“God weeps with us so that we may one day laugh with him.” Jürgen Moltmann
Over the past couple of weeks I have been thinking about 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. These people are the unseen, unheard and ignored part of our religious landscape. In theUnited Stateswe have a very vibrant religious culture which finds its way into much of everyday life. In fact listening to most of our Presidential candidates you would think that most are in fact Evangelical Christian preachers.
The fact is that despite the popularity of the mega-church and pop-psychology driven church world directed by “pastors” that function more as CEOs, motivational speakers and authors that churches are losing adherents at an increasing rate. Many of those that are being lost are those that have suffered silently doing everything that is supposed to fulfill a Christian and make them healthy, wealthy and popular get left in the dust because they don’t “get better.” I call them the “Lost Christian Generation.” There are many times that I totally empathize with author Anne Rice in saying that she has left Christianity yet still has faith in Christ. For Rice it was the lack of love shown by the institutional church for people that are marginalized and treated as if they were unredeemable by often well meaning Christians.
For the wounded the church itself becomes their little acre of Hell on earth. Having known plenty of these people I can say that this phenomenon is one of the more tragic aspects of life. Those that at one time felt the presence of God in their life only sense emptiness and aloneness. But most remain in the church for years living in pain thinking that they must be doing something wrong, that maybe they have angered God or that God has abandoned them. In fact I would challenge my readers that attend church to take a look around the pews and see that person sitting alone, maybe staring into space, maybe with an expression of deep sadness on their face even as people talk and laugh around them. The problem is most of us have very little situational awareness and don’t see them and of we do feel uncomfortable or inadequate so we leave them hoping that maybe they’ll get their act together or just go away.
I know what it feels like to be marginalized after I came back fromIraqbecause many of my Christian friends seemed, at least in my view to be tied to the absolute hogwash that spews from talk radio hosts and allegedly “Christian” politicians. I remember having some Christians question my patriotism and even my faith because I disagreed with them regarding certain aspects of the war, despite the fact that I had been on the ground in harm’s way serving with our advisors and Iraqis in Al Anbar province. The fact that not a clergyman, civilian or military, took time to care for me when I was in a major PTSD meltdown and crisis of faith before I went to Naval Medical Center Portsmouth didn’t seem to matter because a political agenda was given primacy over the simple truths and hard demands of the Gospel.
I went through a period after Iraq where feeling abandoned and isolated from those of a like faith that I was for all practical purposes an agnostic. That was a really difficult time in my life and if you think that anything sucks try to be a Chaplain when you no longer know if God exists and the only person asking how you are doing with “the Big Guy” is your therapist. I can say without a doubt that it sucks and I know that I am not alone in my feelings. I have met others whose experience is similar to mine but those that are struggling right now, caught between our faith and the feeling of being abandoned by God and his people because our experience of seeing the human suffering caused by war has shaken us. That experience changed me enough that my former church told me to leave because I had become “too liberal.”
This “God Forsakenness” sometimes leads those people that are part of the “lost Christian generation” to believe that death appears more comforting than life in the present. For such people, they live “Good Friday” everyday feeling that they are truly God Forsaken. 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. Likewise I believe 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. 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 perceive 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 was due to from my time in Iraq and the trauma of my return. That time was absolutely frightening. Church was no longer a comfort and my long established spiritual practices no longer brought peace or a feeling of communion with God. It was so bad that I left a Christmas Eve Mass in 2008 and walked through the dark wondering if God even existed.
For those clergy this is an even deeper wound one in which the very concept and understanding of God becomes skewed in the minds and hearts of the victims. It becomes worse when church institutions deny or ignore their claims which has been an unfortunate occurrence in many Roman Catholic dioceses around the world, particularly in Europe and North America where new revelations of clerical abuse seem to show up with alarming frequency.
The feeling that people who go through a crisis or loss of faith almost always mention to me is that they feel God feel cut off and even abandoned by God. This is not simply depression that they are dealing with but despair of life itself when thoughts of death or just going to sleep are much 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.
I do not think that it is enough simply to tell them that “God won’t give you more than you can bear” or quote other scriptures when they have been pushed beyond the “red line” and are breaking down. They want to believe that scriptural principle but no longer believe because God is no longer real to them.
Yet scripture plainly 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.”
We have to be honest and not turn a blind eye to the transgressions of Christians over the centuries. We cannot turn a deaf ear to the cries of those that are living their own dark night of the soul or have given in to despair.
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 and maybe, just maybe give hope to this “Lost Christian Generation” that may allow them to return.