Sorry, That Won’t Work for Me

By Angela

Rather than rescuing, we are told, “God is with
you in suffering.”

I walked out of church in the middle of the message. I honestly could not listen to another sermon which idolized a God of love, contradicted by his own actions.

Don’t we all enjoy a good superhero movie? We cheer as Christopher Reeves swoops down and sets the universe back in order. We expectantly anticipate the fairy tale ending as our hero conquers oppression, darkness and injustice. And, of course, what is a good movie unless everyone lives happily ever after. I wonder if our draw to these fantasies is the imagination deep within our souls, to know that there is a supernatural being who can control the universe, who is innately good and loving. A superhero who sees “me” and fights for my honor. A force for good who gets the last word. I want to imagine that there is. I wish my imagination had never met reality.

Understanding the neuroscientific and physiological implications of mental and emotional anguish had been only theory and hypothesis until recent developments in medical technology. It is now possible to view the brain, measure and benchmark physiological changes associated with trauma, PTSD, depression, and anxiety. These discoveries have given psychologists and physicians insight into treating those whose lives have been devastated. But at the end of the day, we still wish our superhero had protected us. We fiercely struggle to make sense of what forms our faith and what we experience?

I believe efforts in mental health care have mismanaged a powerful component in the healing and helping processes. This integrant is spiritual trauma. Confusion, anger and hopelessness caused from a disconnect in what we understand about God, his role in humanity and what we experience. A trauma, that regardless of educating, resourcing, and therapy approaches, still leaves an enormous hole in the souls of the suffering. A trauma that asks, “If God loves me, if God is all powerful, then why was I not protected, why was my loved one not healed, why did my parent leave me, why are innocent children being abused, why are people starving, why the holocaust…”

The question, “why,” crosses cultures, societies and religions. The majority of civilizations believe in some supernatural presence or powerful persona. Many ascribe this presence to God. This God is typically believed to be eternal, all powerful, all knowing, and by most measures, just. In the Christian faith, we believe this God embodies sacrificial love. This God loves unconditionally with a relational “fatherly” love. Yet, the definition of love seems counter, at times, with the actions or lack of action of an all-powerful, loving, God.

If the battle had only been relative to traumatic events, maybe I could have forged through a little less mangled. Frankly, I could do the hard work of healing. Therapy helped me process pain and equipped me with coping skills. I had accepted that my abuser had a mental illness. I processed the shame, the anger, and navigated the PTSD. And still, there was this hole. I resonated with the Dark Night of the Soul, as described by George Sand. “We do not die of anguish, we live on. We continue to suffer. We drink the cup, drop by drop.” My spirit was still broken and void. What did I do with that space in me that longed for connection with a holy higher, with a purpose. The place that yearns to believe in a loving God, but doesn’t trust this God’s love.

How God is framed and his role in suffering can cause further trauma, confusion and hopelessness. Those who have suffered loss or trauma oftentimes are provided with damaging scripture references about the sovereignty and omnipotence of a good God who cares more about our souls than our comfort. These references are used in attempts to console and comfort the hurting by touting the mystery and sovereignty of a higher power.

My references to God were understood through the lens of a sacred, inerrant or literal interpretation of the Bible. God is Omniscience, Omnipotent, Omnipresent and Immanent. God controls all things, causing or allowing both good and suffering in some quest for his own glory or creations’ ultimate good. If it doesn’t make sense or seems to contradict, then you are thinking too much, don’t have enough faith or are undermining a holy almighty God. Sorry, that doesn’t work for me.

God is, many times, likened to a loving parent who does good to his children, provides for and protects them. However (like any good father??), he doesn’t rescue all of them, alter outcomes or intervene for all because, “some have lessons to learn.” This God doesn’t overstep his own boundaries and choices to infringe upon free will. So rather than rescue, we are told he is there with us in the suffering, he hurts with us, his grace is sufficient, we won’t “understand” until we get to heaven. Viewing God from this perspective can be extremely disorienting. What parent having an ounce of love would not run to, risk their own life and rescue their child from being violated, kidnapped, killed or otherwise harmed. The theological gymnastics required to maintain this belief system is exhausting.

It was once explained to me by a kindly saint, that God cannot act against his own instituted boundaries in granting free will. I ask, then, “who makes the bloody rules?” Does this approach not undermine the claim of being all-powerful and all-controlling? Is this holy mystery what we offer because it makes us uncomfortable to poke at the indiscretions in the historical Christian interpretation of scripture for fear that we may actually see holes in our faith? I walked out of church that day.

Hours of psychotherapy, mindfulness, neuroscience research and at times medication and I still hit a wall. The questions and confusion of faith fueled anxiety and despair. I had no energy left. I longed to believe there was a good God. I longed to believe in love. At the core of my agony was the intrinsic gravitational expression of good and love which called to me. I needed to believe there was a God who loved, and saw, who cherished a little girl.

But, what if God doesn’t control all things. What if he doesn’t “allow” suffering. What if he isn’t sitting on the sidelines anticipating that glorious “return” when our dimly lit glass will be removed, it all makes sense, and we break out in a chorus of “O Happy Day.”

Enter center stage—Thomas Jay Oord and The Uncontrolling Love of God. As if…a LOVING God, directed a loving friend to share this absolute insane, object-able, questionable, disruptive narrative of how we understand God and Love! It was an immediate and transformative moment. I sat staring at the pages. Tears streamed down my face. In a moment I found freedom from darkness and lost hope. Years of confusion, anguish, and emptiness gave way to this newfound truth. God had not ordained my abuse. God was not lurking beneath mystery while standing silently on the sideline. He need not manifest his glory in some mysterious redemptive agenda at the expense of a little girl.

What if God is the fullness of love like we desperately want to believe. What if we frame his power through his creation and the call of those who carry the name of Christ? Jesus summarized scripture in a simple command, to love. What if God’s power is limited to love, calling and influencing his creation to partner in love and good? This God I can trust!

I am working on a research project exploring spiritual trauma resulting from trauma and loss. In a survey, I asked what explanations or counsel was offered regarding God’s role in suffering. Does one’s beliefs relative to God help or impede the healing process? Participants in the survey were familiar with Tom Oord’s work God Can’t or were provided with a summary of Open and Relational Theology. The final question asked whether understanding God from an uncontrolling or ORT viewpoint would have been beneficial and/or helped expedite healing. An overwhelming 94 percent so far have indicated understanding God from this view would have made a difference. This God. That works for me!

Angela is a healthcare administrative professional. She is currently working on a research and survey project exploring spiritual trauma in relation to trauma and loss. Her interests in neuroscience, psychology and open and relational theology are spurred by stories of others as well as her own journey. (Angela does not want her last name published.)

To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Love Does Not Control: Therapists, Psychologists, and Counselors Explore Uncontrolling Love