Man Bible

Have a question for Paul Raushenbush, Beliefnet's advice columnist for teens? E-mail us.

Dear Pastor Paul,
I always make promises to God and then end up breaking them. I feel terrible after, but I don't know what I can do to have God forgive me. Do you have any suggestions?

Dear Friend,
In short, what you have to do for God to forgive you is to ask.

Breaking promises to God is a very human thing to do. We promise God that we will not be hateful, or selfish, or engage in unhealthy activities, and then we do and we feel awful - not only because we know the act is wrong, but because we broke our promise to our creator who loves us.

The key to changing this pattern is twofold. The first is to deeply understand the act of repentance. Repentance is not just throwing up our hands and saying I'm sorry. Repentance involves truly admitting and understanding the nature of our mistakes, seeing the root causes of our wrongful activities and the consequences they have on other people and the world. It also involves trying as best we can to mend the damage that has been done, and then asking for forgiveness from God and from the people we have hurt. Repentance is work.

The fact that we are sinful is not some kind of mean-spirited indictment; rather it is an admission of our fallibility. And because God knows we are sinful, God does forgive us. Psalm 130 reads: "If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with you, so that you may be revered."

The fact that God forgives us also means that we should forgive our friends, family and even our enemies who harm us! Don't forget the prayer that Jesus taught - "Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us."

Dear Pastor Paul,
Once when reading a book about Islam I said the statement of faith out loud. I know that is how you convert and I said it contemplatively. I was and am a Catholic. I believe in Jesus and I am pretty sure I never meant to convert but I still wonder: am I still a Christian?

Dear Friend,
You are referring to the Shahada, the Islamic expression of faith. It reads: "There is no god but God and Muhammad is the Messenger of God." Muslim leaders and scholars agree that that you must believe it completely in your heart in order for saying it out loud to make you a Muslim. Don't worry, if you still believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ you are still a Christian.

Dear Pastor Paul,
I'm Wiccan and I was talking to my Christian friend about how the Bible contradicts itself so often it's hard to understand it. She said, "That's what I go to Bible study for, so they can tell me how to interpret it." But surely if she's being told how to interpret it, she isn't thinking for herself. Shouldn't she be interpreting it the way she sees it and not how they do?

Dear Friend,
I support your Christian friend's desire to better understand the extremely complex and varied book we know as the Bible. If your friend's Bible study is one person telling the group exactly what to believe with no room for discussion, then it is not a very good Bible study. But most likely that is not the case. A good Bible study gives factual information, such as knowledge about the original language of the text, context, the intent of the original authors, and how the passage or book fits into the wider biblical narrative. Bible studies provide a group setting for individuals to reflect on how a verse or passage affects and informs their day-to-day lives and essential beliefs. While some of the factual information might be offered by an authority such as a teacher or a minister, the discussion should equally value the contributions of the entire group.

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