I was talking with a Christian recently who happens to be very close and dear to me. As we chatted, she mentioned, “Sometimes I think not believing in God would be much simpler.”
“It is,” I said. “Much.”
When I believed Jesus was intimately involved in my life, that took up a lot of brain capacity. And time. And energy.
Every time I made a decision I had to wonder, “Does God want me to do this? Is it consistent with His will?” Then, if it were a major decision, I’d have to read the Bible for guidance, consult wiser (usually older) believers about it, and pray, really pray. After all that, I’d have to wonder — some might say “worry” but would check themselves for fear of offending Matthew (ch. 6) or Paul (Phil. 4) — whether the answer I had divined from these various, not-always-clear-or-consistent sources was right.
I also had to spend significant effort in trying to understand what made up a proper Christian man, what God’s idea of me “being holy” was (1 Peter 1:16) and squaring that with the idea that I never really could be holy through any effort of my own (Rom. 3:23). Seeking God’s will was important, sure, but so was trying to improve myself…with God’s help, of course. Or was it that I was supposed to allow God to improve me while I sort of participated? Maybe I was to “let go and let God,” whatever that meant. Or perhaps God should do His thing with me, as He willed, while I was to obey in a proactive manner. I’m not really sure, but not having it figured out left me plenty confused, and I thought about it a lot.
All this focus on myself wasn’t really apropos, though, since I was really supposed to put others first. Well, second, after God. So I was supposed to be third: God first, then others, then me. By “others” I mean, those I know well, especially family. Close friends, too. People in sub-Saharan Africa were also to come before me, but a “cup can’t be poured out unless it’s already full,” so they kinda came fourth. That doesn’t sound right, though. Maybe sub-Saharan Africans were supposed to come before me, too, but there’s a practical issue with putting six or seven billion people in priority before me. A guy can only do so much.
It’s important for a believer to engage with the Christian community, too, so I spent a good bit of time looking for the right fit. Church shopping took a bit of time, and don’t get me started on small groups. There was that time we were in a small group led by a racist and filled with hypocrites, but honestly they were the exception. Most small groups were simply boring, and being bored wastes times in a way that feels like each minute spent was ten minutes lost.
The point, here, is that life as a Christian is complicated. By contrast, not worrying about God, what He wants, what I’m supposed to do for (or with, or to, or on behalf of) Him, and who I’m supposed to care about most and in what order makes my life much easier. Right and wrong — despite warnings to the contrary — are so much easier to grasp: Love people, especially your family and yourself. If someone’s a jerk to you, you can shut him out. If he attacks you or injures you somehow, you can fight back. You don’t have to worry about “turning the other cheek” and figuring out whether that means (depending on the preacher or scholar or translation you happen to have handy) “don’t fight back” or “show defiance without violence” or what.
When I look out into the heavens now, I can appreciate the enormity of this universe of ours, the brevity of life, and the sheer massiveness of “out there.” But I don’t have to imagine that the Maker of all of that takes an interest in me and my day-to-day life. It used to be a humbling thought that such a big God would care about me. (Though when you consider it, that’s actually a…um…pretty self-centered and arrogant thought.) It would make me feel so small. Now when I gaze up at the night sky and think about how life came to exist on this planet and how far into the past and future the line of time stretches, I reflect on how fortunate I am to be (a) alive at all and (b) self-aware enough to recognize how lucky I am to live a life full of love and joy.
I don’t need God to feel loved in a way that fills my heart (which does not, by the way, have a God-shaped hole). I don’t have to imagine that there is a mystical being out there that manipulates every bit of the universe with His holy marionette strings. Doctrine — on matters such as predestination, free will, election, miracles, drinking, sex, dancing, inerrancy, exegesis, canonicity, inspiration, covenants, etc. — is something I almost never think about now, though I used to.
It’s much simpler than that. I am a small, small part of the universe, and that’s only fitting. In the grand scheme of things, I only matter to a tiny, itty bitty sliver of existence and so have no grand relevance to most of what will happen throughout time. But within that small sliver, I have found a universe of meaning. I have time to reflect on whatever is true, whatever is worthy of respect, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, and whatever is excellent or praiseworthy. And the wonderful reality is that my thinking is less muddled than it used to be.
But the thing that really matters to me is that I love and am loved, both quite imperfectly. And that’s enough.