TGC Podcast

Alex Harris: How to Do Hard Things

Episode Summary

Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra interviews Alex Harris about clerking for two U.S. Supreme Court justices and his brother Josh’s high-profile deconstruction of his faith.

Episode Notes

It’s fair to say we’re coming out of a hard year. Everything we’ve done for the past 12 months has taken more effort and resulted in less productivity. Perhaps we would’ve been better prepared if we’d all read a book Alex Harris wrote with his brother Brett a dozen years ago called Do Hard Things. In it, Alex and Brett proposed that doing hard things prepares you to do even harder things. You should get up early, they said. Step out of your comfort zone. Do more than what’s required. Find a cause. Be better than your culture expects.

So how did this teenage message prepare Alex for this last year as an adult carrying weighty responsibilities? In this special bonus episode of The Gospel Coalition Podcast, TGC senior writer Sarah Zylstra asked Alex about his experience clerking for two U.S. Supreme Court justices and editing Harvard Law Review, his brother Josh's high-profile deconstruction of his faith, whether evangelicals invest too much import in presidential politics, and much more. You can hear more from Alex in Zylstra's new book, Gospelbound: Living with Resolute Hope in an Anxious Age.

This episode of The Gospel Coalition Podcast is sponsored by Lifeway, publisher of Jen Wilkin’s newest Bible study, God of Deliverance: A Study of Exodus 1–18.  Learn more at


Episode Transcription

The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy.

Sarah Zylstra: Hi there. This is Sarah Zylstra, Senior Writer for The Gospel Coalition. My job is to find and report on places where God's spirit is at work in the world.

So I hear a lot of stories about Christians who are living sacrificial, joyful, God-glorifying lives, and I'm excited to share this one about Alex Harris with you. It's fair to say we're coming out of a hard year. Everything we've done for the past 12 months has taken more effort and resulted in less productivity. It's harder for teachers and pastors to communicate online, and it's less effective for people to listen and learn that way. It's more difficult to look after an elderly loved one when you can't visit them, and they feel less cared for. It's more challenging to breathe and speak through a mask than without one. We've expended a lot more energy doing things that were normally nearly effortless, going to the grocery store, spending time with friends, figuring out how to exercise.

Perhaps we would have been better prepared if we'd all read a book Alex Harris wrote with his brother, Brett, a dozen years ago called Do Hard Things. In it, Alex and Brett propose that doing hard things prepares you to do even harder things. You should get up early, they said. Step out of your comfort zone. Do more than what's required. Find a cause. Be better than your culture expects. That way, when a pandemic sweeps in or your brother deconstructs his faith or your wife gets sick, you won't collapse. Your foundation, built on one fateful decision after another, will be sturdy. Your muscles of obedience to the Lord, strengthened by constant use, will be able to handle the load. This is the theme of Alex Harris's life.

I met him and Brett six years ago when I wrote their story for The Gospel Coalition. When my editor Collin Hansen and I wrote our new book, Gospelbound: Resolute Hope in an Anxious Age, we filled it with stories, and Alex and Brett were an obvious inclusion. Their lives have been an exceptional example of Christians who live bound to the gospel, trusting in Jesus as they do hard things. After they finished high school at age 16, Alex and Brett clerked with the Alabama Supreme Court and organized a statewide grassroots political campaign. Then they started a blog coined The Revolution Movement Against Low Expectations, wrote their book Do Hard Things, and spoke at conferences. That was all before they turned 20.

Alex Harris: So I grew up about 15 miles outside of Portland, Oregon, and we lived on nine acres of heavily wooded land, surrounded by many more acres of forest. So me and my six siblings, we spent a lot of time outside, exploring the woods, using our imaginations, rescuing and trying to tend to injured wild animals. Then the rest of the time, we were inside, reading books, putting on skits, and making home movies. We didn't have a TV growing up, and so kind of all of our activity was much more active and mind-engaging. We were homeschooled. So this was a very kind of unorthodox, not as structured approach to education, but education was kind of woven into everything that we did.

Sarah Zylstra: This was before homeschooling conferences and curriculum and online support. Alex's dad, Greg, was a pioneer in the movement. More than 180,000 families went through his homeschool workshops and seminars in the eighties and nineties.

Alex Harris: Then my oldest brother, Josh, who is 13 years older than my twin brother and I, in the late nineties, he wrote a book called I Kissed Dating Goodbye, which coincided with kind of the True Love Waits movement and kind of broader purity culture movement in evangelical circles and just became this kind of surprise runaway bestselling book, sold over a million copies. So growing up, virtually all of my friends were homeschooled because of my parents, and they weren't allowed to date because of my brother. So kind of the influence of my family on so many people, even if it was largely just within evangelical or even smaller homeschool circles, was just very obvious throughout my childhood.

