Stephany asked me this question earlier today, before ranting about some unsavory Christian proselytization methods she had encountered. She felt that Christians were shaming, guilt-tripping, and pressuring people into feeling completely morally inadequate, and that the only antidote is to grovel at God’s feet for forgiveness. She complained that it is completely inappropriate to damage people in such a way that they feel insufficient to do anything good, and then hold out the cure at the price of conversion. It’s like beating up someone so that they’ll be grateful to you for taking care of their wounds later. Listening to her, I agreed with many of her points, but a few remarks did not sit well with me. After further discussion and clarifiying that neither of us were actually personally attacking the other, it was soon time for her to sleep, and so she asked me to post the rest of my thoughts here. Now I’ve thought some more about the question at hand, and I would have to agree that yes, Christianity does indeed create a dependence on God. However, this dependence has little to do with one’s ability to perform good, moral actions.
A person’s moral ability to perform good or evil does not depend at all on his allegiance to God. However, I do admit that many Christians seem to think it does. Many seem to think that without a god to anchor their worldview, atheists are completely incapable of any sort of morality and do not possess any sense of good or evil. This belief is not at all supported in the Bible, and the Christians who do believe it are conflating the concept of depravity and salvation with the concept of moral ability. The Bible is quite clear on a non-Christian’s ability to perform good, moral deeds. Consider Paul’s comparison of Jews and Gentiles in Romans 2, with its obvious extensions to Christians (like Jews, they’re supposed to have an idea of what God wants) and to non-Christians (like Gentiles, they’re supposed to not have an idea of what God wants).
12For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. 13For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. 14For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law.
Thus Paul destroys any connection between one’s ability to please God and one’s knowledge of God’s requirements. Someone who does what God desires, without even knowing that God desires it, pleases God much more than another who knows what God desires but does not do it. There are many examples of such not-knowing-and-yet-doing persons in the Bible, from Abimelech king of Gerar (Genesis 20:4–6) to Rahab the prostitute (Judges 2; Hebrews 11:31; James 2:24–26) to the widow of Zarephath (I Kings 17:8–24) to Sennacherib king of Assyria (II Kings 19:22–28; Isaiah 37:23–29) to Cyrus king of Persia (Isaiah 44:28–45:7). In Cyrus’ case specifically, Isaiah takes care to mention the irony that Cyrus is doing something that is quite pleasing to God without him knowing about it, and God’s purpose in doing so is that everyone may know God:
5I am the Lord, and there is no other,
besides me there is no God;
I equip you, though you do not know me,
6that people may know, from the rising of the sun
and from the west, that there is none besides me;
I am the Lord, and there is no other.
In light of such passages, it is completely ludicrous for any Christian to believe that non-Christians are incapable of performing good, moral actions, or that they are unable to change any bad behavior, or that they do not have a sense of good and evil. Non-Christians are very much capable of doing all these things and more. This is not the type of dependence that Christianity creates. Assuming minimal demonic interference, humans are perfectly capable of dealing with any sort of conflict situation amongst themselves. Indeed, any sort of moral, behavioral change in people follows a willingness to deal with people’s characters and to accept responsibility for their own shortcomings, and this process is not particularly easier when one is Christian.
Then what kind of dependence does Christianity create? Aside from the universal dependence on God maintaining the whole universe and each of our lives, etc., that the Christian readers already cherish and the non-Christian readers already roll their eyes about, there is still the matter of a relational dependence. Christians depend on God to maintain His relationship with them, and in so doing they become dependent on the relationship as well.
In any functional relationship between two persons, there is interdependence. There cannot be a functional relationship if only one side cares about it. A relationship must have open communication, giving and taking, a willingness to address the core issues instead of just the symptoms, and so on. These are easily sabotaged when one side shuts off, becomes unwilling to listen, or just plain stops caring. Therefore, one person depends on the other to mutually come halfway, and if the other person refuses, no amount of persuasion, nagging, or bribing may convince him otherwise. Such measures may even poison the relationship further.
So as Christians seek to love their God (or at least they’re supposed to), they depend on His love towards them as well. Is such dependence necessary? No, for without a relationship with God, there is no need for Him to maintain a nonexistent relationship. Consider the following analogy.
When a girl is single, she gets along just fine. She lives life normally, doing all the things that she likes to do. She is content with her life; she has a loving family and good friends; and she can do whatever she wants, wherever she wants, and with whomever she wants because she doesn’t have to think about a boy. However, one day she meets a boy and she falls in love. The girl and the boy make a wonderful couple. They treat each other well, and they love each other very much. But a fundamental change has occurred in the girl’s life. Now wherever she goes, she thinks about the boy. Whatever she does, she wishes that the boy were with her. When life sucks, she goes and talks with her boy, and she feels better when he comforts her. She is very happy when she’s with him, and she misses him a lot when he’s away.
What has changed in the girl’s life? She has developed a dependence on the boy! When they are apart, she misses him and goes through boy-withdrawal. When they’re together, she’s glad. Is this dependence necessary? Of course not. She was perfectly capable of living life to the fullest as a single girl. Why then, would she want to have such a relationship with him? Isn’t it better to live independently? Isn’t it better to go without thoughts of the boy dragging with her everywhere?
But see, that is not how the girl perceives her situation. And it is not how Christians perceive their situation. The unnecessary dependence on God that Christianity creates is very much like the unnecessary dependence on a significant other that a romantic relationship creates. The girl loves the boy with all her heart. She was not dependent on the boy before meeting him because she did not know him. And while she is aware of her growing dependence on this boy, she would not wish to return to her former state without the boy. Likewise, Christians love their Lord. They were not dependent on Him prior to their conversion. And yes, they are aware that they are continually becoming more dependent on their God. But they wouldn’t trade it for anything.