When Tragedy Makes You Doubt God

Remembering back to the nightmare of 9-11—or these days, it seems, going online or opening up any newspaper at all—one finds oneself sympathizing with those who after such tragedies ask themselves where God is when such events occur. When we can’t understand how something could have happened in a world overseen by a gracious and loving God, even we who are deep believers find ourselves sometimes looking skyward, and wondering if there really is anything up there but clouds and empty space.

If you happen to just now be in a place where for the life of you you cannot understand how something unimaginably tragic could have occurred, and as a result are questioning whether or not the God in whom you believe is real—or at the very least asking where he was when the plane crashed into the tower, or the tornado struck, or the earthquake hit, or the pipeline in Kenya killed all those people—the first thing you should know is that nobody would fault you for asking such questions. That’s what tragedy does; it makes people who usually have a perfectly fine relationship with God wonder whether all that time they have, in fact, been having a “relationship” with a being no more real than a child’s imaginary playmate.

You’re allowed to feel such things. How can you help it? God is a lot of things, but he’s not stupid. He understands that in the course of any person’s life things are likely to happen which will cause that person to question the degree to which he is or isn’t participating in their lives, or in the lives of others. God gets that. He knows that will happen. He’s ready for it.

When the raw emotions of a tragedy first sweep over you, there’s nothing you can do but ride them out. You wait, essentially. And during that time of waiting, all kinds of thoughts and feelings will rush and swirl through your heart and head. There’s nothing you can do about that. It’s entirely natural. It can’t be stopped. Let it happen. Trust that process.

If, after the intensity of that phase of grief or shock has waned a bit, you do, in fact, find yourself face-to-face with the question of whether or not God is there, or real at all, then do not fear or hesitate to ask that perfectly valid question. The only caveat I would reccommend is that you do so with the seriousness and sincerity such a question deserves.

Sit down, close your eyes, take a few deep breathes, and when your mind has settled just a bit, simply ask God if he’s still there: if he’s still real, if he’s with you, if he’s still watching out for you and the world. If the tragedy with which you’re dealing involves the death of someone you love, ask God if the person he took is all right—if they’re safe, if they’re okay, if they’re with him now.

Ask God these questions. Doing so is your right.

Trust that when you do so, you will have your answer: that God, and the Holy Spirit within you, will put the answers to your questions into your heart and mind—and that you will learn, and know once more, that God is still, as he has ever been, with you.

Things happen for reasons that we on this side of heaven cannot understand. But no matter the degree of our grief and doubt, what does not change is that the nature of the God whom we worship is, and shall ever remain, benevolent. We must trust and finally take solace in the sure knowledge that everything God does, He does for what, in the end, he knows is best.

We must trust that what we cannot now fathom will be clear to us later. For He has made us that promise, and in it we can take true, steady, and lasting comfort.

 

” I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart ! I have overcome the world ! “ — John 16:33

“Jesus said: ‘I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies’…..” — John 11:25

“Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” — Heb.11:1

We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body. — 2 Corinthians 4:8-11

For God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. – 1 John 3:20

About John Shore

John Shore (who, fwiw, is straight) is the author of UNFAIR: Christians and the LGBT Question, and three other great books. He is founder of Unfundamentalist Christians (on Facebook here), and executive editor of the Unfundamentalist Christians group blog.  (In total John's two blogs receive some 250,000 views per month.) John is also co-founder of The NALT Christians Project, which was written about by TIME,  The Washington Post, and others. His website is JohnShore.com. You're invited to like John's Facebook page. Don't forget to sign up for his mucho-awesome newsletter.

  • Karen H.

    Thanks! I needed that! :)

  • Tarry

    This is beautiful.

    But I have to ask. . . what if it doesn’t work? What if you ask, and there is no answer?

    I suspect the answer is wait — but how long, and how does one wait?

    Days, weeks, months , years. . . what does that look like?

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnshore/ John Shore

      Tarry: Honestly? I’d say a month. I’d say that if more or less every day, for a month, you have sat down, closed your eyes, and opened yourself up to God letting you know he’s there, and all you’ve gotten back in return for that effort is silence, then … then you write me and tell me that happened. Because I’d be real interested in that.

