Those who believe they believe in God, but without passion in the heart, without anguish of mind, without uncertainty, without doubt, and even at times without despair, believe only in the idea of God, and not in God himself.
-Miguel de Unamuno
The year before I graduated from seminary, I lost my faith in God. That's not a smart thing to do, I'll admit. There's not a big job market out there for pastors who are atheists. But I couldn't help it. Life was becoming too painful. Truth had become too open to interpretation. The Bible seemed too distant and, as a few of my professors gleefully proclaimed, too unreliable. My doubts seemed to climb on top of one another, clamoring for attention. Before I knew what had happened, the new car smell of my faith had worn off, and I found myself fighting to hang on.
For the next six months, I bought every book I could find that claimed to prove the existence of God. Having so many new books was a good thing, because I rarely slept. There were nights I went to bed at midnight and found myself staring at the ceiling six hours later when the alarm went off. After a while I started taking cold medicine or sleeping pills every few days just to get some sleep. (Years later the taste of cherry cough syrup still makes me nauseous.)
I took long hikes in the woods, not to marvel at God's handiwork but to shout into the trees, yelling at God for not making his existence clear to me. Everything I knew to be true, I felt, was slowly slipping away.
I remember talking to anyone who would listen. I desperately pressed people for details, any clues, any shred of evidence for faith, like a parent looking for a missing child. My wife was wonderful to me during this time, yet for all her graciousness, I felt completely alone in my despair. For the first time in my life, I had panic attacks. I became depressed and even struggled a few times with thoughts of suicide.
During that time the rock group R.E.M. released a song titled, ironically, "Losing My Religion." When I was in the car and the song came on the radio, I would stare out the window and sing the words as if I had written them myself.
One night, in a last-ditch effort to salvage whatever remnant of faith I had left, I called a mentor and professor of mine from college and shared my struggle with him.
I told him, "My faith in God right now is like a walk on the beach. I've taken off my shoes, and as I stand at the water's edge, the tide has started to roll across my feet. It feels wonderful. Up to this point my spiritual journey has been incredible, but in the last six months doubt has begun to paralyze me. It's like when the water goes back out to the ocean. It is washing away the sand underneath me, and my feet keep sinking lower and lower and lower. If this keeps up, there won't be anything left to stand on."
Without hesitation he shot back, "Brian, I have stood where you're standing. I've felt the water cascade across my feet. I know how wonderful that feels. But I've also had the water go back out to sea. I've felt the sand get washed out from underneath my feet."
He paused-I think he heard me crying-before he slowly finished, "Brian, listen to me when I say this. When the last grain of sand is finally gone, you're going to discover that you're standing on a rock."
That one sentence saved me. That one sentence gave me enough spiritual strength to eventually, over time, rediscover hope, which the Bible beautifully calls "an anchor for the soul, firm and secure" (Hebrews 6:19).
But I wonder about you. As I write these words, I can't help but wonder what struggle you're facing. I wonder what caused you to pick up this book.
I've found that when people doubt the existence or goodness of God or his plan for their lives, one of three things has happened.
One thing that causes us to struggle with our faith is a deep inner disappointment with the way life has turned out. We expected so much more and feel cheated. In Thomas Hardy's classic novel Tess of the d'Ubervilles, the main character, Tess, is asked:
Did you say the stars were worlds, Tess?
All like ours?
I don't know; but I think so. They sometimes seem to be like the apples on our stubbard-tree. Most of them splendid and sound-a few blighted.
Which do we live on-a splendid one or a blighted one?
A blighted one.3
For anyone disappointed with how her life has turned out, it's easy to look at the world this way.
I remember sitting in an airport lobby one afternoon waiting for my wife to return from a trip. My oldest daughter, Kelsey, who was fourteen months old at the time, sat bouncing on my knee as we waited. An elderly lady with a thick eastern European accent sat down near us, and she and Kelsey laughed and played peekaboo for a long time.
