(Photo: REUTERS/Larry Downing)
WASHINGTON – New York Times bestselling author and humor writer Eric Metaxas may fool you at first with his non-stop wisecracks (including how he wished the head table at the National Prayer Breakfast was filled with celebrities rather than politicians), but once he gets talking about his Christian faith, he gets pretty serious, pretty fast.
Metaxas, author of books such as Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy and Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery, was the keynote speaker at the 60th National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday. After an entertaining introduction – where everything from the Occupy movement to the hefty prayer breakfast fee ended up as materials for jokes – the born-again Christian author got down to business and focused on contrasting phony religiosity and real faith.
"The lives of both of these men (Wilberforce and Bonhoeffer) illustrate between phony religiosity and really believing in God in a way that it changes your life – it must change your life and the lives of others," said Metaxas.
Wilberforce was a British politician who lived in the 19th century and led the movement to abolish the slave trade. And Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor who stood up to the Nazi's atrocities against the Jews during World War II, and was executed as a result.
"England paid lip service to religion in those days. 'Oh I am a Christian. I'm English, yeah, we're Christians.' But they seemed to think that slavery was a fine thing," said Metaxas. "So keep in mind that when someone says I am a Christian, it might mean absolutely nothing.
"But for Wilberforce it became real. It wasn't about Christianity; it was about the living God and serving Him. Wilberforce suddenly took the Bible seriously, that we are all created in the image of God … that it was our duty to care for the least of these, and he said, 'Lord, I will obey.'"
The Yale-educated author shared his testimony of how he lost his faith in college, but was led back to the Lord during a dark, depressing period after graduation. It was while he was working at a job his parents forced him to take and feeling like he was "drifting" aimlessly through life that he met a co-worker who helped lead him back to the Christian faith.
"I had rejected a phony religious idea of God, not God as He really is. Because when I encountered God as He really is, I knew that is what my heart is really longing for," Metaxas said. "He is the answer to my pain and all my questions. He is real and He loves me, despite everything I've done."
"So at that point I realize that everything I had rejected about God was actually not God. It was just dead religion. It was people who go to church but did not show the love of Jesus. It is people who know the Bible and use it as a weapon. It was people who don't practice what they preach, people who are indifferent to the poor and suffering. People who used religion to exclude others from their groups, people who use religion to judge others," the author said.
"I had rejected that, but guess what? Jesus had also rejected that. He had railed against that and called people to real life and real faith. Jesus was and is the enemy of dead religion," he declared, drawing loud applauses.
But humans by nature have the tendency to fall into phony religiosity, said Metaxas. Only when Jesus intervenes and "opens our eyes to his ideas" are people able change their thoughts to match God's radical idea – such as when God opened Wilberforce's eyes to slavery.
While Metaxas spent most of his address on contrasting phony religiosity and real faith using historical Christian heroes, he applied the teachings to today's social battles regarding abortion and gay marriage.
"So those of us who know the unborn to be human beings are commanded by God to love those who do not yet see that," said Metaxas. "We need to know that apart from God, we would be on the other side of that line fighting for what we believe is right. We cannot demonize our enemy. Today, if you believe abortion is wrong, you must treat those on the other side with the love of Jesus."
"Today, if you have a biblical view of sexuality, you will be demonized by those on the other side. They will call you bigot. Jesus commands us to love those who call us bigots. Show them the love of Jesus," he said. "Jesus calls us to love our enemy. That, my friend, is the real difference between dead religion and living faith in a God of the Scriptures."
Metaxas called on the room of 3,000 people to sing with him the famed Christian hymn "Amazing Grace" at the end of his message. And without hesitation, attendees sang the hymn and stood up from their seats without prompting as if in a church worship service.
"If you can see Jesus in your enemy, then you can know that you are seeing with God's eyes and not your own," Metaxas shared. "So can you love your enemy?"