“For freedom Christ has set us free.” —Galatians 5.1a
I will never forget the second time I read this verse. It was in Fall of 2006. I had been suspended from Johnson Bible College for… relationship indiscretions… and as a consequence spent the fall semester in my hometown of Meadville, PA working for a small church. The elders of this rustic parish listened to my situation and graciously allowed me to work with them on Sunday mornings – the arrangement was mutually beneficial as they had just lost their minister. They instructed me to move through Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians in three months then allowed me free reign of the pulpit – I cussed during the first sermon; the stage had been set for the next eleven weeks.
For the most part, my private life consisted of a lot of free time alone. The work of Sunday’s sermon kept me toiling through most of my solitude, but the days eventually wore on me. I began to sink – I was in a town I did not enjoy, with few people I did enjoy, sleeping on the bed that resulted in my suspension. The Fall of 2006 marks one of the nadirs of my life thus far.
The first time I read the above verse I missed it entirely. I was far too nonplused by Paul’s “great” sermon illustration about Sarah and Hagar. The second time, I read the words in isolation – “For freedom Christ has set us free.” I reread Paul’s words. Then again. The words confounded me. It was then I realized I had no idea what freedom was. I sobbed.
After the tears dried, I spent the rest of my evening contemplating the verse, wondering what it meant to be free. It was then that a still, small voice within me said, “Think.” And so I did. The approaching midterm elections provided me ample opportunity to think about “the issues” for myself. My experiences in the end of Fall 2006 and Spring 2007 opened my mind and heart to the ambiguity of social issues—they gave me the opportunity to experience the lives of others and most importantly to formulate and vocalize my own opinions.
But that night in November allowed me to forgive myself—for breaking the hearts of friends and family, for breaking the pledge I had made to Johnson Bible College, and for sinning against God. That night in November allowed me to forgive myself for so readily following the crowd and for putting so little thought into the world around me. That night in November I, for the first time, experienced grace, and grace set me free.
I continued to experience my world with this newfound freedom as I finished my career at Johnson in May of 2008. In the Fall of 2008 I matriculated at Emmanuel School of Religion where I encountered a historical perspective of the biblical world, and of theology and faith, such as I never had before. Briefly put, my experience with the historical perspective instigated many questions and gave language to many doubts I had held for years previous. I renounced my faith personally in the Summer of 2009 and (somewhat) publically in the Fall of 2009. I am forever indebted to those who helped me find my faithlessness—I thank you for your encouragement and assistance.
Surprisingly, my life as an atheist did not change drastically. For a while I still attended services regularly at the Episcopal Cathedral in Knoxville. I mostly kept to myself. To this day, I still read the Bible fairly regularly. I did not become the hideously immoral person I feared I would. I still give to charities and ask the homeless for their names. I still care greatly for the people around me. For the most part, becoming an atheist was surprisingly easy, though disguising these sentiments from family members is becoming increasingly difficult. Annoyingly, before most meals I still quickly bow my head to pray, even in the presence of my avidly anti-religion fiancé.
As I reflect on my Christian life, that night in November is still so very important to me. I still describe it as the beginning of me as I am now. I struggle with how to define this extremely spiritual experience from a completely naturalistic worldview. In Fall 2006, I knew I had experienced God. Obviously, I am no longer convinced. Throughout my Christian life, I had stood on the mountain’s side and experienced the great fires of revival, the earthquakes of life and the winds of change, but the Lord was not in them. That night in November, I did experience a still, small voice, and for the first time I’m realizing that night in November was the first time I had heard my own voice. And it whispered, “Think,” to me. I was there at first, in my own mind, an individual.
Now, I find grace almost daily. Every time I form my own opinion, or agree with my enemy, or learn more about the world around me (whether socio-political or cosmological), I know I am free. I know I’ve experienced grace when my heart breaks as I read articles about tragedies throughout the world and when I hold a crying friend struggling with his family life. I know I’ve experienced grace when an argument with my fiancé is not simply resolved but creates opportunities for future success. I know I’ve experienced grace when I make a mistake and can forgive myself for my indiscretion. Ultimately, I experience grace in much the same manner I did as a Christian, but now I know that grace is endemic to humanity, not the divine. For me, that knowledge is freedom.