Years ago a parishioner in the church I was pastoring said, “I love everybody.” She then hesitated and said, “I love everybody except atheists. I hate atheists!” I asked her how many atheists she had ever known in her life. She admitted to having known none. I knew it was useless for me to say much more to her. She was genuinely a wonderful, loving, and simple person, and I believe that if she ever had atheists as neighbors, she would not hate them. She might drive them crazy with her verbal witnessing, but I doubt if she could hate anyone she actually came to know. Her comment, however, suggested to me a topic for the Sunday school class I was teaching. In that class we spent several months looking at why some people are atheists.
I divided the study under the three headings: (1) What is atheism? (2) What would cause one to be an atheist in our world? (3) How should Christians relate to atheists? Throughout that study I raised these two questions: Is it possible for atheists to have good reasons not to believe in God? And is it possible for Christians to have bad, selfish, and questionable reasons for believing in God? By the end of the study, most people in the class were more understanding of and compassionate toward atheists. Some even admitted that they harbored some of the same doubts regarding the reality of God. Unfortunately, the woman who claimed to hate atheists was not in the class.
One point I made in the study is that the love commandment of our Lord is always operative. If we are to love our enemies, then we are certainly to love those who have trouble with the faith. From the teachings of Jesus, we find no circumstance which grants a license to hate and to treat anyone with hostility and contempt. We even have a hymn entitled “They Will Know We Are Christians by Our Love.” So, I asked the class if the “They” in that song included atheists.
I also suggested that we would probably all benefit from having a dialogue with atheists. I think most Christians are afraid to enter into a genuine dialogue with atheists because they may come to doubt or abandon their own faith. Atheism is not contagious, but a genuine dialogue with atheists may require us to reexamine our own faith and to jettison those parts that are bogus. When people tell me that they don’t believe in God, my response is always, “Tell me what kind of God you don’t believe in. Maybe I don’t believe in that kind of God either.” Some atheists have good reasons for not believing, especially when we consider the kind of God they hear paraded about by people who ought to know better. We should strive to witness at least as much by our lives as by our words. And if we use words, we should respect and love others enough to enter into an authentic dialogue and not bombard them with a relentless and arrogant monologue.
Nothing we have discussed so far in this sermon has a thing to do with the atheism mentioned by the psalmist. What we have been talking about is intellectual atheism whereby one has trouble believing in one’s mind that there is a God. Frankly, this kind of atheism was not much of a problem or temptation for the people of Israel. They would have had difficulty conceiving of a world without God. It simply would not have occurred to most of them that this was even within the realm of possibility.
The atheism the psalmist is talking about has very little to do with rational processes and intellectual decisions. To understand the focus of the psalmist, we must investigate what he meant when he said, “The fool says in his heart there is no God.” The key word here is “heart.”
For us, the heart is the seat of emotions, but for the Hebrews, for the most part, that was not the case. When referring to emotions, they often used the word for “bowels”. The heart was the seat of the will where we decide how to do life and where we make decisions regarding our commitments and goals. Once we understand what the Bible means by heart, we can appreciate Jesus’ profound teaching, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” In other words, what you value is who you are.
The fool segments life and says, “These are the parts of my life I will live as though there is a God, while these parts I will live as though there is no God.” He or she divides life into two categories: those areas under the Lordship of God, and those areas under the lordship of self or other idols. This kind of atheism, the type the Bible is concerned with, is present in all of us. There are parts of us and of our lives which are lived as though there is no God. We can call this practical atheism.
The heart is not only the seat of the will where we decide how to do life; it is also the hidden part of our lives. We have that insightful verse in I Samuel 16 when God says to Samuel, “Mortals look on the outward appearance while God looks on the heart.” The heart represents the true self of a person – the self that is hidden from others but known by only two–God and oneself. So much of the self of each of us is hidden, even from those we love the most. And yet, that is the core of our being. That is what we are at rock bottom. That is our identity. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus focuses on that part of ourselves. In biblical thought, it is the heart which harbors and nurtures our motives.
All authentic people of faith struggle and make errors.
We should, however, observe caution here. All authentic people of faith struggle and make errors. We are “being saved.” The best of saints had areas of their lives removed from the Lordship of God. I’ve always been encouraged by the story of the monk who left the monastery to go down to the village to conduct some business on behalf of the abbot. A peasant met him on the path and asked the monk, “What do you monks do all day in that monastery high on the hill?” The monk replied, “We fall down, and we get up. We fall down, and we get up.” We all fall down and get up in life. And we should always remember that doubt, if we stay with it long enough and trust that God will see us through our struggles, will deepen our faith as we cast aside the wrong or immature understandings of God which impede our growth as children of God. All the little “gods” of our faith must die so we can experience more of the fullness of the real God. And since none of us will ever fully experience and understand God this side of the Jordan, we should all expect moments of doubt, struggle, and darkness. These moments can be the labor pains of a new birth and expansion of our faith. (Please see the blog sermon entitled Job 16:1-17 “The Role of Doubt in the Life of Faith.)
The psalmist is not warning us about the inevitable struggles and setbacks we shall all have in life. The psalmist is referring to a conscious decision, resolute and deliberate in nature and designed to exclude God’s presence and will from one’s life or a portion of that life. The Bible understands that life is dynamic in nature, not static. We go forward or backward, but we cannot stay where we are. We either grow in grace or shrivel in sin. There are no other choices.
So, there are two types of atheism: Intellectual atheism (which is not much of a temptation for most of us, and is not the focus of Scripture), and practical atheism (which is a real temptation for all of us, is a focus of Scripture, and perhaps should be a concern for the church).
There is one positive statement we could make about the intellectual atheist that we cannot make about the practical atheist. At least the intellectual atheist does not pretend to be something or someone he or she is not. Honesty and integrity must hold some value in the eyes of heaven.
During World War II a water color was painted by a Quaker artist living in Berlin. It depicted three men standing some distance from but in clear view of Jesus on the cross. Each man in the painting is holding his mask in his hands with both longing and fear. They were longing to follow Jesus and afraid of losing the mask which before the cross had been removed. At the foot of the cross all masks are struck down.
Communion is a time for unmasking. By our presence at this Table we confess our need for God’s healing, forgiveness and salvation. And we, too, are afraid of where all this might lead. But this Bread and Wine represent a Presence who assures us that we do not need our masks – that we are welcome and accepted just as we are.
As we leave this Table, we will probably reach for some of the masks we have been inspired to remove in worship. Today, let’s try to leave at least one mask at the foot of the cross so that one more corner of our hearts may be flooded with redeeming light and one more part of our lives may be made whole. Amen.