“But my people did not listen to my voice;
Israel would not submit to me.
12 So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts,
to follow their own counsels.
13 Oh, that my people would listen to me,
that Israel would walk in my ways!
Many Christians in the US have chosen to go their own ways. Many former Christians are leaving the faith. Many young people are growing up without any faith whatsoever. The common thread is that they all believe they don’t need God. They may think they connect with a “spirit” realm or “the sacred,” but they do not know God or want to know him.
Besides that, they do not want to be told what to do. A major complaint against God is that God has expectations. God gives orders. God demands submission and worship. People who believe in God are required to do things they do not want to do. In fact, God’s worst offense is that God says people are sinners, disobedient children who need to be punished. Even though God says he wants to save people from their sins, and even though the central story of the Bible is that God has taken extreme measure as an expression of his will to cleanse and forgive people of sin, the culture, whether or not they claim to be spiritual, resents the idea that God says people are not perfect. Why, God even says that things people enjoy doing are sinful. How rude!
Secular culture is obsessed with the need for every person to be able to believe that he or she is an excellent specimen of a human being. Secular thinkers who are utterly atheistic, rejecting the least suggestion of anything spiritual, will attribute the perfection of all humans to their place in the evolutionary scheme of things. Those who are “spiritual but not religious” seem to believe that something exists outside the time/space universe, but they invent their own ways of finding this “something,” making connection, and interacting with it. They do not yield to its will or make changes in their character as a consequence. It is just there. In fact, the most likely manner of relationship between secular thinker and spirit world involves the manipulation of the spirit by the secular thinker for personal gain. This concept is central to the book The Secret in which humans are enjoined to align themselves with the universe in order to obtain everything they want. Secularists believe that happiness is a consequence when a person gets what he wants. They act on the conviction that anything that makes a person happy is right for that person. Either the culture or whatever he considers the spirit world to be should permit or even actively provide people what makes them happy.
An attentive reading of the psalm above reveals that this sort of thinking is not new. Ancient Israel was just as self-centered as any twenty-first century secularist. The Bible clearly recognizes that ancient gods were false, non-existent, utterly fake frauds. The prophets pointed out that it was the height of the ridiculous to pray to a god made of a piece of wood cut from the same tree that provided firewood. In today’s world, even though science has “proved” that the universe is mostly a vacuum, people who claim that the only truth is science nevertheless simultaneously try to “align” themselves with the universe in order to obtain something that will make them happy. Others take the lotus position, surround themselves with candles and incense, and, thinking that they have somehow “lost themselves,” undertake to “find themselves.” Then they go out to do whatever they believe will make them happy in the confidence that they have received approval from anonymous spirits who only want them to do what they already wanted to do. In ancient Israel, people with this mindset looked around at Baal and Ashtoreth and other local gods, and they worshiped the one with the sexiest (literally) worship practices.
The most basic human problem is that we do not like to be told what to do. We love our freedom. Some wander away from God, while others run, but all are guilty of wanting to do only what they want to do. The Psalmist said, “Israel would not submit to me,” and the reason for it was that they wanted to do whatever pleased them. Isaiah saw the same thing, and he wrote, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way.” (Isaiah 53:6 ESV). Satan, our archenemy, knows how we are, and he exploits it. When he slithered up to Eve with the intention of luring her to choose him instead of God, he appealed to that same human instinct by asking “Did God say . . . ?” Satan has used this same strategy ever since Eve, and today, all secularists, whether or not they claim to be spiritual, universally adopt the stance that God has no right to tell them what to do.
God looks at secularists and all the other people who reject him, and he responds the same way he reacted when the Israelites wandered away: “Oh, that my people would listen to me, that Israel would walk in my ways!” God cares for people, and he knows that people never find real happiness by simply getting what they want. God knows that the behaviors he proscribes are behaviors that may feel self-satisfying at first, but they bear bitter fruit. When God tells people what to do, it is always for blessing, not hurting.
God wants to bless people. In order to bless us, he tells us things. He tells us behaviors we must nurture, and he tells us behaviors we must abandon. He wants us to have real life, life that transcends the life in time and space that seems so real. He does not want Satan to enslave us in behaviors and attitudes that will destroy us. That is why, “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God” (John 3:16-18 ESV)