Christian apologist and best-selling author Lee Strobel tells moving stories that paint a powerful picture of how God's grace impacts every aspect of our lives and gives us hope. (Part 1 of 2)
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Pastor Lee Strobel: I f God can take the worst thing that has ever happened in the universe and turn it into the best thing that can ever happen, why can't He take your situation? Why can't He take your life and redeem it and use it for good?
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John Fuller: That's an insight about grace from author, Lee Strobel and he joins us on today's "Focus on the Family" with Jim Daly. Thanks for joining us. I'm John Fuller.
Jim: John, "grace" is a word we hear so often in our circles. We talk about grace a lot, but I don't know that we can ever fully understand its depths. I mean, if you really sit and meditate on God's grace, I think it just keeps going. It's like a deep well. I mean, how do you actually comprehend the grace of God?
It's defined as God's favor and good will and often thought of as mercy, but the greatest way to define grace is through stories. Jesus used stories--the Parables, we call them. And it's a profound way to better understand God's grace and today we want to highlight some amazing stories that have been compiled by a New York Times best-selling author and I think you 're all gonna love our discussion with Lee Strobel.
John: Yeah, and Lee has captured so much good content in his book, The Case for Grace. The subtitle is A Journalist Explores the Evidence of Transformed Lives. And we've got details about that at www.focusonthefamily.com/radio.
Jim: And Lee, let me say, welcome back to "Focus on the Family."
Lee Strobel: Thank you, Jim and John. Great to be here. [I] Always love being with your guys.
Jim: You know, I so love your story. Of course, you wrote The Case for Christ, which I use and hand out to friends who are searching and seeking whether or not Jesus is who He said He was and it's a great resource—
Lee: Thank you.
Jim: --great resource for folks. Talk about quickly, to help listeners who don't know who you are, set up your background. You were an atheist.
Lee: I was, yeah.
Jim: And you came to Christ. I mean, that's a whole broadcast—
Lee: Yeah (Laughing).
Jim: --if not several days right there, but give us the nutshell of how God—
Jim: --reached into your heart and saved you.
Lee: Yeah, I mean, I was an atheist. My background's in journalism and law, so I tend to be a very rational kind of a thinker and rejected the idea of the existence of God. [I] thought it was make-believe and wishful thinking and fairytales and consequently lived a very immoral life and drunken and profane and narcissistic and self-absorbed and self-destructive life.
Got married young, 43 years ago to Leslie, who was an agnostic and she met a neighbor who led her to the Lord and I began to see positive changes in Leslie, in her character and values and so forth.
Jim: So, seeing the changes.
Lee: Exactly, it was the way that God was changing the way she related to me and the children, the love, you know, Galatians talks about love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control—these things that God manifests more and more in our lives as we follow Him.
Well, obviously, that wasn't all overnight with her, but I could see this difference and it intrigued me. So, one morning I was sleepin' off a hangover and she was getting' ready to go to church and she said to me, "Why don't you come with me today?" And I thought, you know, I'm gonna go and get her out of this cult that she's involved in (Chuckling), you know.
So, I went to church with her and Bill Hybels was preaching in a movie theater. And he did his message called "Basic Christianity," that set out the Gospel and I never understood it till then. I didn't believe it, but I thought, if this is true, this is monumentally important.
So, I decided to take my journalism training, my legal training and just systematically investigate, is there any evidence for Christianity? And that launched me on a nearly two-year investigation. And it was really through the evidence of science, cosmology, physics, biochemistry, genetics, human consciousness that pointed me toward a Creator.
And then the evidence of history, of Jesus, that He existed, that He claimed to be the Son of God, that He backed it up by returning from the dead, all of those things pointed in the direction of the truth of the Christian faith and that's what brought me to the Lord.
Jim: You know what's so fascinating about that, Lee is all the head knowledge that you went through over that two-year experience to get yourself there, but what got your heart—
Jim: --was your wife's changed life.
Lee: Yes, yeah.