      • textjunkie

        Or like Mother Teresa, you may hear from God once and then silence for the rest of your life…

  • Dirk

    This was very profound, John. I’m going to have to give it some thought.

    I saw a lot of faith and anger in those who had lost everything in the storms of this late spring back home. The willingness of so many old people (I just don’t do PC euphemisms) to keep on keeping on despite everything was a lesson to me.

  • http://somaticstrength.wordpress.com somaticstrength

    I waited for God. He didn’t save me from my childhood. He didn’t save me when I was a teenager and begging him everyday for help because I didn’t think I could survive the pain. He didn’t save me when I was suicidal these last few years. I did it all. I prayed and waited. I asked God for big things to show I didn’t doubt his power. I believed, I trusted, I repented, I read my Bible, I spent hours and hours alone with him, at one point consistently for a year. I asked him for small things in the hopes maybe that would be okay. I begged god every week for the tiniest, littlest, most insignificant thing just to make life livable. I didn’t care about it being a good or wonderful life; just one where every week I wasn’t thinking about how it would be better to end it than deal with this anymore.

    I gave god from the time I was six years old to the time I was 23. I told myself, maybe it’s me. Crummy, sinful me standing in the way of God helping me. So I repented some more. I repented for being a sexual abuse survivor. I repented for my PTSD, though I didn’t know that’s what that was at the time. I convinced myself that of course god didn’t save me, he obviously *wanted* me to go through the abuse because I was so evil, so horrible, that that was the fitting way to teach me a lesson. I told god I’d learned it. I told him that I wanted to serve him in whatever way he wanted, but i couldn’t because I was chained down by this, so please, please heal me. Make things better.

    I gave him my life and it almost killed me. And sometimes I think that’s what Christians would want – you know the “Jesus is the only way to heaven or else you’ll burn in hell for eternity” Christians. Maybe in their mind suicide would have been a more forgivable sin than rejecting God, so maybe I should have just done that.

    Nothing’s better, aside from now it’s far easier to live without god; I don’t live with the same kind of dread and panic and high emotionalism of believing in a supernatural savior. It wasn’t tragedy that made me doubt his existence, it was tragedy that made me reject him. It’s only now that he’s finally starting to fade away from my mind.

    I’m still not healed. I’m still stuck in a family that doesn’t care about me because I’m just the girl and it’s my duty to sit down, shut up, and play nice no matter what I go through or what was done to me. With a mother who told me I wasn’t allowed at Christmas because “Christmas is for family” and since I can’t act like my rapist brother didn’t rape me, well then I’m not family. A mother who has played with my head so much that if someone told me I’d dreamed up my entire existence, I’d probably believe them because since when was I anything but crazy? They’re the good Christians. I’m the bad Christian (can’t tell them I’m not a Christian anymore) because I don’t go to church, I’m an introvert (remember it’s a sin), I’m not very good at fake smiles.

    Whoever god is, he didn’t save me. Or help me. Or do anything for me. I pull myself through this everyday. It’s my strength and my power that keeps me waking up in the morning despite being in pain, physically and emotionally, despite going to bed every night certain there is not one more day I can get through. It was reject god or die. To say it was on my end – I didn’t do enough, wait on god long enough, pray hard enough, believe hard enough, listen hard enough – is to disregard every moment of my struggle. I did those things. And if God needs certain behavior from a person, to save a sexual abuse survivor drowning in her own despair, than he is either weak or cruel; fickle and arbitrary. It’s good not to have him in my head anymore, life may still suck, but it is so much easier to breathe and live without god.

    …I probably won’t read responses to this because the last time I engaged in conversations on this on a different blog I was told that “god allows pain and suffering for growth and teaching” which is one of the most creepy, fucked up things you say to a survivor, especially one whose father told her he was doing it for her own good. I understand believing in god and believing he never fails, so if there’s a situation where it seems like he has, searching for another explanation. I was a Christian, I do get it. But I don’t have the strength for my life to be examined by outside eyes, reassessed to make me doubt my own reality, and then told how I’m misjudging god, or I’m at fault, or the millions of creepy victim-blaming things that I hear from Christians all the time, so it may be bad etiquette, but I probably won’t read or respond. Mental health comes first.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnshore/ John Shore

      Somatic: You won’t hear anyone here (insofar as I can control it, anyway—which I can, but sometimes not as immediately as I like) telling you that there’s anything whatsoever invalid or … less than pure, about your experience. It’s obvious you’ve had to overcome a great deal. It seems REALLY fucked-up that you have to keep living with your completely horrendous parents: is there any way you can get OUT of that house? Anyway, best to you, for sure. Sound like you’re due for a break or ten.

