Life Without God
Believe it or not, when people ask me which book of the Bible they should read first, I often answer, “Ecclesiastes.” It is unlike any other. Smack dab in the middle of the Old Testament sits a bombshell of diagnostic brilliance, capable of cutting through our avoidances and suppressions, and returning us to reality.
Also, unlike most of the books that surround it, you don’t need much context to understand Ecclesiastes. It may be the most immediately universal book in the Bible, certainly the most existential. What makes it so timeless is that it takes as its premise the fact that everyone (no matter who they are or what they claim to believe) craves meaning and they go about life trying to secure it on their own steam.
I have yet to meet a single person who doesn’t want their life to mean something. We all want our lives to count. And we want to dictate how that happens. The yearning for substance is universal, and by no means a bad thing. It is part of how we are created. But like all created things, when sin and fear enter the picture, things get murky. Our vision gets skewed. Our backs begin to bend.
Ecclesiastes catalogs a number of the ways we try to find meaning and life on our own (turns out they have not changed much over the millennia) and tells us what we already know, deep down: that none of these things can deliver what we demand of them. That our obsession with control ends up controlling us.
The esteemed American writer David Foster Wallace was channeling Ecclesiastes when he observed the following:
In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships…And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship…is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things—if they are where you tap real meaning in life—then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you…Worship power—you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart—you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.
The question is not whether we yearn for or pursue meaning and purpose. The question is: where are we looking to find it? What are we depending on to make our life worth living? What are we hoping will save us? Is it work? Pleasure? Wisdom? Our children? Our marriage? Beauty? Sex? Possessions? Position? Reputation? Résumé? Schedule? It could be anything.
When John Calvin claimed that the human heart “is a perpetual factory of idols” he meant that we turn virtually anything into a self-salvation project. Good things, bad things, big things, small things. The human heart is remarkably flexible in this regard.
I realize it may sound defeating to write about life in these terms. The last thing I would ever want is to come across as cynical or negative. But the truth is, to speak honestly about ourselves is not defeating. It is not shaming to come clean about reality, or the limits of our potential to change it. What IS defeating is the insistence that I can save or fix myself.
Moreover, I would never want to imply that our misdirected energies somehow prevent God from working in our lives or the world. The beauty of the Gospel is that God does not require the right attitude from us before he intervenes. We catch glimpses of what life with God looks like all the time! People get healed. Addicts get sober. Marriages grow stronger. Aggrieved parties reconcile. Desperate souls find deliverance and tranquility. The happy truth is, we cannot ultimately live life without God. God is life.
But I am weary of Christianity being presented as some kind of miracle drug. You know the kind of stories; “I used to be like that, but then I became a Christian, and now I’m like this.” Or, “I used to live life without God, and it was miserable. But now God and I are tight, and things are so much better. It’s been smooth sailing since Jesus became my co-pilot.” Maybe I exaggerate, but not much.
While no one can know with 100% certainty what goes on in another person’s heart, if I know myself at all, such testimonies are at best premature, at worst dangerous. I say that as someone who used to say such things myself, and who often wishes I still could. I used to claim victory over parts of my life where I was struggling with sin. I drew a line between my past when I wasn’t following God and my present where I was.
I thought I was encouraging people. I thought I was being faithful. But I wasn’t. I was setting both myself and others up for disappointment. I was taking the objective word of forgiveness and absolution we hear in the Bible and making it subjective; tying it to my personal progress, my behavior for God, rather than God’s behavior for me. I didn’t understand myself and didn’t want to. I was afraid of exploring or admitting my own mixed motivations because of what they might signify—not about God, but about me.
As a result, my self-regard fluctuated according to how well I thought I was performing on the Sanctification-O-Meter. In a lot of ways it still does. But I’m grateful to know that I’m not the Gospel (some might say I am an obstacle to it!). God is in the truth, and the truth is this: I am just as in need of grace and forgiveness today as I have ever been. My life doesn’t look like Jesus’—it looks like someone who needs Jesus. And it is utterly exhausting (and counterproductive) to pretend otherwise.
Of course, I am not saying there is nothing distinctive about being a Christian. I am only saying that when we overemphasize the distinctions (which are seldom easy to pin down), we do others and ourselves a grave disservice. And given how drawn we are to justifying ourselves apart from God, the temptation to overemphasize is nearly irresistible. Even those who have a sunnier picture of the Christian life won’t disagree that while we may no longer be what we used to be, none of us are yet what we one day will be.
Furthermore, by rooting our faith in personal improvement rather than persistent need, we inadvertently prop up the ‘Us vs. Them’ mentality that dogs the Church so stubbornly today. We sow seeds of outward denial and internal division. We develop, by necessity, a façade of goodness or holiness to cope with the discrepancy between our insides and our outsides. But the world doesn’t need our claims of virtue. It needs our confession of weakness. Unguarded vulnerability—and the freedom from which it flows—is much more attractive and transformative than wavering displays of piety.
What a relief it has been to discover that trying to live life without God is not just a pre-Christian problem; it is a post-Christian problem too. Christians try to live their lives without God just as much as non-Christians do! The idea that Christians and non-Christians don’t struggle with the same things is a misconception. Christians are human beings. They don’t live outside the bounds of reality or human nature. In fact, if your understanding of what it means to be a Christian can't make sense of the fact that your greatest failure may be in front of you, scrap it! All of us struggle. We struggle with self-interest and hurt, yes, but we struggle to establish meaning in our lives. We all have a thousand different ways that we try to make ourselves more loveable and acceptable. All of us are engaged in the project of trying to find and secure value and belovedness on our own—a job for which we are vastly unqualified. No wonder we are all so worn out.
This dilemma means the Gospel is not just a necessity for non-Christians, it is for Christians too—the Gospel is for humans. It is for those who try to live without God and those who try to live as God, which is all of us. It is for those who are familiar with the heaviness of life and would love to hear some Good News. It is for you, no matter where you find yourself in life.
There are no demographical restrictions on the Gospel. There is no expiration date. The message of God’s one-way love for sinful (read: honest) men and women, cannot be contained by our apprehensions. It breaks down the walls we try to erect. It meets us in our exhaustion and failure with a yoke that is easy and a burden that is light. It liberates us from our oppressive narratives of improvement, and opens the door to love—“love for the loveless shown.”
Most of all, however, the Gospel points “above the sun” to the Son, who comes down to us, not because he is impressed with our goodness and strength but because he is lovingly merciful to us in our badness and weakness.