Faith in the Right God
This time of year in Louisiana, a baseball game is at least as likely to be rained out as it is to be played. Mother Nature dumps inches of rain on us, and then a few days later when the field is almost dry and playable again, she dumps some more. Recently, after receiving a text that yet another of my son’s high school games had been cancelled due to rain, I had a flashback of sorts. I went back in time to my 11-year-old self, dressed from head to toe in my baseball uniform, staring out the window at the Georgia sky which continued to pour down rain. I remembered struggling to comprehend why the adults seemed to think that we couldn’t play on a field full of puddles. At that point in my childhood, baseball was everything, and when there was no baseball, life seemed almost unbearable. Thinking about 11-year-old Justin, I came to the realization that there are no atheists. Everyone believes in something or someone, and for everyone there is a something or someone that exists as the ultimate concern in our life. We might not call it “God” or think of it as a deity, but something or someone sits in the honored position of first on our list of priorities. Whatever or whomever that is, it is in effect our god. German-American theologian and philosopher Paul Tillich expressed this idea by stating:
Man, like every living being, is concerned about many things, above all about those which condition his very existence...If [a situation or concern] claims ultimacy it demands the total surrender of him who accepts this claim...it demands that all other concerns...be sacrificed. (Dynamics of Faith, p. 1-2)
Whatever nomenclature we use, our god is the thing for which we sacrifice all other concerns.
Perhaps this is why the Bible doesn’t address atheism in the way that we would expect. J. I. Packer makes a very interesting observation that in the Bible the division is not between believers and atheists, but between those who believe in the God of Israel, and those who worship or follow another god. It is true that the Psalms mention those who say or think that “there is no God” (Ps 10:4; 14:1), but even those “atheists” have something at the center of their lives around which everything else is made to revolve.
As we encounter an increasingly secular society, I believe it is more helpful to engage non-Christians with Tillich’s way of thinking of God as the thing of “ultimate concern.” There are many in the world who will profess, sometimes proudly, “I don’t believe in God.” But I have yet to meet anyone who can say, “Nothing is important to me.” The real question then becomes not “Do I believe in a god?” but, “Is this thing or person at the center of my life worthy of being the most important thing in my life?” At first, the answer might be yes. Maybe we are investing in things that are actually important…but are they eternal? Ask the man who spends his entire adult life saving for a luxurious retirement, only to find out he has six months to live, “Is financial security worthy of being the top priority in your life?” Ask the woman who has poured everything into her career, only to have her job outsourced, “Was this company worthy of being the most important thing in your world?” Ask the teenager who was dumped by “the love of their life,” “Was that boy or girl worth giving yourself to completely?” It is when we are let down by the things and people that we think are most important that the truth becomes most apparent—the truth that these things never did deserve to be our top priority, the thing of ultimate concern in our life.
Another reason I like this way of thinking about God is that while it does make it easier to engage non-Christians, it provides a challenge for Christians as well. It is possible to believe in God, and yet not have God as the most important thing in our lives. If you had asked me if I believed in God when I was 11, I would have said yes without hesitation. And yet other things, things like baseball, received much more of my passion and enthusiasm. Though the fear of my Little League baseball game being rained out is a thing of the past, other possible idols have entered my life, idols we all struggle with. Maybe these idols are things or people or attitudes. After all, if we claim to worship God but struggle to forgive, is God or vengeance our ultimate concern? If we find it hard to be generous, are we serving God or money? If how our culture identifies us is more important than our identity as one made in the image of God, what is truly important to us?
In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare famously wrote, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” thus eloquently acknowledging that an object's essence transcends the name by which we call it. It doesn’t much matter what we call the most important thing in our life, because an idol by any other name is still a god. Could it be that our problem isn’t that we have become godless as a society, but that we have every god but the true God as our ultimate concern? Like Israel, we must remember that the only god that matters is the God that redeemed us from our slavery to sin and death.
“And God spoke all these words, saying, ‘I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me’” (Exod 20:1-3 ESV).