I’m about a quarter century late to the party that Philip Yancey started when he wrote Disappointment With God. It’s a book that seeks to answer some tough questions about why God might put through a path of suffering. It came out in 1988 and for me it is still relevant. I’ve hit some limitations in my faith journey lately, and I’ve required deeper understanding and study. I actually applied to seminary because of it. Yancey is helping clear up how to talk about keeping one’s faith through the pain we are guaranteed to feel in our lives. It’s an important perspective to learn, if our faith is more than a fad.
For many people, it is the emotional trauma that we might deal with in our lives that leads to losing our faith. When horrible things impact us, looking to a God that is supposed to offer faith and hope to victims of terror and oppression, seems to be contradictory. After years of faithfully following God, when disaster strikes, it can be hard to keep our faith.
The truth to be told, when disasters happen at all, faith or not, it’s hard to keep our worldviews in tact. From my vantage point people often lose their faith because of a break up, a meltdown, a major conflict that’s gone awry, or even a death or another tragedy. But it is noteworthy that people often lose any sort of worldview they have when they undergo the depth of pain we can so easily experience as fragile human beings.
One of the arcs of the FX drama, The Americans, is the burgeoning faith of Paige. Elizabeth and Phillip are her parents. They are Soviet spies who have assimilated to U.S. culture in the 1980s, but they do draw their boundaries to their assimilation. They still like hockey, and vodka, and caviar. And they still are very skeptical of faith.
Paige keeps her faith development behind closed doors, so part of the problem her parents have with her is he deception. But Elizabeth thinks that that Christian propaganda causes the inequality that is so obvious in Reagan’s U.S. Meanwhile, Paige gives $600 of her vacation money to the church. Her father, who is enraged at her dishonesty primarily, and who is beginning to suffer from PTSD for all of the killing his profession is leading him to do, confronts Paige’s pastor. He starts yelling at him, and the pastor responds with a brief sentence about the forgiveness of Jesus.
I actually thought the line from the pastor was a little forced. But the vulnerable, Soviet-indoctrinated spy, was touched by it. Because in his world, through all of the violence he has consumed has caused him a great deal of suffering. He sees the opposite side of this Cold War where there is real lives being lost on both sides. And he needs hope and forgiveness. Jesus is the antidote to his pain and he is realizing that.
So often, we look for evidence to solve our faith crisis. And though there is a lot of data out there to prove anything, that data is so easily manipulated to mean whatever we want it to. But it’s not a foolproof method for keeping our faith. And moreover, we are so addicted to the endless supply of data around us, we can’t possibly make any life choices based on extensive research of it because the ocean of information we swim in is too deep and too vast. When we endure a loss of faith, it may be a more internal and deeper consequence that has caused it, not just a logical fallacy. If it just seems to be in our head, it might be better to get out of our head and attempt to feel a little bit more. Phillip’s emotional experience is central to the start of his conversion, not a good argument that pastor made.
So often we use a cerebral argument to explain why we lost our faith, or left our relationships, or even abandoned our commitments. And the temptation for those holding down the fort is to argue back with us—to have a logical argument with an individual, not really to convince them (although that might be a worthy endeavor to speak about our faith intelligently), but rather to convince ourselves that we aren’t crazy. At the public meeting the other night, the question of the authorship of Mark came up. And I think we were tempted to get into an argument that maybe didn’t make sense to have at that moment—of course, authorship can’t be proven one way or another and so we need to wonder why we are having it to begin with.
Are we looking for a way out of the faith we grew up with? Of a relationship with a God who has disappointed us? Are there greater emotional reasons: self-doubt, abandonment, recapitulating our family system, embarrassment, that causes us to want to leave God, our faith, and community?
All of that doesn’t change the fact that it is ultimately the pain caused from our experiences puts in a position where it seems like God is silent, unfair, or hidden (those the questions that Yancey tries to answer). That cognitive dissonance is the result of circumstances that simply are not logical or reasonable. We can’t possibly “make sense” of all the losses we experience in our lives. I’m not sure that tying God right into the trauma makes sense—as if he caused it to happen or is responsible for it. I’m not sure he always knows how to make sense of it for us. But he can feel it with us. We can feel it together.
But that something make sense, isn’t for us to embrace nihilism. It might be best for us to just feel all of the feelings we have. Dumbing down with marijuana or alcohol might not help rekindle our faith. Coping with it by dating around or promiscuity might hurt it even more. Or even just responding to it in a blind fury of rage, though optional, may not really get at the heart of our pain. Our self-medication or our outlets of aggression, though they may feel good, just triangulate something else at the heart of our conflict, when we might need to have it with another person or with God Himself.
I think God is patient, so as we swim in and out of faith, his eternal view of our lives gives him the chance to be patient. And as we are people who are hurt by those who lose their faith or leave us, I hope we can exercise the same kind of patience that my mom did for me when she left the light on for me in the foyer after I was out with friends too late at night.