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Words of Life

Practical Atheism

By Andy Andrews August 30, 2009 Words of Life

“If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that?
Even corrupt tax collectors do that much. If you are kind only to your
friends, how are you different from anyone else?” (Matthew 5:46-47)

Tullian Tchividjian comes from a line of devout Christians who have been used by God in various ways to change the world. His heritage includes maternal grandparents, Billy and Ruth Graham, and his mother, a Christian writer and speaker whose ministry to women spans the globe.

He describes the Christianity cultivated in his family as joyful, warm, inviting, hospitable, and real — not legalistic or oppressive. Nonetheless, Tullian felt like an outsider and turned elsewhere to find a place where he belonged.

“At sixteen I dropped out of high school. Then, because my lifestyle had become so disruptive to the rest of the household, my grieving parents decided to kick me out of the house. But I refused to go quietly. On that memorable, dreadful afternoon, I was escorted off my parents’ property by the police.

“I’ll never forget sitting in the back of that police car and looking out the window at my crying mother. I felt no grief, no shame, no regret. In fact, I was pleased with my achievements. Having successfully freed myself from the constraints of teachers and parents, I could now live every young guy’s dream. No one to look over my shoulder, no one to breathe down my neck, no one to tell me what I could and couldn’t do. I was finally free or so I thought.

“My newfound freedom had me chasing the things of this world harder than most others my age. I sought acceptance, affection, meaning, and respect behind every worldly tree and under every worldly rock. The siren song of our culture promised me that by pursuing the right people, places and things, I’d find the belonging I craved. 

“But it didn’t work out that way.”

Tullian spent the next several years living as a “practical atheist.”

A practical atheist is someone who lives and makes daily decisions as if God doesn’t exist, regardless of what he professes. This is someone who, consciously or unconsciously, disregards God and the Bible in how he approaches life. For a practical atheist, cultural assumptions and societal trends are the guiding power for how he feels, thinks, and lives. Success is weighed by numbers. The importance of things is judged by material results and what can be seen in the present. The pleasures, comforts, cares and status of the world are more solid and inviting than God or his word. 

For a practical atheist, biblical truths are abstractions which do not guide everyday activities nor have they captivated the heart.  A practical atheist is a person whose worldview is characterized by worldliness — the sinful misdirection of God’s good creation. Christians have tended to categorize worldliness in terms of bad behavior. Smoking, drinking, dancing, going to movies, getting a tattoo, wearing certain types of clothes and listening to certain types of music are included on the list, often unspoken, of taboos within faith communities. However, this is not what primarily defines worldliness.  Worldliness, in the truest biblical sense, is an internal, invisible problem before it becomes an external, visible problem. 

Worldliness, the lens through which the practical atheist views the world and life, views all the structures of the world — society, culture, material goods and self — as bigger and more real than God. Everything else in life is far bigger than the presence and person of God.

Tullian Tchividjian embraced the life of a practical atheist until, at the age of twenty-one, everything changed.

“One morning I woke up with an aching head and a sudden stark awareness of my empty heart. Having returned to my apartment after another night of hard partying on Miami’s South Beach, I’d passed out with all my clothes on. Hours later, as I stirred to a vacant, painful alertness, I realized it was Sunday morning. I was so broken and longing for something transcendent, for something higher than anything this world has to offer, that I decided to go to church. I didn’t even change my clothes. I jumped up and ran out the door.

“I arrived late and found my way to the only seats still available, in the balcony.

“It wasn’t long before I realized how different everything was in this place. I immediately sensed the distinctiveness of God. In the music, in the message, and in the mingling afterward, it was clear that God, not I, was the guest of honor here.

“I didn’t understand everything the preacher said that morning, and I didn’t like all the songs that were sung.  But at that point the style of the service and what people were wearing became nonissues.

“Why? Because that morning I encountered something I couldn’t escape, something more joltingly powerful than anything I’d ever experienced, something that went above and beyond the typical externals.

“I was on the receiving end of something infinitely larger than grand impressions of human talent. God was on full display. It was God, not the preacher or the musicians, who was being lifted up for all to see. Rather, the people of God were simply honoring God as God.

“In the Bible the glory of God is called God’s “heaviness,” his powerful presence. It is God’s prevailing excellence on display. That’s what I encountered that morning. I met a God who is majestically and brilliantly in command.

“Here, finally, was the radical difference I’d been longing for.

“As I reflect on what changed me that morning (and what can change others), I’ve concluded it was the out-of-this-world realization that God is God and I am not that he’s big and I’m small.”

This Week
How big is God in your life? In what ways and in which situations do you live as a practical atheist?

“God, forgive me for the times I’ve made daily decisions as if you don’t exist. Help me to see and experience your presence in my life so that I turn from living as a practical atheist and, instead, am surrendered to you. Amen.”


This devotional was extracted from Tullian’s book Unfashionable: Making a Difference in the World by Being Different.

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