Enjoying life without God?
I can honestly say there were many things I enjoyed in my non-Christian life. My ethic was ‘work hard and play hard’. Sure, there were times when I was disappointed or angry with life, but on the whole I felt I was happy without God. My idolatry was this – I was enjoying God’s goodness and mercy, without enjoying Him.
Many of my unbelieving friends are the same. They delight in God’s common grace, often passionately. Sometimes they find enjoyment by misusing God’s gifts, but I do praise God when unbelieving friends enjoy life in God ordained ways. It offers me opportunities to praise God for His kindness and generosity to those who are not His people. But I know too that enjoyment is not the same as fulfilment, and ultimately it is unsatisfactory.
For me, the time came when in God’s grace and mercy, my road to self-enjoyment hit a dead end. My ‘work hard, play hard’ ethic failed in more ways than I could ever have imagined, and I found myself more miserable than ever.
Make sense of happiness
In Oliver Stone’s 2010 film Wall Street, Bretton, the head of an investment bank, was asked, ‘So what’s your number?’ – meaning what amount of money would it take for Bretton to be fulfilled and stop wanting. Bretton paused, and replied simply, ‘more’. Like the cartoon image of the donkey chasing the carrot, fulfilment always seems to be one step ahead, something near but somehow out of reach.
For me, it wasn’t more money that I wanted, but more pleasure. In others it’s a better family life or job, more holidays, spiritual fulfilment, or better relationships. People seek happiness in complex ways, often ways they don’t fully understand – fallen hearts lost in a fallen world.
Of course, it’s not necessarily sinful to desire more contentment in life. You could say the landowner in the parable was wise to build bigger barns to provide for his future, and right to desire to enjoy the fruit of God’s creation (Luke 12:13-21). Jesus did not criticise his barn building, but for not looking for joy or riches in God.
In 2002, Jesus exposed my idolatry in exactly the same way – although in His great mercy He also showed me that there was more to life than my eyes could see. I started to question how I was living and began to realise why I wasn’t as happy as I thought I was. I wasn’t sure what the answer was, but I knew I needed to do something different.
Finding something distinctively different
I have to admit I considered all Christians to be boring – rather lifeless and too sober and straight. They had nothing to offer that I couldn’t get anywhere else, and their do’s and don’ts meant there was a lot I could get somewhere else that I wouldn’t get from them. So Christianity wasn’t something that attracted me.
But when I moved to Exeter I found something distinctively different. Here were Christians not only talking the gospel, but enjoying themselves – without going to the extremes of idolatry that I had been used to. They were content. They had peace. They seemed to be demonstrating that Christ’s way was the best and only way to enjoy life in all its fullness (John 10:10). Even when things weren’t quite right in their lives, they still talked the talk and walked the walk. It was impossible to deny – there was something extremely attractive about this way of life. Certainly, they faced failures and uncertainty just as I did, but they had a security that I knew I was missing. They weren’t perfect — they sometimes did things even I knew were sinful, but they knew their faults and failures and wanted to stop doing those things. Despite myself, I wanted what they had. I wanted to change.
So I tried to manufacture this change by altering all sorts of things in my life thinking that would do the trick. It didn’t work. I suppose you’re likely to see the same in some of your unbelieving friends. They are looking for something – fulfilment, contentment, peace, happiness, security. Often they’ll think they’ve found it, only for it to elude their grasp. At other times they may despair it’s even possible.
I’m sure the Christians around me at that time were frustrated when I tried to change my life with my own methods. They knew my efforts could never give me eternal security. Nevertheless, they did something vitally important that changed everything.
Humanly speaking, there were three things that made the difference for me. First, people discussed the gospel with me. Notice I said ‘discussed’. I did sometimes go along to church, but what I really remember is the willingness of all sorts of different Christians to spend time with me and chat. They put up with my often arrogant behaviour, they answered my questions, and challenged me.
Second, people prayed for me. I don’t know how many, but I know that they did. As far as they were concerned it wasn’t enough that I was beginning to spend more time around Christians, or even that I stopped doing certain things and was looking like a better person. They knew this was all external change, so as they shared the gospel with me they prayed that I would be saved.
Third, people showed me the gospel brought a credible and consistent happiness in life. This overcame my unbelieving heart, and made the gospel even more real to me. I was not taught about rules and boundaries. I was not abandoned when I didn’t understand. I was simply exposed to the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, and shown that it really did make a difference. I didn’t understand every doctrine, nor the full implications of following Christ but what it meant to be a disciple was visibly real in the lives and speech of the Christians around me. I began to understand that repentance was not just stopping sinful things but also starting to live the full life that God wants us to live. Whilst I was attempting the former, I began to realise I’d never experienced the latter.
All this helped me to overcome my misunderstandings of what Christianity really was. I thought it was a crutch for the weak, but instead I saw that Christianity was a way of life that brings happiness through an eternity secure in Jesus Christ. I realised that it wasn’t just any pleasure I craved for, but the contentment that is found only in Christianity. It wasn’t simply Christianity that I desired, but Christ.
Christians cannot do the convicting work of the Holy Spirit and bring about the salvation of unbelievers. I wholeheartedly believe that is what scripture teaches. But, Christians in their prayers, gospel conversations and godliness, can adorn the gospel and show unbelievers credibility of the gospel – and in doing so find themselves to be instruments of the Spirit’s work.
What shall we do?
We know that everyone builds their life on something. For those who are not Christians there will always be some sort of idolatry lurking in the foundations. Sooner or later every pleasure-seeker will become tired of the ride, and start to question why the carrot is always out of reach. Will I be there when they do? Will you?
Will we have gospel conversations, patiently answering questions and challenging assumptions? Will we pray for them, knowing that without the Spirit’s work there is no hope? Will we show them that the gospel is credible by our own consistent, joyful witness?
I thank God for the active patience of the Christians who did this for me, and helped me realise I could never find fulfilment without Christ.
Paul Daniel is an evangelist with Bethel Evangelical Church in Clydach, Swansea.