catalyst for the truth Peter seeks. The truth of God is revealed to him because the grace of God is released to him.
Grace Released, Truth Revealed
Between the bookends of John’s prologue and Peter’s restoration, encounters with Jesus weave a tapestry of grace released and truth revealed, bridging the gap between what’s true and not true about God.
Read through John to peer into the lives of all the people Jesus encountered â€” four men who discover that Jesus is the one they’ve been waiting for all their lives, the partying guests who enjoyed the choice wine Jesus miraculously provided at a Canaanite wedding, a seeking Nicodemus, a humble John the Baptist, a respected government official who is also a desperate dad, an outcast Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, a helpless invalid of 38 years, the 5,000 who filled their stomachs with five loaves and two fish, the desperate disciples who saw Jesus walk on water, a shamed woman caught in the act of adultery, a man blind since birth with the spit of Jesus on his eyes, a dead Lazarus and his brokenhearted sisters, Mary and Martha, the worried disciples in the upper room with clean feet and comforted hearts, a surprised and overjoyed Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb, and a doubtful Thomas placing his finger in Jesus’ wounds.
See if, in fact, the truth revealed to them about what’s true and not true about God was released by an act of Jesus-grace. If we could ask them, my bet is that they would say it was. They might even say that not only is Jesus the truth, Jesus is also the grace.
The gap between what’s true and what’s not true about God isn’t bridged by good feelings of church friendships, a system of rational thought, a carefully outlined Goddoctrine, or even a well-articulated belief system. God bridged the gap by binding truth to a person â€” the person of Jesus Christ â€” who comes full of grace and full of truth. The world of words and concepts becomes a life of flesh and blood. By embodying the fullness of God’s grace and truth, Jesus’ life of grace becomes the catalyst for truth. Releasing the grace of Jesus Christ reveals the truth of Jesus Christ. I’m not suggesting the truth of Jesus is always received, only that until and unless the grace of Jesus is released, the truth of Jesus will not be received.
I’ve seen the surveys that declare a truth crisis spreading through the value system of American teens. By looking at these polls, you’d think all young people are morally adrift in a sea of moral swill, not the least bit interested in anchoring their lives to bedrock, absolute truth. And anyone who works with young people can easily find some merit in the statistics. But maybe there’s a crisis of truth in our culture because there’s a crisis of grace. I’d like to see a poll on that.
Grace reaches out and grabs truth out of the ethereal world of the propositionally abstract and deeply plants it into the messy world of human living, providing a relational context in which the truth of God becomes visible, tangible, and even vulnerable. Wherever, whenever, and with whomever God’s grace, generosity, compassion, forgiveness, mercy, kindness, and faithfulness intersect our lives, God’s truth is revealed and the potential exists for truth to be received.
I’ve tried to put a definition on this but nothing satisfies. Trying to define this kind of thing is like standing underneath a waterfall, trying to catch the falling current with your hands. Grab and snatch all you want, you’ll never be able to confine the flow in your grasp. You don’t define it nor can you confine it. You can only relinquish yourself to the gush and try to describe what it’s like.
Like when a 19-year-old Christian student I know found her relationship with Jesus severely challenged because of some lifestyle choices she’d made. Not surprisingly, her destructive choices led her into hiding â€” the place deep within her soul she wanted none of her Christian friends to know about. Because she’d never wavered in her small group participation, four straight weeks of not showing up made some people worry. After several more weeks of trying to contact her, I finally was able to talk with her.
Her moral adventure had landed her in spiritual wasteland. Although she felt as if she was coming out of her “funk,” as she called it, the shame that gripped her created a wall between her and God. Not only did she believe that God couldn’t forgive her for what she’d done, she couldn’t face her small group friends again. We left it open, but I encouraged her to come out of hiding and return to the people who loved her so they could walk with her through this.
I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was when she showed up the next night. She said nothing through the entire Bible study, until the end when the dam broke. Through her tears, runny nose, and near hyperventilation, she shared with her peers what she’d been through and how much guilt and shame she was feeling. When she finished, one student spoke for the rest: “We’re so glad you’re back. We’ve missed you so much. I think we need to spend our prayer time praying for you.” With that, everyone in the small group got up, surrounded their broken friend, laid their hands on her, and poured prayer on her until she was dripping with the grace of God.
That night changed her life. I think it changed the lives of everyone who experienced it. Grace was released, truth was revealed. The gap between what’s true and not true about God was bridged.
I wonder if what we need in our search for and communication of truth isn’t more teaching, more thinking, more doctrine, more programs, or more rules, but more grace. I wonder what our lives would be like if we let the dynamic combination of full grace and full truth capture our hearts.
I wonder what our witness would be if, instead of concentrating on great youth group experiences and programming, we released full grace into the lives of the young people with whom we work. I wonder what kind of truth would be revealed, what kind of forgiveness would be experienced, what kind of salvation would come, and what kind of Kingdom stories would be told.
GREGG TAYLOR is the campus minister and executive director of the Wesley Foundation at the University of Arkansas. Prior to going to the campus, he served three churches as a youth pastor. He speaks often to youth and college groups, and he’s been ministering to college students for more than 15 years.