To My Atheist Friends This Christmas

I beg the indulgence of a few minutes for any of my friends (or really anyone at all) who scoffs at the notion of the Babe in the manger, the joy of Christmas, and everything else associated with “Immanuel, which means, ‘God with us.'” (Matthew 1:23b).

In our few minutes together, allow me to ask a favor. Forget anything you think you know about Jesus Christ and anything you’ve seen perpetrated in His name on social media. This Christmas, I humbly ask you to consider the singular Person, Jesus Christ, though perhaps not for the reasons you may think.

My reason is an honest, heartfelt desire to share with you the One in whom you may find peace, even in a turbulent and troubled world, because He has overcome the world. He’s even lived in it and knows what it is to suffer as a man.

Once an atheist myself, I have found in Christ an unshakeable peace, an overflowing hope, and even a purpose for pain. I’ve found so much more, but in the interest of keeping this brief(ish), allow me to share an excerpt from Orthodoxy, a book written by another former atheist, G. K. Chesterton:

“That a good man may have his back to the wall is no more than we knew already, but that God could have His back to the wall is a boast for all insurgents forever …

… Alone of all creeds, Christianity has added courage to the virtues of the Creator. For the only courage worth calling courage must necessarily mean that the soul passes a breaking point — and does not break. In this indeed I approach a matter more dark and awful than it is easy to discuss; and I apologize in advance if any of my phrases fall wrong or seem irreverent touching a matter which the greatest saints and thinkers have justly feared to approach. But in the terrific tale of the Passion there is a distinct emotional suggestion that the author of all things (in some unthinkable way) went not only through agony, but through doubt…

…When the world shook and the sun was wiped out of heaven, it was not at the crucifixion, but at the cry from the cross: the cry which confessed that God was forsaken of God. And now let the revolutionists choose a creed from all the creeds and a god from all the gods of the world, carefully weighing all the gods of inevitable recurrence and of unalterable power. They will not find another god who has himself been in revolt. Nay (the matter grows too difficult for human speech), but let the atheists themselves choose a god. They will find only one divinity who ever uttered their isolation; only one religion in which God seemed for an instant to be an atheist.” (emphasis mine)

The message of Christmas is not a message of good tidings so all people can have a good life. It is a message of good tidings because at the birth of the Christ child, a unique event took place in the history of everything. The Most High God, Creator of all that is seen and unseen, laid His glory aside and confined Himself to the frail substance of His own creation in order to do what mankind could not – save them from a hopeless eternity, from a propensity for evil, and from their own stubborn pride.

Or to put the thing into more bite-size portions: The Creator learned to crawl. The One who spoke the world into existence learned to speak his mother’s name. He endured puberty, He felt hunger, He felt sorrow and sickness, joy and zeal, betrayal and ridicule and everything else a human being can feel but without falling into wrongdoing. Ever.

The message of Christmas is almost too difficult to put into words because the first Christmas put an infinite God into a finite form. How do you phrase that adequately, really? Words fail.

Where we have weakened and given in to temptation, Jesus saw the thing through to the uttermost. In fact, He alone among humankind knows the fullest extent of temptation because He alone among men never caved in to temptation. He alone never fell.

He even knows what it is to desire something other than the Divine plan and yet submit to it anyway. Not only that, but He came to offer Himself as the blood price, not for good and holy men, but for all of us. For me. For you. And you and I know, in an honest moment, that we’ve done some pretty reprehensible stuff.

He knows you, friend. He knows what you struggle with, and he loves you anyway. He’s felt temptation, too, but He has also overcome it. That is the hope of Christmas. That is the hope we can share in Christ Jesus.

I so long for you to know my God – the Pauper King who lowered Himself in order to give us an opportunity to rise ridiculously far above our station. I want you to experience the greatest and most breathtaking love you will ever know on either side of the grave.

Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
(Hebrews 4:14-16)

I pray He will open your heart as He once opened mine so that some day, we can celebrate together how we both found grace and mercy in our time of need.

Speaking of Pain…

Jesus wept.
John 11:35

Although I have read the story of the resurrection of Lazarus in John 11 countless times, after my most recent reading, two words have stayed with me: Jesus wept.

I’m not sure why this tiny sentence has remained in my thoughts. Perhaps it is the paradox that such a simple subject and verb construction would express so profound a concept as the sorrow of the Almighty. Or maybe at a time when certain family situations have touched a great well of sorrow and heartache within me, I find it comforting to know that He, too experienced emotional pain.

Why did He weep? Many have conjectured that possibly He wept because of the suffering of His friends, or maybe He wept that such a thing as death had entered into His creation at all, or because He knew that, in calling Lazarus back from death, He was calling his friend away from paradise and back into the drudgery and pain of life in a sin-scarred world.

I imagine that if our own reasons for weeping are complex, the tears of the Creator are shed for reasons that would confound our finite intellect. Still, it is safe to say that one reason Jesus wept is certain: He wept because He was in pain.

So it was that this smallest of Bible verses still lingered in my mind when I happened onto Facebook and saw a post by an old friend. He had posted a question that struck me as both ironic in light of this Scripture and terribly sad: “Why does God hate me?”

Ah, the incongruity! This God, the Creator of all who endowed His creation with the ability to either choose or reject Him; the King of kings and Lord of lords who willingly shelved His glory and donned the feebleness of mankind, Who chose to endure physical and emotional torment on our behalf; Who chose, even, to endure spiritual torment that one day on the cross… these actions do not describe hatred or even indifference.

If anything God can sympathize with us because He knows what it is like to feel distress and suffering. He knows what it is like to weep. He has embraced pain.

