On the Frontlines

RZIM speakers descended upon university grounds in Charlottesville, Virginia, for a week of student engagement including sixteen outreach events aimed at articulating and clarifying the gospel. 

Michael Suderman speaks with a student at UVA. Photo by Lou Hablas.

“I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” These words were famously penned by Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and third U.S. President. Jefferson was a well-known champion of education, believing that knowledge would bring light and liberty to all who would attain it. In 1819 he founded the University of Virginia for that very purpose, and two centuries later it is a nationally ranked leader in public higher education. This rich history and sustained vision for truth in education makes the University of Virginia an ideal setting for a university mission week. Through partnership with many Christian student organizations and volunteers from across the country, RZIM speakers descended upon university grounds in Charlottesville, Virginia, for a week of student engagement including sixteen outreach events aimed at articulating and clarifying the gospel.

Some of the talks given included “Is God Sexist?”, “Does the Bible Support Slavery?”, “Why Would a Loving God Judge Me?,” and “Can a Scientist Believe in the Resurrection?”. As you can imagine, many rich conversations were had as a result of the talks and Q&A, but a couple stand out as highlights for the week. Following a talk I gave on the question, “Does God Exist?”, one student stayed afterward for continued conversation. He shared that he is a former Muslim who had recently abandoned his belief in Islam because of the teachings of the Qur’an. Now a self-identifying agnostic, he was wondering if belief in Christianity would bring some of the same struggles he had with Islamic teaching. After some discussion he decided to attend the international student lunch event engaging the question, “Am I More Than My Success?” In that talk I shared about how, in the first chapter of John, Jesus is introduced as the embodiment of truth, the logos, and that traditionally people would seek to know the truth and align their lives with that truth in order to live the most full and virtuous life.

Following the talk, my new friend continued in conversation with RZIM Canada Itinerant Logan Gates about what he had heard. Perplexed, he looked at Logan and said, “Michael was talking about the logos and that the greatest expression of love is shown in self-sacrifice…” Logan, giving him a moment to process simply replied, “Yes, that’s right.” Still perplexed, the student looked at him and said, “But then that would mean that the logos would have to be an expression of absolutely perfect, self-sacrificial love, a pure expression of true altruism.” Logan, seeing where his logic was leading him, responded excitedly, “That’s right!” At this, and to Logan’s surprise, the student threw up his hands in a gesture of defeat and declared, “But that’s impossible!” Logan paused and, in a moment of inspiration, looked at the student and said, “Yes, for us it might be, but not for Jesus.” Logan continued, “That’s why what John is saying is so profound, Jesus IS the logos! Jesus is the fullness of truth and love embodied. He is perfect self-sacrificial love.” At this the student stopped, as if everything had suddenly aligned, and with both relief and awe replied, “Oh, right!”

It is a tremendous honor to journey with university students into the depths of these kinds of questions and a great joy to witness their responses when the beautiful, unparalleled person of Jesus becomes clear. The final talk of the week was given by Shawn Hart on “Longing for Justice in an Unjust World.” In his talk, Shawn explained why our longing for justice confronts our own need for mercy and how only at the cross of Christ can we see both justice upheld and mercy extended simultaneously. Following the talk a Muslim student wearing a hijab came forward to ask additional questions. She had attended one other talk at the beginning of the week and decided to return for the final event. After some initial conversation about the differences between Christianity and Islam, Shawn highlighted that one of the central claims of the Christian faith is how God will transform you by the power of His love and forgiveness. Citing Ezekiel 36:26, he shared that God promises to give us a new heart, to remove from us a heart of stone that is hardened towards Him and replace it with a soft heart, bringing transformation and change. She was very intrigued by this and had never considered that God could give anyone a spiritual heart transplant. She acknowledged that in our humanity we need forgiveness, but that became her dilemma: If Allah is just, then how does he forgive without compromising his justice? Shawn was able to help her see this tension and encourage her to take a close look at Jesus, to see what he says about himself and what he offers to those in need of forgiveness.

These are just two examples of many conversations that unfolded throughout the week. Our team is massively encouraged by all that God did through the events and the student responses at UVA. Thomas Jefferson often drew the comparison between knowledge and light. During this mission we were able to partner with God in bringing students to the knowledge of Jesus who is the light of the world, and whoever follows Him will not walk in darkness, but have the light of life. Thank you for your partnership in prayer as we continue to proclaim and defend the gospel on university campuses across the country.

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