Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Great Expectations

While chatting with a friend and her husband in the middle of Chuck E. Cheese, children racing by to the sounds of 100 video games bleeping and whirring, her husband asked if she had told me that her father had recently become an atheist. This not being the usual content of a Chuck E. Cheese conversation, it took me a minute to process that before they began their story.

Apparently, despite having attended church all his life and even avidly studying his Bible for many years....he has recently, and without much warning, decided that he no longer believes anything. Not a single speck of what he used to believe.  He has been writing e-mails to all of his friends and family members, desperate to convince them of their religious folly. He has become an atheist evangelist--his own self-description.

The only reason he gives for his sudden change of heart is the existence of so much suffering in the world.

There wasn't much for me to say to my friend.  I said I was sorry and hoped that, maybe after some time had passed, her father would become slightly less gung-ho in his approach.  What could I say to her?  As a Christian, it's a devastating and bewildering blow to her and to the image she had of her father.

One of the things her father told her was that he was happier than he had ever been.  He didn't worry about things anymore. I understood what he meant, and wondered if it might have something to do with his attraction to atheism in the first place.  If God is out of the equation, the world can still be an evil, awful place, but at least we wouldn't be pressed to find some noble, God-inspired reason for it.

When DH and I were first married, I had a certain narrative in my head about our relationship and how God had brought us together.  I truly believed that there were very specific reasons that we had found each other. These reasons were quite spiritualized and heady. They made me feel as if I was on the right track with my life and that I knew exactly what it meant to know God's will.

Fast forward a couple years.  I realized that I had been dead wrong.  The story in my head did not match up with reality. This is not an indictment of DH, or me, or our marriage.  We are quite happy and usually work through our marital issues in a relatively healthy way. However, when trouble hit us early in our marriage, it was a double blow to me.  Not only was I having to struggle with the normal marital strains of the newly married, but I also had to come to terms with how off I had been in assigning specific meanings to our relationship.

It shook me to the core to realize that I could be so wrong about ideas of which I had been so certain. I began to question every decision associated with any trace of certainty similar to what I had experienced. Unsettling emotions washed over me.

The intersection of arbitrary expectations and reality lay at the crux of my crisis. I had constructed an unsustainable scenario from my assumptions about God and what it meant to follow Him. 

As I continued talking with my friend, I wondered whether her father had experienced a similar disappointment. When we are told that there is always a "reason for everything" that happens in life, we're put in the position of finding a reason for the most awful things. Inevitably, all our reasons regress back to God: 

God has decided to cause or allow A, B, or C in our lives.  A, B, or C in our lives causes a lot of pain and doesn't seem to have any bright side or purpose to it. We declare that it has a purpose, we just don't know what it is. 

After several years of trying to console ourselves that there is a purpose to A, B, or C, we begin to suspect that it really is purposeless.

Our disillusionment isn't based on the terrible things that happen, it's based on the idea that terrible things shouldn't happen. When they do happen, we have to resolve the dissonance caused by our misplaced expectations.

I have changed the way I look at my life.  I try to never fall back into assuming that there is a specific reason for circumstances in my life.  Instead, I try and think about how God would want me to respond to the circumstances I encounter...whatever they might be.

It's a subtle difference, but it has an enormous effect on how I see God, the world and myself. Releasing the need to determine the cause and meaning of every misfortune in life is freeing.

I'm curious if my friend's father had considered altering his view of God, rather than rejecting Him outright. 


Anonymous said...

You better watch out or Rhology will tattle on you. To ... somebody.

I get your friend's father. I used to pray, but after a few decades I stopped. I never expected miracles (and maybe that's the problem), but nothing ever happened. If something good happens, we praise God. Most of the time it doesn't, and we say that's God's will.

So it's kind of "heads God wins, tails we lose."

Maybe that philosophy gets people through the say, and for a long time I believed it, but it doesn't sit right with me anymore.

You hear people say things like their young cousin has cancer, but praise the Lord because it prompted Uncle Billie to turn to accept Jesus as his personal savior. Well, if God needs to destroy a kid to get someone to believe, that's a lousy thing to do. Did you get my email?


terri said...

