God Can and Did

By Donn Peters

God can’t stop tragedies from happening but can and does do something far more profound.

I met Tim whilst I was completing my psychological training. I was working at the counseling center on the campus of the Christian University, where I received my degree. Tim was in his middle 30s and worked as an emergency response technician in a large metropolitan hospital. He had been on duty the night before the counseling session I am about to retell.

First, a brief explanation of my journey. In the time before my entry into the psychological world, I was an anti-psychology Christian. As I saw it God had given us the Bible and salvation, as well as the Holy Spirit to guide us. What use did a Christian have of “ungodly psychology”? I went back to school to prepare to enter the ministry. At the same time, our church hired a psychology graduate student, Jared, to offer therapy to those in the church. Through a series of events, I entered therapy with him. I was frightened and proud at the same time; proud that I was doing something different and frightened at what might come up.

During my first session with Jared, initially I did not know what to talk about. Suddenly, a memory came to me. I had attended a large three-year high school that enrolled over three-thousand students. I was new to the school. The memory that flashed back was one of me leaving the lunch line, tray in hand, surveying the dining room with at least six hundred students where I knew no one. Seeing no place to sit and no one to share lunch with, I returned my tray and left for the library, where I spent every lunch period for three years. The loneliness and aloneness overwhelmed me. When I looked up from my tears, I could see that Jared was moved as well.

Slowly the listening presence of another human began to have its therapeutic effect. Later that year, I changed my major from Religion to Psychology. After a couple of years, I entered graduate school, and four years later I met Tim. I have been on a long journey ever since.

Tim had been on duty the night before our appointment. I could see something was wrong as he entered the room. He was agitated. He paced up and down the office. Several times I suggested he sit down. He wouldn’t, and as I came to understand, more likely, couldn’t! His voice was agitated. He spoke in short outbursts. This was all unusual behavior for Tim. Here’s a synopsis of how our conversation went that day.

T: How could your God let this happen?

D: (Unsure of what he was referencing) I’m not sure what you mean?

T: I mean, how could your God allow such a thing?

D: (Still uncertain what he was referring to) I don’t know? Tell me what happened?

Slowly, Tim told the story. That night, a one-month-old infant had been brought into the E.R. Upon examination the team determined the infant was suffering from “shaken baby syndrome.” After heroic efforts to save the infant’s life, it finally succumbed to the damage that had been done to it. Tim, still visibly upset, continued to pace the floor. I could not calm him down; there seemed no space for me to talk. However, towards the end of the session, he began to listen to me, and I could make an impact.

D: Tim, I think God is just as angry as you are right now.

T: (Continues to pace and rant, but then stops and looks back at me over his left shoulder) What?

D: I think God is just as heartbroken, just as frustrated, and just as angry as you are right now! I’ll see you next week and we’ll continue our discussion of this.

The session ended.

The next week, Tim entered the consulting room in his more usual manner. He was calm, took his seat, and almost immediately the conversation began.

T: What did you mean last week?

D: You mean when I said God was just as angry as you were?

T: Yes.

D: I think God was feeling a lot of the same things you were last week.

T: I thought your God was supposed to stop all that kind of thing?

D: Yes, I think that’s the usual understanding of God. But sometimes he can’t or won’t or doesn’t stop such things. I’m terribly unsatisfied with the current theological explanations for such things. And I don’t quite know how to solve the theological problem. But I am sure, like a good parent, God feels all the things you did, and maybe even more, in response to such senseless death. Maybe to all senseless death. But anyhow, certainly in response to this senseless death.

T: But why doesn’t God stop this kind of thing? He’s supposed to be all good and all powerful.

D: I don’t know. I don’t have a good explanation for that. But I wonder if we could explore something else. Why does this death have such a powerful impact on you? Not that it shouldn’t affect you. I think it should affect all of us. But I’ve never seen you as distressed and angry as you were last week. You’ve worked in the ER for a long time, and I expect you’ve seen death many times, even senseless death before. Why does this one impact you so powerfully?

T: (Through many tears and halting conversation) Years ago, my family, we all attended church together. (Sobs) Then my baby brother was killed by a drunk driver.

(Back on his feet pacing) My parents couldn’t take it, they retreated into anger and depression. So, they tried to bury it and never talked about it, but we never got over it. It hung over our lives like a wet blanket.

(Clearly angry now) Church people and friends tried to give us explanations, often pitying us or ignoring us. (He has now stopped pacing, but is facing me directly, pointing and gesturing) Like it was his time. Or God needed another harp player. Or God was punishing someone, my parents or my brother, for some unconfessed sin.

(Pacing resumes. He turns and faces me directly) It was all BS! It just angered me and my parents! So, we never went back. I found my place in medicine.

D: Yeah, church people can say some downright stupid things in the face of inexplicable tragedy, all in the name of protecting their inadequate theology. I know something is wrong with the current model, but I don’t know how to fix it.

T: I gave up on God and haven’t been to church for 27 years. I was eight. Has anything like this ever happened to you?

D: No. Not like that. My parents divorced when I was fifteen. I felt quite shunned by the church people we had been so friendly with only weeks before. Then a few years later my mother died, way too young, and it devastated me. Took me forever to recover from that.

T: Did you give up on God too?

D: Yes, for a long time.

Our discussions continued for many months, but we rarely spoke about this issue. I recognized my role was to be present with Tim and to acknowledge my inability to understand the reasons such tragic events occurred. Slowly, over a matter of months, Tim began to change. He went back to church at the encouragement of a life-long friend. He even got baptized. As I look back on this experience some thirty years ago, I marvel at how God used me to help and support Tim. I think this was one of those rare moments when I allowed God to be present through me. It was a real moment of partnering with God.

Question: Looking back over your life, can you see how God was walking with you in difficult times?

Dr. Donn Peters received a Doctor of Psychology from Rosemead School of Psychology at Biola University, as well as a Doctor of Psychoanalysis from the Institute of Contemporary Psychoanalysis in Los Angeles. He lives and works in Park City, Utah where he specializes in psychoanalytic treatment of couples and adults. He is the program director of the Advanced Clinical Training Program at Northwind Institute.

To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Partnering with God: Exploring Collaboration in Open and Relational Theology.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Book-Cover-683x1024.jpg