Atheism is the belief that God does not exist. The supernatural is fictitious. Any higher power is a fantasy. There is no big grandpa with a beard in the sky.
To be fair, I don’t believe in the grandpa in the sky either. I believe in God, but I don’t buy the simplified version that many people want to reduce him to. (I include a lot of Christians in the broad category of “many people.”)
God is something (Someone, rather) that supersedes human experience. It has been said that a god we could fully understand is not a very impressive one. Yet simplifying God into a completely understandable, human-level being is what so many of us do. Whether it’s the atheist wanting to paint religion as ridiculous or the pastor wanting to “sell” Christianity, we all misrepresent who God is on some level.
Explaining the basics of who God is to a child or a non-believer or a new Christian is different than this. What I am talking about is confining God and his nature to a box that makes us comfortable. Most of the time we don’t even realize we’re doing it, but we put limits on God’s power (if only figuratively). There are three major ways Christians do this, thereby becoming practical atheists.
Christians Like to Control Their Own Lives (Matthew 6:25-34; Philippians 4:11-13; Matthew 16:24-25)
One of the most popular hymns still in use is “I Surrender All.” “I Surrender Some” would be more a truthful lyric for many who sing it. We give lip service, sing songs in church, rededicate our lives to Christ again and again. True surrender might happen for a season, but life gets too complicated. The cares of life suffocate our commitments, or maybe we never truly surrendered at all. Perhaps we kept back a little portion of ourselves, or some part of our lives, afraid of what God might do with it.
Rather than being everything God has created us to be, we instead opt for the easier path. We like pretending we have control over our lives. We like living the way we do, without surrender, without sacrifice, without power. What if Christ calls us to move to a new place, quit our job to start a ministry, give more of our time and blessings, and go through any number of hardships and inconveniences? No, it’s much easier to ignore those leadings and stay comfortable. Like the unbeliever, we live our lives for ourselves.
Christians Stifle the Holy Spirit (1 Thessalonians 5:19-20; 1 Corinthians 12:4-11,28)
Walk into most Baptist churches (or Lutheran or Presbyterian or Methodist) and try to find someone with the spiritual gifts of tongues, prophecy, or healing. You’ll hear some say “Oh we don’t do that here.” Others will say, “The gifts aren’t for today.” Some might even frown and simply tell you to leave. We often don’t let the Spirit move among us, at least not in ways that make us uncomfortable. Many churches disapprove of even raising hands in worship.
I’m certainly not advocating for the type of shallow emotionalism and showmanship found in many charismatic churches. Dozens of people speaking their prayer language at once isn’t biblical. Neither is getting on the ground and barking like a dog, for that matter, but I digress.
Most congregations, however, fall on the other end. We give lip service to the gifts or ignore them altogether. Some churches point out natural personality traits (that we would possess with or without the Holy Spirit’s indwelling) and brand them as supernatural gifts of the Spirit. An encouraging woman gets told she has the gift of exhortation. An intelligent man gets told he has the gift of wisdom. A girl who wears her heart on her sleeve is assigned the gift of mercy. Meanwhile, most supernatural giftings beyond teaching and preaching are smothered for fear of offending someone.
Even something as simple as the order of worship gets in the way of the Spirit. We like to stick to our order of three worship songs, forty-minute sermon, altar call, and lunch. We don’t allow room for the Spirit to move in our services, yet expect him to move in mightily. But only through ways that don’t offend our modern sensibilities.
Dictating how God is going to act is not for us to decide. If God wants to speak through someone in tongues while another interprets, then he will do so. If God wants to miraculously heal a cancer patient by the laying on of hands, he will do so. If God wants to multiply the church potluck so everyone gets a plate full of mac and cheese, he will do so!
Christians Ignore Spiritual Warfare (1 Peter 5:8-9; 2 Corinthians 10:3-5; Luke 10:17-20)
We like to ignore the boogeyman hiding in the closet. Some of us get a little frightened whenever he is brought up in a sermon or Bible study. It’s uncomfortable to think that there is literally a supernatural being that is out to get you. But we wave those thoughts aside. We ignore them. After a while, we barely even notice the hand spiritual warfare plays in our lives.
Satan is real. Demons are real. Reducing the devil to a tight-wearing mischief-maker with a pitch-fork and a pointy tail does not make him any less existent. Ignoring the reality of spiritual warfare might make us feel better temporarily, but it also cripples us in our fight against sin and the building of God’s kingdom. If we want to see victory in our lives and in our ministries, we need to realize what we’re up against.
This includes being open to the rebuke and casting out of evil spirits. Some Christians find this as being too akin to witchcraft, but there is a huge difference between communing with demons and rebuking them. To avoid the former, Christians often fail in doing the latter.
Christians are defined by their belief in the triune God of the Bible, but our lifestyles rarely show it. We deny God full control over our will, and we stifle the spiritual gifts. We suppress the Spirit’s leading, and we ignore the reality of spiritual warfare that exists all around us. In these ways, we act more like unbelievers than Christ-followers. Thankfully, it isn’t too difficult to fix the problem.
If we would let go of our own pride, our own will, we would see a big change in our churches. And in each of our lives, for that matter. Christians might actually start living like Christians. Imagine that.