I think for a lot of people, that could be a very limiting or a burden. You could feel like you're kind of under the shadow of these well-known family members. For whatever reason, it goes to the kindness of God, Brett and I, we didn't take it that way. I think we took it more as like, "Mom and Dad, they're normal, imperfect people. Our big brother, Josh, he's a very normal, imperfect big brother. If God can use them to further the work of His Kingdom, then he could use us, too."

Sarah Zylstra: The twins enrolled at Patrick Henry College, took first place in the Moot Court nationals, and wrote another book. They dated and married their wives and cared for their mother throughout her journey with colon cancer until she suddenly passed away.

Alex Harris: She was the driving force, the glue, the rock, whatever analogy you want to use for our whole family. Found out in the spring that she had Stage 4 colon cancer, and she passed away on the 4th of July. So it was very quick, very sudden. She had, we assume, known something was going on for perhaps years and had not told anyone, not told my dad or any of us that something was happening. So it was just out of the blue, a huge loss, and took a lot of wind out of all of our sails as a family. That's a hard thing that we didn't choose, obviously, but a hard thing that we experienced.

Sarah Zylstra: After college, Alex headed off to Harvard Law School. He and Brett had been the first in their family to graduate from college. Alex was now the first to attempt graduate school.

Alex Harris: It was neat to be in Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts. At the same time, there were challenges. I was one of the few kind of vocal, identifiable evangelical Christians on campus. It was the first time I'd been in kind of a majority non-Christian environment, so that was an adjustment, and I was also a new father and a husband. That was unusual. There were others, but we were a very small minority of the students at Harvard.

So figuring out how to balance the incredible demands academically of a school like Harvard with being faithful as a husband and a father required some kind of intentional decisions, kind of intentional boundary-setting, where I basically treated law school as if it were not a nine to five, because that was not quite enough time, but as early as possible, even into the wee morning hours until dinnertime was kind of when I would do my work and then try to be home for dinner, do bedtime with my daughter, have time with my wife every evening, and to not let school just kind of spill over into every nook and cranny, which is what it would do if you let it. That required some level of discipline,

Sarah Zylstra: Alex owned law school. He won a Sears Prize, which meant his GPA was one of the top two in his class. He worked for the Harvard Law Review, one of the most coveted positions on campus. He graduated magna cum laude and then clerked for Judge Neil Gorsuch and Justice Anthony Kennedy. In 2017, Alex was named one of Forbes Magazine's 30 Under 30, and then, finally, he started actually practicing law. He knew that was going to be hard, too.

Alex Harris: The legal profession as a whole, it's a service industry in an increasingly connected age through technology. So you are never truly off the grid or off call, and there's a never-ending amount of work to do. There's a lot of pressure and expectation, both personal. A lot of lawyers tend to be Type A overachievers who put a lot of pressure on themselves, and then from others

Alex Harris: ...who put a lot of pressure on themselves and then from other attorneys, partners, and from clients. And so when I was coming out of law school, I actually did some research, I actually took a class on the legal profession in law school where the numbers in terms of depression and substance abuse and divorce, and just general unhappiness for the legal profession, as you might imagine, is just very high. And so there are kind of built in dangers and one of the things I did to address that was to go to a law firm that has a different model that mitigates a lot of the most draining aspects of how a lot of big law firms work.

But some of it is just choosing to set boundaries, even still seeking to have some autonomy seeking to view my job, not as the sum total of who I am and my worth, but as a means to serve others, but also to enable a lifestyle of generosity that I might not otherwise be able to do, and kind of making it fit into that kind of broader vision of vocation, not just profession, but vocation has been important.

Sarah Zylstra: In addition to tricky litigation cases and spending time with his family, Alex donates his free time to pro bono cases.

Alex Harris: That has been the highlight of my time in legal practice. I've gotten to work on some really exciting high profile cases, but the most important one was a pro bono case for a woman who was fleeing for her life from a country in South America, from a drug cartel member who had threatened to murder her and her family. Had attempted to rape and kill her previously, and then when she testified in court against him, and he was released by a corrupt judge who we believe was bribed, he was ready to carry out on his threat. And she fled with her and her niece who she had raised since she was just a young child as her daughter. And this was kind of at the height of the family separation crisis at the border.

