Someone struggling with serious health problems wrote to me today and said, “Dave, some of the stuff you’ve faced with your MS is horrific. How in the world do you keep trusting God and believing he loves you?” What a great question. With her permission I have reprinted my answer, below, because I wonder if it might be helpful to others.
Question: I just don’t understand how you and God can have a relationship when you are suffering from such a depressing, debilitating disease. I want you to know I do not in any way pity you. I do not disrespect you as a person by drawing attention to your illness. But how do you hold onto this relationship when you suffer so much? I just can’t wrap my head around that. And by asking that question I feel so much like what people would describe as a “baby” Christian who is still caught up in why bad things happen to good people but I’m so tired of pretending I’m a grown up Christian. I want to know how you reconcile that. And I want to also add that I feel so sad that you have to go through what you go through. I hope in no way that you feel I am minimizing or trivializing your suffering by asking such an immature question.
Answer: I’m so glad you have someone of whom you can ask that question. I had no one. Unfortunately I’m not sure I have anything to say that will be that helpful. I’ll try, though. BTW, my illness is as much a feature of my life by now as the fact that I am bald, or a writer, or a pastor. It’s the most routine thing in the world for me to talk about. Don’t worry about asking.
Maybe the best answer to your question is that I have already tried the other options.
As I have mentioned, I lived as an atheist for a few years after my diagnosis. Not only could I not believe God loved me, but I couldn’t believe in God at all. My friend Cindy had died in a horrible accident only a month earlier, when a van she was in (loaded with choir students from Olivet Nazarene College on the way to a Bill Gaither music festival) tipped over, killing several students in the van. There were thousands of people at this festival praying for her, and hundreds of us back home who loved her and were sick with worry praying as well. Apparently it made no difference. Sure as hell seemed like it anyway.
That was the first time I ever had any experience of how desperately thousands of people can pray to the same God and how completely impotent those prayers can seemingly be when it comes to getting the result we thought we should get. I experienced it again a month and five days later when I got my diagnosis. My response was atheism. We can’t gloss over that. I could tell you all I’ve learned and what I think and believe now, but you have to walk your own journey, and where I am now was made possible by the time I spent in the desert of unbelief. That may or may not be your journey.
Being sick of pretending you are grown up is required in order to take those first brave steps into the desert that begins to grow you up for real, and it always feels like you’re being forced to do it. So at the time they feel anything but brave. They feel like your only choice so not like a choice at all. This means there’s nothing I can tell you that will get you where you want to be. All I can do is encourage you to walk your road. Know that where you are now is not a departure from your faith, but the most important part of the journey so far.
Above all, please, please know that even as I sit here typing these words and sounding like a frickin’ guru, I feel like an idiot. After all, I don’t really know either. I’m not sure either. I live by faith too. I have days (and moments within days) when I think the whole thing is complete crap. Here is the stark reality: There are no spiritual heroes. No giants. No one who knows beyond doubt. No one who hasn’t had to simply speak the yes of faith day after day in the face of sometimes overwhelming reasons not to. Thus the answer you want is not one I can give, for I reconcile my suffering and the love of God through the very suffering that would seem to alienate me from him. I believe in the love of God not in spite of my suffering but largely because of it. There’s no way to explain that.
And even as I sit here typing all this I feel like a tool, partially because I cannot give you what you seek, and partially because any attempts that I make to describe it end up sounding more pat and certain than they were, or are, or have ever been. That’s why I like to just refer people to my blog and ask them to tunnel through it, to walk the journey with me, to in fact be part of the process. I know there aren’t very many answers on the blog, but I think I’m learning to ask some of the right questions.
I would say that I just “chose” to believe, but that’s not really true, as I no longer believe that people can really choose to believe — or even not to believe, for that matter. Faith either grabs us or it doesn’t. Please read my post Struggling with Faith, which explains this much better.
Ultimately I guess I can say only that I kept responding to whatever was in there. At times it was a move toward God. At other times it was furious movement away. I’ve never liked pain and still don’t, but have never taken any steps to just numb it at all costs. I have tried to steadily move into it, through it, and out the other side. The only way I can “get anything” out of this whole thing is if, in the end, I am better instead of bitter, if I manage to somehow find ways to pass on to others what I am learning, or to inspire someone. I want to live and die this way, inhaling the grace of God as it is given, and exhaling it as I have opportunity. Christian, atheist, Buddhist — all that can really matter in this life is leaving people in the world better than they could have been without you.
I’m sorry if my words here have been insufficient. This is all I have.
So that’s how I suffer and keep trusting God. Tell me in the Comments how you do it.