      • http://somaticstrength.wordpress.com somaticstrength

        My father has been out of the house since I was eight and just passed away this year, so it’s my mother I deal with, and my brothers whenever they visit. I’d get but but I’ve got nowhere to go and no money to go there with. Most of the friends I had who were close enough to help me were gone once I became suicidal. I don’t have a support system IRL to even know where to begin getting out. This city is overrun with conservative Christianity, and the only people I even know are people who adore my family and think I’m a silent freak. So there’s really nowhere for me to go.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnshore/ John Shore

          Whoa. That is some seriously intense stuff. Do you have a blog?

          • L.SS.

            blog is linked from her username and it’s amazing. i was just reading it for over an hour.

          • http://somaticstrength.wordpress.com somaticstrength

            Things have been tough lately for me, so I’m back to old survival habits, and your comment became my “one good thing” that I look for everyday to keep me still going. Thanks. :)

          • L.SS.

            what you wrote about pyjamas … i know a LOT of people who have suffered similar abuse to yours (if you ever want to email with any of them, let me know) … and nobody ever mentioned something like that. i bet you’re right it’s the kind of thing people think they can’t say.

            i have one friend who’s a human rights activist from disabled/autistic perspective and she had been tortured in institutions … she writes about some things about body awareness that you would understand. she also writes about how the way that autistics are different, and how we really really can’t change it, means that just by existing we break some taboos of society. i thought that might be a useful idea to you, too, even though it’s more because of your experiences than because of “wiring”.

            by the way, some of my friends who were victims and/or survivors (i like the distinction that you made in your blog about that) stayed believing but in different ideas of God than what you or i were raised with … and some ended up atheist also. i respect all their ways of managing to stay in life.

          • L.SS.

            and yours, obviously. very much.

    • Allie

      I’m so sorry about what you’ve been through. My foster daughter, when she told her mother that her father was raping her, was told, “Well, he’s not asking you to do anything he doesn’t ask me to do, and he pays the bills.” I don’t understand how parents can do that. It’s not fair that you had to live with these people.

      You are right not to believe in a God who is just a bigger, more powerful version of your parents who don’t help you or take care of you. Your parents wanting you to believe in that God are just victimizing you in a new way. But it sounds like you’ve figured that out. You’ve heard enough well-intentioned crap from Christians, so I’ll try not to add to it. I just hope for you that you overcome every obstacle in your path.

    • Diana A.

      “Mental health comes first.” I totally get this. Take care of yourself. May healing finally come.

    • L.SS.

      nobody should blame you at all for what you feel about this.

      i wish you could escape your family, too. very glad you have survived this far despite them.

  • Christelle

    brilliant. as usual. thank you.

  • http://sparrowmilk.blogspot.com Shadsie

    What’s weird with me is that it seems like a lot of the source of my personal suffering of late comes from wondering if I am “just talking to an imaginary friend” and if that makes me stupid, or worthless, or less than human and holding back the future – or just plain weak. It’s like, an instinct is there, I just want to. I talk to myself inside my head, but when I am talking to God inside my head – it feels different. I suppose it’s no actual proof that I’m talking to anyone but myself, but framing that, and believing that I am communicating with something “other” calms me down and helps me work things out.

    Yet, so many people in the world would say I’m weak for that, a non-critical thinker, inferior, even a potential threat? However, I think, if we’re all gonna be dead in the end, anyway, why shouldn’t I do something that brings me peace (so long as I’m not hurting anyone with it, and I’m not, and if I’m “hurting myself” I don’t see it).

    In short, I feel silly, sometimes even worthless for getting through life by talking to an “imaginary friend,” but I cannot seem to stop, nor do I really want to.

