You’ve probably seen the image and quote below more than once on Facebook, on inspirational calendars or on posters:
I just don’t get it; let me amend that. I DID get it, back when I was a believer. My church had convinced me, my pastor had convinced me, my friends had convinced me. Hell, I’d even convinced myself, that by relying on God, even my worst days would feel safe and hopeful. On the other hand, if I didn’t believe in God, even days of happiness and joy would feel meaningless and flat without God’s presence.
It wasn’t until I began questioning whether God even existed that I stopped to think about why I’d felt so secure and hopeful when things were darkest in my life. I realized that part of that feeling of peace and certitude that things would get better depended on the conviction of those around me. They all believed, and they all had tales of when they had gone through dark times in their life. They averred that it was God that sustained them and pulled them through. They were confident in the power of prayer.
Looking back, I know that I had fallen into that mystical tale of God’s power and abundance and claimed it as a sort of shield around me. In the back of my mine, I felt that there MUST be a God supporting me because I was sure I wasn’t strong enough to get through those dark days on my own.
This is when I began to ask questions. Why didn’t I think I was strong enough? Because the church doesn’t want us to believe that we can be strong on our own. The church teaches us that we are weak vessels shored up by God. And it also suggests that enjoying the good days in life couldn’t be satisfying without God’s presence. It’s a great way to keep us on the hook no matter what our circumstances are.
But I’ve discovered just the opposite. On my best days, I enjoy life even more because I know I got there on my own. I can share my happiness with my family and friends without constantly murmuring, “God is good. I thank God every day for what he’s done….” I am confident that whatever I’ve achieved has been earned through my own merits and every gift I’ve received has been either serendipity, the result of the good will of others or just the way the universe works. And the universe isn’t personal. It doesn’t lift us up or hold us down. It won’t be angry when we don’t give homage to it. It’s the most freeing feeling in the world.
A friend told me that her belief in God frees her in that same way. She calls it “laying it all on the altar of God.” I don’t get this. It’s turning over all the power in your life to a higher power. She finds this idea reassuring; I find it terrifying. It means turning over all control over your life to a mysterious entity who seems to make decisions arbitrarily about whether you’re going to have a good day or a bad day. I guess it’s that “no one can fully understand the mind of God,” answer that really gets to me. If you don’t understand him and have no idea what he will do for you, why would you worship him?
I’m pretty sure that my good days are good because of my own efforts, my family, my co-workers…a combination of powerful forces working together. And I know that my worst days are more hopeful than they were when I was a believer. Why? Because in Christianity there is a pervasive, whispered belief that if things are going wrong for you, it’s because you must have done something wrong. It isn’t spoken out loud and it’s not put into such clear words, but it’s there. I certainly wondered if things would get better if I prayed more, gave more or practiced charity more.
Later, I came to realize that I was no longer interested in bargaining with God or giving him all the credit for my life. There are plenty of people I thank for what they’ve done for me, but none of them lives in the clouds dispensing arbitrary pain and comfort.