It’s a question that has vexed religious communities for millennia, and in a time of high unemployment and low prosperity, it seems more relevant than ever: Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people?
Stephen Rhymer, a 59-year-old from Oklahoma who has been out of work for two and a half years, recently wrote to the Post about how the question has caused him to reconsider his belief in God for the first time.
“After a lifetime of religious education, reading and soul-searching, God has become an on-again-off-again God to me, who capriciously grants only those prayers that appeal, and then only when God feels like it,” Rhymer wrote in an entry for the Post’s “Help Wanted: Stories of Unemployment” project. “A God who permits suffering under the guise of ‘teaching a lesson’ or ‘testing’ is a God who just isn’t that interested.”
Rhymer is not alone, of course.
While there is little available polling data on the subject of faith and employment, religion experts said that if there were, it would likely show that many believers facing economic difficulty also question their faith.
“The inequality in distribution of good and bad has always been a question that has led some people to deep and profound outrage at God,” said Charles Matthews, a professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia.
Matthews said the modern American religious institutions have been hurt by this downturn more than previous ones because they have largely abandoned their historical role as economic support systems. That “identity shift,” caused by the increasing role of government welfare programs, has made religious organizations less appealing to the poor and jobless.
But Matthews said the impact of tough times on individuals can go both ways – while some will lose their faith, others will more fully embrace God.
“It’s like if you put pressure on a building,” he said. “In some situations, the building will be stronger because of that pressure. And in some cases, it won’t.”
Father Jonathan Morris believes in the former outcome more than the latter.
The Catholic priest and news commentator noted that almost all people seeking spiritual guidance do so after encountering crisis.
The nature of the crisis? That’s essentially irrelevant, Morris said. It can be material or mental, natural or manufactured, permanent or temporary. Regardless, it causes people to look to a higher power for answers.
The unemployed follow the same pattern, Morris said.
“When you haven’t had a job for a week or six months or two years, you enter into crisis mode because you can’t control your life,” he said. “And when people are at that point, they come running (to the church).”
“Crisis allows us an opportunity to either become bitter or to become better,” Morris added, arguing that those who allow material conditions to affect their relationship with God are being selfish and those who do not will always find comfort in faith.
As for the more fundamental question of why God allows evil to occur, Morris said most suffering is caused by the misuse of free will. Other ways of suffering, such as natural disasters and sickness, were not in God’s original plan and “points to the fact that we’re living in an imperfect world,” he said.
“There is an answer to that, which is the afterlife,” he said.
For the unemployed Rhymer, the answer is less clear. While he still believes in God and some version of the afterlife, the Oklahoman thinks God has “certainly been ignoring me and my prayers for the last two and a half years.”
In response to a Facebook callout asking for reactions to Rhymer’s post, dozens of readers said that unemployment has brought them closer to God.
Karla Atherton wrote that it “made us realize how wrong and selfish we were…We have realized further what’s more important in life, rather than any economic interest.”
Another reader, Keena Powers, wrote that “If you have faith, then nothing in this material world has any meaning, and so should not affect one’s faith. I don’t really believe God is in charge of our economy anyway. Why should he care?”
And Naomi Wright wrote she “will always trust in the Lord no matter what!”
Only a handful of readers disagreed with that attitude. Those readers expressed disappointment and confusion.
Lehua Wells admitted that her “faith in anything is completely destroyed.”
Another reader, Donna Hortz, stated simply “I hope He shows up soon.”
Wells, Hortz and the other doubters were rebutted by those whose faith has been unaltered.
“If anything affects one’s relationship with God, it’s never been that solid,” wrote Guilherme Bernard de Paula.
What do you think? Has the unemployment, recession or other economic difficulty caused you to question your relationship with God? Share your thoughts in the comments.