Jim: And that is what the Lord uses. That's the testimony--
Lee: He really--
Jim: --that He uses.
Lee: --does. You know, we think about, well, how can we influence our family and our neighbors and friends and our coworkers for Christ. And we think we have to buttonhole 'em and grab 'em in an elevator and shove a tract in their fact or something. And you know what? When we live out our faith in a simple and a loving and an authentic and a genuine way, that speaks volumes about who Jesus is.
And you know, we live in very contentious times and when people see in us acceptance and affirmation and love, that they are people made in the image of God and valuable to God and loved by God, that prompts us to be a bit countercultural to the chaos that's going on in our culture and just be loving people that reach out with genuine concern for this person.
Jim: That's so true and I think, for me it's that idea that we need to re-engage the fruit of the Spirit. I hate—
Jim: --to say it that way, but it feels like at times, that we're not living full of the fruit of the Spirit.
Jim: And that's where we start eh Gospel right there.
Lee: It is—love, joy peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, Galatians 5:22 and 23. Those qualities, who wouldn't want those, first of all? You know (Laughing), I talk to my friends who aren't believers. I say, "Those are the nine things that everybody wants. Don't you want love? Don't you want joy? Don't you want peace, patience, kindness?"
I mean this is a description of what we long for as human beings and you know, when we allow God to work through us and manifest those qualities more and more over time, people notice and you know, I've got a brother who's an atheist. And he won't listen to me. He won't read my books. We can't get into a discussion without getting in an argument.
Jim: That's because you're brothers.
Lee: It is my brother, but you know, what? I can love him. I can pray for him. I can hopefully, live out my faith in front of him in a way that shows that there is a difference among those of us who are devoted to Jesus.
Jim: That is so well-said and hopefully, it gives him no excuse—
Jim: --not to investigate—
Jim: --as we all do when we come to that conclusion that—
Jim: --Jesus is who He said He is.
Jim: And that's where we need to be a good witness for Him. Let's concentrate on grace.
Jim: I think the fruit of the Spirit's all bundled up—
Lee: Yeah, it is.
Jim: --in the word "grace" when you—
Lee: It is.
Jim:--think about it and you've written this book, The Case for Grace.
Jim: I love the whole series again.
Jim: I mean, I think you've really helped believers and non-believers understand the Gospel and the Scripture far better than what we have understood it to this point.
When you look at grace, talking about it at the top of the program, that deep well of God's grace toward us—
Jim: --what does that look like for you?
Lee: Well, Jim, I think you said it so well. I mean, in a very shallow way, we can define grace as being the favor that God shows toward sinners. I mean, that's about as simple of a definition as you can get. But as you said, it is as deep as you want to go. You remember Phil Yancey has a famous quote that, "There's nothing you can do to make God love you more and there's nothing you can do to make God love you less."
I mean, you think about that. You think about the love of God, the sacrifice of Christ for us. Why? Because of God's love for us and wanting to spend eternity with us. It's a bottomless well that we can study.
And so, for me, as I looked at grace in my life and I'm so grateful for the revolution that God has brought into my life and took me off a dead-end path and put me on the path to heaven and to hope and to courage through Christ, I gravitate and I've become a junkie for stories—stories of God's ability to transform lives.
I can't get enough of 'em, because you know, 2 Corinthians says that, you know, when we come to faith, something new has happened. The old is gone; the new has come. And we become born again, but the Holy Spirit takes up residence in us. He begins to transform our values and our character and our priorities and I love stories like that.
And as you said a minute ago, when Jesus was gonna talk about grace, what did He do? Did He write an academic article for the Harvard Theological Journal with footnotes and everything? No, nothing wrong with that. My son does that kind of stuff, but He told stories. He told the story of the Prodigal Son.
And I thought, you know, that's so true, that stories illuminate grace in a fresh way. And so, what I did is, I tell a bunch of stories in the book. I go out and interview; some people are friends of mine, others are stories that people have always wanted to get to know, because their stories are so profound.
