Part 2 of a brilliant series by Bradley Wright. This time he explains how people leave Christianity because they expect God to meet their needs and he doesn’t.
In a study of religious deconversion, we analyzed 50 on-line testimonies posted by former Christians, and in these testimonies we found four general explanations for deconversion. The first explanation, which I wrote about last week, regarded intellectual and theological concerns about the Christian faith. The second, which I elaborate here, regards a failed relationship with God. Almost half (22 of 50) of the writers expressed sentiments that in some way God had failed them by His not doing what they thought He should.
God’s perceived failure took various forms, most of which fall under the general heading of “unanswered prayers.”
One way that people felt that God had failed them happened when He did not respond to requests for help during difficult times. A young man raised in a Baptist church epitomized this feeling of failure when he wrote about God not answering his prayers about family difficulties. He wrote: “The first time I questioned the faith was when my grandmother shriveled up in front of me for 6 month’s due to cancer. I was 13 & my mother & father [were] getting a divorce. My father told me I should have been aborted. I prayed to God but nothing fails like prayers.”
So you can see here where people have this expectation that it is God’s job to give them good health. But is that anywhere in the Bible? Is it God’s job to make us healthy so that we can have a happy life, even if we are busy spending that happy life ignoring him and not knowing his character. When you ask a serious Christian what it is like to be a Christian, we will tell you that what God is about is NOT making us healthy or happy, but instead giving us time and peace to study him, to make plans to serve him, to execute those plans, and to have (sometimes unhappy) experiences that cause our sympathies to change as we feel what God feels. In short, life is about getting closer to him, and suffering and sickness is one of the tools God uses in order to get us to know him as he is and to participate in the relationship.
Likewise, a woman raised in a Methodist household described her step-father as “cruel and abusive” to her, and she could not understand why “if God loves me, why won’t he protect me instead of letting this happen to me?”
I think the reason why God allows suffering like this is to create people who take his rules about sexual morality seriously. When I was growing up I had front-row seats to the divorces of many of my friends. I remember vividly talking to children who cried to me about how they felt when their mothers invited new men into the house after the divorce. Pain and suffering like this is a reminder to us that the moral law is real, that God expects us to follow it in order to prevent harm. One of the reasons why I am chaste is because I listen to the stories of men whose girlfriends aborted their babies, the stories of women who cohabitated and then were betrayed, the stories of the children of divorces. And from this I learn that morality is real and it matters.
In a variation of this theme, some deconverts lamented God’s inactivity amidst spiritual difficulties. A man in his forties, a former elder at a charismatic church, wrote: “In my own life, no matter how much I submitted to ‘God’ and prayed in faith, ‘sin’ never seemed to leave me. Well, what’s the point of being ‘saved’ if you aren’t delivered from ‘sin’?”
This is why accurate theology matters. No serious Christian thinks that you stop sinning after you become a Christian, and no serious Christian thinks that prayer alone is a solution to sin. To stop sinning, you need to engage more than the spirit, you need to engage the mind. Most people want to spiritualize things because prayer is easier than study. But if you want to stop sinning, the best way is a combination of prayer and study. If you want to stop premarital sex, study how premarital sex affects STD infection, risk of divorce, future marital stability, oxytocin, quality of marriage, and so on. Study the risks of divorce. That’s how you stop sinning. Some people want to dumb Christianity down to the level of superstition then they complain that it doesn’t work. But Christianity is better when you learn more and work harder.
A former Southern Baptist described the various good things that God failed to give him: “God promises me a lot in the bible and he’s not come through. Ask and it shall be given. Follow me and I will bless you. I promise you life and promise abundance. Man should not be alone. I have a plan for you. Give tithe and I will reward you. All broken promises. This god lacks clarification. This god lacks faith in me. He wants my faith. I want his too.”
Do you know what I expect from God after reading the Bible? I expect what Jesus got: pain and suffering during obedience. What kind of simpleton reads the Bible and thinks that it is about getting goodies from God? That is NOWHERE in the Bible. It’s projecting Santa Claus onto God and that isn’t going to work – God has other plans for us, and those plans involve work and pain. People become Christians because they want to be like Jesus, and they understand that Jesus was not having fun. He was doing a job, and he wasn’t happy or appreciated.
Other writers took a different approach to God’s failures. They too sought God’s help, but when they did not receive it, they simply concluded that God did not exist. A former member of an Assemblies of God church explicitly linked unanswered prayers and the existence of God: “How many humble and totally selfless prayers offered up to and ignored by the imaginary skydaddy does it take for the average person to finally throw in the towel and say [God doesn’t exist]!!!!” His answer: “Too damn many.”
