Recently, a Billy Graham tract arrived in my mailbox called "Joy in tribulation". Looking through it, I chuckled at some of what it said.
While I may not personally agree with Mr. Graham's approach to spirituality, I must admit that he is dedicated to his views and his ideas. But then again, so am I.
With that in mind, I decided to…ahem…adapt and rewrite his own brochure into something new, in the vein of my own views. Here is the end result.
Learn how to get through suffering knowing that it can help you:
*Focus all your energies on improving your situation
*Think "How can getting through this improve me as an individual?"
*Know that by being exposed to life, you are become a more mature, well-rounded individual.
Many people today are suffering as a result of natural catastrophes such as tidal waves, hurricanes, earthquakes, famines, etc. This has been happening since when humanity first appeared on the face of this planet. Religious fundamentalists would have you think that things are worse now then ever before, but it's just another chapter in the continuing story of life on earth. Think things are tough now? Try being back in Europe during the dark ages and the bubonic plague.
Nowhere does the bible teach that Christians are to be exempt from natural disasters that come upon the world. That is true, because Christians are human beings, just like you and me. The only difference is that they have a different view of the world then you and I do. However, some fundamentalist Christians say that the bible does teach that the Christian can face tribulation, crisis, calamity, and personal suffering with a supernatural power that is not available to the person outside of Christ. This is true in one sense, but not in another.
Anyone can face tribulation, crisis, calamity and personal suffering and come out on the other side as a stronger person. You don't need a supernatural force or a messiah to grant you power to get through it. You are a human being. You are a magnificent, wonderful, and complex being with the ability to think, reason, and create. You are more powerful then you know. Within you is strength that many of us aren't aware even exists. Sometimes the only way we know this strength is by going through hard times.
Thousands of Christians have learned the secret of contentment and joy in trial. At least, that's what fundamentalists say. People from all over the world, from all different countries, cultures and religions have found greater self-esteem and self-confidence from going through tough periods in life. Notice how fundamentalists often call hard periods in life a trial. This gives the impression that God is glaring at you under a microscope to see if you mess up, and that an all powerful, all loving God is deliberately putting you through pain and suffering to test you. Not a pretty picture is it? Especially considering the fact that the god fundamentalists are talking about is all powerful and omnipresent, meaning that he would already know how strong you are and thus have no need to test you. Hmm…
Instead of looking at life as trial and punishment, as fundamentalists often do, why not try looking at it in terms of experiencing and learning? Don't call hard times trials, call them strengtheners. The analogy of being forged is good here, because only in hard times can we see how strong we are, and how we can improve ourselves.
A fundamentalist once said that the happiest Christians he had met have drunk the full cup of trial and misfortune. Some have been lifelong sufferers. They have had every reason to sigh and complain, being denied so many privileges and pleasures that they see others enjoy, yet they have found greater cause for gratitude and joy then many who are prosperous, vigorous, and strong.
Why is this you might ask? According to the fundamentalist, it is "They have learned to give thanks "always for all things to God the father in the name of our lord Jesus Christ" (Ephesians 5:20 NKJV)."
What do you notice when going over that passage? To me, it's how the fundamentalist doesn't mention those who are outside the Christian faith who are happy and content with what they have. Take a look at survivors of POW camps, of natural disasters, of shipwrecks and other disasters. I have found that it is often true that the happiest and most content in life are the ones who actually live life to the fullest, who experience what is has to offer, both good and bad, and have come through the hard periods without having to resort to believing in a celestial candy land.
I myself have gone through tough times in life. When I went to Philmont New Mexico, I had to hike through 80 miles of wilderness and go to the top of the tallest mountain in the state. It was hard and tough and I did complain and grouch at times, yet when I came out, I was more appreciative of showers, a nice bed, and a roof over my head. I was also able to go through other, shorter trips through ease. By going out on a journey that was hard, I was able to come back as a better, more experienced and well-rounded person. Did God and Jesus have anything to do with it? No, they did not.
