This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 32, number 01 (2009. For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal, please click here.
Occasionally, we encounter a non-Christian who seems to be everything we want to be. This can unsettle us and cause us to doubt that Christ is truly the only way. Professor Randy Pausch was a good example of this commendable type of person.
Pausch had been both a gifted and beloved professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University and had graduated magna cum laude from Brown University. On July 25, 2008, at the age of 47, he succumbed to pancreatic cancer. After learning he had only several months of good health left, Pausch determined to leave his three little children a legacy, a “message in a bottle” in the form of his Last Lecture given at CMU on September 18, 2007. ABC News, which had done a series of interviews with him after his Lecture, entitled Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams, reports that “Pausch’s lecture and subsequent interview was one of the most powerful accounts of hope, grace and optimism ABC News has ever featured and drew a worldwide response.”1
It was delivered with such courage, charm, warmth, and wit and, as of July 25, 2008, it has been downloaded by more than ten million people. When Oprah Winfrey caught wind of the phenomenon and invited Pausch to appear on her show the Last Lecture became an instant success, and today, countless people continue to testify that they have been profoundly influenced by Pausch’s example and his “you-can-do-it” philosophy.2
Pausch, however, does not seem to have been a believer in Christ. In his seventy-six-minute Last Lecture, the closest he comes to acknowledging Christ is an ironic reference to a conversion: “I have achieved a deathbed conversion…I just bought a MacIntosh.”3
His approach to life was highly principled, but not very profound or illuminating. Clearly, it wasn’t his philosophy that accounts for his following. He finished his Last Lecture by stating, “So today’s talk was about my childhood dreams, enabling the dreams of others, and some lessons learned….It’s not about how to achieve your dreams. It’s about how lead your life. If you lead your life the right way, the karma will take care of itself. The dreams will come to you.”4 How does he suggest we lead our lives? “You can’t get there alone. People have to help you and I do believe in karma. I believe in paybacks. You get people to help you by telling the truth. Being earnest….Apologize when you screw up and focus on other people, not on yourself….Get a feedback loop and listen to it.”5 Not bad advice, but Christ seems to play no role in the equation. In an interview with the official organ of the Unitarian Universalist Association, Pausch stated, “I was raised Presbyterian and attended church regularly until I was 17. I like the fact that [Unitarian Universalism] appeals to reason and thought more than dogma.”6
Although Pausch never confessed to being a follower of Christ, he, nevertheless, exhibited the very virtues for which Christians should desire to possess. This can lead some of us to envy and to doubt that Christ is the only way. We compare Pausch’s grace and optimism with our own painful struggles with faith and temptations, and wonder, “How is it that someone who doesn’t follow Christ possesses the very fruits of the Spirit that I am struggling to find? What’s wrong?” Perhaps nothing! Here are some thoughts to help us accept the fact that our faith-walk is seldom going to be either carefree or void of complexity:
- In light of our trials of faith and our limited understanding, envy and discouragement aren’t unusual. The Psalmist struggled with this until God revealed the big picture to him: “For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. They have no struggles…When I tried to understand all this, it was oppressive to me till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny” (Ps. 73:3–4, 16–17).7 God ordains these struggles so that we cry out for understanding and find our comfort in His revelations and in His Word (Ps. 119:67, 71).
- Although God is eager to grant us understanding, there is a great danger that understanding can produce arrogance and self-sufficiency (1 Cor. 8:2) if it comes to us before we have the spiritual capacity to handle it. He has therefore placed us on a miracle-lean diet, causing us to walk through the darkness of the “valley of the shadow of death” to exercise our faith-muscles and dependence on Him: “But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has?” (Rom. 8:24).
- Perhaps the greatest fruit — the one that underlies them all — is humility, brokenness, and self despair. Humility teaches us that it’s about Him and not about us. This is something we need to learn if we really are going to trust in Him—something that can arise only out of affliction: “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.” (2 Cor. 1:8–9). Only after we despair of self-trust can we grow in God-trust. We are simply far too addicted to self-reliance and our own giftedness to rely on an unseen God. If the other “fruits of the Spirit” aren’t built on self-despair, they’ll produce arrogance, self-reliance, and eventually contempt for others — the very opposite of what God wants to accomplish in our lives.
- We Christians were scraped from the bottom of the barrel, so we’re going to be particularly weak in many areas. Because many of us come out of degrading circumstances, we’re not going to look very appealing to the rest of the world and even to the faithful. “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things and the things that are not — to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before Him” (1 Cor. 1:27–29). Unbelievers often exhibit personal qualities that make us envious. Without the presence of the Spirit to shape and guide them, however, they will eventually become corrupted. A rose can look wonderful after it is cut and placed in a vase, but it is nevertheless dying.
