God is like an elevator; He lets people down—at least that’s what many people I’ve met would say. In my work for Church Initiative, building curricula to help suffering people, I’ve interviewed a number of people who’ve lost loved ones, have been betrayed by lovers, misunderstood, misrepresented, and mistreated in dozens of ways. And I’ve noticed that quite a few of them have felt let down by the promises of Scripture. Take Amy, whose father passed away. She told me:
“I felt like God had betrayed me,” shares Amy. “Everything I had believed up to that point about God and what He could do and how powerful He was, I felt like was a lie. So I became angry, and I didn’t want to be in a relationship with God if He was not going to live up to the promises that I felt He had made to me.”
How do we keep people from getting to the point that they feel like their faith has failed them or that they are angry with God?
Here are four suggestions.
1. Give nuanced descriptions of the Christian experience
When we talk about the nature and benefits of faith, peace, hope, joy, etc., don’t give the impression that there is a level of Christian living in which people are no longer affected by sin and suffering. Give people a picture of what it looks like to live under the influence of the Holy Spirit in a fallen world, particularly in the midst of suffering. Dr. Edward Welch gives such a description of faith:
“It’s a myth for us to say that faith simply is happiness, that faith is somehow a lighthearted confidence in God. Faith, true faith, is expressed in the shadows, in this valley of the shadow of death when we can’t see our God clearly and we say, ‘Lord, I trust You, but help me to trust You because the loss still feels like it’s going to overwhelm me.’”1
Notice how Dr. Welch’s description of faith allows people to see that feeling overwhelmed doesn’t mean that faith isn’t present.
2. Remind people where we are in redemptive history
Helping people remember where we stand in redemptive history is another way to keep them from having unrealistic expectations about the Christian experience. Dr. Robert Jones puts it this way:
- Do we mean that if we read, believe, and do all that the Bible says, then all our personal problems and relationship problems in this life will be fixed? No. Those who have been traumatized in their childhood might continue to struggle with some level of fear throughout their adult years. Those who have been sexually active in sinful ways might continue to struggle with measures of lust. Those who are inclined toward depression might continue to battle various degrees of depression. Only the second coming of Christ and the work of the triune God in His final stages of redemption will fix all our human problems.2
Not only is it important for those who suffer to understand Dr. Jones’s point, your lay leaders need to know it too. It’s painful to be cared for by someone who thinks your anguish or struggle is purely a result of spiritual immaturity. And if your leaders think that bliss is possible in this life, even if they don’t verbalize it, they’ll wonder why those they help don’t “get it” or “lean into the promises of God” or “have more faith.” As a result they’ll come off as patronizing and insensitive caregivers.
3. Help people see the benefits of God’s sovereignty
One of the chief questions people have in the midst of a tragedy is, “If God is in control, how could He allow something like this to happen?” Unable to answer that, some people have difficulty trusting God or they turn away from Him. But, as Dr. Stephen Viars points out, if a person has trouble trusting in the sovereign God revealed in Scripture, he needs to consider what he plans to place his trust in moving forward: “During a time of grief we all have to decide what we’re going to trust in. If we [decide] that God is not sovereign, where does that leave us? We could trust in circumstances. Or we could trust in our own ability to make things better. But that’s a pretty weak philosophy when you take it out to the future.”3
Phil Sasser, senior pastor of Sovereign Grace Church in Apex, NC, further explains why such a position is hopeless: “If God were not all-powerful, there would be no guarantee that justice would ultimately prevail [or] that evil would ever be vanquished. There [would be] no reason to expect that death would ever go away, so if a person denies the sovereignty of God, first of all, it’s not biblical, second, he’s saying evil might yet win.”4
Helping people think through these issues can help them trust God’s plan for the future. While the doctrine of the sovereignty of God is challenging, it’s ultimately a source of great hope.
4. Encourage lament
When people are in the midst of suffering, they quickly realize there are ways that they want to express themselves that don’t look, sound, or feel like joy. That’s why it’s important to help people to understand that God encourages them to lament. Michael Card describes lament as “a difficult conversation that we have with God when we are sorrowful, or when we are angry, or when we are confused.”5
Three reasons we can encourage people to lament
- The Psalms are full of examples of lamenting.
