Psalm 14:1 is one of the best-known verses (by Christians) in the entire collection of Psalms. “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” How foolish those ivory tower atheists are! What utter folly spouts from the mouth and pen of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens. We feel quite confident that they will one day stand before the final judgement seat and discover that there is, indeed, a God.
But the psalm takes on a slightly new meaning when we remember that it was not written to intellectuals in an enlightened, postmodern age. It was written in an age in which religiosity was assumed. More significantly, it was written primarily to God’s covenant people, among whom, it is safe to assume, there was little thought of atheism as we tend to think about it. That is, the atheism that David envisioned here was probably not intellectual or phlosophical atheism but what Stephen Charnock called “practical atheism.”
In practical atheism, says Charnock, the atheist “regards [God] as if he had no being.” This atheism finds root “in his heart, not with his tongue, nor in his head.” He does not rationally reject God but “wished there were not any, and sometimes hoped there were none at all.” Charnock explains further: “Men may have atheistical hearts without atheistical heads. Their reasons may defend the notion of a Deity, while their hearts are empty of affection to the Deity.”
This appears to be the kind of atheism that David envisaged. The atheism is not manifested in written dissertations or social media debates but in “abominable deeds” (v. 1). Though he acknowledges God in his head, the atheist lives as if God is not paying attention—as if God is not there. The outcome is the same as if he intellectually or philosophically denied God’s existence: He lives as a practical atheist—without concern to God or his commands. He is indifferent to God’s presence. Because he has not guarded his devotion, he finds himself falling into sins and corrupt deeds that he knows he should avoid.
In times like we are facing right now, there is the ever-present danger of practical atheism. We have now gone two months without the gathering of the saints. For two months, it has been more difficult than it was before to “stir one another to love and good works,” which is precisely what we are called to do when we “meet together” (Hebrews 10:24–25). In the digital age in which we live, we are fortunate to have other means to provoke such love and good works, but without the ability to do so in the primary way that God has designed—the gathered assembly—there is a greater risk of us being stirred to indifference and evil works.
How have you guarded your devotion during lockdown? An hour’s worth of Sunday morning Facebook video engagement, and perhaps another 45 minutes on Sunday evening, is hardly a substitute for the gathered assembly. Perhaps you have had more time on your hands than you would ordinarily have and have found that, as they say, idle hands make the devil’s work. This has been a time—and continues to be a time—in which we have needed to be—and continually need to be—deliberate about guarding our devotion.
What particular temptations have you faced during lockdown? Perhaps increased temptation toward complacency, procrastination, and laziness? Perhaps you have felt the increased pull of sexual temptation? Perhaps substance abuse has been your particular temptation? Perhaps it has manifested itself in the “lesser” temptations of irrational fear and distrust as you have allowed your mind to be flooded with all sorts of lies and fear-mongering tactics? Perhaps you have been tempted to be curt with and unkind to others—in person or via digital channels?
I don’t know everybody’s particular temptations, but the human heart is predictable, and when we are not careful to intentionally guard our devotion, we easily fall prey to temptations to practical atheism.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. There is good news. The good news is simply this: The God of the Bible is a God who loves to save, who loves to redeem, who loves to deliver. “Oh, that salvation for Israel would come out of Zion! When the LORD restores the fortunes of his people, let Jacob rejoice, let Israel be glad” (v. 7). Temptations to practical atheism are sure to strike, but the gospel has the power to strike down those very temptations.
How have you lived like a practical atheist? What do you need to change in order to guard your devotion? Look to Christ and pray fervently to him for the power to overcome the temptations you face to live as if there is no God.