At ten years of age, I had my father’s faith. By age fifteen, I was ready to give it back. Over the next five years I would alternately attempt to return to or repudiate that faith multiple times. Teens can be mercurial, no?

I can’t say what the problem was–we humans are much too complex for that–but I can point to two primary factors for my disenchantment with all things religious. One is that I had been immersed in a brand of Christianity encumbered by petty rules that enjoyed an unusual prominence. To my young mind these uber-cautious “guardrails” seemed nothing more than limitations to crowd my style and make me an oddball in the eyes of my peers.

To be clear, we’re not talking about common-sense dos and don’ts here. Rather, these rules were a throwback to an earlier age and culture. I had been taught that faith in Jesus was the essential element of Christianity. Apparently, however, such a simple and straightforward faith came with additional guidelines not forged at Sinai or on the mount of sermon. For instance …

  • No movies.
  • No playing cards.
  • No dancing.
  • God disapproves of this particular musical style but not that one (an impossibly subjective grid).
  • God apparently cares deeply about hair. Permissible hairstyles do not include anything fashionable outside the years of 1932–1964. (only slightly exaggerated).

I had my doubts about these rules, given their capricious nature and dubious origin. I got unflinchingly emphatic answers to those questions. Emphatic–and wholly unsatisfactory. I was given a black-and-white credo for a world painted gray.

Some will tell you that doing nothing is far better than doing the wrong thing. Permit me to lodge my strong dissent to that paralyzing philosophy. When your life’s motto is “if in doubt, don’t do it,” you’re in danger of doing nothing at all. Such a system is not quaint, and it is not merely wrong; it is completely useless1. God did not place us here to avoid life.

And so I wandered. By the time I was twenty, I had little clue as to where I ought to be spiritually. I believed in God and in the fully human and fully divine nature of Jesus. I believed in the Holy Spirit, though in my upbringing that personality of the Trinity was underplayed.

The larger question, though, was what all this should look like in my life. I knew this much: living by a set of rules wasn’t for me and never would be.

I turned to the Bible for answers. Not a bad choice. Now I was exploring my own faith instead of merely the one bequeathed to me. That also meant I was going to have a new set of questions. These questions did not have easy answers.

I waded into the New Testament, reading several chapters a day. Too fast, it seems. Early one morning I plowed headlong into the letter to the Hebrews.

Hebrews, let it be noted, has several “warning” passages with strong words for those who reject the faith. Although I had never rejected Jesus, I had certainly done many things he did not approve of, and I don’t mean things from the list above. So, I applied these passages to myself. After all, wasn’t this all about me?

And that is the second primary factor underlying my issues with the way I was raised to practice faith. Making it all about me had the effect of attacking all the hope living inside of me. Surely if anyone had turned their back on Christ, I had, right? As I read Hebrews, that’s how I understood it.

My problem was that I was reading the letter to the Hebrews in the same way I was living my entire life—with a “what’s in it for me” view. Hebrews, of course, isn’t about me. My 20-year-old self didn’t yet comprehend the profundity of that simple truth.

The purpose of this amazing, complex letter wasn’t to address my individual youthful angst. It was written to a fledgling church facing the very real temptation to reject Jesus in favor of a return to Judaism and its rituals. This temptation came with the ominous threat of persecution for those who chose Jesus. The writer was telling this Jewish readership that if they returned to the old legalistic system of with its repeated sacrifices (and, thanks to the rabbinical traditions, layers of rules), they had no hope at all. Jesus had taken care of the requirements of the law. It was Jesus or nothing. There was no middle ground.

That’s why Hebrews starts with the absolute supremacy of Jesus. He is far greater than the angels and far greater than Moses. He is the once-and-for-all sacrifice for our sins. He is the High Priest who renders the office of earthly high priest irrelevant.

It is not quite true that I walked away from my father’s faith. What I left behind, I think, was the layers of rules that dimmed the light of the salvation Jesus gives us freely. Still, my faith needed some guidance. And so I did something I hadn’t done in a long time. I called my dad. After all, I could clearly see his faith was real, even if it came with baggage I had already stridently rejected.

Dad helped me understand the thoroughly Jewish context and the historical background undergirding the letter to the Hebrews. It was the beginning of a remarkable reconciliation between my father and me. We would never completely agree on some of the practical matters of the faith, but we both knew that didn’t matter. The only question that mattered was this: who is Jesus? And that question is one that Hebrews clearly answers.

Without an understanding of the Old Testament, Hebrews bewilders us to the point of terrifying us. With an understanding of the Old Testament, Hebrews becomes an amazing comfort despite the potential fear factor. And so the statement, “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God,”2 is followed closely by this: “Let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God.” How can that be? Because the Old Testament tells the story of a God who is only angry at sin and injustice. “There [at God’s throne] we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most.”3

There is much more comfort in Hebrews. For instance, in the famous eleventh “faith chapter,” some pretty flawed “heroes” are held up as exemplars of the faith, Jephthah and Samson among them. Jephthah, a prostitute’s son, “had a band of worthless rebels following him,”4 says the historical record. Samson seems to have gotten far more things wrong than right, and in colossal ways.5 Yet Hebrews says of such people, “Their weakness was turned to strength.”6 Does that sound hopeless to you?

The reality is, I could not return to my father’s faith. I needed to have my own faith, for my own reasons. Over the course of my unusual spiritual pilgrimage I have learned that the world isn’t black and white at all. But neither is it gray. It is maddeningly, wonderfully colorful because we have a Creator who loves nuance and complexity. It is faith in the real Jesus—the One we meet in the New Testament—that helps us make sense of it all.

Tim Gustafson

  1. Colossians 2:20–23
  2. Hebrews 4:13
  3. Hebrews 4:16
  4. Judges 11:1–3
  5. Judges 13–16
  6. Hebrews 11:32–34
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