And each story sheds light on a different facet of grace, so that by the end of the book, my hope is the reader kinda sits back in their chair and takes a deep breath to say, "Okay, now I get more of what grace is. I understand it. My heart is full, because I see how God's grace saves us; how He transforms us, how He comforts us, how He adopts us as His children." I mean, that concept of adoption and grace is so profound.
Jim: It is and what I loved about the book, too is that you interwove your own story in there—
Jim: --with each chapter and how it impacted you or a parallel—
Jim: --that you found. Let's start there, because when you talk about grace, it's something you didn't really feel from your own father.
Jim: And there's so many people that have that father gap. I was one of them.
Lee: Boy. Were you? Yeah, that's right.
Lee: Your story is another one like that.
Jim: --and so, when you look at that, people lean into the radio right now or the computer or however they're listening, because they didn't have that relationship. Describe that relationship with your dad—
Jim: --and how you found grace even in that heartache.
Lee: Yeah, you know, my dad was a good man in many ways. He was very successful. We have five children in the family. He was never hostile, was never abusive, but he had three children and then there was a big gap and then I came along and I was, as I found out years later from my mom on her deathbed, I had not been a welcome pregnancy by my dad.
Jim: You were the "oops" baby.
Lee: I was the "oops" baby and so, my dad and I never connected. We never had that emotional connection that a father and a son ought to have and you know, it escalated and got worse and worse until finally, after I had defied his orders several times and we got in a big argument on the eve of my high school graduation, he looked at me and it was just, this intense look in his eye and he said, "I don't have enough love for you to fill my little finger."
And I think he maybe expected me to fight back or defend myself or something, but it was like a sledgehammer and I just turned and I walked out; I moved out of the house and got an apartment and never intended to return.
Jim: That was it.
Lee: That was it. Now my mother did intervene later. I did come back briefly, then went off to school, but my dad and I never, ever reconciled from that, never discussed it and you know, Jim, as you know, father relationships can be very powerful in terms of our spiritual relationship.
Paul Vitz, a psychologist from New York University did a study of famous atheists through history and he found the commonality with all these atheists, it's Camus, Sartre, Nietzsche, Freud, Voltaire, Wells, Madalyn Murray O'Hair, you just go down the list. Every single one of them had a father who died when they were young or who abandoned their family when they were young through divorce or with whom they had a terrible relationship.
And you know, the implication is and Freud even talked about this, the implication is, if your earthly father has so disappointed you or hurt you or abused you, why would you want to meet a heavenly Father? He's gonna probably be worse.
And so, it deters people. I think of Josh McDowell, our friend, Josh McDowell, you know, another guy who had an alcoholic father, terrible relationship and became—
Lee: --an ornery agnostic because of that. So, this is very common. In fact, Jim, I did something. After the book came out, I hired George Barna's organization to do a national survey and a scientific poll of America, trying to get at this father and faith issue. And you know what I found out? As you look at the generations in America, going from the elder generation, the Baby Boomers, the Generation X and the Millennials, each generation has a worse and worse relationship with their father, to the point where 26 percent of Millennials—18- through 30-year-olds—have a poor or subpar bad relationship with their dad.
But then I overlaid that with the question about, what do you believe about God? And what I found is, in a similar way, the percentage of Americans for each generation that goes by, has more and more doubt about the existence of God. So that when you get to the Millennials, you see that 62 percent say that they're certain that God exists. Well, that's compared to 82 percent of Baby Boomers.
Lee: So, we're seeing more skepticism among Millennials. A third of them struggle with their faith, compared to a quarter of Generation X, a fifth of Baby Boomers. So, what we're seeing and I can't correlate it scientifically, because the poll doesn't allow you to do that, but these two trends are undeniable.
That is, in America, as our generations go by, kids are having worse and worse relationships with their father and they're havin' a harder time finding God--
Lee: --that they struggle with their faith. I think those are connected and I think it, you know, for those of us who are Christians, grandfathers and parents, what does that say to us in terms of how we need to build into our children?
