A good many atheists see the Christian faith as restrictive, in the sense that it imposes on us limitations and stops us from expressing ourselves freely. But once one experiences the whole thing, it soon becomes obvious that this is an inaccurate external perception.
Experience tells us that as free-thinking beings we sometimes entangle in our minds our own free-thinking perception with the reason that God gave us. And this is precisely why God instructs us to come to Him for things that will benefit our thinking, and indeed, for things that will help us become more like Christ.
When we start to live for Christ, He is then able to give us more of His divine reason as we progress towards a greater godliness. The more of Him that we imbibe, the more He can give us. There is no perfect analogy, but it is a little like starting your driving lessons. You have to familiarise yourself with the controls before you start to drive the car. Once this has happened the instructor can teach you how to manoeuvre the car properly; but you cannot, of course, be expected to learn to parallel park before you have gotten used to changing gears and using your mirrors. And of course if you drive though the city in rush-hour after only one lesson you will get into all sorts of difficulties.
And that is precisely what happens when we use the reason which God has given us, and try to create for ourselves methodologies and life purposes that are either contrary to His wishes or contrary to His immutable standards. If a man gave into all his urges every time they appeared, he would be using his God-given reason in the wrong way, and, of course, he would know deep down that he was wrong to give in to them.
But there are many examples of misusing our God-kindled reason which are not very obvious, particularly if the person misusing it does not think that his or her reason is God-kindled. You might, for example, see someone’s pursuit of justice turn into a sin against kindness or honesty if the pursuit is not in accordance with God’s word. It is not always realised that these things are given to us for our betterment. When I was growing up I thought that some of God’s laws - such as, do not murder, do not steal, do not commit adultery, were very obviously justified; but I thought that some of them were hard to justify. I thought that remaining chaste would deny a person essential knowledge about themselves - and I thought that ‘do not covet’ was a stumbling block to innovation. I was, of course, quite wrong.
Having once thought that God was a bit like an irascible old man, denying pleasure for denial’s sake, I later came to realise (particularly since knowing Him) that all of these rules - every single one - is for our betterment; that adherence to all of them will produce minds and bodies that are better in every single way.
Whenever the football we were playing with at primary school went onto the roof, I would undertake a daring climb to get it back. I was caught twice; the first teacher shouted at me for breaking the school rules and endangering school property; the second teacher, a much nicer and more caring chap, expressed an anxious wish that I did not go up there again for fear that I might hurt myself. My image of God caring for us is much more like the second teacher than the first. The rules are made, not for pedantic reasons, but because adherence to them is, in all ways, much better for us - much like when our mother or father insisted that we returned home before dark, not to spoil our playtime, but so we were safe. And notice, in all cases, how much easier it is to obey rules if we feel that they are imposed, not for reasons of pedantry, but for reason of love and consternation.
God’s moral standard tells us how to pursue things in the right way; thus we know what is the right way and what is the wrong way to pursue, say, happiness. I once asked a friend, ‘What do you think is the purpose of life?’ She replied, ‘To live life trying to be as happy as possible’. First thoughts do not always show the flaws in such a statement - in fact, fools and lazy thinkers probably think such a raison d’être is quite admirable; after all, it does sound like the advocating of happiness is an endorsement, not just of happiness itself, but of happiness for everyone.
But there have been, of course, many wicked people who have pursued happiness to the huge cost of other people’s happiness. Look at some of the African dictators living in opulent happiness at the expense, and obvious misery, of the majority of their fellow countrymen. We should not treat happiness as a virtue, for the pursuit of happiness, by itself, will not make us better people - it is only the pursuits of things which accord with God’s standards that will make us both happier and better people.
Those who make themselves ruler of their own lives know deep down that these immutable standards are going to be beneficial - thus you see in the secular world that promiscuity, when dabbled with, is very often begrudgingly admired, but when it is taken to excess, it is scoffed at. When it comes to the inner-voice that whispers to us reminders of the immutable standard - neglectfulness is not very durable, for even the dunces know that you cannot treat prurient impulses the same as you treat impulses for, say, honesty, or helping someone, or doing the right thing.
But this is exactly what has happened in much of the contemporary world (particularly in countries where atheists make up the greater majority). Obedience to instincts at the wrong time and misuse of our God-given reason are the main reasons why so many people are not in a relationship with God. I think it is a mistake to suppose that some of our instincts are from God and some are mere inexplicable psychological or physiological anomalies; for all of our instincts are God-given, it is we who misuse them and entangle them.
The s*xual instinct, if it is disobeyed, is the one that will get us into the biggest depths of godlessness, for its correlatives produce all sorts of false satisfaction and pride. When you see a man going wrong, it is often because he is not obeying his instincts in the proper way. Acquisitiveness, in excess, becomes greed; self-preservation, in excess, becomes spinelessness; restfulness, in excess, becomes laziness. But all of these, when used moderately, in accordance with God’s will, are positive things. Even the good instincts have to be controlled, for if we obeyed our instinct for, say, kindness or generosity at all times, we would produce negative situations. Kindness is a wonderful thing and we should be as kind as we possibly can - but if our kindness is unbridled to the extent that we are encouraging or causing or allowing the person to which we are being kind to become selfish or greedy, then it is a bad thing and quite unhelpful to the person who is receiving our kindness. You can be kind enough to feed a hungry man only so many times before a better act of kindness would be to help him feed himself. I do not mean that there are times when we should be unkind; I mean that there will be times when a certain type of kindness can be ineffectual and another sort is required.