I've had to go through failing classes, getting low grades, falling out of fast go carts and getting scraped up, screaming fathers, emotional misery and going through various other unpleasant situations. The hardest of them all was leaving Christianity after four years, which was emotionally devastating. For those of you who have never had to go through Christianity and deconvert from it, you are fortunate. Leaving a mindset that is controlling, fear based, and uses threats of eternal torture in hell is not easy. It took me two years to go through and it just about destroyed me emotionally at times.
Yet, after having gone through it, I'm happier then I've ever been. I chose to leave Christianity for something different and after going through the living hell of leaving it, I am now better then before. One advantage I have gotten is that I am now more compassionate and tolerant to others and their faiths. When I was a Christian, I thought most of them were doomed. Now, I see them as human beings with unique gifts and talents who are precious and special.
Fundamentalists may tell you that "Christians can rejoice in tribulation because they have eternity's values in view. When the pressures are on, they look beyond their present predicament to the glories of heaven. The thought of the future life with it's prerogatives and joys helps to make the trials of the present seem lighter and transient." Here's how I would put it. "People can take comfort in knowing that by going through tough periods, by facing their challenges and difficulties, they can overcome them and become stronger individuals, more well-rounded and more mature to help others around them."
Don't focus your life on a distant heaven in the sky. Focus all your efforts on life here and now. A fundamentalist's idea of eternity's views might be like this:
*Accept Jesus as lord
*Worship God and Jesus
*Save yourself from an eternity of hellfire
However, what if Eternity's views are completely different?
*Being compassionate and loving towards others
*Cooperating with others
*Working to solve earth's problems
*Making the world a beautiful place for all people to live in peace and harmony
*Constant growth as an individual so that you can contribute to the rich tapestry of humanity
What if God, instead of wanting mindless worshippers, is more interested in people growing up and becoming experienced and mature individuals who are compassionate and kind to others? If I were God, I know that those are the kind of people I would welcome and accept with open arms.
The early Christians, the fundamentalist continues, were able to experience joy in their hearts in the midst of trials, troubles, and depression. They counted suffering for Christ not as a burden or misfortune but as a great honor, as evidence that Christ had counted them worthy to witness for him through suffering. They never forgot what Christ himself had gone through for their salvation, and to suffer for his name's sake was regarded as a gift rather then a cross.
What do you see in this passage? I see people who were more interested in getting to heaven then anything else. As a spiritual person, I do believe in heaven, but I also believe that life on earth is more important, because it is here that you live, and it is here that you grow and evolve as a person and as a being. It is a good thing, no matter who you are or what you believe, if you find reason for getting through hard times. The best views however, are the ones that keep you firmly grounded in this life. Stay focused on the here and now. Yesterday is gone, tomorrow may never come. It is better to go through life to grow as an individual then to focus all your efforts on going to a heaven to worship a god forever and ever and ever and ever and ever. Why? Because worshipping a God forever sounds pretty boring to me.
"Jesus Christ spoke frankly to his disciples concerning the future" the fundamentalist continues. "He hid nothing from them. No one could ever accuse him of deception. No one could accuse him of securing allegiance by making false promises."
Personally, I have a lot of issues with this passage. Jesus did not tell them everything. People may not accuse him of deception, but we can certainly say that he was wrong. And we can say that he did secure allegiance by making false promises. How so? Let us count the ways…
Jesus did speak to his followers about the future, but told them things that have never happened. When Jesus told his followers to preach the good news, he warned them that they would be hated, but that the son of man (Jesus) would return before all the cities of Israel would be covered. (Matthew 10:22-23) In other words, Jesus would come back before his followers finish their journey to all the cities of Israel. The good news has gone over the region for a very long time…and Jesus has not appeared.
