Is God a concept by which we measure our pain?

God‘ is the song in which John Lennon denied belief in anything but himself and Yoko Ono. The list of things he didn’t believe in included The Beatles, I-Ching, Bob Dylan, the Bible, Hitler, Jesus, Kennedy, Elvis and Magic.

The opening line is “God is a concept by which we measure our pain“.

As soundbites go, it’s a good one. As a lyric from the writer of Please Please Me, it’s pretty fucking heavy.

I grew up a Catholic. I swallowed the whole thing, from Catechism 101 all the way to being an altar boy and swinging the incense at Mass. Confession was a wonder – you’d go and tell the priest all the things you’d done, and he’d absolve you, and you’d leave the Church walking on air.

But one day, aged 14, I found myself sitting at Mass feeling very bored. A voice in my head said, very clearly: “If there is a God, you are being disrespectful”. I walked out and never went back.

And yet, and yet….I miss it.

I miss the comfort, the colour, the rites, the ceremony. Every now and then, for a wedding or a funeral, I find myself back in a church. They all feel good, but there’s something special, different, about a Catholic church. We were schooled to be awed by the whole ambience. This was not the cosy, almost liberal world of The Church Of England. No, this was a world where you knew your place. God was good, but he was also a very heavy dude. If you were bad you were going to hell, no matter how small or young you were.

Another of John Lennon’s lines comes to mind: “You think you’re so clever and classless and free“. The truth is that however grown up, smart and successful we become, how rationally we can talk about ‘the real world’, Catholic indoctrination never really leaves you. You’re never properly free of it.

I remember, for instance, being almost relieved when Bob Dylan went through his Christian phase. The albums Saved, and particularly Slow Train Coming, contained such comfortingly familiar themes, and were a timely reminder that we are all part of something bigger than ourselves. These songs didn’t necessarily convert anyone, least of all me, but they did at least legitimise the internal debate.

I remember someone saying at the time, in response to the surprise that Bob Dylan of all people could be Born Again, that anyone who was surprised by Dylan talking about God hadn’t been listening. And it’s true. It may not have been so overt, but Christian teachings are littered through Dylan’s earlier work.

I know some fervent people, true believers. Good people. Intelligent people. Worldly and successful. We talk. I truly want to understand what it is that convinces them about something they believe in, that I would love to believe in. I believe in something, but not the God of creation.

I was talking about this one night to my friend Martin Sacree. When I told him I didn’t believe in God, he said a really surprising thing. “And yet,” he said, “He turns up quite a lot in your songs.”

And he’s right. I had to look at my own songs a bit more carefully. And there was God, in the lyrics, sometimes explicitly, by name, for heaven’s sake!

One example is this week’s song, Not There Yet. It’s really a song about looking for a place in the world, and never really having found it. You’ll hear me wondering whether ‘God smiles as he points me in the wrong direction‘, and whether he knows who our ‘true companion’ is, and, if he does, ‘Why does he let us waste our time?

I’m in a better place now than when I wrote that song. It appeared on my 2012 album Now That’s What I Call Divorce (which is a bit of a giveaway as to my state of mind at the time).

But it’s not a doomy song. God appears as a bit of a joker, letting us go down wrong paths, get involved with the wrong people. But, in the end, we’re all on the same journey. Some of us get there early, others get there very late. For me it’s always been about the journey itself. I’m not complaining that I’m Not There Yet. I’m not sure I really want to arrive at all.


  1. My commiserations on a Catholic upbringing.

    I regard the notions of God and of Satan as unhelpful abstractions, that interfere with us dealing properly with bad people, and with us drawing on kindred good people on the way.

    You ask why he or she (God) lets us waste our time going off on tangents or in the wrong direction. My challenge is stronger.

    In my view if there is a God, who, for starters, allows priests to abuse children in their care to the point that those targets later kill themselves, where the priests are protected from justice, then that “God” is a whacking great psychopath, of either gender. I prefer NOT to believe that such a person or power exists, and that the problems are with individuals on earth.

    I have made it to the other side of the religion bridge, and I don’t even invoke the name of God when expressing myself. I say “Oh my Codd”, after Ted Codd, who was a really lovely and caring individual human being, with a great morality, whose work I seem to have extended.

    But note that I have found so much of my healing through music … that is alive now, and has been healing for millennia.


    • Always nice when people talk about these things thoughtfully rather than being abusive. The most common misconception, liberally applied across the web, is that religion is responsible for more deaths and misery than anything else in history. Actually, and by a factor of many tens, religion can’t hold a candle to communism, which managed to kill off over 100 million people in less than 70 years. I’ll take an imaginary God over totalitarian politicians any day.

      Sent from my iPhone


      Liked by 1 person

      • It was a Jewish Film Director that pointed out these home truths about Political Psychopaths in the 20th Century to me ….. when I was being a tad apologetic about the 7 million Holocaust, after watching his film “Where I learned to love”, a few feet away from one of the two brothers whose story it is – the “where” was Bergen-Belsen. It’s really good to encounter such wise and kindred sprits, and decent and honest human beings.


    • Hello Martin,

      Thanks for the Tom Shakespeare reference.

      I find my own comfort in working with other kindred spirits to try to make my part of the world a better place – by pursuing the charlatans, frauds and abusers that infest our society.

      I don’t think of that as either religious or particularly spiritual. It’s more plain social, and I find it personally rewarding.

      Yours, George


  2. I agree with everything you say about the Catholic church and God. To the best of my knowledge Dylan was about 22 when he wrote With God On My Side, an absolutely beautiful song. I’m going to have the Aaron Neville version played at my funeral.


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