The question we’re looking at tonight is this: is life better without God? Because a lot of people obviously think it is. Eg, David Cameron recently called Britain a ‘Christian country’. And there was an outcry of people saying, ‘No it’s not. We’re a secular society – we want no belief in God shaping public life.’
And the same goes for private life. Eg, my brother Niall isn’t a Christian. But a while back, I asked him if he believed in God. And he said, ‘Yes. I definitely believe he’s there.’ And I said, ‘So if it’s possible that he’s made himself known by becoming human in the person of Jesus, don’t you think that’s worth looking into?’ And he said, ‘No.’ And I said, ‘Why not?’ And he said, ‘I just don’t want to.’ And I said, ‘Why not? And he said, ‘I suppose I just don’t want him interfering in my life.’
And the Bible says that’s how we all naturally think – it says that deep down we all know God is there, but don’t want to give him his rightful place in our lives. Which is partly because we’re worried he’ll spoil our fun. But party because we feel patronised by the very idea of anyone else telling us how to live. So the atheist Richard Dawkins says:
There is something infantile in the presumption that somebody else has a responsibility to give your life meaning and point… The truly adult view, by contrast, is that our life is as meaningful, as full and as wonderful as we choose to make it. (The God Delusion)
So, our natural assumption is that life is better if we’re free from God. And I want us to look at what Jesus said to challenge that assumption. It’s in John chapter 8. And can I say: I’m not asking you to assume anything of the Bible. I’m just asking you to open your mind to the possibility that Jesus was the Son of God, and that what he said here tells us the truth about God and us.
And if you are currently thinking, ‘Life is better if I’m free from God’, Jesus challenges that with two questions:
1. How are you going to use your freedom?
2. Are you really free?
Firstly, HOW ARE YOU GOING TO USE YOUR FREEDOM?
Well, what the Rolling Stones suggested in that classic song was:
I’m free to do what I want any old time…
I’m free to choose what I please any old time…
And when the Soup Dragons did their version of it, they added the profound lines,
And I’m free to be who I choose,
To get my booze any old time.
(That was obviously written later in the era of 24-hour off licences.)
And you could make that your approach to life: ‘I’m going to act on my desires and instincts, with no limits at all.’ But…1) What do you do with conflicting desires or instincts? Eg, when on the one hand you have the instinct to stay out of danger; and on the other you have the instinct to help the person being beaten up, or who’s struggling in the sea just out of your depth (to name two from my own experience). What do you do with the sense that you ought to help them? And 2) What do you do when you follow your desires and instincts, but you can’t escape the sense that you ought not to have done? Like a guy I know who was in a relationship and sleeping with the other person. I remember him saying, ‘The sex always felt great, and always felt wrong.’ What do you do with that sense that you ought not to do certain things? Because when you push people, everyone (however ‘liberal’, ‘permissive’, ‘tolerant’, ‘relativist’) has some ‘ought nots’ – even if it’s just murder, paedophilia, and a few others. Everyone has a morality, everyone believes there are limits. And the question is: How do you decide the content of your morality and where the limits lie?
Well, look down to John chapter 8 and verse 12:
Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (v12)
And to get the full force of that you have to realise that the Bible often refers to God as ‘light’ – partly because light is utterly pure, and partly because – like car headlights – it dispels darkness so you can see, and know where you ought o be going. So Jesus was basically saying, ‘I am God and I’ve come into the world so that you can see what God is like and come into relationship with him through me – as you ought to be.’ And he’s saying, ‘Without me – if you cross me out of the picture of your thinking about life – you’re in the dark, and you can’t know the purpose of life or the limits of what is good for you, what you ought and ought not to do.’
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that if, like my brother, you’re currently keeping God at arm’s length, you have no morality – everyone has a morality. What I’m saying is that you have no basis for your morality – no ultimate reason for believing it’s right, or for keeping to it.
And Nick Hornby’s novel How to be Good is a brilliant description of that. It’s about a doctor called Katie whose marriage is bad, who’s having an affair and is contemplating divorce. And she has to decide between the desire to get out of the marriage and the sense that she ought to stay, to be faithful to her vows and for the sake of her children. And she ends up talking to the local vicar and the conversation goes like this:
‘Tell me what to do...’
‘Have you tried counselling?’
‘I’m not talking about counselling. I’m talking about what’s right and wrong. You know about that surely?... Just tell me. Stay or go.’ (And I mean it. I’m sick of not knowing.)
