Thursday, November 26, 2009

Doubt, forgiveness, and the hidden-ness of God...

When it comes to forgiveness, perhaps the greatest challenge for some of us is not learning how to forgive others, or even ourselves, but learning how to "forgive" God. I'll explain what I mean by this in a minute.

For as long as I can remember, I have been taught, reminded, and challenged to trust in God's goodness and love. I have been told to rely upon God’s promises, and take comfort in God's unchanging character. Trusting in God, it is said, is the one thing that matters in life, because not only does it help us make a difference in this world, but it prepares us for the world beyond. The supreme example of God's love is Jesus Christ, and so our trust is finally to be placed in him.

But here we run into (or at least I do) a major obstacle, a problem that theists and atheists alike refer to as the "hidden-ness" of God. Put simply, it is not easy at all to determine the conditions that make possible genuine knowledge of - or trust in - God, since there is so much about God that remains hidden from us. Of course, most believers will say that they can, and have, "seen" God. But what does that mean? I could write a year's worth of blog posts on all the different understandings and theories of what seeing/hearing/experiencing God means. But the point I'll make for now is this:

Everyone has a slightly different understanding of what God's "presence" means, how God "acts" in our lives, and how we can "know" that God is real. This should not be a surprise, given the infinitely surpassing greatness of the one we call "God." But, it does create a significant quandary for anyone who wants to step beyond merely believing for its own sake and find out whether the object of their belief is trustworthy (something that God, by the way, asks us to do in Scripture). Referring to Jesus Christ does not solve this problem, given that the man Jesus is not anywhere to be found today, and we must rely on the Spirit of the risen Christ, which is just as hidden, and just as open to interpretation.

Now, let me be clear: Child-like faith is rightly seen as a valuable trait under certain conditions. But the dilemma is that we all must, at the same time, actually determine whether our faith is placed in a trustworthy source. Even a child does not "blindly" believe –- a child who throws himself or herself into the arms of their parent (jumping from the stairs, or into a swimming pool), or in a moment of fear or pain reaches out for help, does so because they somehow understand that the parent cares for them.

But given enough failed catches, or – even worse – ignorance/abuse, the child will slowly begin to realize that the one in whom they have placed their trust is not living up to their promises, and they will wonder why. Is it really any surprise, then, that many (if not all) people struggle with questions about God's trustworthiness? In fact, I would say that if we are honest, all believers are, to some degree, also doubters. It certainly isn't easy to figure out why God has apparently "dropped" us so many times.

There are many answers given to the questioner - most of which fall into the "just keep trusting anyway" category - but I personally feel more compelled by those believers who struggle honestly with their questions and aren't afraid to challenge God and ask why. Now, granted, we are not in a position to make God do what we want, or determine how God should behave. And, we cannot say that God will not bring good out of our suffering. God's ways are beyond our understanding; fair enough.

But the typical Christian answer -- "Well, God is good. We should simply trust in Him regardless of our circumstances. That's faith." -- merely begs the questions: What do "good" and "bad" mean if we can't successfully apply those terms to God? What does it mean to trust in a God who doesn't always operate according to the basic ideas we have of good and bad? Is there any reason to assume that such a God is worth trusting? There may very well be, but it seems that in order to find a reason we will first have to struggle with the very meaning of our faith in God. And that is extremely difficult for most of us, because it is disorienting and frightening.

The subsequent response that God's goodness is found in a relationship with Him that sustains us through our suffering and confusion certainly sounds appealing, but it ultimately sidesteps the issue: The problem is precisely with the idea of the relationship to begin with -- how can a person establish a genuine relationship with someone who appears to have let them down once too many times?

One response, of course, is to give up on the relationship. No matter how many times we tell ourselves that it is not the case, we don't really believe that a God who often seems distant and uncaring really exists. Or, perhaps he is the "Calvinist" God who sovereignly predestines some to damnation... and since that God seems so distant from us, it follows that we are probably those poor souls. And this frustration, pent up, has led many former believers to abandon their faith and proclaim what, deep down, they've felt all along – that if this is all we have to go on when it comes to God, it's time to stop playing and leave the game.

What do we do with such a troubling experience? Is there another option besides turning to agnosticism or outright atheism? How does someone find faith in the midst of such confusion, and is there a true faith to find to begin with? There is no easy answer, that much seems clear. But I would like to suggest another approach, using the analogy of relationship.

We all know that relationships are extremely difficult. There are many times when genuine friends/lovers/family members develop antagonistic patterns toward each other that threaten to tear the relationship apart. Sometimes they do. People hurt each other, and hurt people respond in kind. This is not a surprise to anyone who has ever been in a relationship. But we also know that the only thing capable of mending such an injured relationship is an attitude of forgiveness. Perhaps it is time that we consider the possibility of "forgiving" God.

What does this mean? Simply this: if a person has gone through immense pain caused by someone they care about, the measure of how much they care about that other person will be seen in how they deal with the pain. If they still desire intimacy with the other, they will - even if it takes a long time - try to begin the process of healing well, and slowly move to a place where they can genuinely hope for the other's good and for eventual reconciliation of some sort. Now, it may be that some wounds are beyond repair, but nearly everyone I know longs for the majority of their relationships to be made right, even if they are not the same as they were before. Why not extend the same hope to God?

Of course, there are many reasons - and I am not going to try and convince anyone who thinks they have a good reason - to be unforgiving toward God. Perhaps they do. But maybe, just maybe, we (I say 'we' because I count myself in this group) who feel as though God has somehow abandoned or betrayed us can begin the process of reaching out to God, not as some Sovereign Lord who demands our obedience, but as a beloved who - in our feeble eyes - appears to have wronged us, even multiple times. Instead of giving up on the relationship, we can consider the possibility that the relationship can be reconciled. Yes, it will not be the same, but it can be restored somehow. And, if there is any part of us that still longs for God, then let us see if we cannot learn to forgive God: Not that we hold some leverage in a relationship with God, but wait... perhaps we do.

If God really did create all things out of love, and called them good, then perhaps God actually cares about, and can be somehow influenced, by our response. And perhaps if we continue to hold our hand out to God, even half-heartedly, then we will someday find that God has taken hold of our hand again, and the healing of the relationship will really begin. But that can only happen if we are willing to forgive God for the pain, and wait, and seek. How long do we wait? (What if we have waited for years?) That all depends on how much you value the possibility of being in a relationship with God.

1 comment:

BenMc said...

I've thought much the same. I think of the Israelites, in exile, most of them dead, thinking of the ruins of the temple ... and into that context Ezekiel and other prophets speak. If they can forgive God for that, and still look forward to the righteousness of God being shown to everyone everywhere ... then I suppose I can too.