It is not always easy to balance all of our instincts correctly, for we are all flawed creatures - but if we make every effort, God will help us along the way. It is, of course, much more difficult if you are in the minority, or if you are put under great pressure to conform, and I think that that is how it has spiralled out of control in this country. Chastity is seen as very ‘uncool’ amongst most men, so is religion for that matter, so it is not surprising that so many men are giving in to pleasure; the sword is double edged.
In the first place, it allows a man or woman to do what feels good (only a fool would say that there is more sensory pleasure from abstaining than from giving in to these instincts) - and in the second place, it improves one’s cache and social status. And if you proclaim yourself as chaste, you will be given no consideration for ingratiation into the ‘in-crowd’ - you will often be seen as a puritan. You will be castigated - accused of thinking that s*x is immoral. Of course, the accusations will be quite wrong, for those who have seen abstinence through to adulthood are really viewing s*x the way God views it - as a beautiful and divine thing.
The deeper we dig into this, the more we see just how much the misuse of our God-given instincts causes men and women such dissatisfaction - for deep down, even those who give in to lust know all about its duplicity. The inner-voice will always (unless the distraction is immense) reveal to the troubled soul echoes of the badness that is proximate. Something that should be precious is being used for slavery - a diamond is becoming a beach pebble; irrationally has joined forces with compulsion and it is taking over, to the extent that a man would forfeit his soul for transient things.
It produces other little nasty things as well, things which often go unnoticed. They are trying to have some of the things that belong to love without love itself. There is no bigger insult to a girl. Those who think that Christians disapprove of physical love do not know how wrong they are. It is like saying that when a man has his bicycle stolen he is disapproving of bicycles. Of course he is not, it is the theft of which he disapproves.
I have said before that the modern day attitude to love and lust has caused much of this godlessness, and it is easy to see why. After all, love is the most wonderful of all God’s gifts to us; therefore something that has the potential to be very great also has the potential to be very bad. And I think we see this happening with love. Love, at its best, involves the belief that you are going to be with your beloved for the rest of your life. And naturally, the constituent parts of love are going to be better things than the lovers are themselves - after all, ‘love’ does not require God’s forgiveness, ‘love’ does not need salvation, it is we that require both God’s forgiveness and salvation.
Christian love with the beloved will confer, not merely continual pleasure, but parts of the divine shaping both him and her into being one with Christ, just as Christ and the Holy Spirit are separate persons but part of the one God. But in love, the stakes are very high, for if you take something that God made with Himself in mind and try to manage it without Him, you are going to ruin a very great thing. It would be like living in a house with no foundations and no roof.
It is not always easy to convince unbelievers of this, because we all know many couples who have never professed any interest in God, but seem to live happily in marriage taking pleasures from everything that surrounds them. Now, of course, they are a lot closer to doing what God intended than the philanders who move on from person to person giving in to lust at every available opportunity - and naturally the security of established love is going to produce greater happiness and fulfilment than cold capricious lustfulness.
But the real comparison which will reveal their true position is not a comparison between the married couple and single cads, the comparison which reveals my point about God’s involvement in love is this. How much happier and how much more fulfilled would a happily married couple be if they had God in their lives? The answer, I think, is that they would not only be much happier, they would see things in their beloved that they had never dreamed of seeing. That is part of what God does both inside a relationship and outside of it. He starts by revealing to each of us, more of Him and, thus, more of ourselves. And then, in love, He reveals even more of Himself, even more of ourselves and, consequently, even more of our beloved.
One of love’s greatest tricks is that its power fools atheist lovers that they are really quite content as they are; that is, traces of love’s divinity are, when detached from the whole thing, still providing enough pleasure, enough comfort, enough security, and enough contentment to put a blanket over the flame of His presence. Thus you see it manifest in non-Christian relationships in very subtle ways. Broken love show us the real nature of self-flagellation; failed relationships reveal the true facts about errors of perception - for if no such errors existed there would be no such things as failed relationships.
Non-Christian lovers are also constantly having to cope with ever-changing feelings, they oscillate between ‘better’ and ‘worse’ - they have more vagaries than the weather. But Christian lovers have Christ Himself stimulating the relationship, directing both him and her towards a constant progression - after all, we see in almost every Christian that God works for the good of those who love Him (Romans 8:28).
Look at a man when he becomes a Christian and then look at him five years later and he will have, without question, improved - he will be a better man, more righteous and more Christ-like. Look at him another five years hence and you will see that he has improved further still. Do the same with non-believers and their condition will be largely determined by what has happened in their lives in that five-year period.
You would expect to see the same thing with Christians; the reason you do not is because Christ is doing exactly what St Paul says He does - working for the good of those who have put their faith in Him - working inside them, making them better, bringing about constant improvement. Of course, Christian men and women have a big part to play too, if they make little effort to grow, they will only grow in the parts that Christ was gracious enough to superintend. That is why you work as a team - both you and Christ as a partnership - the believer should wish for continual improvement, and Christ turns those wishes into palpable realities.