    I’m sorry to anyone who feels that I am immoral for believing there might be a purpose to it all, or a sometimes sadistic or seemingly sadistic author at the grand celestial laptop, but I really cannot stop just because I’m told I have to be a better person. Maybe it’s enough that I actively wonder if I’m trash, at least I think about it. I’m not strong. I admit it. Maybe my hopes make me stupid, but letting them go means death for me right now.

    Sorry if I made no sense.

    I’m still a Christian, but an agnostic one – and the doubt really makes me hurt sometimes, especially since it all seems to be framed in self-doubt.

  • Allie

    Tragedy doesn’t make me doubt God. And I know, not just intellectually but because I have felt God’s presence, that God is real and God loves me.

    But chronic illness, on the other hand, is a real test of faith for me. When every day is painful, not only do I question my own memories of feeling the Holy Spirit, but I start to feel like, well, maybe God is real, but he sure doesn’t like me much. I would not treat a dog the way God treats me.

    It helps me to read the psalms and know that I am not the first to feel this way. And to say with the psalmist, I know that this is my own infirmity speaking. It really does help to know that some of the people in the Bible who were most beloved by God did not hesitate to accuse God of cruelty, to demand answers, to demand that God come through on his promises. God did not hate them for it and so I know that he will not hate me for doing the same. I don’t understand why it has to be this way, but I have faith that someday I will understand.

  • Ken

    A natural universe of cause and effect. Free will. I was taught that given these two things, despite a well meaning and benevolent God bad things have, do, and will happen. Without cause and effect, how can we learn and grow? Without free will, how can we use those lessons to choose Him?

    If God interfered in our choices and changed every outcome so as to make us “happy” all the time we would be less than automatons. And that would be a tragedy that would dwarf the sum of all human misery from the dawn of time to the very last day.

    • Ken

      Mind you the above is no consolation to any victims of cruelty or circumstance. (I can tell you it is of no consolation to me when I’m down!)

      The above premise is about the nature of the universe that we all live in. It does not touch on the fate of any one individual. At best, like Newton’s Third Law, it simply describes how things work, and maybe why it was all set up that way. But knowing how or why does not make tragedy go away, or make it everything all OK. Understanding something and being happy about that understanding is completely unrelated (and not mutually dependent).

      We can only hope that, in the end, after all that happens, God will somehow make our hurts go away, and make all the victims whole. And as for any grand ineffable plan? Frankly, I just hope God loves us enough that in the end that somehow, in retrospect life the universe and everything will in fact been worth it. But that’s His call.

  • L.SS.

    if a person has been christian for several decades and has never felt those feelings (answers from God, peace from God, etc.) that christians are supposed to feel, what does it mean?

    was i not supposed to be a christian, and i just believed by mistake ever since i was 5?

    i’m probably sideways of average neurologically, i feel some other things in life somewhat more, less, or differently from what’s common … so could it just be that i’m not wired like most christians who describe these things, and that i experience the presence of God in some peculiarly silent way that doesn’t sound anything like what they describe?

    nothing really awful has ever happened to me (lots of unpleasant dilemmas, disappointments, probably average or below average stressful life stuff… nothing you could call tragedies), so it’s not like the case with the poster above who has a good reason not to believe.

    and i’ll probably continue to believe in God. but from time to time i wonder: why don’t i feel -why have i never felt- what i’m supposed to feel?

    • L.SS.

      just scrolled down and read Shadzie’s comment… i still talk to God, too. and i still, weirdly, seem to believe in predestination, because here i am asking if i was actually SUPPOSED to be an unbeliever and i somehow messed up and ended in this kind of credo-emotional limbo.

      i hope you will answer me some ideas even though my question is strange and not entirely on topic for the original post, but kind of on topic for the comments… (the poster who was asked to try waiting for God for a month, got me thinking about posting this).

      • http://sparrowmilk.blogspot.com Shadsie

        Hmm. I don’t know about “destined to be believer/nonbeliever” but I do know that I’ve sometimes actively wondered if I should be dead. I actually wrote a really bad short story with that kind of concept once (someone feels “out of place” in time and is given the opportunity to go back in time and kill his younger self becuase it’s “what should have happened.” ) – Sort of a dark play on the “Set Right What Once Went Wrong” trope.

