Whether it's a failing marriage, unexpected disease, a financial loss, or the loss of a loved one - we all face difficulties that test our understanding of God and our fundamental beliefs.
Like many Southern Baptists, I grew up attending church most Sunday mornings, evenings, and Wednesday evenings. Many good things came out of my religious upbringing. I also learned some things that set up a theology that failed to make sense after Jacob's accident. Or, at least my understanding of that theology failed.
If you had asked me who God was I would have said this: "He is an all good, all loving, all powerful, and sovereign God. And, He's in control of all aspects of my life."
That understanding works just fine while things are going good. But, when things go bad - it can get awfully confusing and frustrating. After Jacob's accident I kept asking questions like - "If God loves us and is in control - why did He allow this to happen to Jacob? What did we do wrong to deserve this? How could God possibly love me if He took my son?"
In the past, much of my relationship with God was transaction based. I thought that if I did the right things and followed what the bible said, then God would take care of me. Sure, I'll have difficulties along the way, but for the most part I would make it through life without experiencing something as painful as the death of one of my children.
"All things work together for good for those that love him." I thought this meant God and I had a deal. I love Him, place my faith in Jesus, be a good Christian man, then He makes things work out for me. Now, I realize how niave that was.
Adding to my transactional relationship were phrases you hear often in the Christian community: "Ask and you shall receive." "You have not because you ask not." So, if we ask for something then God says we'll get it. In reality, this seems to rarely happen. But, many of us operate this way with God.
My prayers were mostly centered around asking God to do something for me. Give me this. Help me with that. For most of my life things were going my way with this theological model. I had a great marriage, three beautiful children, a great job, and we were rocking along. I couldn't have asked for more. My prayers for having a "blessed" life were working.
Then June 12, 2011 happened.
Why didn't God answer my prayers to protect my son? I prayed over him every night. We were good people and Jacob is an innocent little boy. How did this happen?
In the midst of deep despair and grief for Jacob, we were so confused, angry, and felt betrayed by God. My sovereign God let my son die in a hot car by himself? How in the hell does that make any sense with my theology? The amount of rage and anger I had at God was indescribable. And, at times, I still struggle with that anger.
"God, how are you loving and good in this? If you could have done something about it - why didn't you?" When I didn't find any good answers, I started doubting everything I had ever learned or believed.
Here's an entry I made in my journal on December 2, 2011, 6 months after the accident:
"God please help me surrender my anger and disappointment with you. I can't see or hear anything from you. You have deeply hurt me and let my entire family down. What are we supposed to do with your silence? Jacob is my son and he is beautiful. Now I don't have him to hold. How can you not have enough compassion to grant me the one request I have at this point: To have an irrefutable encounter with Jesus. In Mark, Jesus said if we had faith that we could move mountains. We prayed over the kids everyday, and I prayed over Jacob while we were giving him CPR. And, you let him die. How can I ever trust you again? What more could we have done for you? You've allowed our life and family to be wrecked. If you didn't allow this and you love me, then show me who you are. I beg you."
I wish I could say things between me and God got better after this. But, this was the last journal entry I made where I prayed to God. I stopped praying altogether for a couple of years because I wasn't sure anyone was listening.
"Seek and you will find." I didn't. At least not in the way I wanted. You could argue God showed up in other ways. But, for whatever reason, it wasn't in the way I wanted. Or, maybe I didn't see it. It wasn't for lack of looking, though. The silence I experienced from God has been one of the most difficult things surrounding my faith.
Every Sunday in churches across America, you will hear clergy give messages and sermons with the phrases "God is in control", or "God has a plan." I have a viceral negative reaction when I hear statements like this. I know I'm not the only one who feels this way. To those of us who have experienced tragedies, these words are very difficult to hear and understand.
Maybe God is in control. But, in light of my experience, these statements don't make sense. If God can actively intervene in this world, then why is there so much innocent pain and suffering?
These are hard questions and I don't think we talk about them enough in evangelical communities. I've found that asking these questions and wrestling with my doubts has led me to discover a more authentic faith than what I had before.
I think it's important that we help people feel safe and comfortable sharing and discussing their struggles with God inside our churches, with each other, and with their church leaders. Here are a few of my thoughts on how we can do that:
Clergy should talk openly about your questions and voice your doubts from the pulpit. The more honest and vulnerable they are with congregants - the more we will connect with them and their message. I think a number of Pastors feel like they don't, or can't, have close relationships with people who attend their church. I think partially, it's due to the fact that we don't feel like we can be ourselves around church leaders. And, visa versa. Pastors feel like they have to pretend to be perfect and that they've got it figured out. When in reality, they are as human as the rest of us. They have questions and doubts too.
Also, Pastors should have messages and sermons that don't have a nice, neat, and tidy bow tied around the ending. At times, life is a mess and there ARE NOT answers to every question. The messages they give should reflect that reality.
Church leadership, elder boards, and deacons should allow the pastors in their churches the ability and freedom to give these types of messages without fear of consequence. Pastors should be able to give these sermons without feeling like someone is going to call them a heretic or that they somehow aren't toeing the company line. They need to be encouraged and supported in their attempts to be vulnerable with congregants.
To the rest of us - we need to start sharing our questions with each other. We should be able to talk about these issues openly in our Sunday School groups, in our Small Groups, inside the walls of our churches. We should talk freely; without judgment from each other. Many of us feel like we have to hide behind a veil of perfection in order to be included and to be a part of the team. Therefore, we don't voice our doubts for fear of being kicked off the bus.
The more we are able to bring our questions, fears, and doubts out of the darkness and into the light - the stronger and healthier our faith communities will be. So, let's start now. I've shared some of the stuff I struggle with here. What questions and doubts do you have? Please share them in the comments section or in the Facebook comments section.
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The Cure for Pain by Jon Foreman
"I wrote this one in Texas on a day off. I was reflecting on the passing of time. I have been playing music in Switchfoot for about ten years. During that period, I have been fighting pain or running away from it in a myriad of ways. And yet the pain is a constant. I have had some amazing moments singing gravity away but the water keeps on falling. I began to think of the suffering I see around me, I think of the pain of a grandmother dying of cancer. Of a friend killed by a train. I think of the pain of death, of failure, of rejection, the pain of a father losing his only son. And I came to the conclusion that I cannot run from pain any longer." - Jon Foreman