When many Christians, many evangelicals just kind of reacted appropriately with horror at what was happening and sought to get involved in various ways. And as an attorney, feeling like, "Wow, I have a unique set of skills and abilities to do something here." And so through some great local organizations here in the Denver area, some of which are run by Christians. We were able to get involved, represent her, and her seeking asylum in the United States. In the end, she was granted asylum, complete asylum on every ground that we put forward. And the judge said she was the most compelling and credible witness that he had ever seen.

Sarah Zylstra: At the same time Alex was flying through a legal career, Brett fell off the grid, literally. His wife Anna was diagnosed with Lyme disease and developed issues with toxic mold. So that she could breathe, they left their home and all their belongings and fled to the desert where they spent months living in a tent or a van as they tried to rebuild Anna's health.

Alex Harris: What's remarkable is that it has done that. She has substantially improved. She is dancing again. They have been able to settle in Southwestern United States and actually in a house and have some sense of stability and permanence, which had not been true for the last several years. And Brett has throughout this time been Anna's primary caregiver and been forced to scramble and to seek to provide for his wife by doing things that don't require a reliable internet connection, because when you're in the middle of Death Valley, there's no easily accessible Wi-Fi, but now that they have a little bit more stability, he's been able to focus more on the work that he's doing, which is really, really neat stuff.

He is working with young, aspiring Christian authors who want to change the world with their words, train them and seeing some really remarkable success stories come out of that program. Brett, if he'd wanted to, he could have gone to law school and done these clerkships and worked at a law firm, and some of the things that I've been able to do, and yet instead, he's just been a faithful husband and his faith and faithfulness through that trial, as well as Anna's faithfulness through her incredible suffering are just a source of endless inspiration.

Sarah Zylstra: Let's talk about 2020. It seemed like everybody was forced to do hard things. Either your kid was schooling at home, or you lost your job, or your friends were yelling at each other on Facebook about mask wearing, or it was just everybody was forced into the hard things that maybe not everybody had worked that muscle for that. And we're not quite done with it either. Probably there will be some hard things as we try and come out of this. Is there encouragement that you would give, or guidance that you would give the church?

Alex Harris: I think we all, as always, but maybe especially now just need to be able to give each other a lot of grace, maybe more than ever you don't know what someone else is dealing with. You don't know what losses they've endured this past year, and we all need a lot of grace in the church and outside of it. Another difficulty of this past year, which is not unique to 2020, but maybe exacerbated by some of the other stressors that were present in 2020 was just how polarized our country has become. And that's also both inside and outside the church and not only polarized, but the opposition, the others, are often demonized. And that makes it very hard to give grace when my new demonize your opponent.

And one of the causes of that, in my view is, is the fact that we have, as a culture, kind of embraced a form of civic religion, where we put our hope, where we look for our salvation in elections in policies in politicians. And, again, sadly that's infiltrated, even the church where many people are trusting in princes, which is what the Bible tells us not to do. For us, as a church, especially as evangelicals, I think we need to take a very close, look at our own hearts and our own churches and seek to extend grace and to return to first principles and put our hope in Christ.

Sarah Zylstra: So here's what's a little bit confusing. I don't know if you've ever heard this, but sometimes I hear people say like, "Well, the reason politics is so terrible as because Christians abandoned the field." They abandoned the Hollywood field and they abandoned the politics because it felt so, I don't know, secular, or gross or something. And now look at what has happened, but I don't even know if that's true because haven't there always been Christians in politics. Is the answer then to come roaring back at politics and like take it at the edge of a sword? Why do we say that?

Alex Harris: I have reflected on this, because I grew up in the Christian homeschool movement and there was a big... Part of the vision of that was the idea of the generation Joshua. And the idea of is that my parents generation of Christian homeschoolers who are like Moses, who kind of led the children out of Egypt, so they fled the public school system kind of increasing secularization of culture to raise their children in the wilderness. And now, as generation Joshua, we wouldn't be the ones who would kind of take back the lambs for Christ. And we would do it by infiltrating politics, and law, and Hollywood, or creating an alternative that would defeat Hollywood at its own games. And there was real serious talk of, of this and the problem, there are many problems with that.

A lot of it goes to things we've talked about that putting our hope in princes and in power. And some of it is viewing the United States of America itself as this kind of God's chosen people when God's chosen, people are all believers worldwide under the new covenant under the new Testament. And so kind of viewing America as the new Israel and the need for us to maintain its identity as a so-called Christian nation or else, again, spiritual cataclysm, that whole mentality heaves a fear-based engagement in politics, and culture and it heeds this felt need to be dominating or conquering or infiltrating all of these fields. And it's not that there is not a way to be salt and light as Christians. I have a vision as an attorney to be salt and light within the legal world, but my hope is not ultimately to pass every law and to create a Christian nation in whatever that means. My hope is to be faithful, to love my neighbor, and to be a faithful witness to Christ until he comes again. Even if that means being a persecuted minority, even if that means that ministry and faith becomes more difficult for my daughter than it was for me or my parents.

