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The Christian AtheistBelieving in God but Living As If He Doesn't Exist
By Craig Groeschel
ZondervanCopyright © 2010 Craig Groeschel
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWhen You Believe in God but Don't Really Know Him
"Craig, you ought to meet this girl. She's weird like you. I mean, she's a God fanatic. She's, like, way overboard for God."
"Weird like you" wasn't in my top-ten qualities to look for in a girl, but enough people were telling me about Amy that I had to meet her. I was a senior in college and praying daily to meet someone equally passionate about Christ. From all reports, Amy was everything I had dreamed of and more.
Our relationship began with several phone calls before we finally met in person. Someone told Amy I resembled Tom Cruise. When she opened the door and saw me for the first time, her expectant smile faltered. I guess I don't look exactly like Maverick from Top Gun. (But I do have dark hair and a big nose.)
That night we attended a Bible study that Amy led for high-school girls. She was amazing, and all of the love cliches I had heard about over the years happenedto me. When she prayed for "her girls," heaven seemed to open. When she sang songs of worship, time stood still. Every time she looked in my direction, I simultaneously praised God and melted. She was funny, loyal, and sincere. Not to mention, on a scale of one to ten, she was a 498 million. (Still is.) I remember thinking, God, you are good. Nice work.
Overflowing with anticipation, I was constantly trying to make a good impression, to present my best Craig. I wore my newest shirts, put on extra cologne, cleaned out my car, and created the perfect mix tape (packed with the latest combination of Christian music and 1980s love songs). But more than that, I tried to make sure I was spiritually on my best game, praying constantly to treat her with honor and purity.
Six months after I first met Amy, I proposed to her at church in front of all our loved ones. (Thankfully she said yes; otherwise, it would have been awkward.) Five months later we got married.
That was nineteen years ago, and our marriage is now officially old enough to move out and go to college. During all those years, I've come to know Amy better than I know any other person in the world. If there are forty women in a room all talking at once, I can pick out her voice. If I walk into a crowded lobby, with people all crushed together, my eyes find hers instantly. I know her scent, and a single whiff of it will make me think about her for the rest of the day. I know her favorite color, her favorite song, her favorite meal, which of my shirts she likes best.
Despite how completely we know each other-even after nearly two decades-our intimacy continues to grow. We're constantly learning how to connect and communicate deeply. I can practically read her mind. A situation will arise when she's not there, and I know exactly what Amy would do. I know her values. I know how she processes decisions.
The two of us share a history-stories, experiences, and lots of kids. We love each other. We believe in each other.
In short, we know each other.
Believing versus Knowing
A recent Gallup poll reported that 94 percent of Americans claim to believe in God or a universal spirit. However, a quick glance at Scripture and our culture makes it plainly obvious that nowhere near 94 percent actually know God. I mean, really know him-intimately. Belief isn't the same as personal knowledge. For many people, the very idea that you could know God on a relational level seems unlikely, unrealistic, unattainable.
Part of the confusion stems from failure to recognize the different levels of intimacy when it comes to knowing God.
Some of us know God by reputation, as when we hear about a certain girl or guy from a close friend. We may know a bit about God-perhaps we've been to church a few times, we've heard some Bible stories, or we have a favorite Bible verse on a refrigerator magnet. But it's only secondhand.
Some of us know God in our memories. We've truly experienced his goodness, grace, and love in the past. Like when I recently bumped into an old college buddy. Twenty years ago, we were inseparable. We took classes together, played sports together, and met Christ together. After we graduated, we lost touch. I knew him years ago, but I can't say that I know him now.
And some of us know God intimately. Right here, right now.
This is the kind of loving knowledge that God promises when we seek him (see Deut. 4:29; Jer. 29:13; Matt. 7:7-8; Acts 17:27). When we are thirsty for God, God will satisfy that longing. And as we continue to seek God, we'll grow to know him more and more intimately. When we hear God's voice, we'll recognize it instantly. We'll talk to God all the time and miss him when circumstances distract us from his presence. We'll build a history together, storing up story after story of shared experiences.
We'll love God. We'll trust God.
We'll know God.
Not Knowing God
Maybe you're thinking, I believe in God. Isn't that enough? I mean, a lot of people don't believe in God, but I do. Isn't that what he wants from me? Those are fair questions. But believing in God isn't all he wants from us. The book of James says that even the demons believe in God, and yet they tremble because they know that they're relationally separated from him (James 2:19). Obviously, there is more to the whole Christian thing than just believing in God.
