I met with Mike and Mel yesterday. They are ex-students of mine, concerned about a friend, Mark, also an ex-student. Mark expressed Christian faith all through school and actively encouraged others to do the same. He also struggled for the past few years with issues of anxiety. He wrestled hard and well with the reality he faced, and seemed to come to terms with the fact that sometimes the thing you ask to be taken away is not taken away. Mel and I had the privilege of sitting with him as he came to the realisation that a thorn in Mark’s flesh might be left there for the good of others, not just himself.
But in the space of just a few months since, Mark has decided he no longer identifies as a Christian. Why the change? Maybe it really is that Mark found it easier to do the work of freeing himself from anxiety when he let go of the idea of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps it’s that he doubts the reality of a God of power because he’s watched Mel continue to struggle with her tendency to get stressed about things, and hasn’t seen that struggle come to an end, as he thinks it should if God is real. Or maybe, as he suggests, it’s simply to do with the major stress of transitioning out of school.
Just before the end of school he changed church, from one that emphasises the work of God’s Spirit to one that emphasises teaching of God’s word, but he’s adamant that that wasn’t a cause. And I thought there might have been truth in the suggestion that he had standing in his old church and no immediate recognition in his new, so he’s cheesed off but knows it’s immature to use that as a reason for drifting away from church involvement, so instead just says he’s an atheist because that’s a jolly good reason to express disinterest in church. But he says that’s crap, that you actually feel more part of a church when you’re not leading. So God only knows the answer to why he’s changed course!
Understanding the reason really isn’t anywhere near as important as facing the reality of faith abandoned, and hope along with it. That is, except for the fact that recovery of faith probably involves identifying and addressing that reason. And maybe the reason is a warped view of God—a view that says God has to have his Spirit do as I want. The sort of view that says “I know what God should be on about,” and has to be rebuked, as was the blameless and upright Job, with a reminder that the creator of the universe is accountable to no human’s expectations (Job 38:2-3). Maybe the problem is not perception of independently having overcome anxiety, or a single character flaw in a faithful friend, or leaving school, or changing churches, or loss of status. Maybe the problem is the myopic, God-denying, autonomy-seeking vein that has run deep in each of us since Adam and Eve.
3000 or so years ago a songwriter began a song with the words “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no god’”. It’s an arresting opening line for Psalm 14. But saying “there is no god” is an awful way to begin the rest of your life, at any age.
So I asked Mel, “What should we do?” “Pray,” she said. So we did, because Mike and Mel and I all care about Mark. God has used Mark’s struggle with anxiety to grow our ability to care. That doesn’t make his struggle any easier. But it does make sense of his struggle. And it makes real the claim that in all things God works for the good of those who love him. (Romans 8:28) But there is no such promise for those who don’t. Because the vision that cannot see beyond my own pain to a God who deals with a bigger picture, cannot but end up cursing God. Even Job’s wife knew doing that meant death (Job 2:9).
In the face of a living and real God, the person is foolish indeed who says, “There is no god.”