Later she leaned over and smiled and said, "You good father. You love. You touch. You hug. You play." Then her entire demeanor suddenly changed and she sternly said, "I had no good father. He kick. He hit. He say stupid. I'm seventy-nine years old, and because father-no lucky day whole life! Whole life!" She turned away, clutching her purse like it was a baby and rocking back and forth, mumbling to herself. My eyes welled up as I thought about how long she had been carrying this wound.
A few minutes later my wife walked through the gate, and after we kissed, we put our daughter in her stroller and walked off. As I looked back to say good-bye to the woman, she waved her finger at me and yelled, "Whole life! Whole life!"
Disappointment isn't rare. I'm sure you can quickly count a number of people you know who feel they were dealt a blighted life. For people of faith this presents a serious problem. Christians believe God can change things. When it seems that he is content to stand by and let us live what we consider a mediocre life, we naturally doubt his presence, goodness, or both.
Many disappointed believers, at their lowest moments, can identify with Woody Allen. In the movie Love and Death, Allen's character says, "The important thing, I think, is not to be bitter. You know, if it turns out that there is a God, I don't think he is evil. I think that the worst you can say about him is that basically he's an underachiever."4
Another thing that causes us to struggle with our faith is the feeling that we have been broken by life. Life hasn't been just unfair; it has been hazardous. For broken people, being a human being is dangerous business.
Recently my middle daughter, Chandler, shared before dinner that the parents of a friend at school were getting a divorce. Before we ate, we prayed that God would work in the lives of this family. We also prayed that Chandler would be an encouraging influence when she had the opportunity. A couple of weeks later, we asked Chandler how her friend was doing. She stared at her plate and said, "Dad, he's cried every day for two weeks."
French writer Anatole France seemed to speak for those run over by the wheels of life when he wrote what has to be the shortest poem in the world. Three words to be exact. "Born. Suffered. Died."5 This might resonate with you. Perhaps you feel this could have been written about your life. If so, you're not alone.
When I think of broken people, I think of a homeless man who approached me for money on High Street next to the campus of The Ohio State University. Just eighteen, I had heard somewhere that you should never give homeless people money because they might buy alcohol with it. So I said, "How about I buy you something?" The man agreed. We walked to a deli where I bought him a sandwich, a bag of chips, and a soda. When we sat down, I grabbed his hand and said, "Let's pray."
When I finished, I looked up and was surprised to see tears streaming down his face. "How did you end up on the streets?" I blurted out. He rattled off the details like bullet points on a resume: "Successful job; came home from work early one day and caught wife in bed with another man; started drinking; liquor consumed me; lost job; eventually lost house; here I am two years later on the street." I could feel my chest tighten as tears streamed down his face. After a moment he turned his head and pointed out the window to the university buildings across the street. "Do you see that place over there?" he said. "I graduated from that place with honors."
For the next two hours, I shared with him the story of Jesus and how much God loved him. Not surprisingly, he fought off my words like a foot soldier in combat. When we are broken by life, words like "God's love" and "He cares for you" ring like cruel promises in our ears.
Finally, many of us struggle with our faith because we have been devastated by life. Life hasn't simply disappointed us or hurt us; it has crushed us. In Hamlet, Shakespeare wrote, "When sorrows come-they come not single spies-but in battalions."6 Maybe this has been your experience, and you have the battle scars to prove it.
A few years ago I organized a support group for women who had been sexually abused. Over the span of two months, I lost count of the number of women who cleared their throats, choked off tears, and said, "What I'm about to tell you, I've never told anyone." The pain these women carried I could actually feel in my body, the whole crushing weight of it. Their despair was insufferable. Many said they didn't believe in God because of what he had allowed to happen, and honestly, I couldn't blame them. I don't know that I could have believed in God either if what they shared had happened to me.
What seemed to hurt these women more than their memories was the despair and utter despondency they felt. It lurked like a stalker in the shadows of their daily routines, following them wherever they went, never leaving their side. When they went to the grocery store, it was there. When they ate dinner, it was there. When they tucked their kids in at night, it waited in the hallway. It was all they had ever known. Like so many who have been devastated by tragedy or loss, these women had forgotten what life was like before darkness kicked the door down and moved in. Despair had become their new normal.
