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A Famous Psychology Professor Finds Faith

By Rusty Wright

He was a famous professor at a major university, and the author of widely used textbooks. Would he have any interest in Christ?

What feelings might the words secular university professor engender in you? Maybe you recall skeptical professors from your past and feel fear or shame that you lacked the knowledge — or courage — to answer their objections to Christianity. Perhaps you raised concerns in class and remember the pain of public disrespect. Did a friend’s faith falter in the classroom? Do you feel anger or sorrow? Maybe your kind, but unbelieving neighbor is a professor and you wonder how to communicate your faith to him.

Secular university faculty can significantly influence generations of students. Campus ministers can experience faith-stretching adventure in communicating Christ to secular faculty members. Here is a story that might encourage you.

Anxious For Nothing

As a young believer, during my junior year at Duke, I wrote a paper for an abnormal psychology course discussing a biblical therapy for anxiety. My own experience of God’s peace plus understanding anxiety’s role in many psychological disorders fueled my personal and academic interest in this topic.

I mailed a copy of the paper to the author of our textbook, Dr. James C. Coleman, a prominent ucla psychologist. He liked the paper, said he would read it to his students, and asked permission to quote from it in his textbook revision

I said, “By all means.” I sent a copy of his letter to my parents so they would see their son had not totally flipped out with campus Christian involvement. (They were beginning to wonder.).

That summer, during a California conference, I called Dr. Coleman to ask if I could meet with him briefly. He was busy, but asked me to call back before I returned home. My last day in California, Betty, a friend, and I had an afternoon free in Los Angeles while another friend attended a wedding. Should we visit Dr. Coleman or go to the beach? I voted for the beach. Betty suggested we visit Dr. Coleman.

As we drove to his lovely Malibu home overlooking the Pacific, I reviewed evidences for faith. I expected many questions.

He was a warm and gracious host. As we sat in his backyard, he did not ask much about evidences. Rather he confided, “I do not have the peace of mind that you do. I do not have a relationship with Christ.”

I told him briefly how I had come to faith in Christ and gave a short presentation of Jesus’ message based on John 3:16.

Glued To The Gospel

A college student was reading this famous professor a little booklet about Christ, and he was glued to it. Hearing Revelation 3:20, he noted, “That is powerful.” He said he felt that it did not matter what you believed as long as you were sincere. I noted that roach tablets taken mistakenly in sincere faith that they were aspirin would not cure a headache; they would probably make you sick. The object of faith was important, and Jesus was a trustworthy object. He responded that he now realized one could be sincere, but be sincerely wrong.

Soon, Dr. Coleman bowed his head and asked Christ to be his personal Savior. He had heard this message many times — his father was a minister — but he had never understood how to place his faith in Christ. We discussed assurance and growth. He took some literature to share with his students. A month later, he told me by telephone, “Now, as I look out over the ocean and see the setting sun, I believe that I am a part of all this. Before I did not, but now I do.”

The next edition of his textbook contained a short portion about “Religion and Psychotherapy” and included part of my faith story. I began telling psychology professors I was a case in their abnormal psychology textbook. Many invited me to speak in their classes. This helped launch a ministry that has taken me around the world presenting Christ in academia and the media.

I have asked Dr. Coleman several times how he would feel about me telling others what he has told me. He encourages me to freely communicate our conversations since academics need to understand there is something beyond the physical realm. His adult life had been devoted to helping others’ psychological problems, yet he felt a need to link with the greatest Psychologist.

Lessons For Eternity

God can use you as a campus pastor or volunteer to influence secular universities for eternity. What lessons might this encounter have for university outreach among both students and professors? Consider a few.

Scratch where they itch

Dr. Coleman’s text indicated his professional interest in anxiety. When we met, I discovered he also had personal interest. Everyone has felt needs — perhaps for peace, love, friendship, or security — that can become bridges to real needs, such as the need to accept Jesus. Learn where those whom you seek to reach are itching; then scratch there.

Transcend differences in background, status, and philosophy

You may feel awkward relating to others whose education or social status differs from yours. Yet Jesus transcended social and cultural barriers with the Samaritan woman (John 4). Paul did with the Greek philosophers at Mars Hill (Acts 17). Learn about those you seek to reach and use the skills you have to establish common ground. Realize that friendliness, sincerity, and authenticity go a long way. I could not match Dr. Coleman’s academic credentials or reputation. But we connected through common interests and similar desires for personal peace.

Be intellectually credible

Dr. Coleman’s main concerns seemed personal. However, the academic paper I wrote had kindled his interest, and reasonable logic answered his sincere faith question. Chi Alpha West Coast Field Representative Curt Harlow stresses that effective campus ministry includes intellectual and moral credibility along with communication and service. Do your homework, if necessary, to learn how to answer common questions and objections. Rarely will you argue anyone into the Kingdom, but evidence for faith — tactfully presented — may help remove barriers. The resurrected Jesus showed His wounds — evidence of who He was — to doubting Thomas.

Take appropriate risks

One friend (whom I dearly love) advised against writing a biblically themed paper. I could not foresee the paper’s broad eventual impact, but I sensed God was in it and that it could be a witness to my professor. If God is in it, do it anyway.

Follow wise counsel

I wanted to relax at the beach that afternoon. Betty thought we should visit Dr. Coleman. I am glad I listened to her. What multiplied opportunities might have evaporated had I caught rays instead of spreading the faith? Discerning wise from unwise counsel is not always simple. (After all, we all need relaxation.) Listen to others’ advice and use biblical criteria to ascertain its wisdom.

Pray

I prayed when I sent Dr. Coleman the paper and as we drove to his home. I pray for his continued spiritual growth. “Devote yourselves to prayer,” wrote Paul (Colossians 4:2, nasb).

Meet on their turf

In Dr. Coleman’s home, we could talk privately and visit as friends. Similarly, conducting campus outreach on the unbelievers’ own turf — the dormitory, Greek house, athletic facility, classroom, office, or cafeteria — can create comfort that facilitates clear reflection. This principle is not inviolate: your coffee house or ministry house may provide a warm, friendly setting, but be willing to go to those you seek to reach.

Answer questions using Spirit-led wisdom

Some objections to faith are smokescreens. Once I privately asked a skeptical Georgia Tech philosophy professor who had me speak to his class if he would place his faith in Christ if I could answer all his questions to his satisfaction. His reply: “(Expletive deleted) No!” Other questions are genuine, as was Dr. Coleman’s about sincere faith. Ask God for wisdom and sensitivity as you decide which questions to spend time on and how to answer them.

Draw the net as appropriate

Not everyone on campus with whom you share the gospel will be ready to take the plunge into faith. But if the setting in a group meeting or private discussion is appropriate, tactfully invite others to receive Jesus’ free gift of forgiveness and eternal life. Angels rejoice when people pass from death to life. You never know how your faithfulness might open doors for the truth.

Rusty Wright is an award-winning author, syndicated columnist, and university lecturer with Probe.org who has spoken to secular audiences on six continents. He holds bachelor of science (psychology) and master of theology degrees from Duke and Oxford universities, respectively.

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