Struggling with Faith and God at Easter

“God weeps with us so that we may one day laugh with him.” 
Jürgen Moltmann

Easter Sunday is past and we are now in the Easter Season I was thinking today on encounters that I have had with Christians of various denominations who have suffered a crisis in faith or loss of faith due to some kind of trauma in their lives which gets worse at Easter.  For these people the time in which their churches celebrate Christ’s resurrection becomes their own little acre of Hell on earth.  Having known plenty of these people I can say that this phenomena is one of the more tragic aspects of the season when people who at one time felt the presence of God in their life only sense emptiness and aloneness which sometimes becomes a feeling of hopelessness where even death appears more comforting than life in the present.  I write this because I really believe that these often very sensitive and wonderful people are either ignored or not even seen by most of their fellow church members and that many if not most pastors and priests are either unaware of them, uncomfortable around them or irritated by them because they don’t respond like “normal” people do to the message of Easter.  I have found from my own experience returning from Iraq that Easter despite the message of resurrection and hope often triggers a despair of life itself when one no longer senses the presence of God and feels alone against the world, especially in church.

Many times the crisis of faith is caused by prolonged depression, PTSD or other trauma often involving family members, clergy or other trusted authority figures in their lives.  Sometimes the trauma is due to a physical injury, perhaps a near death experience due to an illness, combat or accident and can be neurological as in the case of Traumatic Brain Injury or TBI not something that routine counseling either psychological or pastoral or an anti-depressant medication will correct.  In my case it was PTSD and chronic pain and insomnia which overwhelmed me and along with a crisis of faith triggered such hopelessness that I barely held on for almost two years.

I remember when I first started dealing with this in others while in seminary that I was of the mind that if someone was in the midst of a crisis in faith if they read the Bible more, prayed more and made sure that they were in church that things would work out.  I believed then that somehow with counseling, the right concept of God and involvement in church activities that God would “heal” them.  Call me a heretic but that line of thinking is nice for people experiencing a minor bump in their life but absolutely stupid advice for people who are severely traumatized or clinically depressed and suicidal who no longer percieve the presence of God in their lives.

I cannot condemn those who have lost their faith or are wavering in their faith due to trauma, abuse or other psychological reason. So many people like this have been victimized by family, teachers, clergy other authority figures or physical trauma related to accidents, near death experiences or combat that it is mind numbing.  The fact that I went through a period for the nearly two years where I was pretty much an agnostic praying to believe again because of my PTSD injury incurred in Iraq that felt hopelessly isolated for the first year after my return until I finally reconnected with others and began to feel safe again gives me just a bit of an idea at what these people are going through.  My isolation from Christian community and sense of despair during that time showed me that such a loss of faith is not to be trifled with or papered over with the pretty wallpaper or neat sets of “principles” drawn up in the ivory theological towers by theologians and “pastors” who refuse to deal with the reality of the consequences of a fallen world and their impact on real people.

Sometimes the damage wrought on people makes it nearly impossible to comprehend a God who both cares about them and who is safe to approach.  My experience came from Iraq and the trauma of my return and were absolutely frightening so much so that I left a Christmas Eve Mass in 2008 and walked through the dark wondering if God even existed.  Now with help and the deliberate action of my boss and co-workers to protect me as I recovered, received therapy and recover were key factors to being able to step back from the abyss. For those abused by parents or clergy this is I think an even deeper wound one in which the very concept and understanding of God becomes skewed in the minds and hearts of the victims.

The feeling that people who go through this crisis or loss of faith almost always mention to me is that God no longer speaks to them.  The feel cut off and even abandoned by God and it is not simply depression that they are dealing with but despair of life itself when death or just going to sleep is preferable to living.  This overwhelming despair impacts their relationships especially with their family and frequently will destroy families as the spouse grows weary and loses hope seeing their loved one get better.  It is if they never are able to leave the “God forsakenness” of Good Friday and cannot climb out of the tomb.   For some the pain is so much the last and previously unthinkable alternative of suicide becomes the only course of action that they think will help.  Such thoughts are not simply narcissism as some would believe but from the “logical” belief that their family, friends and loved ones would be better off without them.  I have seen this too many times to count. 