Disappointment, brokenness, and devastation can cause any of us to doubt the presence or goodness of God and his plan for our lives. But there's hope:
No matter what you've gone through.
No matter how distant God feels.
No matter how confused or numb or cynical or enraged you are.
No matter how much you feel like giving up.
No matter how much you feel like the ground beneath your feet is being swept away and everything you've known to be true is failing you.
In spite of all of this, I promise you can count on one thing: when the last grain of sand is finally gone, you're going to discover that you're standing on a rock.
Throughout this book we'll explore how the difficult things we experience in life, big and small, are not random freak accidents or streaks of bad luck. They are allowed-and at times even orchestrated-to shape us into the image of Jesus. When tough things happen, especially tragic events, our tendency is to quickly ask, "Why did God allow this to happen?" Instead, the question I want us to begin to ask is, "What is God doing through this difficult circumstance?"
Picture a large rock in the middle of a barren field. Sitting there by itself, it is ordinary, overlooked, and without much use. But in the hands of a master sculptor, it can become a masterpiece. Your life is a lot like that rock.
Even though you can't see it right now, God has been busy creating something breathtaking in you. He has. Through everything you've endured. Through that confusing situation you're facing right now. The problem is we can't see what he's doing while it's happening. All we see are the chips flying. The chisel's blow isn't evidence that God has left us or is angry with us, but rather that God is right in front of us: eyeing our progress, smoothing the rough edges, patiently bringing the image of Jesus out in us.
I need to clarify: when I refer to difficult times, I'm not referring to the consequences of bad decisions we have made. Often we want to blame God for allowing consequences to happen.
I remember visiting a man in the hospital. His liver was failing, and he was about to die. He had been an alcoholic his entire adult life, and now that he was dying, he had begun to blame God for his condition. On one visit I couldn't stand his ranting any longer, so I stood up in the hospital room and yelled, "You know what? I've been coming here every day for two weeks, listening to you moan about how God did this to you. Well, you know what? You were the one who went to the bar night after night for the last thirty-five years. You shoved whiskey, vodka, and beer down your throat, not God! So give me a break and quit your whining. God didn't do this to you. You did this to yourself."
Actually, I didn't say that. I was too chicken. But the thought did cross my mind.
I believe God takes even our bad decisions and works to help us overcome their negative consequences. Thank goodness. I've done things unbecoming of a Christian, let alone a pastor, things that would have shocked my friend in the hospital. And those actions have created painful consequences in my life. But I don't usually blame God for those consequences. Deep down inside I know I did those things. In my experience, what usually causes people to struggle with their faith is the kind of events the Bible discusses in James 1:2-4:
Consider it pure joy, . . . whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
"Trials of many kinds." That's specifically what we're talking about. Events allowed or orchestrated by God. That's what God uses to shape us into the image of Jesus. In fact, James says, those things "complete us."
Now James says something else in those verses that, at first glance, seems quite odd. He tells us to consider such trials "pure joy." Does that sound unrealistic or awkward to you? It does to me. I can think of a lot of things that bring me pure joy, and "trials of many kinds" don't make the list.
Peanut butter milkshakes. Pure joy.
Fishing for rainbow trout on a mountain stream. Pure joy.
Hitting a golf ball three hundred yards. Pure joy.
Playing soccer with my kids in the backyard. Pure joy.
My wife picking out a Victoria's Secret outfit. Definitely pure joy.
Finding out my father has kidney cancer. Definitely not pure joy.
Why do we react so negatively to God's strategy of using trials to help "complete us" in our spiritual lives? Why does it seem like such a foreign idea to us? Most of the time, it has to do with conflicting agendas.
In 1902 William James published his landmark book The Varieties of Religious Experience. It was the first exhaustive study ever performed on the psychology of religious behavior. His goal was simple: to share what he thought were the inner psychological motivations for why religious people act the way they do. In that study James observed:
If we were to ask the question: "What is human life's chief concern?" one of the answers we should receive would be: "It is happiness." How to gain, how to keep, how to recover happiness, is in fact for most men at all times the secret motive of all they do, and of all they are willing to endure.
