One issue Christians must face is why some people do not believe in God.
Central to our way of thinking is that Jesus came to bring salvation to everyone and that there is a restlessness in each person's heart which can only be stilled through an intimate relationship with God.
If this is so, why do some people hear God's word and refuse to believe?
The simple answer is freedom. God doesn't force himself on anyone. If there were no possibility of unbelief then being a believer would have no merit. We are not called to be God's robots, but rather to be cooperators with God. And we all fail to cooperate to a greater or lesser extent.
When I look back at the years I strayed from the church, I see a number of reasons. As I became a teenager asserting my own autonomy, I rebelled against the things I formerly took for granted. I fell prey to worldly ideologies and my own sinfulness. I vainly believed that I knew more than the church which I came to see as a source of repression.
To be sure, identifiable Catholics were not always great witnesses to the transforming power of God. (Now, of course, people can say that about me!)
Pope Pius XII briefly described how we can find the Gospel difficult and demanding and thus deceive ourselves into believing that it is false or doubtful (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 37).
In his book, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, Pope John Paul confronts the problem of the existence of unbelief. The pope is asked, "If God exists, why is he hiding?"
The pope's response is provocative, challenging to the non-believer. While agreeing that we do not yet see God face-to-face, the pope says, "it seems that he has gone as far as possible (in revealing himself). In a certain sense, God has gone too far!"
The problem is with us, the pope suggests. We are unable "to tolerate such closeness." By revealing himself in the person of Jesus Christ, God is to an extent "obscure" to us, "because man is not capable of withstanding an excess of mystery" (pp. 37-41).
The New Testament is rife with examples of Jesus and angels saying "Be not afraid!" A human reaction to the presence of the divine is fear. But the best human response to the divine is to face down the fear and accept the loving presence of God.
The fear of taking that first step towards God is a common experience among converts. Once one has crossed the threshold, one wonders why one was afraid. But, before the crossing is made, there can be a time of genuine terror. We stand at the brink and we must make a choice which has fundamental importance for our lives.
The existence of unbelievers is a sign that this is a real choice, not a sham. But, if we choose to cooperate with the God who has drawn so close to us, we will open ourselves to a fullness of life which we didn't know was possible.
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