Maybe “angry” is too strong a word. Maybe it’s more like: “Smoldering with quiet resentment towards God.” But in either case, what do you do when you realize that the difficult marriage you have, or the dead-end job you’re in, or the cancer diagnosis, doesn’t amount to the “abundant life” you thought Jesus was promising?
In the Christian faith, we have a lot to help us reason through the hard times, and I felt like those spiritual supports were bolstered even more when I became Catholic. When I hear someone complaining (or when I start complaining myself) about how life is hard, I have my theological answers ready: “Think of what Jesus did for you,” “Your suffering is making you more like Christ and preparing you for Heaven,” “Be grateful for what you have. We don’t even deserve an hour of life.” Yes, yes, and yes. All true. And a lot of the time, that’s all we need. But some days… it isn’t. The head, despite all it’s eloquence, cannot convince the heart to climb out of it’s emotional pit.
I don’t get angry at God that much, but I’ve been disappointed. I’ve felt let down. A few years ago, living in the Bay Area, I couldn’t understand why God wasn’t “providing” for us. It might sound to some like I was being sold snake-oil (and I’m a little embarrassed to tell this story), but I grew up believing that if I gave to God from my income (preferably around the 10% mark—the “tithe”), He would give back a hundred fold—or would at least take care of me. “You can never out-give God,” I would hear preachers say as they mentioned some ministry that needed funds. They never said this in that crass “prosperity Gospel” sort of way or as some cheap manipulative trick. There were real needs in the church or para-church ministry. And there were Bible verses they could point to about God providing for us if we would but step out in faith and be generous (Mal. 3:10, Luke 6:38; 21:1-4). Both before becoming Catholic and after, I’ve heard from the pulpit this logic: “Trust God by giving your 10%, and He’ll take care of you.” One priest went so far as to imply that Satan could get a foothold in your life if you didn’t.
So, before I became Catholic, I gave generously and sacrificially, but to my disappointment, I found that year after year, the 10% I was giving to the church kept me from being able to pay my taxes—and I mean majorly. Cutting Friday nights at Panda Express wasn’t going to fill the gap. And yes, God was providing—through the IRS that was willing to set up an Installment Agreement, and then restructure it the next two years. He also got us through with borrowed money at high interest, which deepened our debt. But it certainly didn’t feel like God was “out-giving” us.
So I got angry—at least as angry as a stifled legalist can get. I didn’t outright doubt God. I just felt I couldn’t trust Him—not with money, at least. Whatever God meant in the Bible by “taking care of His children”, it apparently didn’t mean paying my bills. I realize that Jesus says, “Seek first the kingdom of God, and all these things will be added to you,” (Matt. 6:25-34) but those things didn’t seem to be coming my way any time soon. And while I waited for them, I was treading water.
I found out later, with the illumination of my Catholic faith, that “10%” is actually an arbitrary number. The Catholic church doesn’t actually require a percentage given to the institution or to any charity—only that you give what you can which, some years, might mean nothing at all, or might just mean volunteer work. But even now, when I feel like God is asking me to give more or make a change in my life that might mean more impact for the Kingdom of God, but less funds for my family, I hesitate considerably.
I know my story is pretty tame compared to the sort of crises of faith a lot of people have to go through, though. How do you hold on to faith, say, when you were molested as a child, perhaps by a religious authority figure? How do you hold on to a God of love when your child is diagnosed with a terminal illness? I can’t even begin to imagine the kind of struggle I’d have with God if something like that happened.
And again, my struggle wouldn’t come from the fact that I don’t have answers that give meaning to my pain. I do. Jesus had to die on a Cross. Should I expect anything less? But I also know that God says He loves me. And what good parent, seeing their child falling from a high-rise window, would just stand there, do nothing, and watch him hit the ground? I understand why God allows me to go through suffering in my head, but I can feel betrayed in my heart. It’s not the fist-shaking rebellion of an atheist who demands that he be free to do whatever he wants. It’s the slouched shoulders and gentle weeping of the child who doesn’t understand why daddy has to leave.
I don’t know any answer to this that would satisfy everyone. But I know the things that have gotten me through my own hard times and the things I wish others had told me. Here’s a list:
1. Don’t feel guilty for feeling hurt. It’s true, cosmically, everything is all right—or everything will be, at least. “God is good all the time.” Trite, but true. But don’t berate yourself if it doesn’t feel that way now. The Psalms, a book of Jewish hymns in the Bible, are filled to the brim with cries of agony from holy people who don’t understand why God is allowing them to suffer. Think about that for a moment: the songs the Hebrew people would sing in worship to God would include exasperated expressions like, “Where are you God?” and “When will you save me?” (Ps. 6, 44) The beginning of Psalm 22 was on Jesus’ lips as He died on the Cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
2. Don’t hide how you’re feelings. A lot of times, when we’re knocked over from whatever life has thrown at us and wondering where God is in all of it, if we know our theology, it’s tempting to jump the gun and pretend we’re fine. We put on a smile in front of everyone—which is ok if you don’t want to talk about it with every Dick and Jane. But you have to talk to someone. What’s worse, if you keep pretending you’re fine, in addition to fooling everyone else, you might begin to fool yourself.
3. Don’t blame God—or anyone for that matter. It’s also tempting to try and decipher the tea leaves of our circumstances. We want a scapegoat. Even if that scapegoat is you—if there’s legitimate sin you’ve done that got you into your mess, confess it, make amends where you need to, and then move on. If you are Catholic, confess it to a priest, even if it is not a mortal sin. Something about hearing another human being say with authority, “God forgives you” can make a world of difference.
4. Let yourself slowly embrace ambiguity. You’re not going to answer every question, and you’re going to drive yourself crazy if you do. You don’t know all the reasons you have to go through what you are going through. In my case, our financial difficulties led us to move to Sacramento, which has been, in countless ways, the healthiest thing for our family that we have ever done, but there is no way I could know that God not providing for us in one place would mean prosperity in another. God doesn’t always give us an answer.
5. Lean in to God. Go to daily Mass, find some quiet corner, and just start crying. Pick up your Bible and just start reading it. Now isn’t the time to run from God. Now is the time to run to Him.
If you’re hurting and reading this, this probably isn’t everything you were hoping for. But it might be enough for today to hold on to faith a little bit longer. Jesus, unfortunately, promised us our “daily bread,” not “lifetime-supply of bread.” You’re going to come out the other side of this and find some normal way of living, but until then, keep feeding on Christ.
© 2018 Jon Holowaty
Pic Credits: Tanongsak Panwan/Shutterstock.com