It’s a strange thing for me, as a former atheist, to hear about someone who is a self-described “former Christian”.
I cannot imagine life without Jesus and God. What I mean to say is that there is no life outside of Jesus and God. Without them, all you do is stumble from one disaster to the next, one drink to the next, one obsession to the next, never really understanding why things are the way they are or why your life is so full of pain. And so you look for an explanation by blaming others or political systems or (worst of all) yourself. Without Jesus and God, there is no real peace and no real joy, because the presence of Jesus and God, through God’s Holy Spirit, is the sole source of happiness. Jesus called this a “wellspring” surging up inside you that never runs dry.
So when I hear about people who claim to be former Christians, I can only assume they were never Christians to begin with. Because having been a born-again adult for nearly the same length of time as I was an atheist adult, I’m able to compare the two states of being, and there is no way I would give up being a Christian. There is nothing that anyone could offer me to stop being a Christian – no amount of money, and no degree of threat. And yes, I will likely be tested on this (and I pray to God that I’ll hold my spiritual ground when the time comes), but on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being miserable and 10 being happy, I easily rate my born-again years as a solid 10 and my godless years, sadly, as a 1.
It’s not that there weren’t occasional flashes of something approaching happiness when I was an atheist. I found a certain measure of peace walking through the woods or along a shoreline. Sometimes I would find that same fleeting peace roaming deserted city streets at night or, oddly enough, in a library. Reading was my main escape from the omnipresent emotional pain of my atheist years, along with men, booze, travel, and learning about things (that is, learning about everything except God). I was perpetually chasing one lust after the other, one enthusiasm after the other, hoping for I don’t even know what, maybe some kind of resolution or eureka moment when “the truth” would suddenly burst into view, or someone would tenderly confirm that I had value beyond the fading desirability of my youth.
When you’re young and outwardly confident, as I was as an unbeliever, things come to you easily. People bend to you. When you mess up, they make allowances for you. You get second chances, and then third chances. I was always an exception to the rule; whatever charm I had, I worked it, and it worked well for me, or so I thought at the time. I rode the heady wave of pride, thinking I had it all figured out, thinking I could get whatever or whoever I wanted just by sheer force of will. But waves have troughs as well as crests, and all waves eventually come crashing down on a shoreline somewhere, leaving nothing behind but a bit of froth and a few bubbles.
I mention these things not because I remember my atheist years fondly (I definitely do not), but because I cannot fathom on any level that someone would consciously want to give up being born-again. Being in God’s Kingdom is exactly as Jesus says it is – the pearl of such great value that you sell everything you have to buy it, or the treasure that you hide in a field and then sell everything to buy that field so you can possess the treasure forever. Being born-again, you unhesitatingly give up everything in exchange for the presence of God’s Spirit, because there is nothing of greater value on Earth. Nothing comes close. My worst day of being a believer is still leaps and bounds better than my best day of being an unbeliever.
Do I still get sad as a Christian? Of course I do. I still have free will and emotions. People can still hurt me, and I can still do stupid things and hurt myself. But instead of running to a bottle or to other people for comfort when I get sad, or running into the woods or down to the ocean, I run to God and am healed in an instant. As an atheist, it took me days, months, or even years to get over things, and some wounds festered for decades until I was finally healed at my rebirth.
So you see, I’ve seen life from both sides – as an unbeliever and a believer. As an atheist, I was afforded all the privileges of youth, while as a believer, those privileges are long gone. But if I had all those privileges of youth as an atheist, why was I so miserable? Even more mysteriously, if I no longer have those youthful privileges as a believer, why am I so happy? Am I crazy? Certainly, there are those who knew me as an atheist and who see me now who think I’m crazy, because I’m cheerful without apparent cause. No-one can have as little as I have materially and still be happy. Right?
There was a professor in university I was inordinately fond of (to put it politely). When I was no longer his student, I wrote him a long letter, to which he responded with a few lines of pleasantries, ending with the (for me at the time) jarring question: “Are you happy?” It was an odd inquiry, given our history, and I remember being angered by it. In writing to him, I had hoped to reignite something, not discuss “happiness”, which was to me at that time a thing of little value.
That was a long time ago. I still have the letter somewhere, though I haven’t read it for years. I think if I received such a letter (or one like it) today, I would be thrilled that someone took the time to write to me, and so grateful for the extension of kindness underlying the pleasantries. As for the very pointed question at the end, I would immediately have grabbed a pen and piece of paper and scribbled in response: “Yes, yes I’m happy! Thank you so much for asking! And I hope you’re happy, too!”
These words I could never have written with any sincerity as an unbeliever, though as a believer not to write them would be a lie.
Yes, I am happy. I have been happy since the day I was born again over 20 years ago. This simple fact would have been unfathomable to me as an unbeliever. The presence of God’s Spirit makes you happy. Happiness that endures through decades is not craziness; it’s “evidence of things unseen”.
Which is why I cannot understand why someone would want to be a “former Christian”. Why would you give up the pearl of great price or the eternal treasure buried in your field? There is nothing in the world that comes close to being born-again. God’s Holy Spirit is the greatest of all treasures, which is why Jesus turned down the temptation to own “all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them” in exchange for giving up God. Think about it – Jesus was offered EVERYTHING IN THE WORLD and the power that goes with having everything in the world, and he turned it all down because the presence of God’s Spirit was of greater value.
We born-agains live every moment of our lives with God’s Spirit. How incomprehensibly blessed we are! “All the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them” still fall short in value to what each of us has inside of us here and now, and to what God has promised us if we stay the course to the end. Those who are genuinely born-again would NEVER give this up.
We need to reaffirm what it means to be a Christian.