‘Dr Carr, I can’t tell you what to do.’
‘Well I’m sorry, that’s not good enough…Why are you people so timid? It’s no wonder the churches are empty when you can’t answer the simplest questions. Don’t you get it? That’s what we want. Answers. If we wanted woolly minded nonsense we’d stay at home. In our own heads.’
Well, she does decide to stay. And the last page of the book describes them having supper in the kitchen when water starts pouring in from an overflowing gutter. So they all rush upstairs and her husband David leans out of a window to try to unblock it, and she’s holding on to him and the two children are trying to help by holding on to her – so there they, pulling together as a family. And this (to spoil it for you) is how it ends (Katie is narrating):
My family, I think to myself. And then, I can do this. I can live this life. I can, I can. It’s a spark I want to cherish, a splutter of life in the flat battery; but just at the wrong moment, I catch a glimpse of the night sky behind David, and I can see that there’s nothing out there at all.
Which is a parable of her beliefs – Because there’s nothing outside her own head saying she ought to stay, there’s nothing saying that her decision has any real meaning, and there’s no-one but herself to keep herself to her decision. And Jesus says: that’s where you are if you’re trying to live without God.
Here’s how the existentialist philosopher and writer Jean-Paul Sartre put it. He decided there was no God, but wrote:
It [is] very distressing that God does not exist, because all possibility of finding values… disappears along with him… So, nowhere is it written that good exists, that we must be honest, that we must not lie; because the fact is we are on a plain where there are only men. Dostoievski said, ‘If God does not exist, everything is permissible’… and as a result man is forlorn, because neither within him nor without does he find anything to cling to. (Existentialism)
So ask Jean-Paul Sartre, ‘Is life better without God?’ and he’d say, ‘No. Lose God and you actually lose human-ness.’ And you see that in the history of the last century when, as someone has said, more people were killed in the name of atheism than in all the religious conflicts in history put together. So David Berlinski, a Jewish academic, writes:
Somewhere in Eastern Europe, an SS officer watched… as an elderly… Jew… dug what he knew to be his own grave. Then he addressed his executioner, ‘God is watching what you are doing.’ And then he was shot.
What Hitler did not believe, and what Stalin did not believe, and what Mao did not believe… was that God was watching what they were doing. And as far as we can tell, very few of those carrying out the horrors of the twentieth century worried… that God was watching… either. That is, after all, the meaning of a secular society. (The Devil’s Delusion)
So if tonight you’re still saying, ‘I want to be free from God’, the first question is: how are you going to use that freedom? How will you make your moral decisions, and how will they pan out for you and for the people whose lives you touch? Jesus’ answer is that, without him, you’ll be walking in darkness. And I wonder, does that even begin to have the ring of truth to you? Or are you very confident about living your own life your own way?
But Jesus’ other challenge to us is:
Second, ARE YOU REALLY FREE?
Just have another look at John chapter 8 and this time from verse 31:
So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” They answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?” (vv31-33)
So Jesus was talking to some Jews who were looking into his claims and maybe beginning to believe some of what he was saying. And Jesus says, ‘Only if you come into relationship with me will you be free.’ And they say, ‘What do you mean? We are free.’
And maybe that’s what you’d say right now – ‘I am free. And one of my fears about believing in God is that I would lose my freedom.’ And what Jesus says to that is: ‘You’ve lost it already. You may think you’re free – but you’re not.’ So now read on into v34:
Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house for ever; the son remains for ever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. (vv34-36)
Now the people Jesus first said that to were Jews – who were very serious about trying to keep God’s Old Testament law. So you can imagine them being pretty offended, and saying, ‘Who do you think you’re talking to? It’s not like we’re all hooked on internet porn.’ But Jesus says to them and to us:
“Everyone who commits sin [ie, does what’s wrong in God’s eyes] is a slave to sin.” (v34)
A friend of mine was preaching on this and he asked everyone to raise a hand if they were willing to admit they’d ever told a lie. And all hands went up. And then he said. ‘Now would you put your hand up if you think you’re a liar.’ And just a few hands went up. And he said, ‘Isn’t that interesting? All of you admit you’ve lied. But only a few of you think you’re liars. So what do the rest of you think you are? Presumably you think you’re basically truthful – on the side of truth, serving truth. But if that was the case, you wouldn’t lie, would you? And the fact that you do lie shows that you’re not on the side of truth. It shows that you’re on the side of self – serving yourself, so that when it serves you to tell the truth you do, and when it serves you to tell a lie you do.’