Growing up, my family was what I'd call "cultural Christians." We'd go to church on Christmas and Easter. We'd help a neighbor in need. We'd donate canned goods to food drives. We'd pray at Thanksgiving meals. But that was basically the extent of it. Even though I believed in God, all I knew was about him-and very little of that. I didn't know him. And because I didn't know him the way best friends or spouses know each other, I lived according to my own rules.
My very actions revealed my lack of intimate knowledge of God. According to 1 John 2:3-4, "We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands. The man who says, 'I know him,' but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him." A little harsh? I prefer to think of it as straightforward and honest. Truthfully spoken by someone who truly cares and wants what's best for us.
We need to keep in mind that God's commands are loving. What God asks his children to do-like pursue justice, love mercy, live humbly (see Mic. 6:8)-is what we want to do anyway, at least in our best moments. We are created to be living examples of God's love to a hurting world.
God cares about how we live. And a relationship with God naturally will flow out in daily attitudes and actions. So if you look good, you are good, right? Well, maybe not. Knowing God can lead to a positive lifestyle, but the reverse isn't true. Our outward actions alone don't prove that we enjoy an inward relationship with God. Just because we do good doesn't mean we know the One who is good. Like when I first met Amy, I didn't know her at first, but I was trying to get to know her. If I didn't make any effort, we'd never really know each other. We need to make an effort to get to know God.
God is interested not only in our actions but also in our hearts-in particular, our attitude toward him. Do our good works overflow from knowing him? Or do we live as though God is simply watching and checking our accomplishments off some heavenly to-do list? Did you get a star for going to church? Being nice? Giving money to charity? Some of us try to earn God's acceptance without truly knowing his heart. And after life is over, Jesus will say to such individuals, "You wanted no part of a relationship with me. Go away." (See Matt. 7:21-23.)
Countless well-intentioned people believe in God but don't know him personally. Many of us look the part. Or we think we're Christians because, you know, it's not like we're Buddhists.
We believe in God, but our lives don't reflect who he really is.
Not Knowing God Well
Have you ever heard of George Brett, the legendary third baseman who played for the Kansas City Royals? When I was a kid, I collected every George Brett baseball card ever made and knew everything about his career.
In 1988, I played in the NAIA National Tennis Championship in Kansas City. On a walk downtown, I saw George Brett sitting at an outdoor cafe. I couldn't stop myself-I walked right up to him, extended my hand, and said, "I know this happens to you all the time. I'm so sorry. I just had to tell you, you're the man! In 1980, you batted .390-you almost batted over .400-which would have broken Ted Williams' record from back in 1941. You had 118 RBIs in only 117 games. You're the man!" (A bit repetitive, I know, but I was nervous.)
Now, I didn't actually know George Brett, but I knew information about him. And I had heard that he was cocky and rude. What I experienced, however, was quite the opposite.
"You know all that about me?" he asked.
"Oh, I'm just getting started."
"That's amazing. Why don't you sit with us? Let's talk for a few minutes." And he pulled up a chair.
After we had talked for about fifteen minutes, George asked, "So, what brings you to Kansas City?" I told him that I was playing in the big tennis tournament the next day. He congratulated me and said, "You know what? You've watched me all these years. I'll try to come out and watch you play tomorrow."
The next day, I won the National Tennis title ... with George Brett cheering me on from the very front row. (Cue dream scene fade-out and ethereal musical sounds.)
Okay, so that didn't really happen, though it would have been a great ending to this story. The reality is that George didn't show, and I lost in the second round and went home crushed.
Technically, I could say that I know George Brett because of our single encounter. But it's obvious I don't really know him. If you were to remind him about our encounter in Kansas City, he might not remember at all.
Now let's rewind the history tape a couple thousand years. When the apostle Paul wrote his letter to the Galatians (Jesus-followers who lived in the region of Galatia, modern-day Turkey), they had experienced the real, living God but had recently become trapped in legalism. They knew God, but not well enough to avoid getting sucked back into a life based in the law, rather than in love. In Galatians 4:8-9, Paul wrote, "Formerly, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those who by nature are not gods. But now that you know God-or rather are known by God-how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable principles? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again?"
Paul essentially was saying, "You know God, but not well enough to avoid your old habits-the attitudes that hurt you and your closeness to God." In the twenty-first century, we would be wise to ask ourselves, "Is this us too?"