That is not the end of the spiritual historical story, because the ultimate end is not this world, but the next. And so I do think there's a sense in which many Christians have had this mentality of engagement with politics and culture that drives some of the problems that we have seen. Disengaging from that whole posture is going to be necessary to really return to a more biblical and true understanding of the Christian calling.

Sarah Zylstra: So since we're talking about politics, I did really want to ask you. A lot of people voted for President Trump for a lot of different reasons, but one of them was his promises to deliver appointees to the Supreme Court, which he did. But having clerked for the Supreme Court, I'm just wondering about the rationale that we use. I'm curious, how important are those judicial appointments, especially at the Supreme Court? Is it really worth, and maybe it is, voting based on filling those appointments?

Alex Harris: That is an incredibly complex question, a very important question, but an incredibly complex question. And I don't know that I have a bottom line clear answer for you, Sarah, but some thoughts. First, it is important, but it shouldn't be so important. A big part of why the Supreme Court has become such a central part of our American life is because it has become the final arbiter of all hot button social questions, and in large part because of failures of the other federal branches, the executive and the legislative branch. And so in many people's view that is not that the proper role of the court and we should be able to, as a democracy, to engage on these issues and to reach conclusions and to live with legislative successes and failures without always having to resort to a final pronouncement from on high from the Supreme Court. So that's one thought.

A second is that, historically speaking, especially Conservative Christians have viewed the Supreme court as important because the goal is to overturn decisions like Roe vs. Wade. Again, just speaking historically, the goal or the strategy of electing Republican Presidents to appoint Conservative justices has not been successful. It has not produced the desired outcomes. So there's no sure bet that simply appointing more justices is somehow going to lead to X, Y, or Z result. And we are far too early to say whether the justices appointed by former President Trump are going to achieve what justices appointed by other Republican Presidents in the past did not. I will say the justices, the current makeup of the court, it is a very religious liberty supportive court. There are a lot of very reliable, thoughtful votes in favor of religious liberty, and that goes even beyond traditional ideological divides. So that's another observation.

But the fact is, the Supreme Court right now does make these decisions. I think it would be good for all Christians and all Americans to go put more energy into these other institutions, just because the court ultimately cannot heal and resolve every issue. We need to do a lot of that work on a relational, local, one-on-one, even state level, and constitutionalizing everything, federalizing everything, requiring a final judgment from on high for everything is not a sustainable or healthy path.

Sarah Zylstra: Legislation like the Equality Act has been hard for Christians, not only on its merits, but because of what it says about our culture's drift away from Christianity. Another difficult trend is deconstructions, which is when a Christian, often publicly on social media, dismantles the beliefs they grew up with. For some, losing faith means they reject the notion of God altogether. Others are later able to reconstruct their faith in a true and better way. But at the beginning of the deconstruction process, it's hard to tell which way the deconstructor is going to go. It can be worrisome and demoralizing to watch someone argue away what we know is the truth, especially if that person is someone we love or in such a high profile position that we fear they may destabilize the faith of other Christians. One of the most high profile recent deconstructions has been that of Joshua Harris, someone who is both well-known and a dearly loved brother.

When someone deconstructs, it can make everybody else rethink too like, "Oh, so you're changing your mind on that. Should I change my mind on that?" And I'm wondering if that was stronger for you because he was your brother and you looked up to him and you were walking along behind him all the time. Did it make your faith wobble?

Alex Harris: It did. I think, inevitably, when someone you're so close to question things, or walks away from who they are [inaudible], it raises questions in your own mind. And I say wobble not to suggest some profound crisis of faith, but just to acknowledge that, yes, any person is going to have some of those emotions and some of those questions and doubts when something like this happens. And I'm no exception to that. I think perhaps less for me than for outsiders who had no context and maybe hadn't walked with Josh through the very difficult years leading up to this time maybe there was more surprise, maybe it was more of a shock. And so it was not as much of a complete shock or surprise for me. And there was, also, in the process of getting to listen and getting to ask and try to understand, I think a recognition that oftentimes these decisions are not attributable to one specific thing or to some intellectual question or doubt that just could not be satisfactorily explained or resolved.

