National Public Radio aired a story about a minister who decided to try atheism after being kicked out of his church for struggling with his faith openly. I shared the article with friends while invoking the spirit of Chris Rock: I ain’t saying it’s right, but I understand.
One friend chided me saying he was “not sure how you can put on and take off your faith like a pair of shoes. It’s not about the ‘church’ it’s about the relationship with the Creator.” We cannot have a relationship with the creator without relating rightly to the creation and its inhabitants.
Humans have been struggling with their strained relationship with the divine since the beginning. Prophets hid, absconded, and cursed the day God called them. This confirms my call because I have done all three. After quitting my job, moving to a strange city, assuming massive student loans, and coming home without ordination papers from being blackballed in the church, I was through with my heavenly Father.
Another friend responded “God is still with him while he is ‘trying out’ atheism.” That is absolutely correct. Our response to an existential crisis does not change the character of God. Psalm 139 says:
Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence? If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; Even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me. If I say, Surely the darkness shall cover me; even the night shall be light about me. Yea, the darkness hideth not from thee; but the night shineth as the day: the darkness and the light are both alike to thee (v. 7-12).
Try as we might, there is no hiding from God’s presence. As the old spiritual goes. “There’s No Hiding Place Down There.”
God will show up and reveal Himself to be accountable for our plights for His sake. None of our questions, confrontations, or challenges intimidates Him. The psalmist continues:
For thou hast possessed my reins: thou hast covered me in my mother's womb. I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvelous are thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well My substance was not hid from thee, when I was made in secret, and curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth. Thine eyes did see my substance, yet being unperfect; and in thy book all my members were written, which in continuance were fashioned, when as yet there was none of them. How precious also are thy thoughts unto me, O God! how great is the sum of them! If I should count them, they are more in number than the sand: when I awake, I am still with thee (v. 13-18).
Who can withstand a direct encounter with the Lord unchanged?
The cost of discipleship is high, psychologically and otherwise. It is intensified given that we forsake that which we can see for that we cannot see.
If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple. And whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple (Luke 14:26-27).
Kierkegaard said it best: It takes a purely human courage to renounce the whole temporal realm in order to gain eternity.
Religious organizations seem like such a godless place sometimes and the faith walk can be quite lonely. However, restoration is not beyond the reach of God. The problem is most churches do not equip members for the time of trial or respect the process itself. More people fall away from the false certainty of religious doctrine than from the overwhelmingly otherness of our unsearchable God. Sounds like the minister in question was punished for wrestling with his faith openly, which is neither forbidden nor unique.
Jesus’ first cousin, John the Baptizer, jumped with joy in the womb whenever their mothers came together during pregnancy. Yet, while he was imprisoned for preaching the Gospel and awaiting execution, he sent a message to Jesus and said to Him, “Are You the Expected One, or shall we look for someone else?” (Matthew 11:3). If someone so intimately acquainted with our Savior experienced such angst, how much more will it be for those of us far removed from his presence?
Jesus responded to the gathered crowds:
“What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? But what did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ palaces!” (Matthew 11:7b-8).
And so it is with discipleship. Every day will not be Sunday. At times, God will seem nowhere to be found in our circumstances. John was beheaded. He could have sold out his calling for a cozy perch. By remaining true to Jesus, he gained something greater than this world could ever offer. Nonetheless, he did not have sight of his reward while being tortured, humiliated, and rebuked.
The few times God shows up and shows out on our account with help us to withstand our personal
storms. We can keep the faith because our plight pales in comparison saints of old. We are not losing our lives literally to exercise faith. The early church was deprived of property, persecuted, and executed for merely believing. Our struggle is mostly metaphorical, but still crisis-inducing. I’m clinging for dear life as I write this. Like John, the thief on the cross, and a great cloud of witnesses, we each can be great in the Kingdom now and forever. But first we have to kiss and make up with God.