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Celebrating the relentless love of God: A conversation with the Rev. Francis Chan

From difficult childhood to beloved pastor, the Rev. Francis Chan translates Christian insights for a broad audience outside the confines of faith boundaries.

The Rev. Francis Chan’s words have uplifted evangelical audiences for years.
With his ability to translate Christian insights for a broad audience, the Rev. Francis Chan has been able to encourage people beyond the traditional confines of faith boundaries.
Amaury Gutierrez, Unsplash

Editor’s note: This interview between Jacob Hess and the Rev. Francis Chan is part of an ongoing Deseret News series exploring ideas and issues at the intersection of faith and thought.

The Rev. Francis Chan had many of the classic risk factors to become a “troubled teen.” His mother died at childbirth and his father died when he was 12. But he didn’t give up on life or his faith. Forty-two years later, the Rev. Chan has become one of America’s most beloved evangelical pastors, with his 2013 book, “Crazy Love: Overwhelmed by a Relentless God,” selling 2 million copies around the world.

The Rev. Chan donated book royalties to organizations fighting sex trafficking, but felt a conviction he needed to sacrifice more. Although they hadn’t taken a salary for years, he and his wife, Lisa, decided to downsize their home. They felt prompted in 2010 to leave their 6,000-member Cornerstone Community Church in Simi Valley, California, and move to San Francisco to begin a new ministry. In 2019, he felt called to relocate to Hong Kong, where his family stayed until their visas were denied.

The Rev. Chan’s words have uplifted evangelicals for years. With his ability to translate Christian insights for a broad audience, he’s been able to encourage people beyond the traditional confines of faith boundaries.

The Rev. Chan spoke to me from his home in Fremont, California. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. (An unabridged version is available at Public Square Magazine.)

Jacob Hess: More people seem to be walking away from faith these days. What would you say to someone unsure whether Jesus is worth following today, compared with all the immediate gratification around them?

The Rev. Francis Chan: I would agree with that person if there was no such thing as a Judgment Day. I get it — if the goal is happiness on this earth, yeah, go do your thing. Eat, drink and be merry.

For too long, we’ve tried to make following Jesus, like, “Oh, it’s fun … it’s great,” but that’s not really how the Apostle Paul described it, saying, “If there’s no resurrection I’m above all most to be pitied.” When you read everything he suffered, you go, “Wow, that would be foolish if there was no eternity.” We live in a time where, even in the church, people are afraid to speak about the wrath of God, which is all through the scriptures — beginning to end. Because we think it turns people off and don’t want to speak about it, people are starting to believe there is no judgment anymore.

JH: What are your thoughts on the erosion of the freedom to share unpopular messages, not only in places like Hong Kong, but also in Western democracies?

FC: This was prophesied. Paul tells Timothy the time is coming when people will “not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions.” So, if I want to divorce my wife, I can find a teacher who will tell me it’s OK. If I want to have a boyfriend and a girlfriend, I’ll find someone who tells me it’s OK. If you don’t want to believe in a Judgment Day, then find someone that teaches there’s no judgment.

At the end of the day you have to decide, am I saying this because I think people like it and I’m going to get more likes and more followers, or am I saying this because God called me to this? I remember one woman telling me after a campus talk, “Everything you shared about there being one way to heaven, you were pretty adamant about it.” Then she goes, “You know that most of us don’t believe that, and we’re actually pretty offended that you would say that. So why would you say that?”

I said, “I don’t say things because I think you’ll like it. I say things that I don’t even like.” When I read the scriptures, I go, “This is what God says, and so I’m bound by that.” So, I say something because to the best of my understanding it’s true and I’m called to say it. I’m not after popularity. I’m after God saying, “Well done” when this is all over.

The Rev. Francis Chan

JH: You recently said, “It’s so rare to find a teenager who can pray — who can be alone for 10 minutes and try to focus on God and not have their mind wander, because of cellphones … triggering us all to constant stimulation.” What have you done in your own home to help your children be ready to connect with God?

FC: It’s not easy — especially when you feel like you’re that dad with these unfair restrictions that none of the other kids have to deal with. But in 1 Peter it says, “Be sober-minded and self-controlled for the sake of your prayers.” We have to exercise self-control. We can’t have our mind just jumping from one thing to the next and expect to have a good, strong prayer life where you can actually sense him being in the room ministering to you.

This last summer I told my kids, “We need to get away — let’s go away for two weeks, no cell phones, no computers. I just want to be with you, I want you to be with God. I want us to just enjoy each other. Just trust me. You’ll live through it.” There’s creative ways and different things we can do. But it’s a real fight. If Satan can get us doing a bunch of stuff ... and not really knowing Jesus and being known by him, he wins.

JH: One of the things you often say in your sermons is, “I don’t know how you survive without spending time alone with God.” Have you found this time alone with God harder to preserve in your own life? What extra steps have you taken to protect that time?

FC: I like to achieve things and I like to get things done. And we live in a time where you can get a lot of things done in five minutes. So, the temptation is, “Let me do this, let me do this.” I have to wake up and say, “No, I’m not going to see who called. I’m not going to see what’s waiting for me.” Some mornings, I just go out for a walk and pray — just talking to him, thanking him, worshiping him.

Self-control is, “I want to check my messages — see how many things I need to get done today, but I refuse. Because this is really the only thing I have to do.”

JH: You know quite a bit about this busyness in your own life, with seven children of your own. We’ve been talking in our faith community about prioritizing worship opportunities at home. What has worked well in your home to get the message of Jesus into the hearts of your children?

