Right out of the chute as a Christian, God saw fit to put me in a Bible study with a bunch of guys who had a weakness for bare-naked ladies. It was sort of a practical joke on His part.
All of us were “sold out” for Jesus Christ, no question. The burning passion of our lives was to serve the Lord. Yet we were fully aware that as 19-year-old men, we were each at our sexual peak. Never again would we be this horny.
The comedy of our situation didn’t escape us. So every study would be well peppered with jokes about choking the gopher and the difficulty of not turning our heads to watch a beautiful girl pass us by.
And it wasn’t just lust. You name the sin, we committed it.
We could laugh about our “carnal mindedness” because we were convinced God was going to empower us to “live in victory”—eventually. It’s known as the doctrine of sanctification: God’s Holy Spirit works in believers to make them more like Jesus.
At least that’s what we were sure of when we were 19. So to that end, I strove to cooperate with God. I prayed. I studied the Bible, memorized the Bible. I spoke in tongues. I worshiped God with my whole heart. Believing that “as iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another,” I entered into numerous “accountability relationships” with other devout men. I was sure God would be faithful, for the Bible told me so: He who began a work good in your will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. Phil. 1:6.
I marched in that manner for 35 years, happily, until the day I thought, “Have I just been marching in place?”
Am I any different?
I mean, has this all just been magical thinking? You read an ancient book written by people you’ve never met and then ask a silent, invisible being to empower you to live by the teachings of that book—and then when you get no help from the invisible, silent being, you ask people who are as lost as you are. And you expect to change?
Why not just sprinkle pixie dust on myself?
Right when I was having these uncomfortable thoughts, I ended up reuniting with those 19-year-old True Believers from 35 years ago. It happened when Carl, the guy who created that Bible study 35 years ago, took me to his church’s men’s retreat. As it turned out, a number of the members of that Bible study attended Carl’s church.
The leader of the men’s retreat kicked it off by admitting an addiction to—what else?—masturbation. From there, the retreat consisted of a series of talks, each followed by small-group discussion. It just so happened I was in a small group with a couple of deacons from Carl’s church—so, spiritual rock stars.
Every time we’d huddle to discuss how the previous speaker’s points “applied to our lives,” the frank admission I’d get from these Men of God was that they were just getting by, making it up as they went.
I thought: They’re me!
I was reminded of the time I spent the night in my then-brother-in-law’s bedroom while he was away at college. I woke up in the middle of the night with a screaming need to pee, it was black as Satan’s Sunday shoes, and I was absolutely unsure of where the door was. I found the wall and began fumbling my way by feel with one hand, with my other hand clenching my wang for dear life. Just before I burst forth, I chanced on the doorknob.
That pretty much sums up my approach to life’s challenges. Just getting by on gumption and luck.
Back at the men’s retreat, during breaks I would hang with the guys. We bragged about our kids—and compared our scars. We didn’t come right out and say it, but I could tell: We hadn’t changed much. At least we hadn’t become Men of God. We still looked at women as they passed by us. We still envied people who had things we didn’t have. We still got mad too easily. We still lied if it would save our skin and no one would know the difference.
Any changes that had occurred in us were a matter of nuance—and those changes didn’t come from God. We were not better humans because of God’s Holy Spirit “working in our lives.” We were better humans because we had slogged through all the hardship God had allowed us to endure.
In other words, we were better in spite of God.
It’s the falling down, picking yourself up, dusting yourself off, and trying again—and again and again—that makes you a better human. God is not involved. If God was doing it, it wouldn’t really be you who was improving, would it? Growth has to cost you something.
If religion worked as advertised—that is, like pixie dust—believers would be like the kid at the science fair who obviously had a lot of help from his parents. We’d get the blue ribbon but not really learn anything—and someday that would come back to bite us in the ass.
But me, I have learned. And what was the lesson? I am enough. I don’t need God. That’s not hubris. It is what it is. I’m enough. Besides, what other choice do I have? Here’s the how-it-works-on-the-ground truth: Believers don’t have an edge over nonbelievers in surmounting life’s challenges. Take an inventory of the believers and nonbelievers in your life. You’ll find the believers are just as anxious, lost and prone to looking at online porn as nonbelievers. God doesn’t give them a leg up.
We’re all just doing the best we can, frantically searching for the doorknob in the dark.
Face facts. Pixie dust doesn’t work.