Most of those who first decided to follow him changed their minds. In John’s Gospel Jesus turns to his disciples and asks that poignant question: ‘You do not want to leave too, do you?’ Peter replies, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life’ (John 6:67?68).
Many things can contribute to a loss of faith, but for many I feel sure that it is very simple: we are disappointed. It may be disappointment with others; perhaps the followers of Jesus have hurt us deeply. For many of us, the wounds we carry were not inflicted by strangers, but by friends. It could be that we lose faith because of disappointment with ourselves. We find it hard to pray, easy to sin and feel we let God down all the time. But for others, it is much deeper. One day, rather like those first disciples who walked away, it dawns on us that following Jesus doesn’t have all the benefits we thought might have been part of the package. We are disappointed with Jesus.
I think of a man I knew who had a spiritual answer to every circumstance in life. I’ve never met anybody as sure of their faith, convinced that God not only could heal every disease, but would. But he had no theology of suffering. And so, when he walked away from the grave of his wife, he also walked away from God.
Last year I spoke to a man whose story challenged me as to whether I could go on following Jesus in spite of crushing disappointment. David Works and his wife, Mary, had four children and were about to go overseas to serve God. One Sunday morning in 2007 after their church service at the Youth With A Mission building in Colorado Springs, they became the random victims of a young gunman. In just a few minutes, David’s life changed forever. One of his daughters was dead in the car and another lay dying on the ground. He was so badly wounded he couldn’t even crawl to help her.
He remembers lying on the concrete, crying out to God: ‘What is going on here? We’re missionaries. We’re about to go around the world for you.’ He said the answer wasn’t audible, but it was as clear as if it had been. He heard God say, ‘David, we are not going around this. We are not going under it. And we are not going over it. We are going through it.’ David had to answer a question that millions of followers of Jesus have asked themselves over the centuries: ‘Can I go on following a God who allows me to go through things?’ (See Gone in a Heartbeat by David and Marie Works, Tyndale House, 2009.)
As he lay in a hospital bed on the night of the shooting, David called out to God, ‘You’re not making sense ? how could we possibly lose two of our kids in one day?’ But then he added this, ‘But I’m not going anywhere ? I need you more now than ever.’ And he quoted the words of Peter: ‘You [alone] have the words of eternal life.’ Some months later he went with his pastor to meet the parents of the young gunman, who had been shot and killed by a security guard shortly after the attack. They too had lost a child. They hugged each other and cried together.
Don’t ask me if I could react in the same way. But I know this: if I do hold on to faith at such a time it will be for the same reason that both David and Peter did: there will be a million questions, but in my heart I will know that ultimately, there is nowhere else to go.