When Grief Kills Your Faith: Some Practical Advice
(Some days I play the role of advice mallard. So, hang with me as I dish.)
I want to give you permission to pursue your doubts about your faith.
In some faith communities and religious families, the doubters are ostracized. Doubting isn’t just seen as questioning; it’s viewed as something that’s underpinned by rebellion, by sin. The prevailing idea is that, “You’re doubting the faith, so you can leave the faith; and by leaving the faith, you are leaving our family.”
To stave off being ostracized by family and friends, many doubters keep their questions about God to themselves. And, to a degree, it’s okay, except when that doubt is part of your grief.
Doubt and grief are directly correlated. Kenneth Doka suggests that “one of the most significant tasks in grief is to reconstruct faith or philosophical systems, now challenged by the loss” (Loss of the Assumptive World; 49). All forms of grief, normal, complicated and especially traumatic grief produce doubts about one’s faith.
Goodness is sucked away in grief; and many of us base our faith off the presumed goodness of God. When that goodness is sucked into the darkness of grief, the foundation of God’s goodness begins to shake; our faith trembles and sometimes it shatters.
The dilemma that results is this: we need our family and friends during grief … to share our grief with, to remember and to receive acceptance; yet, we’re afraid we will be ostracized by our family and friends if we express our doubt. Do we: 1. Pursue our grief induced doubts at the expense of our community and at the expense of experiencing the grief within the community; or, 2. Do we pursue our community at the expense of our personal faith searching?
We do both. You need both. You need to accept your doubts and find acceptance in community. And it might be nearly impossibility.
If you are experiencing doubt in a faith community during your grief, tell someone you trust something like this:
“I need to talk and I need you to just hear me and accept me right now. I know your faith is strong and I respect you for your faith, but my faith has taken a hit since ____’s death. Instead of forcing my faith, I’m processing my doubt. _____’s death is changing me.”
If they can listen, you need to talk it through with them. It’s healthy to express your grief within the community of grievers; and if your grief includes doubt, sharing will only help diminish your pain and clarify your outlook.
On the other hand, I want to give you permission to pursue the faith you’ve never had.
Grief can also enliven a newfound belief in God. All of a sudden your darkness sees a light and now – in your community of “unbelievers” – you’re the religious nut.
And you need to say the same thing to your community:
“I need to talk and I need you to just hear me and accept me. I know we aren’t very religious and I respect you and how you live life. But, I’m pursing faith since _____‘s death. I don’t want to convert you, but I want you to know I’m changing.”
The grief that can produce doubt can also enliven faith. And both are okay. And both need to be done in our communities.
Accept your grief. Accept your enlivened faith. And, to the best you can, do so in your community.
I had just dropped off the funeral home’s outgoing mail at the nearby post office, got back into my little truck and was about ready to pull onto First Ave. when a police car came blazing through town with his lights flashing and sirens squealing, probably topping 50 mph in a 25 zone. As I saw him pass me I thought to myself, “I wonder what’s going on?”
It didn’t take me long to find out.
He was heading about five miles west of our modest town of Parkesburg to Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania,to the site of the Amish School Shootings. I, along with the rest of the world, watched the TV in disgust that night as we learned the details of how the killer had lined 10 Amish girls along the wall and shot them execution style, killing five and wounding the rest before eventually killing himself.
This all happened six years ago yesterday.
Some of the survivors testify that the killer, Roberts, seconds before he opened fire mumbled that he was going to give up and was even about ready to walk out the door. Yet, for some reason, he stuck to his intentions and, seconds before he pulled the trigger, stated to the Amish children, “I’m angry at God and I need to punish some Christian girls to get even with Him.”
Unknown to most of us, one of Robert’s children, a daughter, had died at birth, an event he believed God could have stopped, yet didn’t. Roberts, like most of us as we face death, had probably run to God like a frightened child, and after years of searching, instead of finding a warm, strong embrace, concluded that God was an absentee father.
On Monday, October 2, 2006 at 10:45 a.m., Roberts “got even” with God in his attempt to confront the looming question that lead, for Roberts, to bitterness, hatred and eventual tragedy.
I’m not suggesting that Roberts was sane; nor am I suggesting that you must be insane to become absolutely hateful and embittered at God.
I’ve often said that it’s easier to become an atheist than to believe in an evil God … Robert took the harder route and became just like his Father.
But all this would have, could have been forestalled had Roberts done something that is both very Christian and very unChristian all at once. Roberts may have found peace had he found the ability to forgive.
The forgiveness he needed to offer was the same forgiveness I imagine many of us (who both believe in God’s omnipotence and have lived through inordinate, unexplained pain) need to offer. A forgiveness that can’t be prompted by any amount of lessons in theodicy. A forgiveness that is precipitated with Jesus’ cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
The cry that kicked off Holy Saturday. And the cry that — like Jesus’ cry — had no response. The cry that leads to the crossroads of destruction or forgiveness. But not any forgiveness. This is the cry that eventually asks us to forgive God.
