I have a friend whose brother is dying. She’s Catholic, and the entire family is in a panic because he won’t admit there’s a God. Alcoholism has destroyed his liver, hospice has been called, and they’re frantic that he will die without repenting. Only a month ago, they lost the other brother in the exact same situation. And now the five sisters, all devoted to their faith, are determined to keep it from happening again.
Except they can’t. Acknowledging God has to be a person’s choice. It’s under the “Free Agency” banner. And the stubborn brother knows it. I chatted with my friend and learned that this same brother has made comments, over the years, which show he is not the atheist he claims to be, but a believer who won’t formally admit it. We see the same thing in every faith, including our own. Often a person decides this is the one, last holdout that can keep them from being controlled and outnumbered by their zealous relatives. If they can just stay outside the boundaries of “active,” then they’ve proven they aren’t sheep, aren’t still being told what to do by those who’ve bossed them around all their lives. It’s childish, yes, but people do it for decades if they get stuck in the adolescent stage of rebelling against authority, and proving they can think for themselves. Sometimes it’s a way to thumb their nose at a controlling parent, or at the goody-goody siblings they always resented. They adopt the “bad boy” label and relish the small measure of control it gives them. Sometimes they even get a kick out of how much anxiety they can cause their family.
And it’s usually men. Yes, sometimes it happens with women, but there’s a resistant, contrariness found more commonly in males that often plays into this behavior. These are the people who will do something (sit in the mud) they don’t even want to do, simply because they were told not to. And nobody’s going to tell them what to do. In the case of my friend, this brother has been directed and managed by five controlling sisters, and this is the only way he can put his foot down and have some autonomy. Does he believe in God? Probably. Will he ever admit it? Not in this lifetime. His stubbornness is too strong, his ego too large.
Now, of course there are people who truly are atheists, and don’t deserve to be labeled as “authority problem” folks. But we’re talking about people who’ve tipped their hand, who’ve revealed a believing heart, yet are grimly refusing to satisfy family members. They enjoy being obstinate. It has become part of their self-definition.
I asked my friend if her brother seemed particularly sensitive. “Are you kidding? He’s an artist!” she said. Once again, the more sensitive someone is, the more likely life’s hurts and betrayals loom. Every insult and injury becomes justification to retreat, slam doors, and resist emotional closeness. They have hurts so painful that an edgy, tough guy persona is the perfect camouflage.
And these are all reasons why only God can look into a person’s heart, and judge them accurately. We have no idea what anguish and sorrow a person is carrying around, or what events scarred them early in life, which we never even knew about. When the stubborn brother finally dies, he will be greeted by loved ones who knew the game he was playing, and may even chide him for giving his sisters such a hard time. He will probably feel chagrined as he realizes he wasn’t fooling anybody. The faith that dwelt in his heart all along will probably flame into its full extent, and he will relinquish his need to prove something. The sadness of his life’s injustices will be lifted, and he will feel humble gratitude for the joy that rushes in. I told my friend, “When you see your brother in the next life, you’ll probably be surprised. He might be the family leader and have the strongest faith of any of you.”
Her eyes danced. “Oh, I never thought of that. Do you really think so?” I nodded. Once they embrace the truth, stubborn people tend to excel that way.
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She is currently serving as Relief Society President of her ward in Northern California.