Monday, February 15, 2016

In Grief: When Faith and God Don't Make Sense

 [Reviewed and updated May 6, 2024]

. . . Vulnerability to death is one of the given conditions of life. We can't explain it any more than we can explain life itself. We can't control it, or sometimes even postpone it. All we can do is try to rise beyond the question, "Why did it happen?" and begin to ask the question, "What do I do now that it has happened?"  ~ Rabbi Harold Kushner

A reader writes: Exactly one month ago at 1:30 in the morning, I got the call from my mama who said, "she's gone, she's gone!" Just waking up and not believing the words I was hearing, I dropped to my knees as my heart pounded crazily in my chest.....We buried my sister 4 days later.

Yesterday the final medical examiners report came in on my sister, indicating that she had a large amount of methadone and morphine in her system. I knew that she died from a drug overdose so why did the bricks fall down on me again? I just got sooo mad at her all over again. I haven't cried in several weeks and last night I just lost it. Had a few yelling spells in there too. Why would I yell at my dead sister? I asked her "WHY???? WHY???? THIS WAS SO UNNECESSARY!!! HOW COULD YOU DO THIS? WHY??????" Unfortunately I got no answers....

Today I'm exhausted and depressed again. My head hurts, my shoulders hurt, I know it's stress. I don't know how we are going to make it through this.

Yesterday morning before my mama told me about the report, I'd heard that we could get very severe weather here. I prayed for the first time since my sister passed that God would spare us from going through this. Later, I heard about the deaths in another state and thanked God for sparing us. This morning I'm angry at Him again. I don't understand why people have to die at all. Yes it's the nature of the life cycle, but why young people? My sister was 27. The kids who died in the storm were teenagers. A bus accident in another city this morning killed kids as well.

If God spares one of us does that mean He has to take SOMEone? ANYone? What do we say after He takes one so young? "Please give me peace?" I've done that. It doesn't come. "Please don't take anyone else from me?" And then He takes someone else from their family? Where is He? Why do we have to hurt this way? Where is the logic in this suffering?

Were we that bad of people that we must be punished in this way?

My mama told me about a lady on television one day that was at a church service. I forget the channel. And her son was in a bad, bad accident. The doctors told her that he was not going to survive and that she should let them go ahead and take him off life support. Well she prayed about it and God "told me not to give up." So she refused and lo and behold, her son ended up living! Wow! Congratulations.

Why didn't God give US that opportunity to save my sister? Why didn't God save those teenagers in the tornadoes yesterday? Why didn't God save those college kids on that bus this morning?

God and faith don't make sense to me now. Not that they really ever did, but they truly don't now.

I hope someone can offer something up to turn my behavior around. I know that in times of adversity, Job refused to curse God and his situation was somewhat worse than mine....but I'm not Job. I'm a human being confused by life right now.

My response: As you have observed, death has a way of forcing us to confront the big questions that get at the heart and very meaning of life. When a cherished loved one dies, all our spiritual doubts and questions come to the surface, and we may find ourselves confronting – and questioning, and re-thinking – some of our most basic beliefs about God, religion, death, the meaning of life, and the existence of an afterlife. This is the beginning of our spiritual journey through grief, the essential heart and soul work, the important “search for meaning,” as we struggle to sort out, understand and make some sense of what has happened to us.

In his book Companioning the Bereaved: A Soulful Guide for Counselors and Caregivers, respected author and grief expert Dr. Alan Wolfelt notes that in our modern Western culture, people “tend to travel through life believing that the world is essentially a nice place in which to live, that life is mostly fair, and that they are basically good people who deserve to have good things happen to them.” But when a death happens – especially one that is unexpected, untimely, or tragic, “the pain and suffering that result undermine these beliefs and can make it very difficult to continue living this happy life. The death can have overwhelming impact as the mourner may lose faith in his basic beliefs about the world being benevolent and fair. The result is that through the search for meaning, pain and suffering are intensified (p. 176)."

When a loved one dies, we often feel “singled out,” as if God has personally selected us, and only us, to experience this tragedy. We may know intellectually that loss is a natural part of life, but still, it is only human to think of natural disasters, tragedies, accidents, death and loss as something that happens to others, not to us. Unfortunately, however, the sad reality is that ours is a mortal, frail, and imperfect world. Tragedies do occur – and there is no immunity from loss.

