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Disappointment with God
By Philip Yancey
ZONDERVANCopyright © 1988 Philip Yancey
All rights reserved.
A FATAL ERROR
* * *
Ever since my book Where Is God When It Hurts? was published, I have received letters from people disappointed with God.
A young mother wrote that her joy had turned to bitterness and grief when she delivered a daughter with spina bifida, a birth defect that leaves the spinal cord exposed. In page after page of tiny, spidery script she recounted how medical bills had soaked up the family savings and how her marriage had cracked apart as her husband came to resent all the time she devoted to their sick child. As her life crumbled around her, she was beginning to doubt what she had once believed about a loving God. Did I have any advice?
A homosexual spilled out his story gradually, in a succession of letters. For more than a decade he had sought a "cure" for his sexual orientation, trying charismatic healing services, Christian support groups, and chemical treatment. He even underwent a form of aversion therapy in which psychologists applied electrical shocks to his genitals when he responded to erotic photos of men. Nothing worked. Finally he surrendered to a life of gay promiscuity. He still writes me occasionally. He insists that he wants to follow God but feels disqualified because of his peculiar curse.
A young woman wrote, with some embarrassment, about her ongoing depression. She has no reason to be depressed, she said. She is healthy, earns a good salary, and has a stable family background. Yet most days when she wakes up she cannot think of a single reason to go on living. She no longer cares about life or God, and when she prays, she wonders if anyone is really listening.
These and other letters I have received over the years all lead up to the same basic question, phrased in different ways. It goes something like this: "Your book is about physical pain. But what about pain like mine? Where is God when I hurt emotionally? What does the Bible say about that?" I answer the letters as best I can, sadly conscious of the inadequacy of words on paper. Can a word, any word, ever heal a wound? And I must confess that after reading these anguished accounts I ask the very same questions. Where is God in our emotional pain? Why does he so often disappoint us?
* * *
Disappointment with God does not come only in dramatic circumstances. For me, it also edges unexpectedly into the mundaneness of everyday life. I remember one night last winter, a cold, raw Chicago night. The wind was howling, and sleet slanted out of the skies, coating the streets with darkly shining ice. That night my car stalled in a rather ominous neighborhood. As I raised the hood and hunched over the engine, the sleet stinging my back like tiny pebbles, I prayed over and over, Please help me get this car started.
No amount of fiddling with wires and tubes and cables would start the car, and so I spent the next hour in a dilapidated diner waiting for a tow truck. Sitting on a plastic chair, my drenched clothes forming a widening pool of water around me, I wondered what God thought about my plight. I would miss a scheduled meeting that night and would probably waste many hours over the next few days trying to wring fair, honest work out of a service station set up to prey upon stranded motorists. Did God even care about my frustration or the waste of energy and money?
Like the woman embarrassed over her depression, I feel ashamed even to mention such an unanswered prayer. It seems petty and selfish, maybe even stupid, to pray for a car to start. But I have found that petty disappointments tend to accumulate over time, undermining my faith with a lava flow of doubt. I start to wonder whether God cares about everyday details — about me. I am tempted to pray less often, having concluded in advance that it won't matter. Or will it? My emotions and my faith waver. Once those doubts seep in, I am even less prepared for times of major crisis. A neighbor is dying of cancer; I pray diligently for her. But even as I pray, I wonder. Can God be trusted? If so many small prayers go unanswered, what about the big ones?
One morning in a motel room I switched on the television and the square, jowly face of a well-known evangelist filled the screen. "I'm mad at God!" he said, glowering. It was a remarkable confession from a man who had built his career around the notion of "seed faith" and absolute confidence in God's personal concern. But God had let him down, he said, and went on to explain. God had commanded him to build a large ministry complex; and yet the project proved to be a financial disaster, forcing him to sell off properties and cut back programs. He had kept his part of the bargain, but God had not.
A few weeks later I again saw the evangelist on television, this time exuding faith and optimism. He leaned toward the camera, his craggy face splitting into a big grin, and jabbed his finger toward a million viewers. "Something good is going to happen to you this week!" he said, coaxing three syllables out of the word "good." He was at his salesman best, utterly convincing. A few days later, however, I heard on the news that his son had committed suicide. I could not help wondering what the evangelist said to God in his prayers that fateful week.
Such struggles seem almost to mock the triumphant slogans about God's love and personal concern that I often hear in Christian churches. Yet no one is immune to the downward spiral of disappointment. It happens to people like the televangelist and to people like the letter writers, and it happens to ordinary Christians: first comes disappointment, then a seed of doubt, then a response of anger or betrayal. We begin to question whether God is trustworthy, whether we can really stake our lives on him.
