Something’s been bothering me for a while. Quite a while, actually. I’m not sure exactly how to describe it, but I’ll do my best.
I grew up in a household that was very Christian. And I mean that in the best sort of way. I know it kind of seems fashionable to tear apart “traditional” Christianity, but that wasn’t my experience. My family and church life, while not perfect of course, were pretty outstanding. My grandparents and parents are the type of role models I wish everyone had. There were problems in our church, like most, but there were also a lot of godly people and outstanding teaching that didn’t hide from difficult topics. It was thoroughly evangelical and in many cases leaned heavily toward the fundamental branch of Christianity. But it was good. I grew up with a lot of love, lots of opportunity to ask questions, seek answers and grow, and a clear sense of right and wrong and how to live for God.
As part of that upbringing, I have always been taught, and it is the orthodox Christian belief, that people are sinful by nature and therefore separated from God. That they are, in a word, “bad” (sinful). That includes me and every other Christian, of course, lest Christianity sound too condemning of others. The teaching is that we are all sinful and that only with Christ can we actually change and grow and become good people1. That is, it is God living in us and us following his commands that makes us good. But as I have lived longer and observed many people, it has become harder and harder to hold this simplistic view. (I should point out that my view has never been as simplistic as I present it to be here, but putting it in its most basic form helps bring out the struggle I’m feeling.) In short, there are a lot of people who seem to be pretty good people and live pretty good lives, but they do it all without God. Many of them don’t care a bit about God. And when you add this to the scientific advances which seem to be able to explain most of the world without any reference to God, I’ve been left with one startling question that has been bothering me:
Do we even need God anymore?
At a surface level, it seems like humanity and the western world (because I can’t really speak for the rest of the world) are advancing rapidly. We are surrounded by messages affirming that we need to love and accept one another, be supportive, get rid of racism, sexism, and countless other things that are bad. The world is progressing in many respects, with all sorts of cures, problems being resolved, and so on. It is almost impossible to read any sort of social media without finding countless feel-good stories and demonstrations of the goodness of human nature and the progress of humanity. And most of this in a culture that has increasingly turned away from God in general, and Jesus in particular. So again, do we even need God anymore?
Perhaps it’s more helpful to step back from “everyone else” and just look at myself. I think part of the challenge of this question is that we are trying to “judge” (evaluate) others without being able to see what is happening inside of them. Appearances can be deceiving. It’s hard to know what is happening in a person’s heart or what they’re truly like when we only see snippets or hear selected stories. But when I look at me, I am not fooled by the deception of appearances.
So what do I see in myself? Well, by most standards, I would probably qualify as one of those “good people” I talk about. My work involves helping people. I’m happily married, staying out of trouble, trying to be a good father to my kids. I’m holding down a job and contributing to society – you know, all the stuff we’re supposed to do. And yet, when I look at my own life, I can’t help but identify four key areas where I feel that God is both relevant and completely necessary.
- Life. I have spent the past few months absolutely mesmerized by the mystery of life and the question of what comes next. The fact that life exists at all is ridiculous – why should it? The fact that I exist and live is amazing. Why are we here? Why am I here? And where am I going? It is easy to live life without thinking about this, but at some point, most of us are struck by the wonder and absurdity of life. In my case, perhaps it’s because I’ve turned 40 and hit middle age. But regardless of my reason for obsessing over this topic, I’m certainly not alone. The meaning of life has always been one of the basic questions of humanity. Why do we exist?
My reflections keep bringing me back to God. I cannot buy the concept that “nothing” created everything – especially an everything that is so incredibly complex. Nor can I buy the concept that we are just a continually recycled spirit that goes round and round until it can someday escape this rat race of life. Both concepts strip life of meaning, purpose and value. We don’t matter as individuals – we’re just parts in an uncaring machine. While those who hold to these beliefs might not live this way, I believe that is only because they are not acting consistent with their beliefs. The concepts themselves lead to no other conclusion. Yet everything in me believes and desires to be more than that. And only a God (a personal, supernatural being) seems to offer both an explanation for life and the possibility of life continuing after death. Without God, we will always live with an undercurrent of desperation and meaninglessness, no matter how we try to window-dress it.