We are whole persons, mind, emotions, physical bodies. It all rolls together when it comes to even these big seemingly life altering decisions and the moments that lead up to them. And so, in some ways, I felt a real sense of comfort in having conversations with Josh and understanding some of the factors that played into it, recognizing God's kindness to me in that I very easily could have followed down the same path. Not that it would have necessarily led to the same place, but God in his kindness took me off the fast track as a minor evangelical celebrity and allowed me to do some real important personal work and growth and maturing and learning. And so there was a lot of comfort in seeing God's faithfulness in that, but that doesn't obviously negate the discomfort and the questions that come when someone you trust and love and look up to has those doubts. And I think it's hopefully, like we talked about, okay to express that and to share that and to find support within the church when we have those questions and doubts.

Sarah Zylstra: "Josh's story isn't over," Alex said.

Alex Harris: He is incredibly loved by many, including his family. And he still has a pastor's heart. Much of what he has reacted to are criticisms of, at times, a legalistic or fear-based religion that brings on various cultural baggage to the Gospel of Christ that is not really a clear command of scripture. And that critique from someone who actually still has a heart for the evangelical church that he has left is hopefully a message that those of us still in the fold can really listen to. But that doesn't change the fact that it hurts or that it's embarrassing and there's a time to grieve over it. And then all of those are our emotions that I personally experienced as his brother, as someone who loves him and looks up to him. But I think the important thing for us as a family was just to say, first, there's a knee jerk reaction maybe born out of pain for many Christians to say, "He was a wolf amongst sheep. He went out from us because he was never of us." And the story's not over. We don't know that at this time. And so to avoid throwing Josh into a particular theological bucket, that was one important thing for me.

And the second was just to communicate my continued love for him and to listen and to try to understand, and that's an ongoing process and I have a lot to learn from listening and seeking to understand. And so that's a very healthy process I think for both of us. And I think more generally, as a church, you're right, this is a trend. It's not the first, it won't be the last, and part of what makes it so difficult and painful is, one, that so many people have haven't influenced or looked up to or had their own spiritual journey marked by Josh's teaching. And that's true for me, so I fall into both personal, family and the broader Christian community that's been influenced by his teaching, to process that as it's really difficult. And I think some of that's just inevitable, but some of it is a symptom of a celebrity culture within evangelicalism and in the church more broadly where we do lift up skilled teachers and we do treat them like celebrities.

I've to a smaller degree experienced that myself. I thankfully found that off-ramp and got to just be another student at a small school and be a student and not the teacher for a while. But Josh never had that. He went straight from writing this best-selling book at 21 to becoming the heir apparent of a mega church outside of D.C. to becoming the senior pastor at the age of 30 before he'd gone to college or gone to seminary. And then he was the pastor of this large influential church that headed up this much larger network of churches that was very influential within evangelical Christianity. He was the figurehead, and when you're the figurehead, it's not just that you feel like there's all this pressure, and I'm sure there's so much pressure on him, it's so hard to have genuine community where you can be honest about questions or doubts or struggles.

Because to even admit it is almost like a scandal within so many churches. And that's a sign of an unhealthy dynamic within our churches that the people who are in leadership, everyone who's close to them is close to them because of their celebrity, as opposed to out of genuine relationship and there's a lack of ability to be honest, a lack of ability to question or to doubt. I just can't imagine that, that helped Josh when it comes to where he is today. And that's only one part of the story. I don't mean to suggest that's the whole explanation. There's a lot more that went into it and I'm sure a lot that I don't even know. But just a reminder that our pastors, our leaders, our teachers, our authors, they're all just broken sinful people just like us and they need to be treated that way, both in not being elevated to a position where their failures devastate us, but also not elevated in that way so that they are isolated and unsupported and feel alone in that.

That's something that I think, as a church, we need to really think about and seek to cultivate a different culture.

Sarah Zylstra: Creating a more gospel-centered culture in our churches is hard. So is working in politics or thinking through asylum law or living in a tent in the desert. And so is homeschooling your children through a pandemic, educating yourself on racial injustice, or bringing dinner to a neighbor in need. So what gives us encouragement to do hard things?

Alex Harris: We ultimately do hard things and we have the power to do hard things and we have the hope that enables us to do hard things or to suffer through some very difficult things, because Jesus Christ has done the ultimate hard thing, that he died on the cross beating sin and death forever for our sakes. And because of that, we have this incredible hope, we have this incredible security, we have this incredible understanding that failure is not the end and our own failures do not negate his faithfulness. As Christians, the person and work and salvation of Christ is what ultimately grounds us in the ability to do maybe some of the hardest things, the types of hard things that someone who is not a Christian would maybe not even consider doing, the ability to faithfully walk through suffering that is hard even to wrap your mind around the way that Christians throughout history have done because, again, of that hope you have in Christ.