And here's an interesting fact. In 2014, a book was published by Oxford University Press and it was a multigenerational huge study—psychological and sociological study. Here's what it found. If you are a dad and you're a Christian and you want to pass on your faith to your children and you hope that they come to faith, as well, and if you are a pillar of the church, if you read your Bible, if you go to church, if you pray, the chances are, you will not pass on your faith to your children if you are a distant father. That seems to be the key. Are you affirming? Are you warm towards your children? That seems more than anything else, that seems to be the key.
Jim: Well, and I would think, full of grace.
Jim: I mean, that's one of the things—
Lee: That's right.
Jim: --that I'm often concerned about with Christian parenting, because I think we're so rigid on the rules and we want to see perfection--
Jim: --that we communicate the wrong message at times, that grace is not in the equation and we actually push kids away. Let me ask you this and then we'll get to more of the content and the—
Jim: --stories, the rich stores of your book. That parallel, the older I get, the more I think about the simplicity of God, that He doesn't make it complex. Of course, the Apostle Paul writes in his letters about knowing God just by looking around—
Jim: --that God has made it plainly clear—
Jim: --to know Him. And that for me, convicts me of the simplicity of God. So, when you look at parenting in that way and you look at the statistics that you just mentioned and this degradation between healthy relationships with earthly fathers and how that prevents or puts a stumbling block in the path of people to know a heavenly Father, speak to that single parent mom.
Jim: My mom was a single parent after my dad and she divorced.
Jim: They need hope.
Lee: Sure, absolutely.
Jim: What would you say to that mom who doesn't have that man in her life and her kids don't have a father?
Lee: Yeah, you know, single moms are the heroes of—
Jim: They are.
Lee: --our culture.
Jim: And there are single dads, too—
Lee: And single dads.
Jim: --raising kids.
Lee: And exactly.
Jim: But you know, the majority, 80 percent are moms.
Lee: What I say to people is, you know, so many of us did not have perfect dads. We had absent dads. We didn't have a father or we had a bad relationship with our dad and yet, and C.S. Lewis pointed this out, and yet, we can all imagine what a perfect father would be like. Well, what would he be like? He would be gracious. He would be kind. He would be warm. He would be embracing. He would be encouraging. He would be for us and you think about what we could all imagine [as] a perfect father.
And then you go, now that is a picture of God. And I think sometimes, you know, for kids that grow up in a situation where they don't have that and none of us is a perfect dad, but you know, a flawed, a really flawed or an absent father, that we can encourage them to imagine that perfect dad. Say, "That is the Father Who loves you from eternity past and Who wants to adopt you as His child forever."
John: And we hope the conversation today is doing that, as well, a very winsome guest with us on "Focus on the Family" with Jim Daly, Lee Strobel and his book, The Case for Grace." You can find details about that and a CD or a download of our conversation and our mobile app, as well at www.focusonthefamily.com/radio.
Jim: Lee, you talk about a story in the book that's close to our heart, because it's Stephanie Fast.
Jim: And she's been on the "Focus" program. We still reair that program, because it drives so much response—
Jim: --from hurting souls, people who feel abandoned and that's her story. Talk about Stephanie. You said you hear it on a radio program. It may have been "Focus."
Lee: It was "Focus on the Family." (Laughter) I could take you back to where I was driving down Northwest Highway in Palestine, Illinois. I was a pretty new Christian and the first time she came on the air, I listened to this and her story of being abandoned on the streets of South Korea after the Korean War, growing up abused and taunted and this horrible experience and yet, being adopted by a couple who embodied the grace of God and how she came to faith and her life was changed.
That touched me. I'm listening to the radio and this is the power of radio and I'm listening to it and I thought, "I have to get to know that woman, because she has a piece of the grace puzzle for me." You know, when my dad told me he didn't love me and I walked out, I thought I was on a mission of revenge against my dad, but I was really on a mission of pursuing grace, finding grace.