It is hard to reach out to people in this situation.  I have to admit in my case that it was only people who chose to remain with me and walk with me through the ordeal in spite of my frequent crashes, depression, anger and even rage that helped get me through the worst of this.  However I’m sure that my condition burned some people out.  There are some that would not walk with me as I first began to go down and the sad thing is that many were ministers and fellow chaplains.  In some ways I don’t blame them at the same time the first person that asked me how my spiritual life “or how I was with the Big Guy” was my therapist.  When I reported to my current duty station I was shocked to find Chaplains who were willing to come alongside of me, even when they didn’t have the answers and remain with me. 

The topic of a loss of faith or the reality of feeling God forsaken is had to deal with.  It is seldom dealt with in many seminaries or Bible schools because it is not comfortable or something that you can “grow your church” with.  But the reality is there are more people going to church praying for an answer who no one reaches out to, in fact they are often invisible amid the busyness of program oriented ministry. 

It is my prayer that this post will help people be able to reach out to those crushed under burdens that they can no longer bear.  It is not enough simply to tell them that “God won’t give you more than you can bear” when they have been beyond the “red line” longer than one can imagine.  They want to believe that scriptural principle but no longer believe because God is no longer real to them. 

Yet scripture plain teaches that we are to “bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said      “We must learn to regard people less in light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.”  It is our willingness to be with people in their suffering that is one of the true marks of the Christian.  Being with someone in triumph is far easier than with those who suffer the absence of God.  It is presence and love not sermons that people who have lost their faith need as Bonhoeffer so eloquently said “Where God tears great gaps we should not try to fill them with human words.”

I do pray that as we celebrate the joy of the Resurrection that we will not forget those who despair of live and feel as if they are “God-forsaken.”  It is not easy as those who walked with me can testify but in doing so there is the chance that such action will prevent tragedy.

Peace

Padre Steve+

So anyway, my best to everyone and please be safe….

Padre Steve+

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7 Comments

Filed under christian life, faith, Pastoral Care, philosophy

7 responses to “Struggling with Faith and God at Easter

  1. Maryellen

    Dear Steve,
    How I can relate to this writing. While I may think that God has forgotten me( that is my emotion). I firmly believe that when we are in the midst of such deep despair, God is carrying us but we block Him because our senses are so overloaded. And the so called church bases much on emotion not fact. I have spent years just holding on as my nails slide down the chalk board. And it is during such times, we find out who are true friends are. We haave exhausted ours through the constant trials so depend on each other. And it is hard not to be judgemental. God does give us these times, to be able to look back and see His faithfulness. Even Jesus was forsaken for a time. I was recently asked why, after a woman had participated in a healing service, God did not answer prayer. i reminded her that God has his own time- and that prayer answers may be yes,no or maybe but do not occur on command performance which is what many folks expect.
    On another issue, our son is on the receiving end of harrassment and verbal abuse, on ship, due to his problem with depression. The navy is very bad at treating mental health problems and the ship doc has refused to refer him for drug management until forced and now there is retribution. Any ideas of how I can help?

    • padresteve

      Maryellen
      Sorry to take so long getting back to you. I will answer the question regarding your son in a separate e-mail. Thanks for your personal insights on this subject with Helen’s death and your own situation of recent times that feeling of abandonment can be a powerful emotion. Sometimes our cognitive process doesn’t work so well until we can get through the emotion. Anyway, as always you are in my prayers. I’ll write soon on the other subject.
      Blessings,
      Steve+

  2. Donna

    Hi, Padre Steve,

    Thanks again for sharing your journey. I check often to see how it’s going for you.

    I am grateful that my own crisis of faith lasted “only” 8 or 9 months. While there wasn’t any one thing that “caused” it, I remember the pivotal moment – I had an impression that the Universe make a great, sucking sound, and God retreated to the other end. I have never felt so alone. My prayer of “help me, help me, help…” seemed to die out in the void.

