[easyazon_image align=”left” height=”333″ identifier=”0310343402″ locale=”US” src=”https://englewoodreview.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/41kaGWn2LfL.jpg” tag=”douloschristo-20″ width=”219″]A Deeper Conversation with God
An excerpt from
More Than You Can Handle: When Life’s Overwhelming Pain Meets God’s Overcoming Grace
Paperback: Zondervan, 2019
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Honest expression of doubt is often a sign of faith. As Episcopal priest Fleming Rutledge writes, “The very existence of such doubts are themselves a sign of the divine action that elicits the cry, ‘Help my unbelief!’ (Mark 9:24).” 
“Cursed is the one who trusts in man, who draws strength from mere flesh and whose heart turns away from the Lord. That person will be like a bush in the wastelands,” writes the prophet Jeremiah. (Jer. 17:5-6) Certainty, in matters of faith, is founded on a trust not of God but a trust of our strength and ability to be certain through intellectually convincing arguments. Suffering will never make sense to our finite minds. We can say, “God has a plan,” trying to reassure ourselves that what we’ve experienced has a purpose. But let’s be honest, when a young child dies of cancer or when we see images of a young boy washed onto the shores of some foreign land because his family fled a country torn apart by war, that plan seems problematic. We will never understand why God allows young fathers to get incurable cancer. The fact that one girl is born into a culture where girls are discarded because parents want only sons, and another is born into a culture that celebrates her intelligence and potential, will never seem just. Our explanations for why trial after trial affects one family and not another are empty.
The inability to understand the grand scheme of the universe and make sense of painful and seemingly meaningless events plants the seed of doubt in our minds. Questions will come.
The questions are natural. A few years back, a friend of mine, a pastor, was gathering with members from his church to clean the cemetery next to the church. These are the kinds of small acts of service that endear so many churches to their communities. These were the kinds of projects this pastor, Jaman, was consistently leading his congregation to do. As they gathered at the church prior to starting their work, a woman walked in, asked to see the pastor, and then shot and killed this twenty-nine-year-old husband and father.
During the police investigation, the woman claimed she was connected to a Columbian drug lord who had a connection to the former president George W. Bush. In a wild conspiracy theory, she claimed the former governor of Florida Jeb Bush had killed her grandmother. Her grandmother’s murder was somehow, in her mind, connected to the Bushes’ involvement in drug and human trafficking. Her reason for killing this young pastor? She believed he was mixed up with the Bushes.
Tell me, what purpose would this death serve? Why would God decide that having their pastor killed in this fashion would be best for this church? Why would God decide that his daughter should be able to read this in the newspapers about her father? Or more pointedly, that it would be better for her to grow up without her father? How in the world would this act move the mentally ill woman who shot him toward redemption? Any sane person would question how this could be a part of God’s plan. But too often, we deny our humanity by ignoring our questions. We try to have superhuman resolve as we face uncertainty. We’ve been taught for too long that doubt and questions are the enemy. That they’re a slippery slope. That doubts lead to questions, and questions lead to the possibility that what we have always thought is wrong.
Our beliefs about God and how God interacts with the world are some of the most foundational beliefs a person can hold. Humans are meaning-making machines. We are constantly looking at the world and trying to make sense of what we are exposed to. We connect dots between events so that there is a cause and effect that we can comprehend. Over time, this provides a framework, a mental model of the world. We try to explain that this is how God operates—and this is how we should relate to God. Having a sense of understanding about the world provides security.
But there are times when what we go through falls so far outside of our mental model of the world that pithy statements no longer provide a satisfactory explanation. Our situation falls so far outside of our understanding of who God is or how God relates to the world that we search for new meaning. The search feels like a crisis of faith—and it is.
Job, of the Old Testament, had just this experience. The story goes that Job was a righteous and pious man. He was wealthy and respected, and God clearly cared for him. Job had everything anyone could want. And one day, God allowed it all to be taken from him. His wealth was extinguished, his children killed, and his body ravaged by disease. While Job never cursed God, he did find himself questioning everything he had assumed about how the world worked.
Job takes all of the questions he has and brings them before God and essentially cries out, “Is this how the world really works? Is this who you are? Are you a cruel God who abandons righteous people to suffering? Is the world fundamentally unjust?” Out of Job’s suffering come primal questions about the very foundation of reality.
Very rarely do we allow ourselves to question our most deeply held mental models of the world in the way that Job does. To doubt those beliefs, to question their validity, is, quite literally, world changing. It isn’t like having doubts about whether you bought the right house or made the right career move. These questions exist on a whole other plane. Doubting God and your faith is to wonder about the very nature of reality. Changing these beliefs comes at an extreme cost. Most of us aren’t willing to pay that cost. Most of us aren’t willing to live in the anxiety, to live with the uncertainty, as we allow the Holy Spirit to reshape our understandings. Instead, we grit our teeth and wrestle the doubts into submission. We say things like, “God has a plan,” or “Everything happens for a reason,” or “Let go and let God” to reassure ourselves and silence our questions.
Silencing our questions is often a form of distrust. It assumes our relationship with God lacks the necessary integrity to sustain the weight of our doubts. And so, with the strength of our flesh, we clench our fists and pretend certainty. Do it for long enough, and you will be like a bush in the wastelands. You and your faith will dry up. The fruit you once bore will shrivel. The green leaves that provided shade to the roots of your faith will wither. The land around you will dry out as you consume every drop of water demanded to support and honor the idol of certainty. Eventually, your faith will die out, and you’ll wonder where God went.
Following his indictment of the one who trusts in human strength, Jeremiah goes on, “But blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in him. They will be like a tree planted by water that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green.” (Jer. 17:5-6) This is the difference between trust and certainty. Recognizing that faith is built on trust allows the questions to exist. It opens us up to a deeper conversation with God. A conversation where we bring all of who we are to all of who God is, and we trust that in that holy, sacred space, what we don’t understand will be reconciled to the God who is redeeming all things. Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), xvii.
Taken from More Than You Can Handle by Nate Pyle. Copyright © 2019 by Nate Pyle. Used by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com
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From ERB Editor Christopher Smith
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