Maybe we "sort of" know God. Maybe sometime in the past we've prayed and asked Jesus to transform our lives. Maybe we have a basic understanding of God. Maybe, once, we genuinely felt close to him. But we don't know him well now.
Knowing God Intimately
Finally, there are those people who know God intimately and serve him with their whole hearts. For me, I know this is happening when I'm becoming increasingly aware of God's presence within me, his provision, his power, and his peace. I don't feel like God's "out there," waiting for me to direct a prayer his way every now and then. It's more like an ongoing conversation: "Hi, God. Hey listen, what do you think of this?" Then I honestly believe God speaks to me through his written Word and by his Spirit.
It's like somehow my spirit is connected to him, and I can hear what he's saying. There's kind of a buzz, a constant conscious awareness that as my day unfolds, God is orchestrating things and sending people into my life. That's doing life with God.
At other times, God may not feel as close. But by faith, I know he is with me. No matter what I feel, I hold the assurance that God never leaves me. And he won't leave you.
The psalmist David describes in Psalm 63:1-4 his relationship with God. In fact, he says that his experience of knowing the personal God creates a deeper longing for even more intimate knowledge of God. Verse 1 begins, "O God, you are my God." You're not somebody else's God, that I've just heard about. You're my God.
David continues, "Earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you, in a dry and weary land where there is no water." In this world, there's nothing that satisfies me. I'm hungry, I eat, and then later I'll be hungry again. Only God can totally satisfy. I love you so much, God, that I ache for you. I need more of you.
Have you ever felt that kind of love for someone? When you're apart, you can't wait to be with them again. When I'm away from Amy, I can't wait to hear her voice again. Imagine that with God.
The psalmist continues, "I have seen you in the sanctuary and beheld your power and your glory." I've seen you. I know you. I recognize you on sight. I know what you're like. Your unbounded might and majesty, the sunburst of your splendor, your beauty-these are greater than anything I could ever imagine or describe.
Verse 3 says, "Because your love is better than life, my lips will glorify you." Better than life? He's saying, If I had the choice-either keep God's love and see my mortal body die, or lose his love and live-I would choose to die.
Next verse: "I will praise you as long as I live, and in your name I will lift up my hands." I'll never be the same. I'm so transformed, so overwhelmed by you, I'm unashamed to do anything to express myself to you. I can't keep my hands at my sides. I'm going to reach them out toward you. I'm going to smile. I'm going to throw my head back and bask in your magnificent glory.
It's All in the name
Most Bible historians agree that David also wrote Psalm 9:10, which says in reference to God, "Those who know your name will trust in you." What do you call God? The way you address him or refer to him just might reveal the depth of your intimacy. Or lack of it.
Let me illustrate. What you call me clearly reveals how well you know me-or whether you know me at all. My phone rings. I answer. You're on the other end, and you say, "Good afternoon, Mr. Gress-shuhl. I'd like to talk to you about your phone service."
I can tell one thing right away: You don't know me. You don't even know how to pronounce my name!
Or my wife and I are in a restaurant, and I give the hostess my name while we're waiting for a table. After a few minutes, the hostess calls out, "Grow-SHELL, party of two!" The hostess knows my name and how to pronounce it. But we've just met. We don't know each other.
If you call me "Pastor Craig," chances are you might know a little about me. You know what I do, maybe you've heard me speak, and maybe you're familiar with some of my favorite topics and my up-front personality. But your use of my title doesn't mean that you know me personally.
You might just call me "Craig," and I'd usually assume that you know me even better. My friends call me Craig. We're close.
But if you call me "Groesch," that means we've been friends for a long time. It means we've got stories. (And you've promised not to tell them.) "Groesch" dates us back at least twenty years.
Then there are those who possess exclusive rights to a few specialized, far more intimate forms of address. These are the six beautiful, small people, very dear to me, whom I allow to climb up in my lap. They rub their hands on my face and say things like "You need to shave" and "You're the best" and "Can I have some candy?" They call me "Daddy." They know me so much better than even those who call me "Groesch." The name reveals the intimacy.
What do you call God? The Big Guy in the Sky? The Man upstairs? Dear eight-pound, six-ounce Baby Jesus? Then you don't know him. Those titles may be clever or funny, but they certainly aren't intimate.
Excerpted from The Christian Atheist by Craig Groeschel Copyright © 2010 by Craig Groeschel . Excerpted by permission.
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