A fellow bereaved parent and blogger, Melanie, recently asked me if I still struggle with feeling God’s love. The question came in response to a post I published several months ago entitled, “Uncovering Unknown Issues of the Heart”. Yesterday I posted Melanie’s response assuming our conversation had ended. But Melanie and I have bonded over our desire to process our grief while simultaneously making sense of the faith that has come to sustain and define us. The foundations of our faith have not been shaken, but we still wrestle with elements of our faith. And so, our conversation continued. I’ve pretty much cut it down to the parts of theological significance. I hope our struggle to understand the God we love, the One True God, might help someone else who is struggling to make sense of their faith in light of circumstances that cast doubt on what they’ve always believed to be true about the God of Abraham, Jacob and Issac. So, here we go again . . .
Melanie: I don’t remember if I replied again to you in that conversation, but I need to tell you that your words really touched a deep place in need of healing in my spirit. I think that I have continued to feel that I am somehow responsible for my son’s death. Isn’t that ridiculous? Maybe it’s easier to blame myself than to keep wrestling with the intersection of God’s will, human choice and the goodness and love of the Father.
Job had not sinned when Satan targeted him. And God’s purpose was not to teach Job a lesson but to show Satan that His servants would continue to serve Him in spite of suffering and loss.
Janet: Melanie, thanks as always for your kind words as they encourage me as I wrestle with my own demons (so to speak) in this process of refinement. And while it’s patently untrue than you are responsible for Dominic’s death it’s not “ridiculous” that you might feel as if you are – it’s just one of those bizarre and entirely normal ways the human mind wrestles with the unacceptable in life.
Maybe this sounds a bit crazy, but I think it’s one of the ways believer’s cope with anger with God. We are afraid to be mad at Him and yet buried beneath our beliefs about His love and good plans lurks this anger we are either unaware of or we are too afraid to address. It’s easier – less frightening – to assume responsibility (or blame) ourselves than it is to open that locked box in our hearts that hides our deepest fears about God and confront those fears.
It’s transference, plain and simple (in my completely uneducated opinion). But listen to what C.S. Lewis said in “A Grief Observed”,
“Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not ‘So there’s no God after all,’ but ‘So this is what God’s really like. Deceive yourself no longer.”
So this is what God’s really like – yikes! But God not only is capable of dealing with those frightening fears about His character and the way He works, He is forcing the lid on that locked box open and demanding that we confront those fears so that He can dispel our faulty misconceptions. Those misconceptions hold us at arms length from Him and hinder the spread of the gospel to the lost because they besmirch His character and His innate holiness.
Melanie: I often refer back to Lewis’ book because it is so honest and challenging.
Something we have discussed around our table is the fact that we humans are not equipped or even capable of comprehending God in His fullness and majesty. “My thoughts are higher than your thoughts”… So we create shortcuts, paradigms and analogies that serve pretty well when things are going OK but fail miserably when they aren’t.
And often our faith communities are uncomfortable with questions or simply don’t provide space and time to ask them. (When teaching a SS lesson-how many teachers invite real questions?) I get it–who wants to stand in front of a classroom and admit you just don’t know?
But we who have experienced great pain must confront and decide. Who is this God we claim to serve and follow? What does love really look like? Can we learn to live with unanswered questions?
Janet: Exactly! It’s not disrespectful and it’s not heretical. “Come let us reason together!” It’s required if we wish to have a relationship with the Lord that has deep roots and bears fruit. I don’t want to be the cursed fig tree.
Jesus Curses the Fig Tree – Mark 11:12-14
12 On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. 13 And seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see if he could find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. 14 And he said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it.
What on earth does it mean when I say that I don’t want to be the cursed fig tree?
The fig tree is a symbolic reference to the nation of Israel. The story of the cursed fig tree is told in both the gospel of Matthew and Mark and according to the Biblical accounts occurred the week before Christ’s death on the cross. Christ is welcomed to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and hailed as Messiah in an event known as The Triumphal Entry. Jerusalem is overrun by worshipers coming to celebrate Passover. By comparing the accounts in Matthew and Mark we find Jesus returning to Jerusalem the next day when He encounters the fig tree. The fruit on fig trees appear before the leaves. So, it was a reasonable expectation that a fig tree with leaves would also have fruit; regardless of the season. Even so, why curse a fruitless tree? Matthew and Mark also tell us that after cursing the fig tree Jesus continued on to Jerusalem where he proceeded to cleanse the Temple of the money changers. The next day, as Jesus and the disciples again return to Jerusalem, they pass the cursed fig tree and find it withered.
Still confused? Gotquestions.org explains the significance of both the cursed fig tree and the cleansing of the Temple as follows:
“Jesus had just arrived at Jerusalem amid great fanfare and great expectations, but then proceeds to cleanse the Temple and curse the barren fig tree. Both had significance as to the spiritual condition of Israel. With His cleansing of the Temple and His criticism of the worship that was going on there (Matthew 21:13; Mark 11:17), Jesus was effectively denouncing Israel’s worship of God. With the cursing of the fig tree, He was symbolically denouncing Israel as a nation and, in a sense, even denouncing unfruitful “Christians” (that is, people who profess to be Christian but have no evidence of a relationship with Christ).”
“The presence of a fruitful fig tree was considered to be a symbol of blessing and prosperity for the nation of Israel. Likewise, the absence or death of a fig tree would symbolize judgment and rejection. Symbolically, the fig tree represented the spiritual deadness of Israel, who while very religious outwardly with all the sacrifices and ceremonies, were spiritually barren because of their sins. By cleansing the Temple and cursing the fig tree, causing it to whither and die, Jesus was pronouncing His coming judgment of Israel and demonstrating His power to carry it out. It also teaches the principle that religious profession and observance are not enough to guarantee salvation, unless there is the fruit of genuine salvation evidenced in the life of the person. James would later echo this truth when he wrote that “faith without works is dead” (James 2:26). The lesson of the fig tree is that we should bear spiritual fruit (Galatians 5:22-23), not just give an appearance of religiosity. God judges fruitlessness, and expects that those who have a relationship with Him will “bear much fruit” (John 15:5-8).”
I don’t want to be an unfruitful Christian. I will wrestle, I will struggle, I will confront, and I may pout and complain and whine and moan along the way, but I’ve come too far, been through too much to quit now! I hope you feel the same way.