The point is: how we behave reveals who or what we’re really serving. So if I’m really serving God, I’ll only tell the truth, because a lie would be a contradiction of serving him. (And for Christians, all sinning is a contradiction of who we really are and claim to serve.) But on the other side, if I’m happy to tell lies (at least, some lies), if I’m willing to do that to serve myself – to make myself look better and cover over my faults – then I’m clearly not serving God. I’m serving self. I’ve basically crossed God out of the picture and substituted myself for him.
And each of us tonight is on one of those two sides – serving God, or serving self.
And the more decent and nice a person you are – like these Jews Jesus was speaking to in John chapter 8 – the harder it is to spot if you’re actually still serving self, and the harder it is to admit that, like Jesus says, that’s a kind of ‘slavery’ – ie, something you can’t just change yourself, and free yourself from. So, eg, just imagine that I set you the challenge that for the next month, you’re to say nothing untrue – no exaggerations, distortions or lies to make yourself look better or to cover up your faults (like reasons you give for being late – isn’t that a classic breeding ground for lies?). You’ll find that you won’t be able to keep that challenge, because when we cross God out of the picture we go looking for our sense of worth in the approval of others, instead of in his love and acceptance. And because their approval matters so much, we’re afraid to present our true selves to them for fear of their disapproval or even rejection. And so we exaggerate and distort and lie.
That’s the kind of ‘slavery’ Jesus is on about. And in some areas of sin it’s more obvious – like internet pornography. Plenty of people (including here tonight) have used their freedom to look, and then found they’ve lost the freedom to stop looking. But there are as many kinds of this slavery as there are people here. So, eg, your substitute for God might be success. In which case your slavery is that you have to keep coming top, keep getting A-grades, keep winning on the sportsfield, etc – because anything less is a disaster for your self-worth. Or, eg, your substitute for God might be a boyfriend. In which case your slavery may be doing things with him that you don’t want to do, but feel you have to do, to keep him. And so on.
Each of us tonight is on one of those two sides – serving God, or serving self and various ‘God-substitutes’). And Jesus says: it’s serving God that’s real freedom, and anything else that’s not.
I was reading Thomas the Tank Engine with my children the other day. And one of the engines – Gordon or Henry or someone – was racing Bertie the bus where the railway runs beside the road. And like a twit, he forgot he had to stay on the rails, and he came off at a corner and ploughed to a halt in a field, leaving Bertie beeping his horn triumphantly (and, in my, view uncharitably).The point is: if you’re made to run on rails, you’ll only find real freedom on rails. And if you were made in God’s image, to live in relationship with God (which the Bible says you were), you’ll only find real freedom by coming into relationship with him.
So how can that happen? Well, take one last look at v36 as I wrap up. Jesus says:
“So if the Son [that’s Jesus – the Son of God] sets you free, you will be free indeed.” (vv36)
The really offensive thing we’ve all done in our hearts to God is to say, like my brother, ‘I don’t want you interfering in my life’ – as if it is mine, as if he didn’t give it to me, and as if I know better than him how to live it. And Jesus came to die on the cross, to pay for the forgiveness of that offence, and of all our acts of sin past and future that flow from it. And then he rose again from the dead, and is alive in heaven, and is inviting you, whoever you are and whatever you’ve done, to come back into relationship with him and his Father. And if you do, he says you’ll be free indeed:
• Free from the weights on your conscience, because you’ve found real forgiveness;
• Free from having no real reason for your moral beliefs or real motivation to keep to them;
• Free to be able to say ‘No’ to yourself and your desires, as well as ‘Yes’;
• Free to be able to stand up to boyfriend pressure, peer pressure, whatever pressure, because ultimately you belong to God and not to them;
• And free to succeed and fail and live with yourself as you are – because you’ve finally found your sense of worth in God, where it should have been all along.
You may be at the point where you want to know how to begin that relationship with God. And if that’s you, do pick up a copy of one of these booklets, Why Jesus? and give it a read before you go to sleep tonight.
If tonight has whet your appetite and you want to keep looking into this, it’s not too late to join our new Christianity Explored course – do ask one of us on the staff about that. But many people just like the anonymity of coming along on a Sunday and hearing more, and you’re always welcome to do that, too.
Thank you again for coming.