My Life as a Functional Atheist

I love to see God at work in the details of life. I get excited when I see His hand moving in “the small stuff,” probably because I have historically found it so hard to believe He would care about the small stuff.

So it is that I’ve been struck by His presence lately and the kinds of lessons He’s patiently teaching me through the mundane details of my life. In particular, the two books I’m reading right now are coincidentally speaking to the same issue, though from different perspectives. I am reading A Praying Life, by Paul Miller, in preparation for co-leading a women’s bible study discussion in July. In addition, our small group is going through Respectable Sins, by Jerry Bridges.

I’m at a point in these two books where their messages are being woven together to simultaneously point me to an uncomfortable truth and mercifully provide me encouragement to change.

The uncomfortable truth is that despite my growing faith in and dependence on Jesus, I still live a lot of my life in ways that Jerry Bridges would call “ungodly.”

Ungodliness as defined by Bridges is not the existence of overtly wicked lifestyle choices. Instead, he defines ungodliness as “living one’s everyday life with little or no thought of God, or of God’s will, or of God’s glory or of one’s dependence on God.” Ungodliness is the first of the respectable, or “subtle,” sins that Bridges tackles in his book. In his opinion, while pride is considered by many to be the root of all sin, ungodliness is a more widespread sin.

Put another way, it’s living in the everyday realities of life as if there is no God, or as my husband would tag it, living as a functional atheist. Jesus told the disciples that apart from Him, they could do nothing (John 15:5). In contrast, ungodliness is living as if you can manage just fine without Christ. You can confess a firm belief that He exists, and still live your life largely as if you don’t believe it at all.

And I do it all the time.

This is what it looks like in my life: I get up early in the morning, start the coffee and curl up in my favorite chair to pray. Then I may read my Bible or work on my current Bible study, spending another chunk of time focusing on God’s Word. Afterwards, I’m off to start my day – I hop into the shower and as the water warms up, my thoughts turn to what lies ahead. If my day doesn’t seem too daunting, I begin problem-solving, organizing, putting together an agenda in my head. If life is particularly hectic, and it often is these days, I start feeling overwhelmed with all the things I need to get done. I begin to feel anxious or stressed about the things I need to accomplish, and I can’t wait to get a pen and paper in hand so I can write down all these important thoughts and manage the “chaos” around me.

Do you see the functional atheism? I go into the shower having spent time behaving as if I rely on God, but by the time I turn the water off, I’ve often abandoned the idea that God is the One ultimately in control of my life; now that I’ve offered up my prayers to Him, it’s up to me alone to tackle the details this side of heaven. It’s not even 7:00AM and I’m already acting in ungodly ways!

Now, we all do this and to some degree always will. But the uncomfortable truth that I see in my life is just how often I “forget” to keep Christ at the center of my thoughts, even in – particularly in – the mundane details of my life. Yes, He’s for sure my Savior, and when things blow up, I’ve learned to run to Him pretty quickly. But when things are going pretty well, or they’re “just” busy, I don’t tend to turn to Him. I behave as if I’m perfectly capable of doing life on my own, and He can fade into the background of my life.

But I said I was also being shown an encouragement toward change.

I’m about halfway through the book by Paul Miller, and from what I can tell so far, Miller is trying to teach Christians to be “real” with God, to talk to Jesus about everything, to be honest about our wants and desires, not formulating our prayers in ways that sound religious, but instead acknowledging how very dependent we are on Him for everything, and learning to really lean on Jesus in that dependent state. To trust Him like a child trusts.

In particular, there is a part in this book when Miller describes what it’s like to “abide in Christ.” He says (emphasis mine):

The praying life is the abiding life. Many Christians hit a wall when they connect abiding with asking. They freeze, thinking, If I were abiding, then I would get my prayers answered. Abiding feels elusive, like a spiritual pipe dream. Abiding is anything but disconnected from life. It is the way life should be done, in partnership with God.

His point, I think, is to encourage all of us to live out the absolute truth of Christ’s declaration in John 15 that “apart from me, you can do nothing.” Jesus uses the analogy of vines and branches to make the point that a life lived apart from its Source – the True Vine – is not a sustainable life at all.

In order to have a prayer life that is vibrant and keeps us connected to our Creator, we need to learn just how dependent we are on God for all things, to accept and embrace that – and to live that out throughout our day. That’s what abiding means – to remain, to continue, to stay.

Since I’ve begun reading this book, I’ve tried to take to heart what Miller is saying, and I’ve begun to be more intentional not only about praying throughout my day, but being “real” with those prayers. Just two days ago, God answered a very small, very specific prayer I’d whispered to Him several days prior, and as I stood in the middle of my kitchen taking in the reality that He’d heard me and responded, I began to tear up. God was so close in that moment; I could almost see Jesus smiling as I realized His love for me in that concrete example of just how interested He is in the tiny details of our lives. That moment of recognized answer to a silly little prayer provided this functional atheist with the exact encouragement I needed to believe that abiding in Him really does make a difference in my relationship with Christ. In fact, it makes all the difference.

God, Who can stretch out the heavens like a tent, Who makes the clouds His chariot and rides on the wind (Psalm 104:1-9), can also enter into what’s going on in your kitchen – and in your heart – if you’ll just abide in Him. He wants to abide with you.

Isaiah 57:15
For thus says the One who is high and lifted up,
who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy:
“I dwell in the high and holy place,
and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit,
to revive the spirit of the lowly,
and to revive the heart of the contrite.”

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