There are days that I wish I could be an indifferent agnostic. Unlike the angry atheist, the indifferent agnostic lives their life giving little time or energy toward thinking about God. There may or may not be a God. Either way, it doesn’t affect their life.
I’m quite envious of those who manage to maintain this way of living, though I often wonder if there’s always a nagging feeling in those moments as they lie in bed before sleep descends, where they ask, “what if there is a God?”
I’ve always loved God, it’s the biggest gift my parents ever gave me and what an inheritance! He’s been a constant presence in my life, he both the one I cry to in the night and the one to whom I address my wide-eyed wonder as the sun rises. It doesn’t make an exciting conversion story but there’s enough room for all sorts within the church family.
The Bible contains the stories of people like Paul or Zacchaeus who were plain bad but had an encounter with God and, boom, had a new heart. These stories encourage us that no one is beyond the pale and that God is able to perform a complete heart-transplant when his spirit brings renewal. It encourages us to pray and go out and share the Gospel with the lost; there’s hope. But the Bible also contains the stories of those who have known God from the womb.
Did the prophet Samuel have a conversion experience? He was certainly called in the night and had to learn to recognise God’s voice but his life was forever dedicated to God. He was born to God-fearing parents, Hannah and Elkanah. Hannah poured out her soul to the Lord in the midst of the anguish of infertility. She declared that if God would give her a son she’d give his life to God’s service. God “remembered” her and she had a son, Samuel who stayed with her until he was weaned. After that she presented him at the temple to the most likely bemused priest Eli saying, “I give him to the Lord. For his whole life he will be given over to the Lord.” And what a life he had.
Samuel’s story is not a usual one but the principle of dedicating our children to God’s service is taken on by many Christian parents including my own who didn’t have me baptised but dedicated as a baby. That dedication was not just words in a ceremony but a parenting approach. They brought me up to love and fear God, to seek his embrace.
This love of God is a great burden. I am arrested by His grace. When life calls me to pursue its values I’m like a new lover knowing that I have places to be but just wanting another kiss, one last embrace. I feel the pull to do what’s expected of me but really I want to stay in His warm arms.
Jesus’ disciple, Peter, has a moment when he realises who Jesus is and the all-consuming effect it will now have on his life. This is Peter the fisherman-turned-disciple who didn’t die at sea but at the hands of Emperor Nero. As some of the disciples were offended by Jesus’ teaching and left him, Jesus asked the Twelve if they’d pack up and leave too. Peter replies, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:68) He’s saying, “Jesus we don’t really understand what you mean or what you’re asking of us but we have caught a glimpse of who you are and because of that we can’t live our lives is ignorance again.” Peter couldn’t go back to being a fisherman, he’d be arrested by Jesus.
This feeling of being bound up by God can be found in various accounts of faith throughout the church’s history. When Polycarp, 2nd century bishop of Smyrna was advised to renounce his faith to avoid the punishment of death he declared, “86 years have I served him and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King and Saviour?” And so he walked downstairs and waited for the soldiers to come and take him to his death.
As I look around, on the face of it, life without God appears more simple; the priorities are easier: self, family, perhaps even country. What God asks is abstract: to love God and neighbour. What does that mean exactly? And what about when that conflicts with love of self, family and country? Life without God is easier. But every time I try and leave that embrace and step out without him those words from the saints before me ring in my ears, “Lord, to whom shall I go? For 27 years I have served you and you have done me no wrong.” I am lost without him.