Another time, Jesus told his followers "For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then he shall reward every man according to his works. Verily I say unto you, There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom” (Matthew 16:27-28, also see Mark 9:1 and Luke 9:27). Jesus is clearly saying that those standing before him shall not taste death until they see Jesus coming (since Jesus is the son of man) into his kingdom. Those men are all dead now, and Jesus has not appeared. It is also worth noting that Jesus says that he shall reward every man according to their works. Yet fundamentalists say you are saved by faith alone. Hmm…
Want more? Here's another one. When Jesus tells a crowd of Pharisees that they are pretty much fucked, he concludes with: “Verily I say unto you, All these things shall come upon this generation” (Matthew 23:36). Jesus is saying that all these things will happen within his current generation. Fundamentalists can twist this all they want, but Jesus is clear on his meaning. And he was wrong, for the things he said did not happen.
Let's continue. Once, a high priest asked Jesus "‘Answerest thou nothing? what is it which these witness against thee?’ But Jesus held his peace. And the high priest answered and said unto him, ‘I adjure thee by the living God, that thou tell us whether thou be the Christ, the Son of God.’ Jesus said unto him, ‘Thou hast said: nevertheless I say unto you Hereafter shall ye see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven’” (Matthew 26:62-64, also see Mark 14:60-62). Jesus tells the man that he will personally witness the imminent return of the son of God and clearly tells that these events will happen within the priest's lifetime. The priest is dead, and Jesus still hasn't shown up.
These events tell a lot when you look at them in context without fundamentalist excuses. Namely, they show that Jesus was wrong, that either he lied, or he simply made mistakes and was not infallible. He also says many things that are highly questionable too.
Let's go back to our fundamentalist. He says "In unmistakable language, He (Jesus) told them that discipleship meant a life of self-denial and the bearing of a cross. He asked them to count the cost carefully, lest they should turn back when they met with suffering and privation."
In this aspect, the fundamentalist is right. Jesus, contrary to the popular Sunday school image, was not a kind, gentle man who was kind to everyone. If you read through the bible, you see that Jesus was often direct, often harsh and often threatening. He says "If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). In other words, Jesus tells his listeners to hate their families and themselves before they follow him. That, to me, sounds like the words of a cult leader. Further reinforcing this image is a passage from Luke 14:33 "… any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple". And from Matthew 5:11-12 he said "Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for my sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you."
In the words of Agent Smith, "Me, me, me."
Who among you is willing to hate everyone around you (except Jesus of course) and give up EVERYTHING you own in order to follow him? Come on, don't be shy…I count…hmm…zero hands.
Jesus also makes promises that are clearly not true. Matthew 21:22 has Jesus saying “And all things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive.” In other words, you will receive ANYTHING you pray for as long as you believe that you’ll receive it. In John 14:12, Jesus says, "Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I go to the Father. Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it, that the Father may be glorified in the Son; if you ask anything in my name, I will do it." Jesus says if you believe, you will receive. No hidden meaning, no twists, no strings attached. Yet, it goes without saying that these two statements are undeniably false. You can say, "In the name of Jesus, I pray for a velociraptor to appear and take out that man who is raping a woman." You can say "In the name of Jesus, I pray for that car to float so the injured person can get out underneath."
Yet, as we know, if you say such things, they won't happen. Jesus clearly says that if you ask for anything, ANYTHING in his name, it can be done.
This Jesus tells people about a reward in heaven for leaving everything behind and following him. He promises that you can have anything you want by praying and asking for it. With these passages, we can clearly accuse Jesus of deception. We can clearly accuse him of false promises. Or we can say that he was a man who believed the world was going to end within a hundred years or so.
Think about the possible consequences of this. Hundreds of people died in this man's name, believing his promises, and…well, we don't know what happened after they died. Each person is free to choose what they will do with their life, that much is certain. You can decide to become a writer and make inspirational, moving books. You can choose to become an architect and create beautiful buildings. You can be a great chef. All of these things can contribute to humanity and affect people for years to come. Yet…these people chose to go through suffering and chose to die. They did not leave any long term impact, except to inspire others to believe in what they believed.
To me, it is a tragedy that those lives were not as used or lived fully as they could have been.
I could go on for pages about our fundamentalist saying how it's good to suffer for Christ, that it's good to be persecuted, how it's good to be in deep sorrow and pain, yet to be eternally grateful to Jesus that you've been chosen to suffer, even when you've been chosen by a man who said to hate your family and all those who love you. And why should you be happy? Because you're going to heaven where you'll worship God forever and ever.