And I would find pieces of the grace puzzle around and she was a piece to that puzzle. And so, I got to know Stephanie and went out and spent time with her and her husband and in their home and she's a wonderful, wonderful woman and told me her story and related to me … related her story to me in fresh ways, and to the point where at the end of it she said, "You know, you had a father, but it sounds like your own relationship with your dad was very distant and difficult."
And I said, "Yes," 'cause I had told her about it. And she said, you know, said," Sometimes there's such a thing as an orphan of the heart. And you know, you may grow up with a dad, but you're orphan of the heart. You've never really felt the love of a father."
Jim: No connection.
Lee: No connection and she said, "You know, it sounds like maybe that's you. Maybe you're an orphan of the heart." And that just penetrated my soul and I thought, "You're right, Stephanie." And there's only one thing that, now that my dad is gone and I can no longer reconcile with him and so, there's only one thing that is going to repair that breach in my heart and that is Jesus Christ.
The Bible says, "God will be the father to the fatherless" and even though I had a father, and he was, as I said, in many ways a wonderful man, when you don't have the warmth and affirmation that you seek and hunger for as a child, the only thing to fill that void is Jesus Christ.
Jim: Lee, there are many people listening that feel like God's grace can't find them--
Jim: --that it can't extend—
Lee: They're beyond hope.
Jim: --to them. They're beyond hope. I mean, they feel like, I've had all those things that put me on a path of destruction, rebellion, whatever it may have been.
Jim: Connect that dot for them. Build that bridge if you can.
Jim: How does a person who feels that hopeless, that God wouldn't care about me, because I'm pathetic—
Lee: Right, right.
Jim: --and horrible; I've done things I'm ashamed of.
Jim: God doesn't care about me. Just look at my life.
Jim: Speak to that person.
Lee: And that is the beauty of grace, that no one is beyond hope. No one is beyond the power of the Gospel. I tell the story in the book about a man who murdered 17,000 people, 17,000 people. He was the commandant of the S 21 torture center under the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, where they had the, you know, the disruption years ago in the '70s and he murdered 17,000 people.
And after the war, disappeared into the jungle, stumbled into a Christian leadership training event that was help by a pastor, Christopher LaPel from Los Angeles, who was from Cambodia. And at the end, he came up and LaPel didn't know who he was and he said, "I don't have any hope because I've done too many horrible things. God can't forgive me."
And Christopher looked at him, not knowing that he had murdered his own cousin. He had murdered Christopher's cousin in S 21. He didn't know that. He didn't know who he was. He just said to him, "Look, I don't know what you've done, but no one is beyond hope. No one is beyond forgiveness. God will forgive you. God will show you grace."
Lee: He leads him to the Lord. He baptizes him in a river. This guy undergoes a remarkable transformation, he leads his family to the Lord, starts house churches for the Lord. Volunteers with Christian organizations and relief organizations. He's like a Mother Teresa living in the jungles.
And then finally, when it's kinda discovered who he is, he confesses it, says, you know, "God, you know, you can have my body. God has my soul." And today he's locked up for the rest of his life for genocide and one of the few people who gets to visit him is Christopher LaPel, this guy who led him to the Lord, whose own cousin was murdered by him. He goes to see him in the prison in Cambodia, serves him communion. They sing hymns together. They pray together. And this genocidal killer named Duch, Comrade Duch, now spends his time sharing Jesus with the guards and with the other prisoners in the prison here.
And my point is, if God can redeem a man that depraved, that sinful, to have murdered so many people, if he can find redemption, what does that tell us about the depth of God's love for us? What does it tell us about how big and broad and deep and wonderful and vibrant grace is?
Jim: Well, it should communicate to that person that doesn't feel that God can get to them—
Jim: --that He can.
Lee: That He can.
Jim: Let me ask you this question though related to Christopher.
Jim: Interviewing him for the book, did he tell you about that illumination when he realized that this man had killed his cousin?
Jim: How did he process that?
