No Trust in God after Father's Death

[Spring/Summer, 2002]

by Dr. Daniel Gottlieb

[Editor’s Note: The following question and response appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer from a column written by Dr. Gottlieb, a Philadelphia area clinical psychologist who specializes in family therapy.

   The question – Why does God allow suffering? – is common to all people throughout history. Dr. Gottlieb’s response, rooted in his devout Jewish faith, provides a Scriptural testimony to this issue: God will not always protect us from suffering, but his pledge is to not abandon us. "My God asks for faith and offers companionship." This is the message given to Moses, that we hear as one of the Holy Friday Vespers readings: "My presence will go with you" (Exodus 33:14). It is the last affirmation proclaimed by Jesus to his disciples following his Resurrection: "And lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age" (Matt. 28:29). It is essential testimony from St. Paul read at an Orthodox funeral service: "So we shall always be with the Lord" (1 Thessalonians 4:18).

   Dr. Gottlieb’s words appeared in a secular newspaper and he utilizes at times a therapeutic language, but during this time of uncertainty, his response, directed to the kind of question which troubles many, can offer us as well a message which resonates with what we believe as Orthodox Christians.]

Dear Dr. Dan: I recently lost my father to spinal cancer. I turned to God for help. I begged, pleaded and cried on bended knee for a miracle, but there was none. I am at a point in my life now where I am very bitter and angry. I feel betrayed by a God who says he loves us and wants to help us, but when we do turn to him it is "No" or it falls on deaf ears.

   After someone has passed away from a terminal illness, people say, "It's a blessing." Just once it would be nice to hear someone say, "Praise God for curing them and for a miracle."

   My father was a gentle, kind and wonderful man who was stripped of all his dignity. If God wanted him so badly why didn't he just take him, instead of degrading him? It seems the more I prayed for help the worse he got. I thought prayer was supposed to help your cause, not hurt it.

   It will be a very long time before I get down on bended knee again and pray for help.

Dear reader: I am sorry about your loss. Your father sounds like he was a nice man and I would have wished for him an easier passage. You sound like you are in terrible pain, and I'm guessing that your pain is because you carry both loss and resentment. To lose a loved one can be a terribly lonely experience. But to have your faith shattered in the process must feel even lonelier.

   I noticed that you did not say you had become an atheist - just that you would not pray for help. That tells me you feel betrayed and mistrustful and that your faith was shaken, but not your belief in a higher power or spirit.

   Your faith was challenged because your expectations were not met. So I suggest you take a look at what God means to you. Some people believe in a God who is a type of attentive life guide with influence over the small details - if we get a cold or win a raffle. Some believe in a God who is critical and judgmental and holds us accountable for even the slightest misdeeds. Yet others believe in a God who is all accepting and loves us no matter what we do. And anyone who has watched sports on television, of course, knows that many athletes believe God pays very close attention to the outcomes of sporting events.

   When expectations are not met in any relationship, trust is jeopardized. But sometimes the problem is in the expectations.

   Over the course of my adult life, I have endured much adversity. At first I was resentful and scoffed at the notion of a higher power - I felt much as you do. One day while leaving the cemetery after my wife's funeral, I looked at the sky and said: "I just can't take any more pain." What I heard back still lives: "Sure you can. You just don't want to." That's when I realized that my God would not protect me from suffering. I also realized that my pain was just that: As much as it hurt, it was an emotion that could be endured.

   What I ultimately came to believe is that when my faith had both strength and depth, I was at peace. And when I had faith, I had a sense of companionship. My God asks for faith and offers companionship. I know I will endure great suffering before I leave this earth. I only hope that when I do, my faith remains intact throughout.

   Research shows that faith contributes to one's sense of well-being and one's ability to recover from adversity. People with strong faith in any type of higher power tend to be happier, more peaceful and recover from adversity more quickly.

   But it is important to understand that faith is different from belief. Belief in a higher power is an intellectual position. Faith requires trust. We use the term "leap of faith" because faith requires giving up control to something that cannot be seen or measured. Faith also demands comfort with the idea that the important things in life are not in one's personal control. That's why faith requires humility.

   By sad coincidence I find myself on a path similar to yours. My beloved father is losing his health and has already lost his precious independence. This once robust and passionate man spends his days in his apartment under constant nursing supervision. I watch as he slowly loses his strength, vision, mental clarity and enjoyment of life.

   As I am sure yours did, my emotions range from frustration to fear to impotence to guilt. But underneath these emotions is what feels like an aching, cavernous hole in the center of my chest that has no words. Is my faith intact? I can tell you with a combination of trust and hope that although I will soon be an orphan, I will not be alone.

   I wish you wisdom, peace and companionship in this New Year.

 


This appeared in Dr. Gottlieb’s column, "On Healing," The Philadelphia Inquirer, January 7, 2002. It is reprinted with his permission. His email is: voicesin@aol.com.

 

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