There are a lot of reasons why I abandoned the chore of mustering belief in the God I was taught about when I was younger. One of those reasons is the basic lack of observable proof of God's existence. Another is the disquieting lack of agreement within Christianity about what Christianity actually is or should be, and still another is the arbitrary and archaic nature of the rules that Evangelicalism imposes. In addition to all of these realities, though, and perhaps even far above them, looms the issue of God’s intervention in the world--or, lack thereof, as the case does seem to be.
The Bible has many stories of God intervening. There is creation, of course, and God’s frequent and apparently quite tangible interactions with Adam and Eve. There were God’s curses against the Egyptians (those famous plagues), and God’s parting of the Red Sea when the Israelites finally managed to make their escape. And who can forget the deluge--that massive flood that supposedly wiped out all of human and animal kind on earth except the chosen few? The list goes on and on up through Jesus’ life, during which time people (well, at least two people, if you count Jesus himself) rose from the dead and the man known as Christ physically ascended into heaven before the disciples’ very eyes.
It seems to me that if one were to read the Bible cover to cover without having yet gained any significant real-world experience--and yes, I am describing my own upbringing here--one would think that miracles are a fairly commonplace thing, and that God is making God’s presence objectively known to humans on a regular basis. However, if one were lucky enough to go on and live a decent amount of time past that--say, a few decades--and one made a habit of paying attention to the surrounding world in that time, one might notice that there are not, in fact, a lot of supernatural things happening within earshot or eye-line. The truth would appear to be that our twenty-first century life is a lot less extraordinary--if more technologically complicated--than life in Biblical times.
This in and of itself, while notable, is not necessarily a deal-breaker for Evangelicals. Many don’t deny that the kind of physical miracles recorded in scripture seem to be fewer and further between these days. Some say that we are currently in a different, less conspicuous “age” of God’s plan, while others simply admit that we don’t see miracles like we used to, for no particular reason whatsoever. But these acknowledgements are not the same to an Evangelical as saying that God is not intervening in the world at all. On the contrary, Evangelicals believe that God is acting in the world constantly, if quietly. According to the faith in which I was raised, at any given moment God could be influencing minds, manipulating weather, working through inanimate objects, and yes, sometimes even healing people’s bodies.
Within this worldview, a big part of what prayer involves is asking God to intervene, hence all the cries for prayer you see on social media after devastating world events. I too believed that God was an active influencer of the world around me for a very long time, and spent many a moment on my knees begging, literally, for the things I desired. One time I even prayed desperately for the laptop I had just dropped to not be broken. (Spoiler alert: it was fine.) To this day it proves to be a hard habit to break, this asking the sky to make things happen when I’ve exhausted my control of the situation. But regardless of the deeply ingrained impulse, my belief that there is a mighty supernatural being who could force the un-forceable is decidedly gone.
So, what disabused me of this illusion? It’s pretty simple. The choices God seemed to be making about when and where and for whom he was going to act didn’t seem to jive with the simultaneous claims about his goodness and love. We've all known sick and injured people who never recovered from their ailment or illness--people who had maybe hundreds of faithful believers praying for them day and night. Yes, it does happen sometimes that someone miraculously gets better, but not enough times for me to come to a reasonable conclusion that God is happy and/or able to do it. And what about when natural disasters strike? Aid does not miraculously come to those affected. On the contrary, it often comes slowly and insufficiently, despite what I’m sure are millions of very well-intentioned prayers. This is not even to get into the fact that the natural disasters happen in the first place. And what about ongoing political turmoil under which human rights abuses are taking place all around the world? What about what has transpired in the recent U.S. election?
Once I found my way into a mental/emotional state that had space for dangerous questions--that is, once I had achieved sufficient distance from the religious influences of my youth--I had to confront these realities. One can only go for so long watching one’s neighbors near and far suffer while prayers for concrete help go confoundingly unanswered. At some point, if one is a conscientious adult, prayer doesn’t--and should not--feel like enough. On top of that, a critically thinking and appropriately bold person will, I reckon, eventually hear their heart saying, “No competent or loving God would stand by all this and just watch.” I myself came to a point where I could no longer stomach making excuses for God’s inaction. The years and decades and centuries pass and unnecessary suffering continues. To the secular mind, this is just how it is, but Christianity dares to say there is a God watching and weeping, a God with solution in hand just...what, waiting? I don't think so.
