What can we do with our questions and doubts about God?

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


Working through guilt and shame.

This past summer we took a family trip to Los Angeles for a long weekend vacation.  Not only was California beautiful, but the weather was a relief from the 100 degree Texas heat.

My favorite part of the trip was attending a NEEDTOBREATHE and Switchfoot concert at The Greek Theatre. These are two of our families favorite bands. 

Opening for them was the band - Colony House. They are fairly new, but very good.  I'd heard of them because two of the members, Will and Caleb Chapman, are sons of Steven Curtis Chapman and Mary Beth Chapman.  You may have heard of Steven Curtis Chapman. He's a popular Christian artist.  We know of them even more so because they have experienced the death of a child and Mary Beth wrote a book about it called Choosing To SEE. 

In 2008, one of their daughters accidentally ran out in front of Will Chapman's car when he was driving up the driveway at their home. A total accident and terrible tragedy.  From interviews I've seen, Will struggled with a deep sense of guilt after the accident. 

Cut back to the night of the concert.  We had never heard Colony House play before so we didn't know what to expect.  They happen to be fantastic and we loved every bit of their performance and music.

Colony House    Photo Credit: http://chrishershman.com

When we got back home, I downloaded their album.  I listened through and got to a song titled Won't Give Up.  I played it over and over.  Then I played it for Brea.  It was like someone climbed into my head and pulled out how I felt and then wrote a song about it.  It's an incredible song with powerful lyrics. 

Here's how it starts:

 "I wear the guilt upon my chest
Cause I feel like I've earned it
And keep the bloodstains on my hands
To show that I've done this

Oh how I wish I could escape that day
Take back time and make everything okay
But I can't

There must be something in my lungs
That keeps me from breathing
As deep and full as I once could
Now my mind starts repeating

Oh, the pictures in my head
They roll like the movies
I shut my eyes to cut the thread
But my memory shows no mercy

Still I won't give up now
No I won't give up now"

As soon as I heard the song I knew the lyrics had to have come from Will.  I connect deeply with the words because of the familiar feelings.

I've struggled with debilitating guilt over Jacob's accident. There are so many things I could have done differently that day. 

Guilt can be powerful.  For the first few years after the accident, it felt like an all consuming force that I couldn't let go of but one that I wanted desperately to run away from.  I hated myself so much for having fell asleep that day. For having not locked the doors to our house. For not hearing the door to the house open and close.  I felt so ashamed, angry, stupid, and unworthy.  I felt like a failure as a dad and a husband.

The weight of carrying the guilt was something that my therapist, Paula, and I worked on for quite some time.  Session after session we would talk through it.  There were a lot of tears and painful discussions.  Eventually, Paula was able to help me realize some truths that started to slowly sink in over time. None of it was overnight.  And, none of it was like a light bulb moment to point to that instantly made me feel better. 

Therapy is like a farmer tending to his garden.  You keep watering and picking weeds, and one day you show up and something starts sprouting out of the dirt.  You just have to keep showing up to do the work. 

With Paula's help; here are a few things I learned while working on my guilt:

1. We aren't defined by our mistakes. - Early on, I beat the heck out of myself over what happened.  I felt like I had failed my family.  Most of all, I felt like I had failed Jacob.  The shame was permeating my entire identity.  This caused unhealthy behavior, added stress, and was a strain on my marriage and my ability to be a father to my daughters. Through therapy, though, I was able to realize that one accident or mistake doesn't define who I am.  I'm still a good person, husband, and father.

2. Healing can start around your guilt when you stop fighting it and accept responsibility. This step was incredibly difficult and took a very long time for me to work through. I was scared to death to say that I had any responsibility in Jacob's accident.  I fought as hard as I could and as long as I could to not accept it.  I was terrified to think what it meant about me that my decisions may have led my son's death.  "What does it say about me as a father?  Does it mean I am a bad person?  Am I a terrible father?  Did I fail my family?  Am I worthy of being loved?" 

So the guilt starts feeding shame, and shame feeds more guilt, and on and on... This put me on a hamster wheel of personal torture that I couldn't figure out how to get off of.  Thankfully, with hours upon hours of working with Paula, I was able to get to a place where I could bear the guilt without it continuing to rule my life.  Bearing the guilt meant I had taken and accepted responsibility for what I could have done to prevent this accident.  There were things I could have done differently.  I accept that.  I bear that guilt, but it doesn't control me anymore.

