“What are you doing, Tom?” I was ten years old and my mother had every reason to be curious. She had found her son sprawled across his bed in the middle of summer -- reading the Bible.
“I am going to read the Bible,” I declared decisively.
“Ok. That’s a good thing,” she replied, with a mixture of encouragement, amusement and curiosity.
There were worse things that a 10-year-old boy could do. Plus, whatever my motivation, she correctly figured that my ambitious plan wouldn’t get too far. She was right. I never made it out of Genesis. Nonetheless, no one told me to read the Bible. I had made that decision on my own. Whatever mixture of faith, curiosity or boredom was fueling my resolve, it was definitely my decision alone.
And whatever mixture of experiences, motivations and curiosity are fueling your faith in God as the school year begins, owning that faith for yourself is one of the most critical steps you can take to receive more from God and grow as a Christian.
Whose Faith Is It?
Many students come to college with some type of faith background. That can mean they have gone to a few worship services in a church, temple or mosque with their families while growing up, or a whole lot more. That was me. I went to pre-school at a Methodist church and my parents decided that our family would attend its worship services and become members. I went to church there every Sunday until I graduated from high school. Like many students, I made a decision to attend a college away from my home. With that decision came an open question: What would Sunday mornings hold for me in my new future at college?
And poking itself increasingly into my consciousness came the more obvious and significant question: What did I believe about God and Christian faith? If you can relate to this, remember that there are thousands of students like you (and like me some decades ago) on campus this fall.
Lose Your Faith or Come to Faith?
Church leaders, pastors and parents send students to college harboring a fear that these college-bound freshmen will “lose their faith.” And in fact, many statistics point to the reality that there are many students who regularly participated in church and youth groups in high school that go to college and choose to put Christian faith “on the shelf.” Often that gets characterized as students “losing their faith in college.” In my experience, many students with a faith background that do not pursue active involvement in a church or campus fellowship in college are not abandoning their faith. They can’t. They never really had a faith that they had come to own for themselves. They haven’t made an adult decision to believe. For many students, “faith” has been fueled by the faith of their parents or church community, but now on their own in college, they discover that a life with God can’t be developed “on the fumes” of their parents’ faith or church community alone. Faith and life with God has to become something they seek and believe for themselves.
This is exactly how I arrived at college. I had a faith background. I had gone to church my whole life. I had even preached on youth Sunday two years in a row while I was in high school! I was curious and open to faith, maybe even seeking God. But had I made a conscious decision to make Jesus the Leader and Forgiver of my life? Did I own “my faith?” Nope. So, what was I going to do about Sunday mornings? But more importantly, what was I going to do with God and the real seeds of faith that had been planted in my life up to that point?
I took a step to own my faith in the only way I knew how. I am sure now that the Spirit was leading me. At the time, I just knew I was curious. Like the religious leader Nicodemus whose curiosity drove him to clandestinely seek out Jesus in the middle of the night, (John 3), I too sought out God in a hidden way. Not under the cloak of darkness, but in the full light of a desolate dormitory on a typical Sunday morning, I left my room alone and unseen, driving off in my VW Bug to the 8:00am morning worship service at the nearby Methodist church. Among mostly grey-haired companions, I sought God. It was the only thing I knew to do. Faith was growing -- my faith. And at the end of my first semester, I made the life-changing decision to place my full confidence in God to lead my life.
As you read this, you may relate to my story. You grew up going to church or had some faith influence in your life from a parent, grandparent, friend, or family member. But you also realize that your “faith” or “being a Christian” up to this point has been “in name only.” Now for the first time, you want to make it your own.
If that is your story and you want to make faith in Christ your own faith, I invite you right now to confess in prayer your belief in Jesus Christ, a Savior who forgives your sin and gives you freedom by his death and resurrection to live a holy and righteous life that impacts the world for good. Tell Jesus that you place your full confidence or faith in him to lead your life (Romans 10:9).
If you just prayed that prayer, wow! The Bible says you have just crossed over spiritually from “death to life” (John 5:24). That’s a big deal. I encourage you to go tell someone what you have just done, perhaps a friend, your InterVarsity staff worker, pastor or your parents. Talk to someone who can help you take concrete steps to own your new faith in day-to-day life. Also, I encourage you to pick up some InterVarsity Press books to help you grow in a faith that is now your own, such as Faith on the Edge or The Adventure.
