The best thing that ever happened to my faith was losing it. It sounds strange, but sometimes the only way God can move in us is by breaking all our boxes. For me to love God, I had to let go and walk away.
The Southern Baptist Convention is the largest denomination in the Evangelical movement, and I was a proud member. In fact, I was a Deacon and Sunday School teacher by the time I was 25. A lot of my friends didn’t even have jobs at that age, but I thought I had it all together. I was married, with a baby on the way. Life was good.
Those were days of happiness and peace. But it all fell apart when my parents’ marriage ended. Their divorce sent me on a quest to know the Bible better so that I could share God’s position on divorce with authority.
I read the Bible four times in one year looking for answers. All I found was more questions. What started as a study on marriage ended in a fight for my faith.
And I lost.
One day I said this during prayer: “God, I don’t know why I’m praying. You aren’t even real.” Just like that, I was an atheist, and I spent the next two years living a lie. I pretended to believe in person, while advancing humanism on the Internet. I know that sounds silly, even duplicitous, but I really wanted to help people.
A Deacon can’t just show up at church and say they don’t believe in God anymore. Plus, I found hundreds of people on the Internet who were losing their faith like I was, and I wanted to help them adjust to finding meaning via means other that belief in God. It’s harder than it sounds.
But God wasn’t done with me. Even though I didn’t believe in any god, God reached out to me standing on the shore of the Pacific Ocean. In that moment, reality seemed like a veil that was stretched taut. I could make out the glory of God on the other side, and it moved me. I felt connected to God, and through God to all my fellow humanity. It was beautiful, and it changed my life forever.
It also left me confused. I know I couldn’t have experienced God if He didn’t exist. I spent two years climbing back into Faith. I had to start over, learning who God is and how I can be a part of God’s work.
However, looking back, I see that my time as an atheist made me a better Christian. Here’s how:
No Doctrinal Drama
Christians get upset over doctrinal differences. I used to as well. But now, I approach all human knowledge with greater humility. When you lose God through rational analysis, you contemplate life from a materialistic philosophy. This perspective shows you that man’s ideas about God are flawed. I believe again, but I also believe no church sect has figured out the Great Mystery. I have doctrinal beliefs, but I know some of them may be wrong. I just don’t know which ones.
That means I hold my faith with open hands instead of closed fists. The beliefs of others don’t bother me. I am happy to hear what they believe about God, and how they arrived at that belief. Everyone has something to teach me—even atheists.
Life With New Eyes
Christians think about the afterlife a lot. I never understood how much until I stopped believing in life after death. We’re so concerned with Heaven, Hell and who goes where that we forget about this life. Our Scriptures talk much more about this life than the next, but our focus often doesn’t reflect that.
Atheists don’t have that luxury. With no God and no afterlife, atheists must concern themselves with the here and now. With no savior, atheists must work to address suffering with their own hands. With no heaven or hell, atheists have to savor and enjoy every moment as a gift.
I haven’t lost that perspective. The Good News means little to someone who is starving or who has no roof over their head. Likewise, I am mindful of all those moments we have now that reflect the Kingdom of God. Every Sunday I spend singing with my friends and family at church is divine. Each touch of my wife’s hand is a blessing, and every twirl my daughters make down the hall fills me with life.
I am moved every time I take the Eucharist, and being able to say, “I believe in God” is a gift of unspeakable beauty.
There Are No Wrong Questions
As a kid, I asked all the wrong questions. I wanted to know how dinosaurs fit on the Ark, or how the whole world came from Adam and Eve or from Noah’s family after the flood. In time, I learned what questions would make people uncomfortable, and I kept them to myself. I became uncomfortable when people would ask hard questions about justice or the morality of God in Scripture.
I’m not afraid of questions anymore. There is no forbidden section in the library of knowledge. Truth is Truth, regardless of its source. I will discuss any topic with any person, and I’ll do my best to check my biases at the door.
Atheism doesn’t pretend to have answers to every question. Losing God changed me. I no longer feel like I have to have answers to all the questions we face in life. I’m happy to look for an answer without finding one, and I’m comfortable with uncertainty. My faith is an act of simple trust now.
What I know is less important than what I do. Knowing Jesus is not an abstract set of information or a construct of dogma. Being a Christian comes down to the simple of act of dropping my nets when I hear the words, “Come, follow me.”
Mike McHargue is a Christian turned atheist turned follower of Christ. HeÕs a founding member of The Liturgists and is a writes about science and faith at mikemchargue.com. @mikemchargue.