E-mail....I responded earlier this morning to your first e-mail. Check your inbox.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Anonymous, I consider the answer to your objections to be quite common and elementary. I therefore conclude that you have found those answers unsatisfactory in some way. Could you tell us where the counter-arguments fail to persuade?

Anonymous said...

Idiot: Elementary like, "elementary, my dear Watson?"

You want me to imagine some objections and answer them?

I'd love to see that in a court. "Members of the jury, we presented no witnesses and give no opening or closing arguments. But if we did, they would have proved the defendant innocent beyond a shadow of the doubt."


Assistant Village Idiot said...

No, not objections that I might imagine. The standard answers that an adult Sunday School class would give to your comments. I was trying to avoid the tedium of listing those for you, as you had likely heard them before. In most common discussions, I myself get quickly impatient when people tell me the same old thing at great length as if I've never heard that argument.

I would say I am sorry to have tried to save a step, but your smart-ass answer tells me you aren't really interested in this discussion at a high level. You apparently just want to move down a league to where you can still strike people out. From that, I'm going to take an educated guess that you knew believers whose intelligence you respect that you didn't bother to consult.

terri said...
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terri said...


I would say that although many people say stupid things about God's "reasons" for doing things, we can't let those things interfere with our personal faith.

There comes a point when we realizer that some people say things like that because they just don't know what else to say.

I think sometimes people who say things like that actually have less faith than those who don't. It comes from a belief in a God who must always be doing only the things we think He should. When things don't line up, it's easier to create stories that are comforting to us, even if they are largely imagined, than it is to accept the painful events in our lives.

If I'm looking at the big picture of who God is, and what he wants from us humans....I have to be willing to accept that it is not His job to make sure that I have everything I think I want in this life.

I'm sorry you have clashed with Assistant Village Idiot. He's actually a thinking christian who would probably have engaged you in a thoughtful way....though now you may have incurred his wrath! :-)

Actually, he's not usually very wrathful.

Anonymous said...

Idiot: Yeah, I was snarky, but I didn't think it was THAT offensive. I had a supremely busy day and you have to admit it was an odd request.

terri: I don't disagree with what you say, but where do you draw the line between where God "allows" things to happen and what is just random? If there is no pattern to when we get what we want and when we don't, how is that demonstrably different than the deist view or the atheist view?

Certainly there is no connection between being good and getting rewarded in this life. To say God has his mysterious reasons so stop asking (pretty much the answer to Job) is not satisfying. And it was God who inflicted the harm on Job, so I don't even know how good a model that is.


Assistant Village Idiot said...

Fair enough. Sorry to leap to conclusions, pf. You have certainly shown some self-honesty, and that deserves considerable credit all by itself.

Perhaps I was fortunate in that I was exposed to very little of the "name it and claim it" school of prayer. My stock is all Puritan, Scots Presbyter, dark Lutheran, who believed that prayer, obedience, suffering, and sanctification were intertwined, and grouchily assumed it was always going to be a hard, hard life - That the goodness of God was very severe, and the love of God a dangerous thing.

I think those are theologically true, but they could also just be used as excuses - evasions of the question of why prayers aren't answered. People who go on mission trips to the oppressed places of the world, as I often did to Romania, turn one way or the other on that. The example of the suffering Church which remains steadfast in prayer knocks down the easy answers. Seeing the lives of the Romanian Baptists, persecuted for generations in a country already poor, would give you every reason in the world to say "this prayer thing just doesn't work. It's insane." A few American short-termers every year did come to exactly that conclusion, going from evangelist to unbeliever in a few month's time.

But that in itself raises an overarching question: why do those with the easy lives abandon their faith in the face of difficulties while those with the hard lives remain observant? What does that mean?

I caution against quick conclusions there, also. It is too easy to just grab at either of the facile answers on each side.