* * *
I have been thinking about this topic of disappointment with God for a long time, but I hesitated to write about it for two reasons. First, I knew I would have to confront questions that have no easy answers — that may, in fact, have no answers. And second, I did not want to write a book that would, by focusing on failure, dampen anyone's faith.
Some Christians, I know, would reject the phrase "disappointment with God" out of hand. Such a notion is all wrong, they say. Jesus promised that faith the size of a grain of mustard seed can move mountains; that anything can happen if two or three gather together in prayer. The Christian life is a life of victory and triumph. God wants us happy, healthy, and prosperous, and any other state simply indicates a lack of faith.
During a visit among people who believe exactly this, I finally reached the decision to write this book. I was investigating the topic of physical healing for a magazine assignment, and the research led me to a rather infamous church headquartered in rural Indiana. I had learned of the church from a Chicago Tribune series and from a special report on ABC's Nightline program.
Members of this church believed that simple faith could heal any disease and that to look elsewhere for help — for example, to medical doctors — demonstrated a lack of faith in God. The Tribune articles told of parents who had looked on helplessly as their children fought losing battles with meningitis or pneumonia or a common flu virus — diseases that easily could have been treated. On a map of the United States, a Tribune artist had drawn tiny tombstone symbols to mark where people had died after refusing medical treatment in accordance with church teaching. There were fifty-two tombstones in all.
According to the reports, pregnant women in that church died in childbirth at a rate eight times the national average, and young children were three times more likely to die. Yet the church was growing and had established branches in nineteen states and five foreign countries.
I visited the mother church in Indiana on a sweltering August day. Heat waves shimmied off the asphalt roads, and parched brown cornstalks drooped in the fields. The building sat unmarked in the midst of one of those cornfields — huge, isolated, like a misplaced barn. In the parking lot I had to talk my way past two ushers with walkie-talkies; the church was nervous about publicity, especially since former members had recently filed lawsuits.
I suppose I expected a sign of fanaticism during the service: a swooning, hypnotic sermon delivered by a Jim Jones – type preacher. I saw nothing like that. For ninety minutes, seven hundred of us sit- ting in a large semicircle sang hymns and studied the Bible.
I was among simple people. The women wore dresses or skirts, no slacks, and used little makeup. The men, dressed in shirts and ties, sat with their families and helped keep the children in line.
Children were far more conspicuous here than in most churches; they were everywhere. Keeping quiet for ninety minutes stretches the limits of a small child's endurance, and I watched the parents try to cope. Coloring books abounded. Mothers played games with their children's fingers. Some had brought along a treasure trove of toys in oversized pocketbooks.
If I had come looking for sensationalism, I went away disappointed. I had seen a slice of old-fashioned Americana where the traditional family was still alive and well. Parents there loved their children as much as any parents on earth.
And yet — the map with the tiny tombstones leaped to mind — some of those same parents had sat by the bedsides of their dying youngsters and done nothing. One father told the Tribuneof his prayer vigil as he watched his fifteen-month-old son battle a fever for two weeks. The illness first caused deafness, then blindness. The pastor of the church urged even more faith and persuaded the father not to call a doctor. The next day the boy was dead. An autopsy revealed that he had died from an easily treatable form of meningitis.
By and large, the members of the Indiana church do not blame God for their miseries, or at least they do not admit to doing so. Instead, they blame themselves for weak faith. Meanwhile, the tombstones multiply.
I went away from that Sunday service with a profound conviction that what we think about God and believe about God matters — really matters — as much as anything in life matters. Those people were not ogres or child-murderers, and yet several dozen of their children had died because of an error (I believe) in theology.
(Actually, the teaching of the Indiana church is not so different from what I hear in many evangelical churches and on religious television and radio; they simply apply the extravagant promises of faith more consistently.)
Because of those sincere people in Indiana, along with the questioning people who had written to me, I decided to confront issues I am sorely tempted to avoid. Thus, this book of theology. Not a technical book by any means, but a book about the nature of God and why he sometimes acts in puzzling ways and sometimes does not act.
We dare not confine theology to seminary coffee shops where professors and students play mental badminton. It affects all of us. Some people lose their faith because of a sharp sense of disappointment with God. They expect God to act a certain way, and God "lets them down." Others may not lose their faith, but they too experience a form of disappointment. They believe God will intervene, they pray for a miracle, and their prayers come back unanswered. Fifty-two times, at least, it happened that way in the Indiana church.CHAPTER 2
UP IN SMOKE
* * *
One afternoon my phone rang and the caller identified himself as a theology student at Wheaton College Graduate School. "My name is Richard," he said. "We haven't met, but I feel a kinship with you because of some of your writings. Do you have a minute?"
