Saturday, January 25, 2014

Learning from an Atheist

"I don't need an outside source to tell me to be a good person. Seriously? How difficult is it not to be a jerk?"

Everybody should have an atheist in their life. I mean it. We take way too much for granted. Most of us have absolutely no idea how atheists think. We need to know more than how to answer them. We need to understand and respect them.

I love the atheist in my family. She pokes me. She argues with me. She challenges me. She makes me think.
"How difficult is it not to be a jerk?" she asked the other day.
It's a good question. She knows right from wrong for the most part--probably as much as most Christians I know. She knows she was born with this knowledge, a knowledge she didn't summon up for herself. She doesn't much care why she knows--she just does--and tries to live by it. She sincerely wants to be a good person and seriously can't imagine why that shouldn't be enough.

I try to imagine sometimes how God sees her. I know He loves her--that goes without saying. But how does He look on her sincerely good intentions? Are they enough? That's a harder one. Paul, in writing to the Romans, considered the same thing:

It is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. When Gentiles, who have not the law, do by nature what the law requires, they are a law unto themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.--Romans 2: 13-16

Atheists have no faith in Christ, but they often have an active conscience--the law is written on their hearts. They, then, can be doers of the law without knowing from Whom the law comes. They are a "law unto themselves", but that law often conforms to God's. If God justifies the doers of the law, will my atheist then also be justified?

She might. God is, after all, in charge of His own heaven. He measures each one of us by something humans can neither see nor know--our hearts.
However, Jesus also said that:
No one comes to the Father except by me.--John 14:6
By faith you are saved.--Ephesians 2:8
My atheist has neither Jesus nor faith. In fact, she has summarily rejected them both but, in her defense, I know far too many professing Christians who think less than an atheist about right and wrong. We might do well to consider them more often.  

Right and wrong are not always instinctively easy to come by. I used to think, for instance, that some certain lies ("No you don't look fat in that dress" or "I don't have to report that income--they paid me cash") were OK to tell. I don't anymore. My notions of right and wrong have shifted with changing age and circumstances.

It's the same for everybody. That's why a country has laws. None of us decides for ourselves what is legal. We don't individually decide our own speed limits and, as a result, we can all share the same roads without constantly crashing into each other. It's the same for life, isn't it? We don't decide right and wrong for ourselves so that we don't destroy one another. I may think it's OK to arm myself to the teeth and use my guns to defend myself and you don't. I may believe it's OK to spank my kids and you don't. I may think I have a right to share in someone else's wealth and you don't. We both sincerely believe we are right.

I don't know about my atheist, but when it comes to deciding right from wrong, I need a place to look it up, something I didn't write--the constitution for the laws of the land and the Bible for everything else. And I take comfort that, as long as I still live, God is working in both of us--me and my atheist. And, as long as she is willing to listen to me, really listen, I am happy to try to return the favor.

In the meantime, recognizing that I don't have all the answers, I cry on both of our behalfs, "Lord, have mercy."


  1. JoAnne, you nailed it at the end (this 'how to love people so very much NOT like you')--"Lord, have mercy."
    This was a good reminder--we ALL need the grace of Jesus. great post.

    1. Thanks--it's pretty hard sometimes to remember that we're not in charge of the salvation of everybody we know. In fact, we're in charge of none of them.

  2. Visiting from Deidra's today. What an interesting perspective!

    1. Thanks Sheila. She does help keep me honest!

  3. Some atheists, I think, have a rather profound faith without recognizing it as faith. They display a deep faith in moral right and wrong, without even recognizing the author of morality.

    I often see professing believers demonstrating much less faith by confining their perceptions of God to their understanding of a written moral code. They follow legalistic rules rather than searching the Spirit's call. Often, they fail to even put much thought into even the list of rules, being satisfied to simply regurgetate the interpretation of rules others have fed them.

    It is a puzzler...I'm glad God knows the heart...and trust Him to lead my heart.

    1. I find that few atheists arrive at their 'faith' by either family tradition or childhood teaching. Instead, they have almost all thought seriously about why they believe as they do. I wish more of my believing friends would do as much. Still, as you say, God does know hearts and I'm glad of it. Thanks for your insightful comment.

  4. I love this! I have been reading many more blogs these days now that I write for one and I usually read comments. Through these comments I have really began to realize the judgmental views that most people (regardless of beliefs) have. I think this judgement and anger comes from a lack of listening and trying to understand others. We should always share God's word, but we should know a person and their beliefs well enough to approach conversations in a way that may actually reach them instead of condemning them. Great post, thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks, Christa. You are absolutely right that we do tend to judge, almost without being aware of it. How many times I have appeared to listen to someone, but are really thinking about what I'm going to say next. Yikes! Somehow, we need to connect, tell the truth (and the Truth), and give one another the mutual dignity we deserve. Lord have mercy.

  5. What a great reminder to all of us. We all have different ideas and beliefs and most of the time we are right there to judge or criticize without even listening first. Thank you for this great post.

    1. No kidding. Many an atheist wants sincerely to be a good person just doesn't understand why that's not enough. It is a great pleasure to affirm their desire even as we pray for them to understand that it comes from the eternity God planted in their heart.