I’m not bringing this up as an example of the sort of traumatic experience that led to my atheism. I had already been calling myself an atheist for several years before this event, and had long since become comfortable with it. No, I bring it up because it created one of the rare situations in my adult life where I actually attended a church service. It was right after the funeral, and we went with my grandmother to church because it was important to her.
I also bring it up because, not only is it a lead-in for why I was present for this particular sermon topic, but because the point I want to make gels so perfectly with the circumstances. You see, the topic of the sermon that day was how God/Jesus is the only one in your life who never lets you down.
This actually isn’t all that unusual a message in Christian churches. In fact, I hear it all the time even as a non-churchgoer. The way this particular pastor phrased it wasn’t even all that unusual; it was just the weird incongruity between message and circumstances that made this particular episode stand out in my mind. He started out by saying that there is no human being who will not disappoint you at some point or another. Which is true enough, I suppose, but kind of trivial. But he really had to hammer the point home, so he took it to the next level with the claim that even if someone could somehow always be there for you in every circumstance throughout their entire life, they would still let you down by dying.
Imagine my incredulity. This was my grandmother’s pastor. He knew what she had been going through. He knew she had just buried her youngest son that weekend. And here he was, standing up in front of his congregation to tell everyone that her son – a generous, fun-loving and active man who had spent better than a year fighting one of the most aggressive cancers known, enduring surgeries and experimental treatments, hallucinations, loss of vitality, and personality alterations as he struggled to defeat the disease that was claiming his life – had failed her by dying.
Having made that awful point, the pastor then went on to preach about how there was one person who would always be there for you, never disappoint you, never fail you, and of course that person is God. This same sermon, I should mention, made the point that while God is always there for you he doesn’t always give you what you want or think you need. He trotted out the old cliché that “God answers all prayers; just sometimes the answer is ‘no,’” and went on to the usual dreck about how you just have to believe that God has a plan for you that is far better than any petty needs you may think you have.
From my perspective, this whole spiel was outrageous nonsense. Here we have a man standing up in front of people who trust him belittling the struggle of a very real, and now very dead, man in order to prop up respect for his fictional being. Manipulating the grief of his fellow human beings for the sake of his imagined god. “Be disappointed in the guy who died on you in spite of his heroic efforts not to, but you can’t be disappointed in the dude I claim could have saved him and didn’t because He had other plans.”
But let’s take a moment to think about the full message is here. Of course, the observation that all humans will let you down at some point is true, as I pointed out before. Everybody is limited, so even those with the best intentions will probably, at some time, simply not have the emotional or physical resources to be there for you in some way or another. Maybe your friend misses your wedding because they are too burnt out from school finals. Maybe your sister doesn’t have fifty bucks to lend you to get that mortgage payment in on time. Everybody, absolutely everybody, disappoints you at some point or another because they’re human.
But God? God is always there. Sure, he didn’t lend you that fifty bucks either. And while you’re disappointed in your sister for it, you can’t be disappointed in him. Because he’s “there for you” in your head, and maybe he has a plan for you that will be wonderful and somehow depends on you getting your house foreclosed on. You just don’t get to know the details, or at least not until maybe after you’re dead. When, you know, nobody will ever get to verify all this goodness that will happen to you.
See, it’s a ridiculous double-standard. You can be disappointed in people when they somehow fail to live up to your expectations. You often get to know the reasons for those failures (at least in part) and make a judgment about whether they are justified. But for God? He can fail you in the exact same way, and you never get to know the reasons, but you’re not allowed to be disappointed in him?
It’s self-evident that you can’t be disappointed in someone when you’re not allowed to have expectations of them.
That’s what it comes down to. You’re allowed to have expectations of people, and when they fail to meet them you can be disappointed. You’re not allowed to have expectations of God, so his failure to meet them can’t disappoint you. Then the pastor pulls a bait-and-switch, trying to sell you the idea that not being disappointed because you have no expectations is exactly the same as not being disappointed because your expectations have been fulfilled. He tells you that “I’m there for you by having a really good, secret reason for letting your kid die slowly and painfully from cancer I could easily prevent,” is exactly the same as “I’m there for you by bringing you food when you’re too down to cook for yourself,” and the amazing thing is that people buy it. They’re not the same thing, and it’s a lie to suggest that they are.
Why? I ask in all seriousness. Why do people believe any of this?
Mind you, I’m not saying it’s bad to have no expectations of God. I certainly have none, any more than I have expectations of Frodo Baggins. Sometimes good things happen, and sometimes bad, and we deal with those things as they come. If we’re lucky, we’ll have real flesh-and-blood people there to help us get through when the bad happens, and to celebrate the good with us. What gets me off on this little rant is the naked hypocrisy of people who sell this “God is the only one who will never disappoint you,” line to people. Especially when, in doing so, they belittle the real people in our lives and the real struggles they go through all for the sake of propping it up. If God were real, and you could have expectations of him like you do with people, then he would be a huge disappointment. If he’s not real, or you’re not allowed to have expectations, then we’re not even talking about the same thing as human disappointment. Comparing the two as if they were the same is deceitful.
There is nobody who won’t disappoint you. We’re all limited in some way, and some of us simply don’t try as hard as we should. Try to practice real compassion for real people; don’t belittle them by comparing them to someone you imagine is perfect simply because you’ve chosen to give them a free pass.