The fundamentalist says "I have found in my travels that those who keep heaven in view remain sere and cheerful in the darkest day". I am a spiritual person, I believe in heaven, yet I am not serene and cheerful in the darkest day. I have days where I'm depressed and gloomy, but that's okay because I'm here on earth and I have good days and bad days.
Perhaps in some ways, those who remember heaven and remain cheerful despite all that is going on around them are on placebo. Simply trust in Jesus, believe in him, and that's all you have to do to go to heaven. No thinking required. You don't have to think in this mindset of looking forward to going to heaven.
I too, would like to go to a place that is loving and joyful, but right now I need to focus on growing as an individual so I can reach my full potential to enrich this world. When I was a Christian, I was a bit happier in one respect, in that I constantly looked forward to going to heaven and getting out of this world. There was one problem though. When I was a Christian, I barely evolved, barely grew as an individual. All my time was spent on Jesus, on worshipping him and on securing my place in heaven.
Now however, I no longer am ignorantly blissful. I know that Jesus isn't the loving, gentle man of Sunday school. I know that he was direct, that he was often intimidating, and that he said things that haven't come true, and that he said things they never tell you about on Sundays. I no longer have the calming effect in constantly looking forward to heaven, but the advantage is that because I experience the world and all it's emotions and turmoils, I know that I'm growing as an individual with every experience, every hardship, into someone better then I am right now.
I would rather arrive in an afterlife as someone who has lived life to the fullest and who has worked to make earth better for everyone, then as a churchgoer who spent his entire life working at worshipping Jesus and securing his place in the good book.
The reason Jesus encouraged his followers to believe in him so much and to follow him so much is because he was convinced that God had chosen him to perform a special task, to help usher in God's kingdom on earth. Jesus was convinced that it was right around the corner, that it would happen within 100 years, and that he would be the head honcho (along with God). To Jesus, all that mattered was getting a place in this kingdom, to be among the righteous. This was more important then your family, then your friends, then those who loved you. They were scum, they were dirt compared to the glory of being on the winning team.
Yes, Jesus did say wonderful things. He said many good things such as love one another, to treat others as you would want to be treated. But he also said a great many other things. Some of those things were wrong, and some of those things never happened even when Jesus said it would happen. The end of the world didn't come. Jesus's generation died. The son of man did not come back to earth.
And throughout history, how many have died following Jesus's message, a message that was meant for a specific people in a specific time. Get right with God, because the end of the world, and judgment is about to happen. Jesus did not stand for family values because your family is nothing compared to Jesus. Jesus is not the loving, kind man your Sunday school has painted him to be.
And people have been dying and suffering for him.
Suffering is never good. What IS good is what we can learn in the midst of suffering. What IS good is that we can, if we work at it, come out of suffering as a better person, as a more well-rounded and mature individual. Those who have undergone much suffering and sorrow can be the most compassionate people, the most caring. And you don't need to be a Christian to be like those people.
What matters most in your life is not pledging yourself to Jesus, but to grow as an individual. When you grow as a person, you can help the world so much more, and you can use you gifts and talents to make the world a better place. If I had never gone through the agonizing process of leaving Christianity after being a full fledged believer, I never would have been where I am today: Someone who understands spirituality better and how it can change people, for better or worse. I know that I am better off today then I was in Christianity. It was a part of my growth and when it was finished, I left.
I may no longer have placebo Jesus or placebo heaven, but I do have knowing that I can be strengthened by whatever I go through in life, good or bad, to become a better individual. And so can you, no matter who you are.
Online Reading List
- An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish by Bertrand Russell (1943)
- Bible Teaching and Religious Practice by Mark Twain
- God is Imaginary
- Is there an Artificial God? by Douglas Adams (1998)
- Skeptics Annotated Bible
- The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine (1795)
- Which Way? by Robert Ingersoll (1884).
- Why I Am Not A Christian by Bertrand Russell (1927)