Can you imagine the depth and breadth of anguish experienced by the Infinite God? The cost of those tears is measured in currency far too precious to express. Allow me to share with you (and dare I hope that my old friend will read these words?) the poignant passage by G. K. Chesterton:

But in the terrific tale of the Passion there is a distinct emotional suggestion that the author of all things (in some unthinkable way) went not only through agony, but through doubt… He passed in some superhuman manner through our human horror of pessimism. When the world shook and the sun was wiped out of heaven, it was not at the crucifixion, but at the cry from the cross: the cry which confessed that God was forsaken of God. And now let the revolutionists choose a creed from all the creeds and a god from all the gods of the world, carefully weighing all the gods of inevitable recurrence and of unalterable power. They will not find another god who has himself been in revolt. Nay (the matter grows too difficult for human speech), but let the atheists themselves choose a god. They will find only one divinity who ever uttered their isolation; only one religion in which God seemed for an instant to be an atheist.”

Because He wept, we can know that He understood emotional pain. We can only imagine how his anguish is amplified beyond reckoning by His own infinite capacity to suffer. Because He chose to endure not only physical torture but the pain of rejection, of loss, of betrayal – in short, the pain of humanity – we know that in Him we can boldly approach the Throne of Grace to find mercy and grace to help in time of need.

And it is there, when we finally fall at the feet of the Most High in a posture of abject humility, confessing our need of Him in ultimate surrender and in trembling reverence, lifting our own tear-filled eyes to behold the King of glory, we will find something shocking. Rather than a countenance filled with the fury we know we deserve, we see instead His grief: a Father weeping both for the hurt that His child has endured and for the pain of rejection, but also a Father weeping for joy at the prodigal child returned.

Oh, how I hope and pray that so many hurting souls will come to the God who wept and find forgiveness, compassion, and a joy that never ends!

Death of an Atheist

So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
(Romans 6:11)

Before I came to know and love the Lord, I was a self-proclaimed atheist… and a pretty angry one at that. If you had asked the late teen/early adulthood version of myself what I thought about Christianity or religion in general, I probably would have answered something to the effect that religion is just a crutch to prop up people who are too weak to face life without it.

Ironically, now that I have come to enjoy a relationship with the living God, I partially agree with my old self on this point. If I have learned nothing else in my forty-odd trips around the sun, I have at least come to realize that I am too weak by far to attempt to live life without God.

The only difference between the Heather who did not recognize this fact and the Heather who now does is that the old me was in denial of very obvious weaknesses (even though said weaknesses resulted in alternating bouts of sobbing, self-loathing, and self-medication with alcohol).

The old me held a firm belief that life was all about what you could get out of it. Yet each attempt I made to seize the proverbial day left me with nothing more than double fistfuls of wishful thinking and palms slashed with bloody furrows from clinging to the shards of shattered delusions.

Perhaps the realization that disturbed me most profoundly in my old life was that the more I lived for myself, filling myself with what I thought was good and fun, the emptier I seemed to become until the inner void was so great that I was certain I would implode.

I had become a person wandering on an endless search with no goal, traveling at great speed yet without direction or purpose. My life was a confusion of restless and increasingly frantic, but futile, activity. I was locked in what seemed to be a perpetual circle, forever following my own footsteps.

“What we all dread most,” said the priest in a low voice, “is a maze with no centre. That is why atheism is only a nightmare.” – G. K. Chesterton, from “The Head of Caesar,” a Father Brown mystery

Yet all the time, God was there waiting patiently for the day when I, footsore and disillusioned, would finally grasp the extremity of my need. But when I first realized that each broad and inviting path I took only led me back to a trackless wilderness, I became convinced that the answers lay beneath my feet, as if some clue to joy could be unearthed like buried treasure.

As I delved deeper and ever deeper, my subterranean quest did not diminish my need but merely increased my darkness. It was there, knee-deep in muck and covered in grime, that I finally saw my folly. Suffocated by despair, I collapsed.

The God I had once laughingly dismissed as a crutch found me where I had fallen, miserably entombed in the pit I had dug, lifeless and caked in mud. The sudden Light of his presence woke me and I cringed in anticipation of the wrath and contempt I deserved from Him. But He did the unexpected.

Rather than move on by, as I would have done, the One I had once scorned knelt beside me in the mire. Lifting my lifeless form, He carried me out of the grave and washed me clean. He removed my shabby tatters and covered my shame with His own spotless garment of righteousness. And He took my stone-cold heart and kneaded it until it became a living thing, responsive to His love.

Then He hefted the full burden of my degradation onto His own shoulders and bore it because I could not. In those moments of His tender care and mercy, I finally realized what He already knew. I had been broken, lame, and dead long before that moment of despair. I just needed to see it.

To me, God became so much more than just a crutch – He became my reason to breathe, my motivation to wake. My life.

Oh, I can do things apart from Him. I can fail. I can be hateful. I can be selfish and stingy and all sorts of nasty. But I cannot be good apart from Him, for only God is good. I cannot be righteous – I can only wear His righteousness. Every moment, every hour, for every action and word, I need Him.

Yes, He is the One I lean on so that I can stand, but He is so much more. He is my Savior and gives my life purpose and meaning; the color to my world; my Master, Guide, Comforter, and King. May my lips always praise Him and may I never again try to venture out on my own!

He drew me up from the pit of destruction, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure.

He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the LORD.

Blessed is the man who makes the LORD his trust, who does not turn to the proud, to those who go astray after a lie!

(Psalms 40:2-4)