I feel like a spy most Sundays. My husband and I continue to take our family to church each week—the necessary and unfortunate consequence of being closet atheists—so that people will know us by name when my parents stay for the weekend and go to church with us. Pathetic, I know. We don’t really fit in at the church we’ve been attending for almost a year, but we’ve exhausted most other local options. Since we have to go somewhere, it might as well be there—it’s not like we’re expecting to have our minds changed, anyway.
I’m really not a bitter atheist. I’m not angry with a God I don’t believe in. I’m not angry with people who follow Him, and I don’t think they are any less intelligent over all than I am. After all, it was less than three years ago that I really started questioning. It’s just so easy to believe what has been reinforced to you your entire life. I understand that. In fact, most of my favorite people in the world are Christians. Some of the most intelligent, thoughtful, and well-read people I know are Christians. I have one major problem with Christians: I love so many of them more than they love me. I love them more without Jesus than they love me with Jesus.
Before I go further, let me be clear about one thing: the failure of Christians is not the reason that I am an atheist. I’m human too, and I am pitifully inconsistent when it comes to my actions in the positions I hold. I fail my husband daily as his wife, but I am thankful that we are bound to each other by more than our words and actions, and he continues to call me his. I fail my children daily as their mother, but nothing will change the fact that I carried and delivered them. In the same way, I expect Christians to also fail to live up to the standards they hold themselves to. If I could see direct evidence that the God of the Bible is real and wants a relationship with me, I would believe it—I would believe the Church’s position in Christ despite its failures. The severe love deficiency I perceive harms the Church’s ministry—but not my own faith.
Christians are failing to love atheists. Of course, this is a broad statement. Some Christians do a great job of loving atheists. But in general, the Church is excelling when it comes to loving those under its roof and doing a lousy job of loving those who live in the shadow of its steeple.
Two Sundays ago, my husband and I heard these words from the leader in our Bible study class at the end of a lesson that would have sent many closet atheists out the door in the first fifteen minutes:
“You can tell a lot about someone by asking who they say Jesus is. If they answer that He was a teacher or a prophet or a historical figure, stop them right there and say ‘NO—He is God.’ That should pretty much put a stop to that conversation.”
Someone else added “They’re not worth talking to, anyway.”
My husband put his hand on my leg as a warning. He knows I have a strong spirit, and I’m not afraid to challenge something that isn’t right. He wanted to make sure that I realized that in this case, there was no point in arguing. After the lesson we had just heard from the leader and the enthusiastic affirmation from the group throughout it, they wouldn’t listen to the voice that quietly says, “But what about love?” I didn’t need the warning, although I was thankful for my husband’s touch as confirmation that he heard the same words I heard and felt the contempt. My spirit was broken. The blow was too great for me to recover from; I was too unsteady to retaliate. Instead of giving a thoughtful, challenging response to the people on the outside who had just declared themselves my enemy, I could only fight back tears that threatened to betray me from within my own walls. I’m worth talking to. I’m worth loving.
The Jesus I read about in Philippians 2 poured himself out…so why does the Church keep Him bottled up in four walls? If God is love, why keep Him stuffed in a wooden crucifix? Christians, I don’t believe in your God, but I want that love. I love you. I want your friendship. I think you’re worth talking to. And if you would talk to me and try to understand me, I think you might find that I’m worth your time. I think you might even love me too. Oh, and just so you know—making an emphatic claim does not by any means stop the conversation.
A Christian acquaintance who doesn’t shy away from the conversation recently challenged me to be willing to doubt my doubt. As part of my commitment to that, today I dusted off the Bible I haven’t opened since late last spring. I didn’t really know where to start, so I went to the back of the Bible and looked up today’s date in the one-year reading plan. One of the chapters was Luke 14—The Cost of Being a Disciple. Look it up, and then tell me if your God would agree that I’m not worth talking to. As the story goes, Christ left everything behind to reach me, because I was worth it to him. If you are a follower of Christ who has counted the cost of discipleship, I must be worth it to you, too.
I’ll leave you with a challenge. Sometimes, those who live in the shadow of the steeple will step inside the walls of a church. Be careful what you say. I don’t care if you hurt your ministry, because I don’t believe in your God—but I care if you hurt my family, my friends, and others who believe (or don’t believe) as I do. The church I attend makes me feel every week that I’m hiding behind enemy lines, and that’s not how it should be. I’m waiting for that emptying-out kind of love. In the mean time, I refuse to stop the conversation. Until I can have it there, I will have it here.