My parents knew what it meant to struggle. Like so many parents before and since they overcame long odds to improve their lot in life, and they did it the hard way: through hard work. They saw firsthand in their childhoods how hard it can be to make it in life. Despite their parents' hard work and the relative prosperity of the time, just to have enough food to feed the family and the occasional luxurious trip to the doctor or dentist were often beyond their means.
When it came time to raise their family, they were going to make sure that their son would grow into a man. A real man. I was raised to be able to think for myself, to build an engine, to fix a car, or the house, to drive a stick, to shoot, fish, work, and fight. My parents hoped I would be able to defeat life's difficulties, in turn becoming a master of the world I would inhabit.
That approach seems to be the safest. If trouble always comes from without, then the answer to overcoming challenges must come from within. This seems to be a wise, safe course. When nothing can be counted on, it is best to be able to count on yourself. This is an attractive philosophy: lofty and rugged, readymade for a real man and yet simultaneously, it is also a hopeless philosophy.
Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche saw the world similarly. He expresses this view through the words of a nameless madman in The Gay Science (The Joyful Wisdom):
Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market-place, and cried incessantly: "I am looking for God! I am looking for God!"
As many of those who did not believe in God were standing together there, he excited considerable laughter. Have you lost him, then? said one. Did he lose his way like a child? said another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? or emigrated? Thus they shouted and laughed. The madman sprang into their midst and pierced them with his glances.
"Where has God gone?" he cried. "I shall tell you. We have killed him - you and I. We are his murderers. But how have we done this? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What did we do when we unchained the earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving now? Away from all suns? Are we not perpetually falling? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is it not more and more night coming on all the time? Must not lanterns be lit in the morning? Do we not hear anything yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we not smell anything yet of God's decomposition? Gods too decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we, murderers of all murderers, console ourselves? That which was the holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet possessed has bled to death under our knives. Who will wipe this blood off us? With what water could we purify ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we need to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we not ourselves become gods simply to be worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whosoever shall be born after us - for the sake of this deed he shall be part of a higher history than all history hitherto."
Nietzsche saw the need to preserve order in a world free from God. He looked the same place my parents and I did: within. By what means should we hope to be found worthy? How should we console ourselves? Through our work, of course. He was correct in assuming no other method remains for those who have been left alone. There is nothing else to do but to get to work and hope that we can save ourselves. Nietzsche believed what would be necessary would be to become something greater than men, Übermensch, or little gods as it were.
As a young man, I felt well on my way to achieving this status. For me, there was no need to look for God. Why would there be? My various skills were a blessing. Often, they had spelled the difference between a good outcome and ruin. While those skills came to my rescue and had been sources of employment for much of my life, they did not come without a cost. Through this worldview, I never hoped for rescue in difficult times, but only sought to be strong enough never to need it. I learned to hope only in myself. I had succeeded, in my mind at least, at becoming the master of my life and of this world. To me, God was dead, and I couldn't have cared less.
Nietzsche believed we had only collectively succeeded in "killing God" through science and the Enlightenment. In truth, our murder of God began a long time ago, and every one of us has sought to kill him again and again. We do not try to kill God when we amass knowledge or by becoming our best selves. God has given us our place. We attempt to put God to death as we seek to set ourselves in His place. God loves men, but he will not stand to compete with little gods.
We desire to displace God because we desire to deal with our own weakness. We recognize and desire a need to have power and authority over the world. We recognize our failures to do and live as we ought, and thus, we want to be able to forgive ourselves and others as we sit on the throne of judgment. We recognize the need to atone for our failures while all too often, personally wanting to choose the necessary sacrifice. We acknowledge our need, but we will work to satiate it independently. According to our sinful human nature, dependence on anyone else seems too dangerous in matters as critical as death and life. So, in our hearts, we put God to death so that man can take his place.
We attempt to put God to death as we seek to set ourselves in His place. God loves men, but he will not stand to compete with little gods.
We were not the first to take up arms against God and seek to do away with Him; it is the oldest trick in the book. It is for this reason that God took human flesh upon Himself and dwelt among us in the person of Jesus Christ. God knew the contempt men held in their hearts for Him, and He still turned Himself over to us. In Christ, God permitted us the success we have each desired and worked towards: He allowed us to kill Him. In minds perverted by sin, humanity imagines this to be some strange victory. We mistakenly believe that once freed from Him who we depended upon, we will be free to grow into something greater. Instead, we are left without hope as we work to develop ourselves, to become more. We have not become supermen. We have become unhappy, little gods.
Very suddenly, my life reached the place where all the projects of this sort of “real” man deteriorated. By chance, I was injured at work and was unable to continue in my career. My ability to provide for my wife and our hopes of starting a family were shelved. My strength and physical prowess will never be what they once were. My plans and preparations, my hard work and my hopes had all failed. I had not become a superman, but an unhappy little god and now my god was dead. In the wake of the death of my god, I was forced to look outside of myself for everything. God had loved me, even in my rebellion and desire to live a life free from him. By breaking me physically, He killed the one in whom I had hoped. From the death of an angry little god, I was raised to be a man. To be a truly real man is as glorious as it is inglorious. To be a real man is to simply be a man - just a man - and not a god to yourself. It is to give up on your plans to free yourself by becoming self-sufficient and to rest in the sufficiency of Jesus Christ.
I am convinced that if you live long enough, you will be brought to a place where you can no longer count on yourself. Do not despair when that time comes, but be thankful. Be thankful that though you have done your best to be rid of God, He continues to overcome. You see, we did succeed in killing Jesus Christ. But in the body we killed, God placed the guilt of all of our sin, even the murderous desires of our hearts that believed they had finally triumphed. In that death, the penalty which we deserved was served. The death of Christ was the seed of our forgiveness which struck root at the foot of the cross in Christ's shed blood and sprung up from an empty tomb. Yet Jesus Christ is not dead. He was raised so that we would see in Him the truly living God with the power to raise real men.