The Christian faith teaches that we are sinful by nature and only God is good. If he didn’t work through us to reveal his goodness, where would that leave us? On our own we are only capable of evil. Humility and self-loathing would be too great if it were not balanced by the belief that God is working through us to fulfill his perfect plan.
As we live our lives alongside God, we willingly accept that every mistake we make is our fault alone; and every achievement is the work of God. He only uses us. And if we let him, there will be a reward– later. As long as God is real, the emotional damage this causes goes practically unnoticed. We don’t need to trust ourselves. We trust God.
But what happens when God is no longer there?
How does one move forward from a lifetime of self-rejection? When God leaves, we are left with our humility and failure. Even though we now understand that when we trusted God we were really trusting ourselves, we cannot simply flip a switch and translate that into actually trusting ourselves. That’s a foreign concept. How can right and wrong be left up to chance that way? And… what meaning does “right and wrong” even have if we possess the power to determine it for ourselves?
There are layers to peel back before we can get to the bottom of it. The idea that we are incapable of good on our own is not about blame and credit. It’s about embracing the belief that there is an ultimate right answer; that one source is qualified not only to determine the right choices, but is also the only one able to set it into motion. And that source cannot possibly be us.
That one source, which has always been God, has a plan that is perfect. Every good thing in the world follows a path that seeks to fulfill that plan, and only God can see the big picture. If that is true, then only God has the knowledge required to do good. And there is nothing we can do about it.
Most Christians never think about it this way, while others actually use this argument to claim moral authority. But the rest of us can hardly wrap our minds around how anyone ever bought into the idea that there is a plan in the first place. Not all of us find value in “confirmation from a higher authority,” let alone put all our eggs in that basket. But even those of us who don’t understand it have found it very possible to live as if it were true.
Following the Script
When we lose faith, we lose the plan. We are no longer characters in a story that has already been written. There is no author who gets the final say. I used to think I had free will, but I also saw that free will as something I needed to suppress. I was the character who was always looking up from the pages of this book and saying, “Now what should I do?”
And from there, whatever I did, I assumed I was doing it because the author had written it down that way– as if I had given him permission to lead me. But he didn’t need my permission. He knew my thoughts because he wrote my thoughts. And yet, if my thoughts or actions didn’t work with the story? That was my fault. And when I was on a well-written path…. it was because of him. Maybe I wasn’t going to have a happy ending; but if he was pleased, I believed I would be awarded some intangible perfect bliss with him after the book was finished. What a weird thing to think.
(But I guess he wrote that, too.)
How can God know my every thought and be able to control every detail of my life—and I remain relevant as more than another part of him? But that was the whole point. My complete desire was to be what I already was: a part of God, with no sense of self outside of him. I wanted nothing more than to escape the pages of that book where I didn’t belong, because I belonged outside the book with him. And I had never even seen him. My entire existence was for his creative pleasure alone, and I allowed it. As long as he continued to write me into the story, I would worship him. Because my worth was measured by the work he did through me.
While we may never have actually concluded all of this as Christians, we certainly lived our lives this way. So what happens when the characters wake up to find there never was an author in the first place? There is no book. No plot. No one watching us from above. What then? We should cease to exist. What is the point of continuing the story without supreme direction, or even a loose plot outline? We are worthless on our own, and that is all we have ever understood.
That’s a lot to let go of. I have yet to meet an ex-Christian who isn’t still swimming in more than their fair share of humility. In God’s absence, how can we learn to trust our instincts and put our faith in each other? Maybe we were doing that all along, but now we feel insecure about it. Before we can learn to live on our own, we must first learn to give up God as a safety net.
No Divine Intervention
Our existence in this world is left to the same amount of chance with or without God. But without God we are forced to examine that which was always staring us in the face: there is no safety net. As Christians we knew it was true, but we separated the truth of this life and the truth of the next life. The next life was our safety net. The only guarantee.
The guarantee was safe because it existed in a place we could not see or even define. We only believed it was there; a perfect eternity where everything was good and right in a way only God can comprehend. It was whatever we wanted it to be, and it could never be proven false. We could store all of our fear there. Maybe religion was once the best explanation for the unknown, but it has always been the ultimate distraction from the realities we most need to be distracted from.
Christians often mention there being “no atheists in foxholes.” Many insist that an unbeliever calling out to God in a life or death situation is proof that we all believe in a higher power. And while humans asking for a safety net in times of desperation seems to prove our position more than theirs, I have also found more atheists who claim the opposite to be true.
When we realize there is no God, a lost safety net is the first obstacle we must overcome. Sometimes we must overcome it before we can let go of him at all. But once the idea that God’s eternal promise of bliss is only a coping method is accepted, moments of life and death desperation are more likely to drive the point home. When life is unfair and there is no one to bargain with, it is only natural for us to wish for justice and a better conclusion. We each decide for ourselves whether that wish is granted to us after death, or if it is only wishful thinking.
(Of course, the former Christian in me doesn’t believe I deserve such a wish to be granted at all.)
Starting from Scratch
So here we are. A bunch of self-denying seekers who are feeling at home on earth for the very first time. We are no longer waiting for the train that takes us out of here; we are looking around and teaching ourselves how to be good and worldly. Even the words “good and worldly” feel uncomfortable long after we have lost our theology, but not because God is real. It’s because no matter how hard we scrub, those scars are stubborn.
We are slowly accepting that having more faith in humanity than God feels like the right answer because it is the right answer. There is good and evil, but we are responsible for all of it– and the good in humanity needs to be lifted up rather than suppressed. It exists, all on its own; and the possibilities in that truth can write a million better stories than whatever story we once thought God had placed us into. But first we have to embrace the world and those inside it.
We are still a part of something bigger, without losing our natural sense of self. We are humanity. There is no eternal bliss when it’s all over. We know that a heavenly afterlife couldn’t exist any more than an omniscient god could exist. We live on through what we leave behind. Maybe there was a time when we needed a God figure to give us moral courage, but many of us have evolved beyond such simple morality.
In spite of everything we were taught about mankind’s ability to determine such things, we know we are the only ones who ever have determined such things. And we alone possess the ability to choose the right path forward.