- Guidance. When we look around us, there is tremendous uncertainty and even conflict about how we ought to live. While science and studies proclaim certain ideas and trends about what is best, they are often just as quickly disputed by other studies. The end result is a bunch of people making up their own rules and guidelines based on whatever foundation they choose. What’s really interesting is the stark contradictions that we see espoused, especially on social media: We ought to love everyone – except all of the people that we shame for various reasons; this is how you ought to live – just ignore my confession that I have no idea what I’m doing in life; #metoo – oh, and don’t forget to support the porn industry, which totally empowers women. It is a truly stunning world of contradiction and self-righteousness. But with God directing us (again, as revealed in the person of Jesus and in the Bible), we have some pretty clear guidelines about what is good and bad, appropriate or not. Now, you can make all sorts of arguments about whether Christians actually do these things or not, and there are some topics that can cause uncertainty still (such as trying to redefine male/female roles in a modern society or how to understand and apply the Biblical teachings on homosexuality), but on the whole, the guidance that the Bible gives for how to relate to God, this world, and each other gives some strong, clear guidelines for how to live. God reveals how things were meant to be and how we are to live. I would argue that the vast majority of people who live “good” lives without God do so based on Scriptural teachings, whether they embrace the God who gave them or not.
- Help. No matter how much we may claim to understand about the universe and how competent we are at handling life by ourselves, it is rare to find someone who does not cry out for some sort of help beyond themselves at times. Many in the world still live with regular, daily need for help. And this help isn’t just about physical needs. Many people struggle with deeper issues, such as fear, guilt and shame and need to know that there is someone beyond them who can help free them from these burdens. This is what God promises – forgiveness for our guilt, love and honour for our shame, and ultimate power and strength (though it is not fully revealed in the present) for our fear and weakness. I think we are overplaying our hand when we declare that we can understand everything in the universe and live all by ourselves without any help from God. For many situations, of course, we do just fine. But then those situations arise where we realise that we cannot solve all our problems, we cannot live the way we should all the time, we cannot extend our life, we cannot solve the problems of the world, we cannot escape from the guilt, shame and fear we face… and suddenly, maybe believing that there is someone outside of us who can help and who ultimately has everything under control is not such a crazy idea.
- Being Good. This point was not originally part of the plan, but since I mention human nature above, I feel I should at least touch on it here. I have already stated that we don’t seem to need God to be good. But I feel that I should clarify – this goodness is far from perfect. There are many people who are “good” in comparison to others. We identify them as loving, caring, wonderful people. And they are. But all of them, if they are honest and we actually ask, would recognise that they are not as good as they appear. Any person who has truly sought to “be good” quickly becomes aware of the deep selfishness, pride, critical spirit, anger, etc. that reside deep within. While others might not see it, we each see it in ourselves. The more we strive to be good, the more we become aware of how far from good we truly are – we are, as the Bible describes it, sinful. Anyone who does not acknowledge their own sinfulness, I would suggest, is either too arrogant or too ignorant to see how far from perfect they are. I would argue that here, as well, we need God. It is God who reveals our sinfulness, and creates in us a desire to be rid of it. It is God who offers us forgiveness and love despite our sinfulness. It is God who grants us His Spirit to begin to conquer that evil in our lives. And it is only God who one day can cleanse that sinfulness from us when we come face to face with his glory and presence. We believe that it is He alone who can complete the transformation to goodness that we desire.
So there you have it. Do we need God? In some ways, no. But at the end of the day, I find I do need God. I need Him to explain and provide life. I need Him to show me how to live and to change me so I can actually live that way. I need Him to help me in all those situations that are too big for me (actually, I need Him in every situation, but it’s the big ones where I really notice it). And I can’t help but believe that if we can look past the outward facade that we present to the world, we all need God, far more than most people care to admit.
 It is worth noting that Christianity is not actually seeking to make “good people”, but to save us from our sins and the resulting death, as well as restoring our relationship with God. The result of accepting Christ, though, is a changed heart which seeks to obey God. And obeying God should result in a change that makes us “good people”.