When I meet someone whose good reputation precedes him, I want to believe the best of him. I want to believe that person is good at heart, the kind you would want to call a friend, maybe even the best of friends. But as I get to know him on my own, if I spy a gleam of malice in his eyes, detect a callous attitude in his dealings with others, observe a flippant attitude toward those who are hurting, my faith fades. It doesn’t matter how many scores of others gush about the fellow’s goodness, what ultimately matters is how he treats me, and how I observe him treating others.
Such has been my experience with God. I could sing, “Jesus loves me” and quote John 3:16 before I learned to tie my shoes. I cut my teeth on the stories of Noah and his ark, David and Goliath, Daniel and the lions’ den, Jesus and his cross. In church Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday night, along with the obligatory Sunday School hour and annual VBS. Like Paul, like many of you, from infancy I have known the holy scriptures. But, despite all that, did I know God, really know God?
With maturity comes awareness, and with awareness comes questioning. Many of my questions, my most nagging questions, concern the God with whom I have been acquainted these last 40 years, but whose true nature continues to baffle and trouble me. Some of these are the broad questions, “Is God really that concerned about human suffering?” and some of them are more personal, “Does God really give a damn that my daughter is suffering from depression?” And to these two are joined a thousand others. Most of them, however, revolve around a single issue: If God really cares about people, why does he so often, and for such long periods of time, turn his back on them. Or worse, why does he become their enemy?
I know the biblical, theological, philosophical, and ethical “answers” to these questions. But they are only answers, not solutions. If my son has fallen out of a tree and broken his arm, I can stand a few feet away from my weeping child and inform him that I’m really concerned about his injury, feel his pain, and assure him that with time the bone will heal and all will be better. And what kind of parent would I be? Loving? Good? Compassionate? Or I could run over to him, take him in my arms, hold him tight as I rush him to ER to make sure everything possible is done to alleviate his pain. Which kind of parent is God?
There are words and there are actions. And words may be well and good in some situations, but when it comes to suffering, words without actions communicate the exact opposite of what they explicitly state. To say, “I love you” to someone who’s suffering, then to walk away without at least attempting to do anything to lessen their suffering is really to say, “I don’t give a damn.”
Very often that seems to be God’s style of pastoral care. It’s then that certain verses from the Psalms roll off my lips with the greatest of ease. “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” (13:1). “Why have you rejected me?” (43:2). “Will the Lord reject forever? And will he never be favorable again? Has his lovingkindness ceased forever? Has his promise come to an end forever? Has God forgotten to be gracious? Or has he in anger withdrawn his compassion?” (77:7-9).
I still believe that God is a God of love, but it’s a faith I have to fight to keep. And more often than not, I wonder if, when faith is a phantom we reach for but cannot grasp, does God at least honor the desire to believe? I can only hope he does.