Richard proceeded to tell me about his life. He had become a Christian as a university student when an InterVarsity worker befriended him and introduced him to the faith. Yet Richard hardly talked like a new Christian. Although he asked for my recommendations of Christian books, I found that he had already read each one I mentioned. We had a pleasant, wandering conversation, and not until the end of the call did I learn his real purpose in contacting me.
"I hate to bother you with this," he said nervously. "I know you're probably busy, but there is one favor I'd like to ask. You see, I wrote this paper on the Book of Job, and my professor told me I should make a book out of it. Is there a chance you could take a look and see what you think?"
I said yes, and the manuscript arrived within a few days. In truth, I did not expect much. Graduate school papers do not normally make compelling reading, and I doubted whether a relatively recent convert could come up with fresh insights on the daunting Book of Job. But I was wrong. The manuscript showed real promise, and over the next few months Richard and I discussed by phone and mail how the paper could be reshaped into book form.
A year later, with a finished manuscript and a signed contract in hand, Richard called to ask if I would write a foreword. I had still never met Richard, but I liked his enthusiasm, and he had written a book I could easily endorse.
Six months passed, during which the book went through final editing and revision. Then, shortly before its publication date, Richard called yet again. His voice sounded different: tense, edgy. To my surprise he fended off questions about his forthcoming book. "I need to see you, Philip," he said. "There's something I feel obligated to tell you, and it should be in person. Could I come over some afternoon this week?"
* * *
Hot, hazy rays of sunlight streamed into my third-floor apartment. The open French doors had no screens, and flies buzzed in and out of the room. Richard, dressed in white tennis shorts and a T-shirt, sat on a couch across from me. Sweat glistened on his forehead. He had driven for an hour in heavy Chicago traffic for this meeting, and he first gulped down a glass of iced tea, trying to cool off.
Richard was lean and in good physical shape — "pure ectomorph," as an aerobics instructor might say. A bony face and short-cropped hair gave him the severe, intense look of a God-haunted monk. If body language speaks, his was voluble: his fists clenched and unclenched, his tanned legs crossed and uncrossed, and his facial muscles often tightened with tension.
He skipped the small talk. "You've a right to be furious with me," he began. "I don't blame you a bit if you feel snookered."
I had no idea what he meant. "About what?"
"Well, it's like this. The book you helped me with — it's coming out next month, including your foreword. But the truth is, I don't believe what I wrote in that book anymore, and I feel I owe you an explanation."
He paused for a moment, and I watched the lines of tension working in his jaw. "I hate God!" he suddenly blurted out. "No, I don't mean that. I don't even believe in God."
I said nothing. In fact, I said very little for the next three hours as Richard told me his story, beginning with his parents' breakup. "I did everything I could to prevent the divorce," he said. "I'd just become a Christian at the university, and I was naive enough to believe that God cared. I prayed nonstop day and night that they'd get back together. I even dropped out of school for a while and went home to try to salvage my family. I thought I was doing God's will, but I think I made everything worse. It was my first bitter experience with unanswered prayer.
"I transferred to Wheaton College to learn more about the faith. I figured I must be doing something wrong. At Wheaton I met people who used phrases like 'I spoke with God,' and 'the Lord told me.' I sometimes talked like that too, but never without a twitch of guilt. Did the Lord really tell me anything? I never heard a voice or had any proof of God I could see or touch. Yet I longed for that kind of closeness.
"Each time I faced a crucial decision I would read the Bible and pray for guidance, like you're supposed to. Whenever I felt right about the decision, I would act on it. But, I swear, I ended up making the wrong choice every time. Just when I really thought I understood God's will, then it would backfire on me."
Street noises drifted in, and I could hear neighbors going up and down the stairs, but these sounds did not distract Richard. He kept talking, and I nodded occasionally, though I still did not understand the reason for his almost violent outburst against God. Lots of families break up; lots of prayers go unanswered. What was the true source of his molten rage?
He next told me about a job opportunity that had fallen through. The employer reneged on a promise to him and hired someone less deserving, leaving Richard with school debts and no source of income. About the same time, Richard's fiancée jilted him. With no warning she broke off contact, refusing to give any explanation for her abrupt change of heart. Sharon, the fiancée, had played a key role in Richard's spiritual growth, and as she left him, he felt some of his faith leach away as well. They had often prayed together about their future; now those prayers seemed like cruel jokes.
Excerpted from Disappointment with God by Philip Yancey. Copyright © 1988 Philip Yancey. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN.
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