Later in the passage he concluded:
With such relations between religion and happiness, it is perhaps not surprising that men come to regard the happiness which a religious belief affords as a proof of its truth. If a creed makes a man feel happy, he almost inevitably adopts it.7
That's the root issue. I don't understand the "trials of many kinds" agenda because I have a different one: I want to be happy. It's that simple. And pain doesn't make me happy. Trials hurt. Trials outstay their welcome. I want to be happy today, right now, this minute.
What I want to do is to live in Lake Wobegon, the mythical town created by radio personality Garrison Keillor. In Lake Wobegon, as Keillor puts it, "The women are strong, the men are good looking, and all the children are above average."8 That's where I want to live. The sun always shines, people always get raises, and when people want to lose weight they go to bed and the pounds fall off. But more importantly, I want God to help pack the moving truck and pay the closing costs to get me there. When he declines, I'm confused.
William James was correct. Happiness was one of my secret motivations for becoming a Christian. I thought that when I became a Christian, God would make me happy, if not all the time at least most of the time. When that hasn't happened, and when tough times inevitably have come, I have found myself questioning my decision to become a Christian, God's existence, or his plan for my life.
The reality is that God knows that happiness, like Lake Wobegon, doesn't last for more than an hour, and then it's gone like a mist. Happiness comes from the Old English root word hap, which meant luck or chance.9 Happiness is a fleeting feeling. It's nice when it happens, but you can't predict it. You can't bank on it. Just when you think you can look forward to it, it sprouts wings and flies away.
God's agenda is much deeper. God is interested in transformation. God is interested in deep, lasting, and profound change in our lives. This kind of change rarely comes from spending our lives chasing happiness the way a child chases a butterfly. Breathtaking transformation comes through trials. Not one trial, but various trials. Trials of many kinds.
Near the end of his life, Christian journalist Malcolm Muggeridge underscored this when he said:
Contrary to what might be expected, I look back on experiences that at the time seemed especially desolating and painful with particular satisfaction. Indeed, I can say with complete truthfulness that everything I have learned in my seventy-five years in this world, everything that has truly enhanced and enlightened my existence, has been through affliction and not through happiness.10
That's God's agenda.
I want to invite you to go on a journey with me as we discover together this beautiful but often mysterious plan God has for our lives. But before we head out, I want to make a few remarks about the road ahead.
First, I need to communicate up front that this is not an academic or philosophical treatise. I'm sure trained theologians will read my words and find them wanting. I beg their forgiveness, but I did not write this book for them. My aim is the broken heart. This book was written by, for, and in the midst of people with bruised souls. My goal has been to write a book that one Christian friend gives to another who has seen better days.
Also (I'm sure you can tell by now, but it bears repeating), I'm not an objective observer when it comes to being blindsided by life. I think that's important for you to know. In my journey those who have comforted me the least have always been those who knew all the right answers but had never been through what Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross calls "the dark night of the soul."
Last, I want to clarify what lies at the heart of this book. Ultimately, even though we're discussing why God allows people to go through difficult times, that's not what this book is about. This book is about recovering joy. It is about believing again, from the heart and not just from the mind. It is about rediscovering the warmth of God's presence and the conviction that he really does have a plan for our lives.
A few years ago our church was experiencing a growth spurt, and our leadership wanted a better handle on who was attending, why they were coming, and how we could better serve them. So in the middle of our worship service one Sunday, we asked everyone to fill out an anonymous five-question survey.
Later that week I blocked out a few hours in my schedule, sat down with the stack of surveys in my hand, and one by one I read the responses. One caught my attention more than any other. One of the survey questions was, "What brought you to our church?"
This individual had given a one-word answer:
That's what this book is about.
Let's head out.
Excerpt from Second Guessing God © 2006 by Brian Jones, Standard Publishing. Used by permission of publisher.