- Jesus lamented in the garden of Gethsemane.
- Lamenting is an expression of faith.
Why is lament an expression of faith?
The first two points are easy to understand. But the last one? Dr. Stephen Viars explains, “When I bring my questions and even my complaints to the Lord, that’s not a bad thing. That’s actually an expression of faith, because I’m saying that I believe God has answers to life’s insoluble problems. You don’t complain to a person at the store who you think can’t do anything about it. You say, ‘I want to talk to the manager.’ Why is that? Because you’re convinced the manager can solve the problem. In a lament, that’s what we’re saying: ‘We want to talk to the manager.’”6
The benefits of lamenting
When we let people know that they have the freedom to lament—and that it’s normal to do so—they won’t feel as conflicted when they deal with their questions, doubts, and fears. Take Anne, whose brother John suddenly died from pneumonia and who initially struggled with thoughts and feelings that she felt were not befitting of a Christian.
Anne wondered what people would think about her if they knew she was constantly sobbing, wrestling with “what if” questions, confused, angry, and questioning the Lord. Anne described her concern that was layered on top of her grief: “I had a sense that I am a Christian, I have the joy of the Lord, He’s always with me, I have all of His promises. And wham, now I’m hit with something that rocks my world. Do I still have the joy of the Lord? Are people going to see my struggle and think that faith isn’t really real? I finally came to the realization that this is where I am. God deals with reality.
How lamenting helped Anne
Anne recalls, “Through this process of grief, I did learn that I could go to God with things that I was not proud of, things that I would have thought, ‘I can never say that to God,’ with my anger, my disappointment, my confusion.”
Over time, Anne realized that she had no right to accuse God of wrong, and she repented of that.
So here are three principles to remember concerning lamenting.
- Laments aren’t always legitimate. Encourage people to lament, but remind them that while what they say may be an accurate description of their thinking and feeling, what they say about God isn’t necessarily true.
- Make sure people have good theology. There’s a direct correlation between the benefits of one’s lamenting and his view of God. Lamenting is an intense conversation with God. But if a person holds deficient views about who God is, those conversations aren’t going to be helpful. We need to make sure people have a solid understanding of who God is.
- Encourage people to complain, not curse. This comes from Dr. Bob Kellemen, author of God’s Healing for Life’s Losses. For Dr. Kellemen, biblical complaint is synonymous with lament. Cursing is its evil twin. I’ve summarized the the distinctions he makes between the two:
- The distinction between complaining and cursing isn’t always clear. He says, “Our lives and our souls are complex, so it’s hard to draw the line between one or the other.”
- If someone thinks they’ve cursed God, “they do with that what they do with any other sin. They confess that as sin and they believe that God is faithful and just to forgive them for their sin.”
- Complain in the context of community. “We need times of grieving alone, but [we need] other people to say, ‘[Are you] crossing the line here?’ It’s very important that we have a sounding board of people that love us and care about us. And it’s very important that those people are real and raw too, so that they don’t heap false guilt on us for doing what God asked us to do.”
|We’re being honest with God
|We’re talking about God
|We’re talking to God
|We’re talking behind God’s back
|We’re drawn to God
|We separate from God
It’s likely that when people lament, there will be times when they say things that fall into the category of cursing. So what should they do when that happens? Dr. Kellemen has three thoughts:
Prepare people for suffering
It helps if people know these things and have been encouraged to lament prior to being in the midst of a crisis. Think of ways you can incorporate these reminders into your preaching, and encourage your lay leaders to remind your members of these truths as well.
What truths or practices have you used to encourage people to keep the faith in the midst of difficulty?
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- Church Initiative, GriefShare interview with Dr. Edward Welch, September 2005.
- Robert Jones, “The Christ-Centeredness of Biblical Counseling,” in Scripture and Counseling: God’s Word for Life in a Broken World, ed. Robert W. Kellemen and Jeff Forrey (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014).
- Church Initiative interview with Dr. Stephen Viars, April 2013.
- Church Initiative interview with Phil Sasser, July 2013.
- Church Initiative interview with Michael Card, July 2013.
- Church Initiative interview with Dr. Stephen Viars, April 2013.