Lee: He was shocked. He got a phone call and he was back in the United States. Got a phone call from the Associated Press saying, "Duch has been discovered in the jungles and he is the man who you led to the Lord and baptized and you know him as (such and such), another name." And he said he fell to the floor. He was shocked. He couldn't believe this.
And yet, he told me, he said, "How can I not forgive him if God has forgiven him?" And he was able to forgive him even for the murder of his cousin and now God has built a bond between them that only God can do to build a bond of brotherhood between two people like that. And he tells me that, you know, under different worldviews, you know, under the Buddhist worldview, Duch would come back to a million different lifetimes, reincarnated as a bug and have to work off his bad karma for who know how many millions of years. But the grace of God says, forgiveness, eternal life is a free gift that is offered to anyone, everyone who comes in repentance and faith to receive Him.
Jim: Well, Lee, it reminds me of Jesus hanging on the cross—
Jim: --between the two convicted criminals.
Jim: And you know, the one kind of rebuking the Lord for not finding a way to get Himself out of that situation, the other say, "Hey, don't you know who you're talking to? Remember me, Lord."
Jim: And the Lord gave him salvation right there.
Lee: Yeah and when you think, you know, that was the very worst thing that could ever happen in the history of the universe, that is the death of the Son of God on the cross That is the worst thing that could ever happen and yet, God took that worst thing and created the best thing, which is the opening of heaven to all who receive grace. And you know, for people who are in despair, for people who are suffering, for people who are going through financial crisis, for people who are struggling with their families and their children, if God can take the worst thing that has ever happened in the universe and turn it into the best thing that can ever happen, why can't He take your situation? Why can't He take your life and redeem it and use it for good.
Jim: Man, Lee, that is powerful and there are more stories that we've gotta get to. I love it. There's something inside of me that wells up when I hear these kinds of stories. Can we keep going and come back—
Jim: --next time and hear more of these great stories from your book?
Lee: I'd love to, absolutely.
Jim: Let's do it.
John: And you'll want to make sure to be here for the rest of the conversation, as we talk about how God's powerful grace shows up in the hearts and lives of people in some pretty hopeless situations. The Case for Grace is written by our guest, Lee Strobel and goes much more in depth with these kinds of compelling stories and it's gonna encourage and inspire you and you'll also read about Lee and his personal walk of faith in grace and all of that is captured in the book, The Case for Grace. Look for that at www.focusonthefamily.com/radio or call us and we can tell you more, 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY; 800-232-6459.
And when you contribute today, a gift of any amount to the work of Focus on the Family, we'll say thanks by sending Lee's book to you and I trust that you'll benefit from it personally or you've got somebody in mind perhaps to share that with.
Our program was provided by Focus on the Family and on behalf of Jim Daly, thanks for listening. I'm John Fuller and tomorrow, we'll continue this encouraging conversation with Lee Strobel.
Lee Strobel: Jesus embodied both grace and truth. I remember once I had a conversation with one of the great pastors of all time, John Stott from England. And he said, "Love without truth is too soft. Truth without love is too hard." You know, we have to have this balance of love and truth, of grace and truth. And Jesus modeled that for us. He was full of truth. There's no question what He stood for, but He was gracious.
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John: That's tomorrow, as we once again, help you and your family thrive.
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Lee StrobelView Bio
A former atheist, Lee Strobel is now a well-known apologist for the Christian faith. He is also a popular public speaker and an award-winning, New York Times best-selling author of more than 20 books including The Case for Christ and The Case for Faith. Educated at the University of Missouri and Yale Law School, Lee worked as a professional journalist for several newspapers including The Chicago Tribune. He now serves as Professor of Christian Thought at Houston Baptist University. Lee's book The Case for Christ, recounting his investigative journey from atheism to faith, has been made into a motion picture opening in theaters nationwide on April 7, 2017. He and his wife, Leslie, have two grown children. Learn more about Lee by visiting his website, www.leestrobel.com.