It’s so strange to me that people think that the best way to see God interfere is to pray. The way I see God working in my life is when I go home and listen to some debate about the problem of evil, and then the next day some atheist asks me out to lunch to talk about why God allows evil. Maybe instead of doing easy things, we should actually invest in our relationship with God and then see if he responds by giving us work to do. Maybe a relationship with God is about serving him, and the joy is about seeing him reward those efforts by working with us and through us. Maybe God has more for us than just entertainment.
Still others sought a tangible sign of God’s presence. A former Pentecostal exclaimed: “There were many nights while in bed I would ask God to show me the truth, or give me some type of sign to show that he or she existed. These prayers would never be answered. So I would just go on with my life having doubts.” Likewise, a former Baptist missionary wrote: “I’ve begged God to show himself to me and put an end to my inner torture. So far it hasn’t happened and the only thing I know for sure is that I have unanswered questions.”
I think this paragraph is interesting, since I consider attending church, praying and singing hymns to be useless when compared with practical and difficult things like chastity, apologetics, charity, studying hard things, getting a good job, committing to caring for others who have special needs, etc. If you want to feel the presence of God, then do the right thing and take the punishment for doing it. That’s what Christianity is really about. When William Dembski was drummed out of Baylor University for opposing the presupposition of naturalism in the sciences, he experienced God more than all snake-handling, tongue speaking Pentecostals in the history of the universe. Similarly for Michele Bachmann’s decision to take in 23 foster children into her home. Christianity is a serious religion, and it is not accessible to superstitious people who reduce it to singing and praying alone. Christianity is about serious people doing serious things. Even reading the Bible is not enough – you need to study the Bible.
The example of Dan Barker
I’ve actually written about this before in the context of Dan Barker, a charismatic fundamentalist praise hymn singer and writer who expected God to validate all of his irresponsible ministry decisions. Eventually, he fell away from the church because he had this ludicrous Santa Claus caricature of God that didn’t match reality. Dan Barker is the complete opposite of everything I consider a manly Christian to be. He is the polar opposite of what I recommend to men when I recommend that they study math, science, engineering and technology, avoid music, singing and dancing, and prefer apologetics and conservative politics over speaking in tongues and apocalyptic fiction. This man, when he was a “Christian”, was the complete opposite of the WK Christian man model. However, he is more welcome in most churches than I am, because most Christians reject my views.
I think that Christians should protect themselves from that by being aware of how emotional experiences and praise hymns warp your view of God. God is a person, and he has a goal for you – to know him. To achieve that goal, it may not be effective to just give you everything you want. It may be the case that God has to allow you to experience some suffering, to increase your character and to bring your goals in line with his character. Children have to grow up, and shielding them from pain and responsibility doesn’t allow them to grow up.
In my own case, I have my own disappointment with God, revolving around my chastity while waiting for marriage. But does that cause me to reject God? Hell, no. I just assume that he has something else he wants me to do instead of being married, and I am OK with that. It’s part of this relationship that God’s goals are important to me. I have to participate and hold up my end of the relationship. When it comes to God’s purposes in the world, my happiness and comfort are expendable. That is an appropriate response, I think, to Jesus’ own self-sacrificial behavior on the cross. I was born obligated to him, and I am OK with that. It does not bother me.
By the way, I wrote about Part 1 in the series, which was about how the #1 cause of apostasy is lack of apologetics.
UPDATE: Commenter Mbelina adds this much-needed and valid correction:
You make some very good points.
However, I think you’re a bit too dismissive of people’s very real pain. Imagine being told by your parent that you should have been aborted. That would mess anyone up. It’s not just expecting to get what you want (I have no sympathy for that). It’s people struggling intellectually and emotionally with the problem of evil in a very real way.
Moreover, I think you need to realize that a lot of people who believe these rubbish things and have expectations based on a warped reading of scripture got that from a church where they respected the pastor as someone who “knows”. There’s a lot of bad theology coming from many pulpits and when things don’t go well it doesn’t stand up to the test of reality. I think churches need to be held accountable for verse-byte culture, trite “answers”, and platitudes. People need REAL Christianity, not the prosperity gospel or “seeker sensitive” hogwash.
And she is 100% correct of course.
What I came to realize is that whenever a person was mistreating me like this, that they also were mistreating God. He wasn’t the cause of this evil, and he has to let people be free to be evil. It was this that allowed me to make the move from being a victim to being sympathetic with God and then finally being a servant of God. God is at least as upset with evil that happens to me as I am. In fact, that is the message of the cross. Sin was so hated by God the Father that he literally had to send his own Son to atone for it on the cross. One you understand that, then you don’t think of human evil as something that happens to “me” but as something that happens to “we”. And then you feel a lot less like a victim.