If you are a Christian (and maybe even if you are not) you know exactly what I’m talking about. Something going on in your life is hard and you are told, “God has a plan, everything will work out for your good,” “God is sovereign, you just need to trust Him,” “He will provide, just have faith,” “Sometimes God tests us,” “You are being faithful, that’s what matters!” “Just keep ________ (praying. trusting Him. Being faithful. Fill in the blank).
Let’s be honest here. Sometimes saying these things is just.not.helpful.
One night during the leadership community group that I am a part of with our church, our Pastor said something that just astonished us. He told us about a friend of his who had just been through it one year. We’ll call him Jack just to make this easier. One thing after another… our Pastor said we wouldn’t even believe the awful things that had happened to “Jack.” When talking to our Pastor about this hard stuff in his life Jack said, “You know, I think God hates me.” Here comes the jaw dropper: our Pastor responded, “Yea I think you’re right. I think God probably hates you.”
Yea, that’s how we responded when we heard him say this too. Then he explained the difference in “normative” truth and “existential” truth. Normative truth is the real truth. The stuff that is just plain true, even if our hearts don’t feel it. Existential truth is what appears to be truth through what we are experiencing.
Does God really hate Jack, who experienced such a hellish year?
Normative truth tells us that He does not. God loves Jack SO much so that He gave the life of His only Son that Jack might live!
But the existential truth would tell us otherwise. If you look at the facts of what Jack had experienced over that year, evidence would point to a strong case for God hating him.
Do you want to know how Jack responded when our Pastor had said this to him? He said, “Thank you.” Every other Christian he had talked to had only told him the Normative truth. “God does not hate you! God loves you!” But it sure didn’t feel that way to him. There was something refreshing, I’m sure, about a Christian brother who was willing to step into the pain with him and affirm the existential truth that he was experiencing. I think our Pastor even told us that Jack eventually said to him, “I know God doesn’t hate me.” And he knew our Pastor didn’t ultimately believe that either. Sometimes it is just refreshing to acknowledge hard for what it is.
I’m afraid we don’t do this enough in the church. Instead we recite the things we’ve been taught since Sunday school. And I believe this comes at the expense of someone really needing some wrenching soul healing that requires the freedom to yell and curse the existential truth. We think we’re helping by throwing out the “God loves you” and “God has a plan” sayings, but really what we’re doing is telling someone that the pain they are going through is not legitimate and if they will just say these things it will all be better.
The thing is: these unhelpful “sayings” are actually true! They are not lies. God does actually love us. He does have a plan. He is sovereign. He is trustworthy. He tests us. He provides. He works all things together for the good of those who love him (Romans 8:28). We are called to be faithful, and that is more important than the results of what we do. These things are Normative truths.
They just are not always helpful, especially when the person receiving them already knows that they are true. In their head at least. If you tell these things to a Christian, chances are, they are not going to say, “Really?! Wow, I did not know that!” On the contrary, it is the fact that they do know it that makes their situation feel all the more painful. They are struggling in the tension of knowing these things to be true, while also suffering in the midst of circumstances that seem to prove otherwise.
Why am I writing about this today?
Today I find myself having to face some of the ramifications of this very thing. A couple of years ago I had a hard few years. Not only were people around me saying these normative truths, but I was robotically saying them to myself constantly. What has happened is that there is pain and bitterness buried pretty deeply that I have never quite let my soul deal with. Since I have not dealt with it spiritually or emotionally, I believe it is manifesting itself physically and perhaps the only way I will be able to push past this ailment is to face my “demons,” so to speak.
A friend of mine recently told me that when her son starts to get angry at people in his past for things that have happened to him, she and her husband instead advise him to turn his anger to God. That is surprising, isn’t it? I’ve never heard of that from a Christian parent before her. But I think she and her husband are very wise. Think about it: God is sovereign and if we believe that, we must believe that He has control over all of our circumstances. He has the power to stop anything from happening, and so He allowed these things to happen to her young son.
I found this very refreshing. In Christian culture we often would gasp at such a thought. We think that we should never be angry at God. But the truth is, GOD CAN HANDLE OUR ANGER. He can totally handle it. And I’m afraid that when we try so hard to cling to these normative sayings and avoid being angry at God, we never really get to the root of our soul pain and therefore prolong the healing process.
Think about it in the context of marriage. Let’s say Jordan let something happen that would have been in his control to stop, and it really hurt me. Instead of being angry with him and telling him I’m upset, I just just keep telling myself, “Jordan loves me. He really does. And I can trust him. And I need to be faithful to him.” Those things are true: He does love me, I can trust him and I need to be faithful to him. But if I just tell myself those things instead of addressing the root of my anger, I will just quietly harbor bitterness toward him until we get to the point where our marriage is not healthy and we don’t realize why. Those of you who are married can attest to the fact that sometimes it takes a really good fight and some honest duking it out to reach that good, refreshing, healing place in your marriage. Sometimes a fight or at least a confrontation can be the best thing for your relationship.
If in the scenario above I never went directly to Jordan with my anger, the questions this situation would bring up for me about his love for me and why that thing happened would never be addressed and somewhere, deep down, I am probably somewhat doubtful of our marriage. I may start to strive for independence because I secretly (and perhaps subconsciously) believe that when push comes to shove I need to be able to fend for myself, because I’m not ultimately sure he will fend for me. Unless I directly bring those things to him, I would probably never be free from that subconscious pull.
Perhaps it is in finding the freedom to direct our anger toward God that we start to see the ice melt and the glimpse of spring around the corner. David was angry at God at times, we see this throughout the Psalms. Job was angry with God. As a matter of fact many of the people we see in the Bible question God and cry out to him in confusion or frustration. Even Jesus cried out on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (and he is quoting Psalm 22).
So I think I have some “duking it out” to do with God. I need to wrestle with him like Jacob did. I’m not looking forward to it. I know He will win. But it needs to happen. Maybe my soul will be free at last. Free from the lies of failure and the threats to my self worth. Free from the nausea and the chest pain, the jaw locking and the eye twitching. Free to be fully known and fully loved.
Maybe I’ll write about it once I’ve come through some of the wrestling and healing. Maybe I won’t. Either way, I hope that others find rest and relief in some of this like I have.