3. Giving up is not an option, no matter how bad it gets. - There were times when I wanted to die because I felt like such a failure in my guilt and shame. I truly hoped I would die. I thought about how I could commit suicide. I thought about how I wouldn't have to feel this way anymore and I would be with Jacob.  But, then I would quickly realize the amount of pain I would leave the rest of my family in. What a wreck I would leave behind.  Paula would tell me - "All you have to do is think about getting through each minute, each hour, then each day.  Get out of bed and put your feet on the ground.  Take a step, then another step.  One foot in front of the other and keep breathing." It felt like torture at times, to keep going, but I knew inside that I could not give up. I couldn't give up on Brea and my daughters. And, I couldn't give up on myself.  No matter how hard it gets - you can't give up.

The song Won't Give Up ends like this:

"Too many dreams I didn't want to dream
Too many nights alone where I can't sleep
I've got the devil on my back
Trying to take home from me
But I see Jesus out in front
He's reaching back for the lonely
Reaching back cause he loves me
I take his hand because she loved me

No I won't give up now"

You know, sometimes our guilt feels like it's taking a hold of us and dragging us into hell.  It's like our past mistakes are yelling at us through a megaphone constantly reminding us of what we've done.  But, I can tell you it is possible to find freedom from what can seem overwhelming and paralyzing. 

Healing can begin when we accept that we are human and we all make mistakes.  And, the transformative healing takes place when we accept that our mistakes DO NOT define who we are as a person. 

Listen to Won't Give Up in the video below. 

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Why I'm writing a book.

The first time I can remember enjoying the process of writing was in the 6th grade.  Ms. Chancey, one my favorite teachers, asked us to write a poem. 

At the time, my MeMe (my Mom's aunt), had recently had a stroke and I'd never experienced a family member being that sick.  This was the first time I discovered the ability to express myself through writing. 

I don't remember the poem exactly but I do remember it being very dark and grey - just the way I was feeling about all that was going on.  But, afterwards there was something that clicked inside me.

When I write it helps me organize my thoughts and process through what I'm feeling or learning.  It also gives me a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction to have created something from nothing. And, I like that others can connect with what I'm saying and possibly get something out of it.

I'm am excited to be able say that I'm writing a book. Although a contract isn't finalized yet, the plan is that I'll be working with the publisher Fortress Press. I'm going to write a book about dealing with the passing of my son, wrestling with God and my faith afterwards, and where I've come to at this point with my theology. 

Here are some of the motivations I have in writing this book:

I want to be more at peace with God - I know that by writing, it's going to force me to study, think, and then form an opinion or position on some very important theological questions that I still have. 

I want to bring Jacob forward in life - Writing this book gives me another opportunity to bring Jacob forward in this life with me and with our family.  As difficult as it is sometimes, the more I'm able to weave him into my everyday life, the more "right" it seems.  He's my son and always will be my son. Even though he's not here physically with us, he's continuing to make a difference and change the world for the better. I feel like we are working on this project together.

I'm able to help others - By sharing my story I hope that it connects with others who have doubts or questions about God in the face of so much suffering in the world.  Also, I want to be able to provide hope to someone else who may be stuck in depression, fear, anger, or hopelessness after experiencing their own trauma or tragedy. 

I'm able to redeem some of the suffering and pain - One of my main motivations, everyday, is to take the pain and suffering that came out of this tragedy and use it to do something good.  There is something very healing about taking these negative feelings and using that energy to do something positive. 

I can raise awareness and money for orphans - Through writing and speaking, I hope to continue to bring awareness and help to orphans in Uganda through our partnership with Children's Hopechest. All proceeds from the book and any speaking event I do, will go directly to the benefit of these kids.  

Honestly, the biggest fear I have in writing this book and sharing my experiences is the perception of, or the unintentional act of; exploiting Jacob, my family, or our circumstance.  It feels kind of weird to know that I'm going to have to promote a book and talk publicly about something that is so sacred to me.  Brea and I have talked a lot about whether or not I should do this.  In the end, we decided together that there are many more positive reasons to move forward with a book rather than succumb to the fear of potential negatives. 