        I think it’s just a function of my disorder, though – when depressed, I feel like that, when I’m “up” I feel like I have some reason to stick around/be here.

        I don’t know if I “feel God” the same way charsimatic people do – I do have this sense of “something there” but I realize it *could* just be my own mind/my own brain wiring/my own defects if I were to believe what some people have to say about it. I’m not sure if there’s any “correct” way to feel things like that – since we all have different perceptions of existance.

        • L.SS.

          well, there is that possibility. or several, actually. oh sorry i spelled your name wrong. i think i was spelling it half in german.

        • L.SS.

          i don’t think it can be that you were supposed to be dead. but i mean the possibilities of how the brain is doing things.

    • Allie

      I think you’ve felt exactly what you were supposed to feel. If you haven’t felt the Spirit more directly and unmistakably, it may be because you are strong and don’t need it. Remember Thomas and what Jesus told him?

      • L.SS.

        knowing me, i kinda doubt it. but, it was friendly of you to say so. i don’t think it’s a case of doubtless thomas.

  • mike moore

    I preface this by a simple admission: I wouldn’t be reading John’s writings if I did not still feel a small spark of faith, a measure of desire to believe in a personal God.

    With that said, and with no sarcastic edge or general snarkiness … how do you guys still believe in a God who actually gives a damn about the world? (Non-rhetorical, I’m sincerely interested and curious.)

    I can believe in God. I can believe he had good intentions. But looking back over the last few thousand years of what we should loosely call ‘humanity,’ it’s hard to think that Earth, if not the universe as we know it, is some kind of eccentric experiment in free will.

    Doesn’t it seem that God designed this spinning planet and its inhabitants and then sent us on our merry/not-so-merry way? I can envision him watching with interest, fascination, disappointment, anger, and joy … watching, but no longer acting.

    • http://sparrowmilk.blogspot.com Shadsie

      I once heard an artist’s quote, Goudy (archetict), I think… not sure, think it was him: “God continues his creation through Man.”

      I also once read one of those glurgey-type stories from a devotional book – something about a town with a Jesus-statue that had been bombed by the Germans during WWII and the statue survived, but without its hands. The local pastor declared that the town should not repair the statue, because it is a reminder that “WE are the hands of Jesus.” Don’t know if it’s true or not – it was an anecdotal story, but I still thought it was pretty cool.

      Maybe that’s what the whole expriment in free will is – God is waiting for us, to see what we’ll do, but history continues to be a boot stomping on a human face forever.

      Personally, I’m not sure that God is “good” anymore in the way that most churches teach. Some people accuse me of being evil for believing in any form of God because they’ve suffered, they’ve seen the way the world suffers and they’re used to this “God is good” stitchk. Then they still accuse me of being evil when I explain my view that I think God might actually be “neutral,” like Nature, or like some crazy author who enjoys making his/her/its creations suffer because there’s some sort of greater plotline where all the threads of the narrative come together. Yet they’ll still say I’m evil (probably for daring to disagree with them, because they want to yell at someone, etc. …you know, humans).

      Maybe easy for me to have the views that I have because, for me, Hell is other people. Most of my suffering has been human-caused.

      • L.SS.

        what you guys are writing and also what somaticstrength is writing in the comments here … it all makes a lot of sense.

        i’m not going to say any conclusions, because i am in a lot of doubts.

      • mike moore

        Shadsie, I’m not sure I would pay much attention to, or respect, people who would equate a sincere/benign spiritual journey to evil. Time for new friends?

        • http://sparrowmilk.blogspot.com Shadsie

          No problems with friends… I don’t keep friendship with anyone I sense disrespect from. It’s more like… “There are some places online I really ought not hang out at/participate in comments boxes at.”

          And in the case where such people bother me at fun, geeky fandom/entertainment places (seriously, I’ve met such people on occasion at videogame and anime boards who bring religion and politics up out of the friggin’ blue), I guess I just have to not pay attention to them – or remind them of the fun geekery that they’re supposed to be there for.