FC: We’ve never been ones to have a set time to talk through scripture. That’s a wonderful thing, and I wish I’d been more diligent in that. But for us, it’s really in the context of everyday life — you know, just spontaneous worship times in the home. My daughters will just grab the guitar or jump on the piano, and from their heart cry out to God. And pretty soon we’re all around the piano or guitar — just so happy as a family being in his presence.

JH: You’ve encouraged believers to go beyond modifying just their behavior, instead reaching for deeper shifts. What does that look like?

FC: When our oldest child was 12, she was this compulsive liar. Everything in the scriptures told me I couldn’t change her heart, so I said, “We can set her schedule in one way, but then once she turns 18, she’s gone. She’ll just do whatever she wants to do anyway. Our only hope is for the Holy Spirit himself to enter into her.” I explained to my daughter, “Honey, I’m concerned because I know you love me, and you love Mom. But I can’t tell if you really love God. You’re doing things to please us. But I don’t see the fruit of the Spirit in your life, that comes from a deep place within.”

And it was really amazing, because just a couple of months later, she comes to me and says “Dad, you were right. I didn’t know God. The Holy Spirit was not in me.” I said, “How can you be so sure?”

“Because,” she said, “He’s in me now. I talk to him like I’m talking to you. I know him now, so I know that I did not know him before.” Her entire life did a 180. It really wasn’t about me and these rules I enforced on her. It was God changing her, which is the same thing that happened in my life.

JH: You once asked, “If you disagree with God on an issue, would you submit to him?” For someone wrestling to surrender in some difficult area, what more would you say?

Most people right now believe whatever they think ... or feel. If they have an opinion about something, then in their mind that’s true. And I ask people, “Why do you bet on yourself?” Is it a matter of intellect, like your IQ is so much higher than everyone else’s, so your opinion is right and theirs is wrong?

Don’t believe everything you think. And be OK with people having different opinions. Someone recently said, “One of the shifts in our culture is people are no longer allowed to have opinions — but instead, they are their opinions.” And so, if you reject their opinion, you are rejecting them, rather than saying, “No, I can reject what you think about that and still love you as a person.” It’s just a strange time that we live in.

JH: In your book “Crazy Love,” you refer to the tendency to play it safe, where we can “put ourselves in situations where we are safe, even if there is no God.” You encourage people to live in a way that if God didn’t come through, they’d be in trouble. Can you say more about what motivates you to teach what is clearly a challenging message for people to hear?

FC: Am I afraid each time I take a step of faith like that? Yeah, there’s fear. But I’m more afraid to not obey. When Jesus walks away from the rich young ruler, he says, “It’s so hard for the rich.” But then a few verses later, he runs into a very rich man, Zacchaeus, and it’s completely different. He got a glimpse of Jesus and was ready to give everything up. And Jesus says to him, “Today salvation is come into this house. You get it. You understand what I’m worth.” I want to be Zacchaeus who really sees the worth of Christ and just starts giving everything away. It’s really just this clearer picture of God, and going, “Are you kidding me? I can know you? You say that you’ll abide in me, and I’ll abide in you?” And the thought of ever not having that is a lot more terrifying than that I might be 70 and living in a tent. That doesn’t scare me so much.

JH: You said in the middle of the pandemic, “I’ve never appreciated and loved being a follower of Christ more right now.” What would it take for people to feel more joy and confidence like this, even with everything going on in the world?

FC: I do have this joy that, at times, is inexpressible. I remember one time on an airplane just reading scriptures, and I began to tear up. And I remember the flight attendant was like, “Are you OK?” And I said, “Oh no, I’m fine,” with a part of me that didn’t want to say, “I’ve just been reading the Bible, and I’m so freaked out excited about what I have in Christ.”

This was not me ... at all. There are some people that have a natural disposition to be happier people. But if you ask any of my family who knew me as a kid, I was the most unhappy person. Every time I would see my aunt, I remember she would say, “Why are you never happy?” But over the years, the Spirit really changed me when I began to understand the grace of God. If we’re talking about almighty God, he doesn’t just enter you and change nothing and you don’t have love, joy, peace, patience, kindness ... that’s not the God that I read about in scripture.

JH: You’ve done work reaching out across other important differences between other Evangelicals, and also with Catholics, and you’ve taken some heat for that. Why is this kind of interfaith dialogue work important?

We live in a time where if someone calls himself “Catholic,” it could mean anything. Or if they say they are “Jewish” — I have no idea, based on that individual. I know what I’ve experienced with Christ. And I know how good it has been to know him and to be known by him. And I want that for everyone. So, if I have an opportunity to speak to someone who may be labeled something, that doesn’t bother me. I try really hard to just love whoever is in front of me.

Yet these differences are real. The New Testament is so much about the grace of God. I totally believe if the Spirit is in us we cannot help but work; He moves us to work. But if it gets off of grace and on to work, even with Baptists or whoever, my heart is just, “Ahh, I want you to rest in him and know him.”

JH: Do you see opportunities for closer collaboration between Latter-day Saints and Evangelicals?

Some of those differences are so deep. But there are certainly things we can partner on — sanctity of life, God’s creation of male and female, living in a country where there’s freedom. People have to be OK with discussion and for there to be love in that discussion. I’ve already been rejected by my old camp just for having conversations with people who are more charismatic or Catholic. So, the whole cancel culture thing — been there, done that. As long as we’re really seeking truth and being honest with each other with concerns. And for everyone to come to the table and say, “I will follow truth wherever it leads me.” But we have to be realistic and honest about what is possible.