“Forgiving God” smacks against the core of what so many of us believe about God: namely, that He is good and that He’s love. Believing that God needs forgiveness — as though He’s done something wrong — is so far away from our conception about God that we simply don’t talk about it. We won’t acknowledge that even Jesus struggled with God’s goodness … we won’t acknowledge Jesus’ struggle, nor will we acknowledge our own struggle.
And whether God actually needs the forgiveness isn’t what I’m talking about here. Whether or not God needs it is a moot point. The fact is, many of us need to extend it.
As many books have rightly said about the Amish School Shootings: This whole story is about forgiveness. And by that they mean the forgiveness of the Amish people towards Roberts. But, this story would have never begun had Roberts been Christ-like as well.
And so, as a practical exercise, I’ll ask you: and by “you”, I’m speaking to a few. I’m not speaking to the many who have lived decent lives, unencumbered by evil, unhindered by the fog of intense pain. I’m speaking to the downcast, the trampled few who only have one explanation for their current situation … and the explanation is both as harrowing as it is unbelievable … that God has forsaken them. I’m speaking to you … the forsaken.
Have you forgiven God?
 We didn’t bury any of the Amish children, but the guy who bought the funeral home off of my maternal grandfather prepared two of the children.
Quoted from the book Amish Grace; page 25.
Why Doesn’t God Prevent Evil?
We believe that God is omnibenevolent.
As many of you know, in addition to being a funeral director, I moonlight as a youth leader for at-risk youth. Just the other day I spoke with a teenage girl who had been repeatedly raped by her father when she was only twelve.
While we believe that God is always good, where was God when the twelve year olds trust was betrayed by her father as his hand silenced her screams and his carnal desires ruined her future? Couldn’t God have simply defended this innocent child … like you and I would have? Hell, if I saw any kind of rape, yet alone the ravaging of a child, I would be thrown into an infuriating rage. But God – the good God you believe in – sat sidelined, unmoved to action; then, and even now throughout the world, the cries of the innocent fail to move the divine.
How do we interpret this problem? Do we jettison God’s omnipotence by emphasizing the freedom of man? And how much of God’s power can we jettison before He is just a god?
Most, in response to the above situation, would say, “God has voluntarily limited himself by creating humanity with freedom.” Yet, even though that seems to exonerate the goodness of God by placing the blame on man, there’s an assumption that God could – if he wished – unlimit himself and override our freedom through coercion, a phenomenon we often call “providence.”
“God could, if he had so desired, stopped the holocaust” we say. And my response is simply, “Then why didn’t He?” If God could override the freedom of man, why doesn’t he? Why doesn’t he spare the children? Or the rape victims?
Dr. Thomas Jay Oord echoes this sentiment. He writes,
“When we are victims of senseless crimes, when our children or friends are raped or killed, or when atrocious evils occur, it is hard if not impossible to avoid thinking, “Why doesn’t God stop this?” It is difficult if not impossible to worship wholeheartedly the God who could have prevented these evil(s)” but doesn’t.
In “The Nature of Love: A Theology”, Dr. Oord proposes a seminal idea that he calls “essential kenosis.”
In some sense, essential kenosis is a synthesis of open theism and process theism. Open theism has made great advances in deconstructing and peeling away Hellenistic assumptions about God’s ontology while attempting to stay faithful to the biblical witness. They’ve questioned the nature of God’s immutability, passibility and — most notably — omniscience and proposed innovative reconstructions. Yet, the open theists have yet to produce any convincing answer to the question, “Why doesn’t God override or circumvent humanity’s evil more often?”
The redefinition of God’s omnipotence has been accomplished – convincingly or not — by process theologians who believe that God can NEVER use coercion, but can only persuade; a conclusion that they arrive to based off the idea of panentheism.
Michael Brierley notes,
Panentheism is the result of conceiving “being” in terms of relationship or relatedness. This is why process theism is a type of panentheism, for “process” asserts that “entities” are inseparably interrelated, and thus that relationship, rather than substance, is “of the essence.” (9).
With relationship as essence, God becomes much less Greek and much more Hebrew, which means the “I AM” is interrelatedness, persuasion, influence, while coercion, force and, yes, many forms of providence are intrinsically NOT apart of the “I AM.” According to Charles Hartshorne, panentheism is ʺthe view that all things are within the being of God, who yet is not merely the whole of actual things.”
This relatedness ontology makes persuasion God’s only means of influence. But, this relatedness ontology also prompts process theologians to view miracles and even the resurrection with great skepticism.
Oord states, in recognition of the failures of both process and open theism, that “essential Kenosis … overcomes the problem of evil and presents God as steadfastly loving. Essential Kenosis offers a way of understanding God’s power, while affirming the occurrence of miracles, the resurrection of Jesus, hope for a final victory at the end of history, and a biblically supported doctrine of creation” (100).
“Essential Kenosis” is Oord’s seminal attempt to both acknowledge the more positive points of Process Theology’s ontology while attempting to remain faithful to the witness of scripture.
And if you want to find out how Oord’s “Essential Kenosis” attempts that synthesis, buy his book, “The Nature of Love”!