I think you would find playing in a higher league gratifying. If you are a classicist, grab your Plato, Boethius, or Milton (but these days you just have to have a decent commentary in hand); if a modern, pick up Lewis or Buechner; if more mystic (I am not), a Hildegard or Merton; stay away from all the contemporary Purpose-Drivens and Joel Osteen at all costs.

Anonymous said...

Idiot: \

The Warrens and Osteens make me want to puke. I read a Buechner book (the something servant) a couple of years ago, preparing to like it because he is an intellectual. But I thought it was terrible. I couldn't make out exactly any of his points, and his sentences were garbled and way too long. I assume he has a good heart, but not my style. I'm not really into the mystic stuff, although I think in the end it is the best justification of belief.


Buz said...

Sorry to hear this. I also know a person who "used to be a Christian" but talked himself out of it.

Knowing the church this person went to, I am tempted to believe that his christianity was based more on the fact that he went to church, not on a growing relationship with the living God.

The only thing I can offer is that God is a whole lot smarter than I am, and I cannot begin to understand why He does the things. I had a difficult time in my life a few years ago, and I spent a lot of time praying and asking others to pray for the outcome. I did not get the outcome I wanted, but that does not mean that (a) there is no God or (b) that He is out to get me. It simply means that He has plans that I don't understand.

That is a part of faith, not just believing that you will get everything you want, but that when also when things don't go your way, that God has a reason beyond your comprehension for doing what He did.


terri said...


I am completely for people trusting in God as part of their faith.

I will even grant the assertion that God has plans and reasons that we don't understand. I do not agree that everything that happens, happens for a God-ordained reason.

I used to be much more Calvinistic. Now, I am probably about as far from those leanings as I could possibly be.

My understanding of God flows first from His attributes as Creator and Father. While I would consider humans and this world fundamentally flawed at this point, I believe that God still sees value in us. I don't believe that he causes terrible suffering to try and move the hearts of people.

I don't believe things like the Holocaust are part of some great plan that God set in motion. They are the result of people making evil choices.

Another post I ned to get to!

I appreciate your comments, even if they are only a jumping off point for me.

terri said...


I would say that some of my views are certainly more deistic than they used to be, but that is more a change in my point of view. I am still distinctly Christian and put my hope in Christ.

Buz said...

I am not saying that God specifically causes everything to happen. People die, and sometimes they die horrible, seemingly needless deaths. Does God cause it? No. Does He permit it? Yes. If He did not permit things, they would not happen.

However, and I will grant you that this is a poor analogy, imagine that God and Satan are playing a cosmic game of chess. Satan makes moves to thwart what he believes are God's plans. But, God is always one step ahead, and the horrible things which Satan has tried, God can cause to work for a better purpose.

That is why St. Paul tells us in Rom 8:28 that in all things, God works for the good of those who have been called according to his purpose. Not that all things are good, but that God can work good out of them.

You mention the Holocaust ... it was a horrid thing, yet out of the ashes of 6 million deaths, the nation of Israel was reborn. I don't believe that would have happened had the world been so horrified at what happened.

God didn't just jump-start the universe eons ago and walk away, leaving us to our own devices. He is here, now, working everyday. If He were not taking an active part in our lives, why bother to pray? Are we slaves begging the distant king to take pity on us and toss us crumbs of bread so that we don't starve? Jesus says we are not slaves, but heirs. St. Paul says that we may walk boldly to the throne of Grace and present our requests to a loving father. We don't get everything we wish for, but we get everything we need.


the surgeon is in said...
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terri said...


I am not arguing against God permitting things to happen. As a matter of fact, I see it as integral to my belief in free will. If God doesn't allow consequences to be borne out of our choices, then it isn't really free will is it?

I also don't disagree that God can work through just about anything and bring good out of evil......my only point is that it is not God's desire to or, modus operandi, to purposely cause evil for the sake of good.

So....in pf's example of a child getting cancer and bringing Uncle Joe to Jesus.....let's not say it was "God's will" that the child got cancer.

When I say that my views are more deistic than they used to be, that doesn't mean I think of God as abandoning us after setting everything in motion. Instead, I am trying to convey the idea that I don't see Him as the Hyper-Calvinist image of God, controlling every aspect of everything.