    • Christy

      Mike, I hear your disillusionment. Mine lead me to question everything I once held dear and true. I wrestled with it. I mulled, prayed, wondered, ruminated, passionately sought answers, met with people and clergy, and read and read and read…..but rather than asking, “What’s wrong with God.” I began with, “What if I’m wrong?”

      It has been the doorway which has lead to a long and remarkable spiritual journey.

      Barbara Brown Taylor is a gifted preacher and writer. In “The Preaching Life” she writes:

      “These are grim times, in which the God of our fondest dreams is nowhere to be found.

      But down in the darkness below those dreams — in the place where all our notions about God have come to naught — there is still reason to hope, because disillusionment is not so bad. Disillusionment is the loss of illusion — about ourselves, about the world, about God — and while it is almost always painful, it is not a bad thing to lose the lies we have mistaken for truth. Disillusioned, we come to understand that God does not conform to our expectations. We glimpse our own relative size in the universe and see that no human being can say who God should be or how God should act. We review our requirements of God and recognize them as our own fictions, our own frail shelters against the vast night sky. Disillusioned, we find out what is not true and are set free to seek what is — if we dare.”

      As so many have found, when we open ourselves to what is…..rather than requiring what is to meet our expectations…..we do not always find what we went in looking for…..but it, most assuredly, finds us.

      “Be still and know [gnow] that I am” grew to have new meaning for me.

      Blessings on your journey, my friend. ~ C

    • Allie

      I’ll tell you honestly: when I was at a very dark moment in my life, I felt the unmistakable presence of God. It’s something that’s not easily mistaken for anything else, and many people have felt the same – an overpowering divine love.

      There are a lot of things I don’t understand, a lot of things I believe by opinion, but one or two things I know: God loves you, God is as sad as you are when people do bad things. Even more so – doing evil is not what he created us for. But just as a father would not whip his child for falling down and scraping his knee, God is waiting and eager to help and heal when we make mistakes.

      I read a book recently about, of all things, physics, in which the author postulated that maybe the only possible world in which we could have free will was a world like this one, full of diseases, accidents, and wrongdoing. It’s a theory but I don’t know that. No one knows, and the Bible doesn’t give a straight answer. Job asked the question and God spoke to him from the whirlwind – as far as I can tell from reading it, God didn’t give a straight answer either – but somehow Job was satisfied. So perhaps that’s the answer, that someday we will be satisfied.

      • mike moore

        thank you both, Allie and Christy, for words to think about.

      • Diana A.

        “I read a book recently about, of all things, physics, in which the author postulated that maybe the only possible world in which we could have free will was a world like this one, full of diseases, accidents, and wrongdoing.” Which book? It sounds like something I might want to read.

  • Donald Rappe

    I am grateful to have had the opportunity to read some of the blog of Somaticstrength. I agree with her that “evil” is the disregard of another persons humanity. May God give her the love her mommy and daddy (and brothers) should have but didn’t. Clearly, this cannot depend on her doing anything. Certainly not the things she’s tried or any other. She needs grace. Soma, you have done and are doing nothing wrong or displeasing to God. Your wounds are deep and not likely to be healed by words or even ideas. The god you have ejected from your mind is a conception which, while widely accepted, is false. You do not need it. I am grateful that you have survived and are surviving, in spite of the undeniable fact that you are a victim and forever changed. I’m sorry if my thoughts are too crappy for you; it’s all I’ve got though. Thank you for your blog. I hope you will continue with it.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnshore/ John Shore

      Thanks for this, Don.

  • Jeannie

    I’ve come to this point a few times over the last 10-15 years. The first time was when my first child was still born. Everything felt like such a cosmic, cruel practical joke. How could any God who gave a rat’s behind about me allow that to happen after all I had suffered and how much I wanted a baby? The questions repeated themselves with personal tragedies to follow and universal tragedies I pondered while watching the news.

    For a while I was a relunctant agnostic. I didn’t want to not believe in God. I just couldn’t find any good reason to any more. Gradually, I discovered that I just function better when I believe there is a good God out there, somewhere leading me, loving me, watching out for me. I miss the strong faith I had back in the day when I knew that was so, versus just hoping it was so.

    Fortunately, I have also learned to not be afraid of questions over the last decade. And any God worthy of my respect and belief wouldn’t be afraid of my questions either.


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