Louis LaGrand, another leader in the field of grief counseling and known worldwide for his research into the afterlife experiences of the bereaved, writes in Love Lives On: Learning from the ExtraordinaryExperiences of the Bereaved about the inevitability of loss:
Whenever I give a lecture or workshop on grief or coping with the death of a loved one, I usually begin with an insightful Chinese proverb well-known in the grief literature. “You cannot prevent the birds of sorrow from flying over your head, but you can prevent them from building nests in your hair.” The proverb points out two extremely important concepts. The first: All relationships end in separation, divorce, disagreement, incarceration, or relocation, to name a few causes. And “the birds of sorrow” will fly over your head and reappear throughout life. Bad things happen to all of us; brokenness permeates life, which is unpredictable and at times unfair. As many therapists tell their clients, “the problem with fairness is that it doesn’t exist.” Nothing you can do can give you immunity to the loss of loved ones. There are no exemptions: Everyone dies and walks through the doorway of death. It follows that grief and suffering are forever part of the human condition (pp. 59-60).
Charlotte Mathes is a psychologist who lost her half-brother to suicide when she was just 19, and her own grown son Duncan “first to schizophrenia, then to suicide.” In her extraordinary book, And A Sword Shall Pierce Your Heart , she confronts some of the very questions you have raised. For example, If God is all good and all powerful, then why does He allow suffering and evil in the world? Charlotte writes,
We must grant again that human suffering necessarily troubles believers in monotheistic religions that view God as omnipotent, omniscient, and all good. If a benevolent God has complete control, then why indeed do suffering and evil exist? Rational explanations either see God’s power as limited, or suppose the existence of evil to be only the absence of good, or hold that evil exists to allow humans to have free choice. Hinduism says that “evil” results from faulty perception, our low level of consciousness making us unable to see everything as a manifestation of God. The Buddhists, on the other hand, maintain that suffering results from attachment and desire. 
In his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Harold Kushner says, “God can’t do everything.” By thus limiting God’s power, we will understand that He is not responsible for life’s tragedies. Monotheistic critics see this concept as contrary to traditional doctrine: they cannot conceive God hasn’t complete control. Accordingly, some believe our sinfulness brings about pain and suffering. Others maintain that if all went well in life, having no need for God, we would not seek Him. Others say that God suffers with us, for He sent His son to a human death.
In the stories of Jacob and Job, however, we find another answer. By undergoing the struggle of wrestling with the angel, Jacob came to see God face to face. Through his travail and questioning, Job, too, was finally able to see God. Both stories show that finding God is an individual and experiential quest, one that changes our psyches in ways beyond rational explanation. To advance the search, we must all shine the bright light of fact upon our feelings of entitlement. None of us is immune to the darker powers erupting from within and without. Each night on our television screen we see how they inflict suffering on others. War, disease, natural disaster, hunger, and violence are massive killers of the world’s children. Why did we feel we would go through life unharmed? A mother in mourning for her dead child is one sufferer in the human family (p. 174).
In Life Touches Life: A Mother’s Story of Stillbirth and Healing, author and bereaved mother Lorraine Ash vividly describes how she eventually gave up her belief in an all powerful God:
I could not allow myself to ponder what God was thinking, but I started from a place of trust – a lifetime steeped in Catholicism, which I often challenged but nevertheless always honored. I simply believed what St. Augustine said in the fourth century: Faith precedes understanding. I simply believed the Jesuit theologian Teilhard de Chardin when he wrote in Le Milieu Divin, “If we believe, then, everything is illuminated and takes shape around us: chance is seen to be order, success assumes an incorruptible plenitude, suffering becomes a visit and caress of God.” These age-old luminaries were helping me through my grief. Instinctively, I believed what they wrote. I did not know, of course, whether they were right. Such things are unknowable, I told myself, and human tragedy does nothing to lift the veil of mystery between heaven and earth. But it did me good to contemplate my beliefs. In that contemplation lay one of the greatest gifts my daughter’s life brought to me – a clearer view of life and myself that seemed to explain how terrible things like Victoria’s stillbirth could happen in God’s creation . . . In the course of my reading, slowly I chose to give up the belief that God was all-powerful. Instead, I chose to believe God was hard put to stop the death of Victoria, a pure and innocent soul. What, then, were Victoria and I and God powerless against? Could it be nature? Granted, God created nature, but the nature He created is inherently unpredictable and hardly benign. Nature is ruled by laws implicit with danger. Take gravity, for example. Gravity is a good thing. It ensures that everything on earth stays down in its place. However, as [Rabbi Harold] Kushner explained:
"Gravity makes objects fall. Sometimes they fall on people and hurt them. Sometimes gravity makes people fall off mountains and out of windows. Sometimes gravity makes people slip on ice or sink under water. We could not live without gravity, but that means we have to live with the dangers it causes. Laws of nature treat everyone alike."
One of the first good laughs I had after Victoria’s death was while reading Kushner’s book. I imagined God as an old rabbi in the sky throwing up both his hands, “What? I have a whole world here to make go. You could do better?” I relaxed after that. I had found a rational way to support my belief in God. I had found a way to be angry at what happened to me without being angry at God (pp. 52-54).
In his informative book, Grievers Ask: Answers to Questions about Death andLoss, Harold Ivan Smith addresses the question, “Where was God when my son died?” In this passage, he quotes theologian William Sloane Coffin, Jr. following the drowning death of his son Alexander:
The one thing that should never be said when someone dies is, ‘It is God’s will.’ Never do we know enough to say that. My own condition lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that [let] Alex die; that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break (p.41).
My friend, at one time or another, I suspect we’ve all asked questions such as, “Why me?” and “Why now?” The simple truth is that, when a significant loss like this occurs, there aren’t any satisfactory answers – but it’s still important for us to ask – and discuss – the questions! And it’s good to know that there are safe places, such as our online Grief Healing Discussion Groups, where we can puzzle with one another about such things. Even though we have no explanations, no solutions, no answers, and no cures, most certainly we share in your pain, and we are touching your wounds with gentle and tender hands.

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