Comedian Brian Regan has a name for the guy at the party who manages to turn every conversation back toward himself: He’s a Me-monster.
No matter what you’ve done, the Me-monster has done something better. You know the guy. “Well, I’m tired of talking about myself. Why don’t you talk about me for a while?” For every story you’ve got, he’s got one—or five—better. The entire time you’re talking, he’s just waiting for your lips to stop moving, cuing him up to regale everyone with his fantastic tales of daring.
Those people have been around for ages, and, though most of us may have better social manners than the Me-monster, in our hearts, we all have something in common with him: “For though they knew God, they did not glorify him as God or show gratitude” (Romans 1:21 CSB).
Paul is saying that none of us wants to embrace the truth about a glorious, all-powerful, holy, ruling God. We want to make the rules. We want to take God’s glory for ourselves and use our lives to direct others’ attention toward us, not toward him.
We are all Me-monsters.
And so, our “thinking became worthless, and [our] senseless hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, [we] became fools” (Romans 1:21–22).
Christians reading that passage might be tempted to think that Paul is just talking about people who don’t know God. But Paul’s argument in Romans 1 is that all people suppress the truth. In fact, humanity’s suppression of truth manifests itself in two forms—one irreligious and the other religious.
The Irreligious Way We Suppress the Truth: Atheism
Tim Keller says to imagine a man whose wife died, leaving him one son. He’s really frustrated and disappointed in his career, so, as a result, everything in his life revolves around his son. He sends him to the best school. One day, the teacher tells him there is pretty good evidence that his son routinely cheats and steals from other kids. But, as parents often do, the father works out a counter theory that explains the evidence, convinces himself that the people at this school have it out for them, and pulls his son out of school. Well, six months later, the same situation happens at a new school and every school thereafter. In his heart, the man knows the truth. But in his mind, he won’t admit it to himself. His son is his savior and his joy, and he can’t entertain that theory.
This is what happens in the atheist’s heart when it comes to the knowledge of God. I’m not saying that atheists are deceitful. But Paul’s argument in Romans 1 is that everybody, in their heart of hearts, knows the truth about the all-powerful, ruling God. But that truth isn’t a convenient one for them. They don’t want to admit it to themselves, so they convince themselves that there is no God.
In other words, atheism is as much a posture of the heart as it is a conclusion of the mind.
This is why a lot of the great atheist-intellects of the last 100 years who have become Christians—people like T.S. Elliot, W.H. Auden, C.E.M. Joad, C.S. Lewis, and A. N. Wilson (all the really smart people go by their initials)—have all said, “What brought me to faith was not some new argument or evidence. I just admitted to myself that I always knew there was a God.”
When I am sharing Christ with someone, I often will ask, “If you come to see these things are true, are you willing to change your life in response?” Because a willingness to follow the truth is a prerequisite to knowing the truth. Before the head will understand truth, the heart must be surrendered to follow truth.
Before the head will understand truth, the heart must be surrendered to follow truth.
The Religious Way We Suppress the Truth: Idolatry
The other way our suppression of truth manifests itself is idolatry: “[They] exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man, birds, four-footed animals, and reptiles” (Romans 1:23).
We change the object of our worship into something we could control.
And we are really good at it.
The false gods that humanity has worshipped all have one thing in common: They exist to serve us. When it comes to worship, we are like the pre-Copernican astronomers who assumed that the earth was the center of the universe and everything revolved around us. We worship, but our main question is how to get God into orbit around our lives.
Or we try to get rid of God altogether. But we humans are worshiping creatures, whether we want to be or not. And without God, we tend to find someone to replace him.
Ernest Becker, a Jewish agnostic, said that after he quit believing in God, he found his soul still searching for acceptance and validation from somebody. He said in his book The Denial of Death,
“That modern society, after having ceased to believe in God … turned to the romantic partner as a replacement .… We look to a romantic partner to free us of our sense of nothingness. We want to be justified. We want to know that our existence hasn’t been in vain. We want redemption, nothing less .… In case we are inclined to forget how deified the romantic love object has become to us, the popular songs continually remind us …”
Taylor Swift and Zayn Malik sing, “I don’t wanna live forever, ‘cause I know [without you] I’ll be living in vain.” Justin Bieber sang early in his career, “Without you, I can’t face life …” Then there’s John Legend: “I’ll give my all to you …. You’re my end and my beginning.”
And lest you think this is just that new-fangled music: “You’re the meaning in my life, you’re the inspiration” (Chicago). “There’s no way I could make it without you; there’s no way that I’d even try” (Alabama).
This isn’t a problem of “music these days.” This is a problem of our hearts. We deify the romantic object and worship it.
We have to.
We can no more turn off our instinct to worship by not being religious than we can turn off our sex drive by remaining single.
The question that Romans 1 presents for us is not, “Is God out there?” but rather, “How will we respond to the God who is there?” The natural response is the tragic one—to reject him and pursue some other idol.
But the response of grace says, with Paul, Thank God for the righteousness of God, revealed in what Christ did in our place (cf. Romans 1:16–17).
We have all rejected God. But God placed the punishment for that rejection on his own shoulders.
That’s a truth worth celebrating.