- It’s when we are struggling with weaknesses and infirmities that we become spiritually strong: “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:9–10). God will not exalt us when we are strong and self-sufficient in our own eyes (Luke 18:14); this would merely enable us to become proud, arrogant, and look down on others, convinced by our successes that we deserve God’s good graces. Instead, God targets the needy and broken as recipients for His comfort (Isa. 57:15; 66:1–2; Ps. 34:17–18).
- God loves us too much to make the faith-walk easy for us. Instead, He uses the struggle to make us like Jesus: “We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body” (2 Cor. 4:10–11; Heb. 12:8, 11). God is purposely working overtime on us, so let’s accept the fact that it’s not going to be easy (1 Pet. 4:17).
- An “easy-faith walk” would not produce an eagerness for Christ. Instead, it will allow us to feel too comfortable in this world: “We ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8:23; see also 1 Pet. 4:12–13). Consider this scenario: Christ returns and we tell Him, “Jesus, would You just delay for another week? There’s a ballgame and a new Chronicles of Narnia movie was just released and….” This is the antithesis of the joyful meeting Christ has in store. Such a meeting, however, is only possible if we are longing for His return because this life isn’t so pleasant.
- An easy-faith walk would produce complacency, not a love for God and His Word: “He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your fathers had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD” (Deut. 8:3). Trials bring out the worst in us, at least at first. We scream and complain, but are humbled in the process. It’s only when we’re humbled and despair of self and our own opinions that we come to rely on His Words. We have to grow less in our own sight so that He might become greater.
We all want an easy faith walk, but we seldom know what is good for us. We suppose that winning the lottery is what will change our lives for the better. However, it has destroyed many of its “winners.” In Happiness: Enough Already, Sharon Begley writes that Eric Wilson, author of Against Happiness (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008), “praises melancholia for generating ‘a turbulence of heart that results in an active questioning of the status quo, a perpetual longing to create new ways of being and seeing.’ This is not romantic claptrap. Studies show that when you are in a negative mood, says [psychologist Ed] Diener, ‘you become more analytical, more critical and more innovative. You need negative emotions, including sadness, to direct your thinking.’”8
In contrast, the easy life has a demotivating influence and breeds self-satisfaction—the very opposite of God’s purpose. Begley continues: “A classical Greek text, possibly written by Aristotle, asks, ‘Why is it that all those who have become eminent in philosophy or politics or the arts are clearly melancholic?’”9
God doesn’t want us all to become statesmen or artists, but in His great love, He wants to bring about Christ-likeness — something that the faith-easy walk will not accomplish.
Should we admire Pausch’s fortitude and wit in the face of death? Perhaps, but sometimes a positive attitude is no more than a cloak for delusion and denial. If it serves to blind, then it is folly. Facing eternity with a stiff upper lip but without Christ is like facing an army with a pea-shooter. Pausch’s life can only truly be assessed from God’s perspective — what the Psalmist was given when he entered God’s temple (Ps. 73:4).
Daniel Mann has taught at the New York School of Bible since 1992 and is the author of Embracing the Darkness: How a Jewish, Sixties, Berkeley Radical Learned to Live with Depression God’s Way (Xulon Press, 2004). He wrote about the “The Bible and Depression,” in the previous issue of the Christian Research Journal (v. 31, no. 6, January/February 2009).
- Geoff Martz, Samantha Wender, and Chris Francescani, “Randy Pausch, ‘Last Lecture’ Professor Dies,” July 25, 2008  https://abcnews.go.com/GMA/randy-pausch-lecture-professor-dies/story?id=4614281.
- Randy Pausch, “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams,” available at http://download.srv.cs.cmu.edu/~pausch/Randy/pauschlastlecturetranscript.pdf.
- http://www.uua.org/phptemplate/printer.php. In the same interview, however, Pausch stated, “I’m not opposed to miracles.” According to their official statement of faith, “Unitarian Universalism is a liberal religion that encompasses many faith traditions. Unitarian Universalists include people who identify as Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Pagans, Atheists, Agnostics, Humanists, and others. As there is no official Unitarian Universalist creed, Unitarian Universalists are free to search for truth on many paths. (http://www.uua.org/visitors/beliefswithin/index.shtml).
- All Scripture quotations are from the New International Version.
- Sharon Begley, “Happiness: Enough Already,” February 11, 2008, Newsweek.com http://www.newsweek.com/id/107569.