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Of all the many reasons people lose their faith, the biggest by far is the question of injustice and suffering. This isn’t an intellectual problem, it’s a personal one—the experience of abandonment in the face of loss and grief. Whether in the headlines, or in our personal lives, we are confronted daily with the problem of pain, and so we ask “Where are you God?”
The second biggest reason people lose their faith is closely related to the first. It’s due to a deeply hurtful view of God rooted in fear. A great many of us have heard the “gospel” that God is angry with us and wants to punish us for our sin. So Jesus needed to die to appease a wrathful God’s demand for punishment.
This brings up a number of difficult questions: Does that mean Jesus died to save us from God? How could someone ever truly love or entrust themselves to a God like that? How can that ever be called “Good News”?
This second reason for losing faith is directly related to the first because the real sting of the question of suffering is the fear that God could have prevented it, but wouldn’t. That’s were our feelings of abandonment and betrayal come from. This emotional insult is then confirmed by the hurtful image of an angry God. Instead of assuring me of God’s goodness and love, that preacher on TV instead tells me I’m suffering because I’m being punished. That’s the soil out of which modern atheism was born: not the absence of belief in God, but the moral refusal to believe in a God who is not good.
Countless people filling our pews have adopted this hurtful view of God leading them to internalize feelings of shame and self-loathing, believing that this is what God wants to hear. Others have walked away from faith entirely, unable to worship a God who seems to them to be a moral monster.
Faith motivated by fear, threat, and feelings of worthlessness. How could things have gone so wrong? When did the good news become bad news?
Taking a deep look at the Bible, I believe that this fear-based view is neither representative of Jesus and his teachings, nor is it reflective of the New Testament. The Gospel is not about an angry, far away God who needs to be appeased before he will love us. It’s about God revealed in Jesus who shocked the religious establishment by loving sinners and screw-ups like you and me—embracing us in the middle of our deepest failures, fears, and brokenness.
It is precisely into that place of woundedness that I think Jesus wants to come. Faith is not about certainty; it’s about vulnerability. It’s about having the courage to let Jesus into our screwed up lives, the courage to be loved for who we really are. It is the outrageous hope that we would still be loved if God knew about all the things we try to hide.
When we cry out because of injustice and suffering, those questions are not a sign of a weak faith, but of a healthy one. It’s good that we cry. It’s even good that we’re angry about suffering because deep down it means that we care, that we refuse to accept injustice and hurt as a “normal” part of life.
Jesus didn’t come giving people explanations, but giving his life—caring for those who were suffering, broken, and in need, standing in solidarity with the outcast and the oppressed. In him we meet a God who identifies with us in our pain, and calls us to participate with him in healing our hurting world.
So let’s have the courage to be honest together about our struggles and pain. Let’s make room for questions and doubt as a healthy part of our faith, and in so doing, work toward ending suffering, rather than merely offering explanations for it. Let’s learn to have a questioning faith.
Derek Flood is the author of “Healing the Gospel: A Radical Vision for Grace, Justice and the Cross.” Follow Derek on Twitter @theRebelGod.