I think He has set certain things in motion, created the natural laws of the Universe, created Man in a certain way....and that for the most part, he works within the framework he has created. He's not constantly reworking the Universe, or changing the rules of the game.

As far as the Holocaust and Israel...perhapsit wouldn't have come to exist.

But keep in mind that over 12 million people died under Stalin.....and for what purpose? What "good" came out of that? None that we can trace....or try to ease our minds with.....such as your example with Israel.

This is why ascribing "God's will" to these types of events is always a losing game. For every evil that seems to have a silver lining, there will always be another which doesn't.

Anonymous said...


If God needed the Holocaust to recreate the nation of Israel, well, that doesn't say much good about him, does it?

And if you even want to go in that direction, it means that God somehow assented to the Holocaust, or (even worse) planned it from the beginning of time, which logically means he could have stopped it but didn't. And it would mean that people had no choice but to do it because it was part of God's plan. So how would he not then be responsible?

This is why I've changed my mind after decades of giving God a pass. The simpler, more logical explanation is just that there is no grand plan. And I have a hard time believing God, if he exists, cares about the details of the lives of six billion people.

As to your example of God and Satan, c'mon. You really think there is an individual Satan who has developed plans to derail the lives of humans? Even if you believe the Bible teaches in the reality of a fallen angel who became God's adversary (and I really doubt it), he is not omniscient. He just couldn't physically track billions of people at once. Oh, but you may say he has minions? (BTW, my goal in life is to acquire minions.) Really, that starts to sound like crazy talk outside of a bible study.


Buz said...

I didn't say He needed it, I said that He used it.

The problem is that you're OK with free will as long as it is something you approve of. "Sure, you can play any song you want as long as it's one of these three."

I assume that you totally approve of your own free will, chosing whether or not to believe in God, chosing the person to spend your time with, chosing whether you want to smoke, drink, or whatever. But if someone else chooses to use their free will to murder someone, to bomb a building, or maybe tell you that you MUST believe in their god or they will blow up your country, then maybe THOSE people shouldn't have free will.

It doesn't work that way. For you to have the freedom to choose not to go to church, someone else has the freedom to blow up the church that you didn't go to.

Can't say that I'm all that crazy about it, but hey, that's life.


terri said...

The problem is that you're OK with free will as long as it is something you approve of. "Sure, you can play any song you want as long as it's one of these three."

I assume that you totally approve of your own free will, chosing whether or not to believe in God, chosing the person to spend your time with, chosing whether you want to smoke, drink, or whatever. But if someone else chooses to use their free will to murder someone, to bomb a building, or maybe tell you that you MUST believe in their god or they will blow up your country, then maybe THOSE people shouldn't have free will.
I am OK with everyone's free will....Stalin's, Hitler's , my next door neighbor's. That doesn't mean I approve of the choices people make with their free will.

I don't really understand your comment. It's written as though people don't have free will to either attend a church or blow one up.

Um....we see those things happening everyday.....I must assume either that's because people have free will to do those things, or God has appointed some to go to church and some to blow things up.

I'll stick with the first option.

Buz said...

Sorry if it was a bit murky.

Basically what I was saying was that eons ago, God gave us, and the angels, free will. When someone uses their free will to hurt another, God does not take away their free will.

What I was trying to get across in my reply is that, even though we have free will, and believe that we can use our machinations to thwart God's ultimate plan, he is able to take even the worst ideas of man or demon and turn those horrid things so that some good comes out of them.

We also tend to take a very temporal view of outcomes. We see a child die of cancer ... and maybe three people had their souls saved as a consequence. We look at the tragedy of a child's death from our, earthly point of view. What does heaven see ... heaven sees three more people added to the rolls and one less child that will have to grow up in our sad world.

Yes, we look at outcomes from our point of view. But ours is not the only point of, and it may not even be the best point of view.

C.S. Lewis has some mind expanding points of view in his book, "The Great Divorce".


terri said...