So, going forward, I'll share some of my thoughts on this blog, sample chapters, and give updates on progress.  Please sign up for my updates on the contact page. I'd love for you to share this with other people.  Again, the proceeds from this book are going to help orphans.  So, share away and let's raise as much money as we can for them! 

Jason

 

 

Where is God?

How will I ever find God when it feels like he's walked away when I needed comforting the most? I felt betrayed by God after Jacob's accident.  I was so hurt and angry.  At times, I still am.

There is so much terror going on this world all the time it's a wonder we all don't just curl up in a ball and suck our thumbs in the corner.

The stories you see of heart break and loss are too much for me to take sometimes.  I don't ever watch the news because I know all too well the pain a loved one is feeling from the loss that some newsman is flippantly talking about as though he's reporting a non-event.  When in reality, the pain surrounding death and innocent suffering is an all-consuming cloud of despair for so many.

It's almost like we overcompensate for the amount of pain around us by numbing ourselves to it by broadcasting it 24/7 and sensationalizing it beyond anything that resembles compassion for others.

So where is God's plan in this suffering? Where is his sovereignty? Where is his divine intervention? I question it all because I don't see much of it. And, for the amount of prayers going up for help - it seems like much of the time we're left down here to fend for ourselves. 

Early on in my search for answers, I ran across a talk by German theologian, Jurgen Moltmann, that gave me a little hope.  In his talk he referenced a excerpt from Elie Wiesel's book Night.  For me, it captures the agony of senseless suffering and the only real answer that provides some hope. 

"One day, as we returned from work, we saw three gallows, three black ravens, erected on the Appelplatz. Roll call.  The SS surrounding us, machine guns aimed at us: the usual ritual.  Three prisoners in chains – and, among them, the little pipel, the sad-eyed angel.

            The SS seemed more preoccupied, more worried, than usual.  To hang a child in front of thousands of onlookers was not a small matter.  The head of the camp read the verdict.  All eyes were on the child.  He was pale, almost calm, but he was biting his lips as he stood in the shadow of the gallows.

            This time, the Lagerkapo refused to act as executioner.  Three SS took his place.

            The three condemned prisoners together stepped onto the chairs.  In unison, the nooses were placed around their necks.

            “Long live liberty!” shouted the two men.

            But the boy was silent.

            “Where is merciful God, where is He?” someone behind me was asking.

            At the signal, the three chairs were tipped over.

            Total silence in the camp.  On the horizon, the sun was setting.

            “Caps off!” screamed the Lageralteste.  His voice quivered.  As for the rest of us, we were weeping.

            “Cover your heads!”

            Then came the march past the victims.  The two men were no longer alive.  Their tongues were hanging out, swollen and bluish.  But the third rope was still moving: the child, too light, was still breathing…

            And so he remained for more than half an hour, lingering between life and death, writhing before our eyes.  And we were forced to look at him at close range.  He was still alive when I passed him.  His tongue was still red, his eyes not yet extinguished.

            Behind me, I heard the same man asking:

            “For God’s sake, where is God?”

            And from within me, I heard a voice answer:

            “Where is He?  This is where – hanging here from this gallows…”

A powerful story.  God, hanging there with the little boy.  Not a God who is watching from afar.  Not a God who said, ok, this is how this little boy is going to die today and then walks away.  But, He's right there feeling the pain and the suffering of those watching and feeling the pain and terror with the little boy.  

A God suffering with us?  I had never heard this before.  But, it touched something inside me that pointed me in a direction that made some sense.  If I was going to believe in God, then it couldn't be this monster I thought He might be who just set tortuous events into motion or at the very least allowed them to happen.  I just can't accept that notion anymore.  I don't believe God wants children or anyone to suffer.  And, I can't believe that he just sits back and watches it happen either with ambivalence. 

To what extent is God in control or not?  I don't know. But, what I can start with is that He is a loving God who is suffering with us and has compassion for us.  That adds up to me.  It makes logical sense.  To believe in a blood-thirsty Monster God who inflicts or allows pain and suffering for his will, glory, and praise is not an option for me anymore.