On Living As if God Is Real


(Editor’s note: This piece originally ran at the Troubler of Israel blog at Patheos.)

The other night I watched PBS’s new full-length documentary, “Martin Luther: The Idea That Changed the World,” and was impressed. As soon as Carl Trueman showed up, I knew it was going to be good, but this thing is an achievement. It gets Luther right, warts and all, even if it does try a little too hard at the end to connect him with secular sensibilities. You will be more thankful for the Reformation this Augustinian monk started and better prepared to appreciate its 500th anniversary after watching this. If you’re fuzzy on the details of Luther’s life and work and don’t expect to get through a good biography before November, this program is for you.

For me, it also stirred up an unexpected awareness of how tentative my faith is. When Luther made the providential decision to become a monk after his crisis in a lightning storm, he was throwing away the life everyone expected him to live. His promising studies in law, his father’s approval, and any chances of ever getting married (or so he thought) went up in smoke with his monastic vows.

Luther, tortured and guilty soul that he was, took God seriously in a way that’s tough for me to grasp. He lived as if God were real–as if He might actually send a tempest to capture a young law student’s attention and expect him to make a life-changing decision in the terror of the moment. Luther didn’t just profess the reality of a holy God. He lived it in a radical, frighteningly earnest way.

Had I been in his circumstance, I can easily see myself rationalizing away my vow once the skies had cleared and I was safely home. Would God really hold me to a promise made under superstitious duress? Does God even work that way? I know I would have had my doubts. If Luther did, too, he didn’t let on.

It’s so easy, even for professing Christians, to keep God at arm’s length in the 21st century. Though I ultimately attribute the world around me to God, I have a dim sense that He hides behind layer upon layer of natural and indifferent causes. Though my life and work are explicit acknowledgements of God, He is less imminent for me than He was for Luther. God in my worldview is a little more like the Prime Mover or the God of the philosophers than the fiercely active, constantly present God whom Luther feared and eventually–through the writings of Saint Paul–learned to love and trust.

As a result, I take sin less seriously than Luther. C. S. Lewis once observed that modern people are silly for looking down our noses at medievals who burned witches. But the reason we do not burn witches has nothing to do with moral or theological progress, but with our anemic view of the supernatural, draped in cobwebs of smug skepticism:

Surely the reason we do not execute witches is that we do not believe there are such things. If we did–if we really thought that there were people going about who had sold themselves to the devil and received supernatural powers from him in return and were using these powers to kill their neighbours or drive them mad or bring bad weather, surely we would all agree that if anyone deserved the death penalty, then these filthy quislings did.

Satan, too, is less real to me than he was to Luther. When I disobey God, I chalk it up to bad temper, to not having eaten recently, to lack of sleep, or to the unfair way someone has treated me. Very rarely do I look at my temptations and failures as skirmishes in an actual spiritual war, raging all around me, pitting me against fallen cherubim and seraphim with only the Word of God as my weapon. Anyone who’s read even a little about Luther knows the devil was, for him, nearly as imminent as God.

Even during my prayers, at the back of my mind there is always a sense that if God doesn’t come through for me, man will stand in the gap. If God does not heal my family member’s illness, man’s medicines will do the trick. If God does not save me from the hurricane, man’s forecasts, storm shelters, and insurance policies will do that. If God does not bring me into an eternal, glorified purpose, at least man’s distractions, diversions, and this-worldly fulfillments will have satisfied me for a few years.

I know the theological reply to this: God works through means more often than through miracles. He providentially uses medicine, technology, trade, and even leisure to rescue us, shape us, and fill our needs. As God tells the proverbial flood victim who complains in Heaven that He didn’t save him from the rising water, “I sent two boats and a helicopter. What more did you want?” But if I’m honest with myself, these means function more as fallbacks for my faith, and less as consciously-recognized conduits for God’s grace.

In Luther’s shoes, would I be willing to throw everything away in a quest to be right with the invisible God? Would I rejoice so much in the rediscovery of grace in Romans, chapter 3 that I would stand against the rulers of my age and risk my very neck? I’m honestly not sure. And that leaves me wondering: though I profess the reality of God and the salvation I enjoy in His Son, is Christianity as real to me as it was to that German law student on his knees in a thunderstorm?

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

G. Shane Morris is a senior writer for BreakPoint. 

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  • Just One Voice

    Wow, great article! Not for the faint of heart.

  • jason taylor

    I’m not sure I would choose keeping a vow as an example of superstitious duress whether or not God was real. It would be superstitious to believe that God would automatically strike one dead if one is forsworn. But a vow binds a pagan or an atheist too; it is not a matter of one’s orthodoxy. One’s own honor(wherever that comes from) binds you to it.

  • gladys1071

    “where even the majority in the Church scarcely lift a finger to meaningfully try and bring about abortion’s entire and immediate outlaw”

    So basically you are focused on the pregnancies of total strangers, and you want to use the power of the state to compell women to STAY pregnant even against their will.

    With all of the suffering in the world and you focus on total strangers pregnancies, that is so Myopic.

    You ask what authentic love for our preborn neighbors look like?

    You cannot force someone that does not want to gestate a pregnancy to stay pregnant that is your answer.

    Abortion will not be outlawed because women have rights, and they have the right to not be forced to incubate a pregnancy.

    To be honest i am tired of Christians focusing so much on this issue, it is incredible the sheer obsession with people’s pregnancies that so called pro-life people have.

    Other people’s pregnancies NOT my business. and i want to keep it that way.

    • NCOriolesFan

      I am sorry you think abortion has to be that divine right to prove womanhood. You seem to forget that God made a woman to bear children, NOT destroy them.

      Currently my church is mourning the passing a baby girl at birth from complications that has left her parents utterly devastated. Yet you think the developing baby human is only a choice – so sad your humanism characterizes children like that.

      • Gina Dalfonzo

        All right, everyone, let’s get back on topic. Abortion is a very important issue, and there are many opportunities on this site to talk about it, but it’s not the subject of the article above.

        • NCOriolesFan

          I didn’t start it, I merely replied to her comment.

          Is this website moderated that every comment has to approved?

          • Gina Dalfonzo

            I didn’t say you started it. I’m saying that now we’re finishing it.

            And yes, it is moderated.

          • NCOriolesFan

            So then why reply to me, yet you didn’t place your reply under her comment.

          • Gina Dalfonzo

            I put it where everyone could see it.

        • gladys1071

          exactly my point, the are other issues to talk about, but always somebody wants to bring that the subject up.

          • Gina Dalfonzo

            As do you, apparently. I said we’re done with this topic on this post. Any further comments on it here will be deleted.

  • NCOriolesFan

    The very simple answer to your dash questions is only word – JESUS.