"We also tend to take a very temporal view of outcomes. We see a child die of cancer ... and maybe three people had their souls saved as a consequence. We look at the tragedy of a child's death from our, earthly point of view. What does heaven see ... heaven sees three more people added to the rolls and one less child that will have to grow up in our sad world."

This is exactly the sort of thing I don't like. It's based on complete speculation about God's motives.

Does God have motives that I don't understand. Surely, He does.

However...to make the case that you just made sets up a twisted economy of worth to God. A child's suffering=3 saved souls. I don't mean to be harsh...but I find that detestable.

The "everything has a reason" argument is itself an egotistical, self-involved argument.

In order for the "reason" to be played out in one person's life, it requires the lives of others to take less precedence.

How would you feel if you had a child kidnapped and molested...yet their perpetrator eventually came to faith as a result of his capture and the prosecution of his crimes? Would you feel that it was "God's will" for your child to be molested in order that his molester could come to Christ and minister to his fellow prison inmates?

No.....I don't think that anyone in their right mind would think such a thing.

You could selectively pick and choose circumstances in which you think God is using bad circumstances for some higher purpose, but ultimately you'd have to apply an inconsistent standard....or risk becoming heartless.

Better to see God as a source of strength to endure suffering than to see Him as the cause of it.

Buz said...

I think that you misread the beginning of my last post. God is NOT the cause of suffering. I said that God is able to take what we see as suffering and use it to bring about something better. And yes, I have gone through that, and yes it was hard, and no it was not all fun and roses.

Actually, I think the opposite, it think that it is terribly egotistical to think that all there is is what we can see in a situation. It says that God is no smarter than I am, as a matter of fact He is not as smart as I, because I could do this better.

If YOUR God cannot take the tragedy of a child dying of cancer and turn the outcome into something better in the long run, then you and I do not know the same God, because MY God can.

And yes Heaven does have a different "economy" than we do. We look at our own lives of 60, 70, or 90 years and we measure Good and Evil as to how it affects us, how it makes us FEEL. That's bad because it frightens me or makes me feel sad. God looks at all of time, beginning to end, and judges Good and Evil on the ultimate fate of each human being.

If He was concerned about how we FEEL, He would treat us like children and not make us responsible for our own actions.

As for "a child's suffering = 3 saved souls" how about His own Son's suffering = salvation of mankind? Do you find that detestable? I find that to be unfathomable mercy. I do find those motives displayed quite plainly in the Gospels.


Buz said...

Sorry, got too involved in that last answer.

If you don't think that "there is a reason for everything" then how do you explain St. Paul's comment in Rom 8:28?

He was not telling this people who were losing family members to something like cancer, he was telling it to people who were losing family members to torture because they were Christians. They were losing jobs, they were being killed ... some of them were being used as torches to light the night for the emperor's parties. And to that St. Paul was saying that "God works things out for good."

Some speculate that "the good" brought about by this was that Christians fled the Roman cities and the Gospel was eventually spread over much of Europe because of the persecution of Christians in Rome. So, yes, I do believe that heaven has a different economy than we do.

By the way, believing as I do in the responsibility of our own actions, I believe that every person who has watched a loved one suffer will eventually see the guilty party punished, either in this life or in the next. In some cases, it may be seeing Satan and his followers cast into everlasting torment.


terri said...

"I believe that every person who has watched a loved one suffer will eventually see the guilty party punished, either in this life or in the next. In some cases, it may be seeing Satan and his followers cast into everlasting torment."

You can't really believe that and here's why:

Inevitably there are people who have done some very bad things to people, but who also eventually find forgiveness in Christ.

In fact the whole point of Christianity is that we are not treated in the way we deserve.

Some people will escape punishment...both in this life and in eternity....so I don't think that victims will get their satisfaction in seeing their victimizers punished.

In fact...when we are vicitmized, Christ calls on us to forgive. He advises us to pray for our enemies.

We have no guarantee of revenge.

As far as your earlier comment....I am not saying God cannot work good out of bad....I am saying he's not the cause of the bad. He didn't determine that the only way to bring 3 people to Christ was to give a child cancer.

We'll just have to agree to disagree about that.