Their Faith or My Faith?
The gospel writer John tells the story of people in a small village who believed in Jesus through the excited testimony of a woman who had a life-changing conversation with him at a nearby well (see John 4). At the end of the story, Jesus himself visits this village and stays for two days. Many more people believe in him after personally listening to his teaching. John records how they reacted to the woman. “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world” (John 4:42).
Owning your faith happens through a lifetime of conscious and intentional choices to hear Jesus for yourself and to do what he says. Yes, it begins with a real and personal decision to believe in Christ, the step of faith that generates new life. Yet, unfortunately, faith fails to flourish when we do not intentionally listen to Jesus for ourselves again and again. Too often, Christians participate in church, campus fellowships and even InterVarsity leadership teams because it is what they have always done, what their friends do or what they feel is expected. And at the same time, they confess that in terms of their own faith, they are only half-way hearing Jesus and half-way pursuing the Lord for themselves. They drift on the coattails of the community’s faith.
When this happens in campus fellowships, students graduate, leave the spiritual norms and culture of a chapter or leadership team, and what gets exposed is that their faith had been “loaned to them more than owned by them.” Instead of college being a time to deepen their faith convictions, own their faith more fully for themselves and build life-long patterns of hearing and obeying, they leave having missed the opportunity to develop a deep, flourishing and personal life with God that is their own.
If you recognize yourself in this scenario, take courage. You don’t have to drift. Jump off the coattails of your chapter’s faith and start earnestly following Jesus, seeking him for yourself, one day at a time. He promises to reward your step(s) of faith with a life growing in abundance and fruitfulness (Mark 4:1-20).
Forging Your Own Faith
Forging a life of faith that is your own is a life-long journey. Below are some steps you can take now to solidify habits, practices and heart attitudes to help you develop a vibrant life of faith that is yours.
1. Seek God Alone. A faith that is your own is forged first in the places where no one is watching, no one is expecting, no one is judging. It is the place of solitude before God that you are choosing for yourself. Seek the face of God each day in prayer and Scripture study. If this is a familiar exhortation to you, it is for a reason. It is the place where followers of Jesus over the centuries have discovered that one’s own love and devotion to God takes root and flourishes (Psalm 1). Pay attention to your feelings. Practice honesty before God. Practice listening to God for yourself. Talk with your staff worker, pastor or friend who can help you get started. Check out free and other InterVarsity Press resources here or subscribe to a daily audio Bible reading at The Bible Podcast. Forging your own faith happens when we deepen in the private, and then take risks in the public.
2. Do the Word. A faith that is your own finds expression in decisions to act on what you hear from God. When you hear God and then act to be generous with your possessions, or tell a seeking friend your faith story, or submit yourself to others with whom you have differences, you profess “I believe” with your hands and feet. When you own your faith, you submit to the authority and leadership of Jesus in your life through obedience. Hear the Word, do it, and then watch for how God shows up. He will. Your obedience will be the conduit for God’s power to break into your life and others.
3. Recognize the Lord. The Scripture says the mercies of God are new with each day (Lamentations 3:22-23). Look for the Lord’s mercies around you each day. When you recognize the presence and power of God at hand, your faith in him grows. When you recognize God’s mercies and then interpret that for others, your faith is expanded and deepened in your own conviction that God is at work in your life and others. Try keeping a journal for a month and record the places where you recognize God’s presence each day.
4. Find Companions for the Journey. In my sophomore year, Bill was my prayer partner. We met weekly to encourage each other in our steps to own our faith. We talked about what we read in the Bible and sermons we heard. We helped each other decide how to “do the Word” we were receiving and then prayed to have the courage and conviction to do it. As I learned to be honest with Bill, I learned to be honest with God as well. His friendship inspired me and brought me joy on the journey of making my faith in God my own.
As the school year begins, make this a year to own your faith, whether for the first time or as a decision to not drift on the faith-coattails of others. As you put down deeper roots of faith on your own, you will experience new-found joy and a heart expanding in love for God and for your neighbor.