As one who works (and moonlights) while witnessing the problem of evil, let me say “The Nature of Love” is well worth your effort to both read it and understand it.
Bio: Robert Martin spends his days as a computer software tester for a company in the suburbs of Philadelphia, PA. When he is not commuting back and forth, he spends time with his wife and kids and as the Christian Education Chairman for Bally Mennonite Church. As of right now, he is finishing a Master’s of Arts in Missional Ministry from Biblical Seminary. From there, when asked what he’s going to do with the degree, his standard answer is, “God hasn’t shown me that far yet.”
Mother’s Day, 2007, my world was turned upside down when my mother fell ill. Three months later, it wasn’t just turned upside down, it was shaken, rattled, and destroyed to utter rubble when her diagnosis turned terminal.
As we as a family grieved, there is one phrase that I’m so glad no one decided they needed to tell us.
“It’s all in God’s plan.”
That is not a statement that someone going through this kind of situation needs to hear, nor is it helpful, as true as it might be.
But we can’t say that for sure. We are not necessarily privy to all of God’s plans. For that matter, can we say that it is God’s plan for someone to experience the pain and grief of such a loss? To say so is too simplistic, I think.
I think the evil, pain, and loss that comes from living in this broken world is never part of God’s ultimate plan (if so, why would the final new Creation be a place of no tears?). The world is broken, so broken things happen. What IS in God’s plan is redemption, taking broken things and using them to bring about good, like the hope of a new life, or the ability to speak love, hope, and compassion into the lives of people who have experienced a similar kind of loss.
The good that happens after, that is certainly God’s plan, but the event that caused the pain? Not sure…
Now, Christ’s death…yes, God planned that. But in his ultimate plan, did he ever want to have to do that? From the beginning, his intention was for us to live in communion with him.
Christ’s sacrifice was a broken thing that had to happen as part of a broken world and the choices of broken people, but God used that brokenness for a wonderful thing to give us hope that such brokenness is only temporary. That’s the beauty of Easter. That the pain is only for a time as there is something more to come that will blow our socks off…
For me, my mother’s death was one that struck me to the core. We prayed…and prayed…and prayed FERVENTLY that she would be healed. In the midst of the ICU we prayed. On the road back and forth from Hershey and Chambersburg I prayed. Every night during that horrible 3 months I prayed, “God, heal my mother. I know you can. Don’t take her from me.”
And she died anyways.
Over a gall stone.
How absolutely stupid, non-sensical… Seriously?!?! A GALL STONE KILLED MY MOM!
God, how could you?
Was the sad thing that happened to me part of God’s plan? Or was it simply a matter of the fact that we live in a world that is cracked, broken, damaged by centuries of sin and that her death was just one in a whole litany of lives taken that should never have been lost?
God’s plan… we like to say that nice little “pat” answer “Oh, it’s all in God’s plan.”
What a load of crap.
The broken world around us was never part of God’s plan.
But God is bigger, stronger, better, and wiser than that. He takes even something as stupid and horrible as my mother’s slow fade into morphine-steeped oblivion and turned it around into a passion and a fire in my soul as I saw her life reflected in the lives of others and realized how significant one life lived passionately for God could be.
Her death was never part of God’s big plan. But my life is.
And this is what we must remember: what is important is not figuring out why the sad thing had to happen, but what is our reaction to it. Are we going to continue living in that brokenness? Or are we going to live a redeemed life?
For me, as Joshua said, and my house…we’ll serve God, even in the midst of brokenness.
Robert blogs at Abnormal Anabaptist. You can follow him on twitter @tristaanogre.
“Why Doesn’t God Prevent Genuine Evil In The World?”
The more I read Tom Oord’s work, the more I appreciate his perspective, specifically as it relates to his understanding of God, love and evil.
Death and evil are siblings who share more than the same heritage. Often, we cannot talk about the one without considering the other; we can’t be touched by one without also being touched by the other. Even if evil spares us of physical death, it takes of our life, lessening life’s quality. Death, somehow or another, is evil’s product; and, yet, seems to be able to reproduce it’s progenitor, begging the question, “What comes first … evil or death?”
When you bring God into the conversation of evil and death, the whole thing get’s even more messy.
Here’s a small clip by Oord called, “Why Doesn’t God Prevent Genuine Evil in the World?”.
(from The Work Of The People)
Aside from Tom wearing some of the coolest nuclear holocaust proof glasses I’ve ever seen, he also drops some powerful thoughts.
For instance, he says,
I think it’s time for Christians to take seriously the idea that God’s love makes it the case that God can’t do some things.
… we need to think more seriously about what kind of power God has.
Finally, what do you think about Oord’s conclusion that because of our freedom God can’t prevent evil?
A House Keeping Note: About two months ago I promised a six part series on the problem of evil that only had enough gas to make it to part five (1. “Discarding God”; 2. “My Problem with ‘God'”; 3. “Is It All God’s Will?”; 4.“Open Theism and the Problem of Evil” and 5. “So You Think You Have Free Will?”.
I have the gas for part six. Look for it on Monday.