    So fast forward through my/the desolation you’ve described. I didn’t know ANYone that I thought I could tell this was happening. I kept attending church, but at times I thought, “ALL these people must be on opiates.” I only spoke/hinted of what I was experiencing once, but one of the responses, something like “we should turn it over…” was enough to convince me to keep my mouth shut. I was just too far on the outside…

    Fortunately/finally (shortly after that), in mid-February, I experienced a hair-line crack in the darkness, and the Spirit began to enter again. My overwhelming reaction was a sense of surprised and grateful relief, knowing that the tide was turning, and I was going to get to come out of it. It’s been a gradual but steady unfolding, I guess like when the sky starts to get light again before a sunrise.

    I have the sense that I should share this with someone in my congregation, but I’m still not sure who to approach… Our church has been in between preachers, and our pastoral team is made up of people who are certainly self-confident and good at praying in public… but I’m on a new theological journey now, and I honestly don’t have a clue if any of them have been here/there. That makes it just uncomfortable/scary to risk talking about it…

    (Interestingly, the person locally with whom I think I’m *most* likely to talk this over is a long-time friend who is also a former Navy chaplain who currently works in a hospital ministry. I think our paths will cross again this week, so we’ll see if that works out.)

    I’ve been fascinated to watch what the recovery process would be like. I sort of knew that it wouldn’t be a return to “normal”… and it’s definitely a different, new journey. I am SO grateful to be on this side of the experience, but in ways, it’s like starting from scratch, developing a new relationship with God and my faith. It has certainly changed the way I look at myself, so it makes sense that ALL the relationships have to change. I guess it’s part of God making “all things new…”

    So, this brings me to a question… You mentioned that you’ve been going back to re-read different works in theology. I’m aware of the authors you mentioned… but I haven’t read much of them. I was wondering if you could make any reading recommendations for this type of journey. I’m grateful for any suggestions.

    Donna

    • Donna

      Just a follow-up on my own posting…
      I did speak to my chaplain friend about having been through a faith crisis, and that was extremely worthwhile; he was immediately willing to meet me/hear me from wherever I was in the journey.

      Again, I’m grateful to Padre Steve for his candid postings… I also ventured to tell it to my “small group/house church (on Sunday evenings, my congregration doesn’t meet formally; small groups meet in various members’ homes). That turned out to feel way more uncomfortable than I expected, so I wish I had skipped that.

      There were less than 10 people present, and they listened politely but awkwardly. What struck me as really wierd was that when I asked the room for reading suggestions, (as in, “what have you read that inspired you on your relationship with God and your path with Christ,” only two people suggested anything, although the college degrees present were too numerous to count. I guess this means they *didn’t* get that this part of my journey is a growth in faith. Maybe they were just too stunned by the crisis part that they couldn’t hear the second verse.

      Well, thanks again, Steve, for the foreshadowing… so it didn’t take me too much by surprise…

    • padresteve

      Donna

      Thank you for sharing your journey here. I am glad that you have the former Navy Chaplain to go to. I know how hard it is to share in most churches what you go through when you experience a crisis in faith. It is sometimes like they run away and hide or simply ignore you as this is troubling to so many people. The crisis of someone else can trigger their own doubts and that is not a comfortable place to be. Blessings on you and your journey.

      Peace, Padre Steve+

  3. Larry C.

    Thanks Steve for your honest reflections.

    I didn’t go through a war situation, but I have gone through a permanent loss of my former evangelical faith. I guess you could say that I’m pretty much an atheist towards those particular set of beliefs. However, I don’t doubt there is something out there. For all intents and purposes, I guess I would say I am a spiritual agnostic who prays at times. I’m at peace w/ where I am at. Perhaps a better label for me would be a “doubting deist.” But as your story of the lady in the hosptial who said that Jesus was coming to take her “home,” there are things that go “bump in the night” that even the skeptics can’t explain. I’m just no longer comfortable with what happens in so much of evangelical Christianity where divine moments have to be put in a box and marketed to the masses as an absolute, fixed and static belief system.

    • padresteve

      Larry,

      I know about a loss of faith in some of the aspects of Evangelical, but I would say more Fundamental Protestant theology goes. I went through such a crisis after Iraq even my moderate Anglo-Catholic faith was challenged. I figure that God is big enough to handle what most people believe and that my theology no matter how much I believe it to be correct can be overruled by God since he doesn’t take theology lessons from me. Blessings on you and your journey.

      Peace,
      Steve+

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