I spent my New Years Eve (Happy New Year everyone!) at Slapton, in Devon, with the usual group of 60-80 people who I spend every New Year with. It was spent doing a number of things, including debating with an atheist friend of mine.
For me the bit of conversation that stayed with me was his declaration that, “Life is pointless, purposeless. We are all insignificant specks in an uncaring universe.” My reply? … “Well if you genuinely think that about your life then I feel sorry for you.” Now I know that’s not the best reply I’ve ever given. It is patronising, condescending and mean. I’m sorry. All I can say is that it does sum up my feelings of initial shock at the point he was making. How bleak and desperate I find that statement. Like looking into a dark abyss of nothingness. A life where even the greatest of things are nothing more than a microscopic, millisecond of blurred glow within an eternal, consuming, darkness. For me, a life without purpose, sounds like no life at all.
However, his reply was quite different … “No, I feel sorry for you. You have no idea how liberating it is to realise that nothing we do in this life matters.” Urm … Well. What to say? Unfortunately, at this point, we were rushed out of the room to go and welcome the new year in. But if I had had the chance to reply I would have wanted to point out that I think this statement displays a serious misunderstanding about the Christian life.
The idea seems to be that the Christian life is one of worrying about what we’re doing. A life lived in a permanent state of guilt and fear. As if God is some sort of evil relative who is consistently looking over your shoulder, ready to mark down the slightest misdemeanor as deserving an extra turn of the wheel on the rack table of hell! It simply isn’t like that!! This is NOT the God of the Bible and I am sure that God weeps over the truly horrific misrepresentations of him that are put across, not least by some members, or even leaders, within his church. No, the Christian life is very, very different.
But this is what has been making me think. In my experience there seems to be two, almost polar opposite, understanding of Christianity held by non-Christians:
Firstly, it’s seen as a comfort in hard times, a crutch to hold up the weak, who simply can’t copy with the “truth” that it’s all pointless. “Just leave them alone with their silly stories, it would be cruel to take it away from them.” I’ve reflected a little about my views on this before (see here) but in short, it’s not a comfort blanket! Being a Christian, at least in the way the Bible sees a follower of Jesus living their life, is normally hard work. A constant battle and struggle, both with self and with the world around you. If Christianity isn’t true, if there is no future hope, then we are to be pitied (1 Cor 15:19).
The second view of Christianity is that it’s cruel. This seems to be the view expressed above. The idea that the Christian is subjected to a hard life, in the present, with the “false” promise of an eternal reward. That the Christian is in a constant battle against guilt. Always striving to deny themselves in the hope that God will see fit to let them through those mythical pearly gates. BUT, this isn’t true either! The Christian life is actually true life, life in all it’s fullness (Jn 10:10). The Christian life isn’t about desperately struggling in the present in the hope of eternal reward in the future. No, future reward is started in the present.
But, and here’s what I’ve been trying to get my head around, how to explain how both are wrong? How do you argue against one of these misunderstandings without seemingly opening the door to the other one? How on earth do I explain to my atheist friend that the Christian life is neither a burden, nor a comfort blanket!!
Well, firstly, I think it’s important to pick up on what was originally said, “Life is pointless, purposeless.” While I accept that a person can logically come to this conclusion and even use it as a comfort at certain times, I don’t actually believe anyone can live without any purpose at all! This purpose might be subconscious, but it will still be there. For some, it may be the pursuit of wealth, or sex, or influence. It might be the hope of the perfect partner, or the dream job. Others will simply strive for a “good time”, whatever that entails for them (“I don’t live to work, I work to live and live at the weekends” as the song goes). For others, simple recognition, appreciation or fame. The list could go on and on. But everyone has something, something that motivates them, something that gets them out of bed in the morning and it is this “something” which provides the purpose for their life. A person may logically reach the conclusion that this “purpose” is ultimately “purposeless”, as it will not last, but on an everyday level this will not be thought, only the “purpose” counts.
But there’s more. This purpose will often be linked with “happiness”, or at least contentment (which is what happiness is on an everyday level, on-one can be “happy”, “smiling”, all the time without being quite, quite mad!). If your purpose is to find the perfect partner then your contentment will be based on how your relationship is doing, or how close you are to pulling that perfect mate. If your purpose is to gain as much wealth as you can, your contentment will be based upon whether you’ve secured that killer deal, or whether you can afford that new car. However, as testified to by the problems of so many who have succeeded in getting those riches, or achieving that fame, these thing prove shallow and meaningless.
I’d like to share a letter with you. I’ve used it a whole bunch of times as I remember being profoundly hit by it the first time I read it (I think in J. Whites’ The Cost of Discipleship). It’s a genuine letter, written by a Russian communist, breaking up with his fiance
We communists suffer many casualties. We are those whom they shoot, hang, lynch, tar and feather, imprison, slander, fire from our jobs and whose lives people make miserable in every way possible. Some of us are killed and imprisoned. We live in poverty. From what we earn we turn over to the Party every cent which we do not absolutely need to live.
We communists have neither time nor money to go to movies very often, nor to concerts nor for beautiful homes and new cars. They call us fanatics. We are fanatics. Our lives are dominated by one supreme factor – the struggle for world communism. We communists have a philosophy of life that money could not buy.
We have a cause to fight for, a specific goal in life. We lose our insignificant identities in the great river of humanity; and if our personal lives seem hard or if our egos seem bruised through subordination to the Party, we are amply rewarded – in the thought it be in a very small way contributing something new and better for humanity.
There is one thing about which I am completely in earnest – the communist cause. It is my life, my business, my religion, my hobby, my sweetheart, my wife, my mistress, my meat and drink. I work at it by day and dream of it by night. Its control over me grows greater with the passage of time. Therefore I cannot have a friend, a lover or even a conversation without relating them to this power that animates and controls my life. I measure people, books, ideas and deeds according to the way they affect the communist cause and by their attitude to it. I have been in jail for my ideas, and if need be I am ready to face death.
How does that letter make you feel? What effect does it have on you? I’ll tell you what effect it has on me. Even though I’ve read it numerous times, it still catches my breath, still makes my heart beat a little quicker. As I read it I catch a glimpse of something, some truth. Because, I think this man realised the great truth that human beings are designed, are created, to find their true selves by giving themselves completely to something. Abandoning themselves to a goal, to a purpose. Now communism, like wealth and fame, will ultimately have proved itself to be empty of the hope with which he invested in it.
But, the claim of Christianity is that it offers the one thing that is not shallow, the one hope that will prove to be true. “Abandon yourselves to it”, calls out Jesus, “lay down everything and give yourselves to the cause.”
44 The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field. 45 Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. 46 When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it. Matt 13:44-46
Christianity proclaims that this is true life, life in all it’s fullness. We are to surrender ourselves and instead give all we have to the great cause.
34Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 35 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it. Mk 8:34-35
This is the paradox at the heart of the Christian life. In the laying down of our lives we find true life. In chosing to fight the battle each day, we find the contentment of knowing that what we suffer counts. This is not a call for violent revolution, or “fundamentalist” activity. It’s the recognition that God, in his love, plans to redeem and restore this broken creation and that this renewed earth has already broken into our present world through the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus. And, by God’s grace, we are called to bring this knowledge to bear in our world. We are called to proclaim and implement the kingship of Jesus everywhere we go and in all we do, through acts of love, kindness and mercy, knowing that final victory is already assured and that what we do counts (1 Cor 15:58).
Without future hope we are to be pitied as we battle each day, BUT with the assurance of the “new heaven and new earth” (Rev 21:1) that are to come, we find our purpose, and consequently our contentment, in serving our Lord Jesus, who was, and is, and is to come.