Yes, there is love and beauty in the world. There is so, so much of it. But isn’t the concurrent amount of unwarranted pain and loss evidence enough that no one is looking out for us other than ourselves? I say this not to be nihilistic or even pessimistic. It’s true that I have a tendency to worry too much, but my friends will tell you (I hope) that I do usually believe the best is possible. I believe in potential, and humans’ ability to fulfill it. What I don’t believe--what I can’t believe based on a total lack of evidence--is that there exists a God who is both willing and able to intervene in everyday life. I find no way to justify proclaiming this God’s presence in the midst of perpetual human strife, and I find no comfort in a deity so reserved with its love. Of course, there are many people do find comfort in God precisely because of how out of control and cruel the world can be, and I don’t begrudge them that succor. Nor do I doubt the sincerity of their stories. On the contrary, I understand. It feels good to have someone to cry out, and on top of that someone you believe will make sure you’re okay in the end. So, what do we do, those of us who can no longer stomach the silent God, to comfort ourselves and not fall into a pit of existential despair?
A huge step for me was learning to accept without judgment the fact that so much of life is random and out of control. Studying Buddhism helped me with this quite a bit, and specifically the first Noble Truth: life is dissatisfying (or, as many say, full of suffering). Though this may seem somewhat fatalistic at first, I don’t believe it is. It does not preclude activism, or trying to effect positive change. It simply gets honest about the nature of human experience, and does so quite courageously, in my opinion. Christianity differed in its approach. It instilled a lot of “should”s in me (i.e. things should or should not be this way, fundamentally), and the ultimate effect of attachment to the “should” was emotional paralysis when life did not go according to “should”, as it so often doesn’t. Accepting that life simply is what it is, however--coming to terms with the fact that humans are both lovely and horrible creatures who were not necessarily ‘meant’ or destined to be anything else--can allow one more space and wherewithal to take stock of a situation and plan a practical course of action. This is not to say that difficult emotional reactions, including distress and mourning, are bad or unnatural. They are perfectly natural, and should not be ignored or suppressed. Nor do we dismiss the significance of others’ suffering. We believe it, we affirm experience, and we work to end it whenever possible. At the same time, though, at least for me, it truly helps keep me sane to start from a place of thinking that there’s no rhyme or reason to any of this except what we choose to make of it.
And that’s the next step: choosing to make something of it. By which I mean, not waiting around for divine support, or for the glorious arrival of a super hero--though wouldn’t it be nice if one came? Trying to make things better in this world is a profoundly draining endeavor. In any case, I’ve actually found more comfort in trying my hardest to do good as a citizen of the world than I ever did straining my heart in prayer night after night. I suppose in one way it feels like lowering expectations, to look to one’s best instead of God’s best as the marker of a job well done. My best might be donating twenty dollars to a relief fund in response to a major earthquake overseas, while God’s best is (supposedly) healing all of the people who are sick and injured, and miraculously rebuilding their houses out of thin air. But when--seriously, when--have we ever actually seen God’s best happen? All I’ve ever seen is real people, religious or not, working their asses off to help ease the suffering they come up against in the world.
The truth is that I could be wrong about all of this. Not just this post, I mean, but the whole “the Bible’s a myth” thing. Maybe there is a God who’s watching me type all of this. Maybe that God misses me bad. Maybe there’s a God who, like the prodigal son’s father, is just waiting for me to come home, where I belong, to the church. But. But. That means that this same God is also watching what’s happening in Syria. And that means this same God is looking down on Haiti, too. And that means this same God is allowing white United States citizens to implode their own country at the expense of already-marginalized groups. And to that God I say, you damn well better understand why I left. You have no case to make to people who are more compelled by their compassion and conscience than you are. To that God I say, you haven’t earned my faith. To that God I say, enough is enough.