People lose their faith for a lot of reasons, but one of those reasons is exhaustion.
Specifically, I am speaking about the exhaustion that comes from believing that God is mad at us; that God is constantly looking down on us noticing all of our shortcomings; that God is continually pointing out how much we do not measure up.
Note: I usually write my posts that mention God from an ecumenical perspective. This post is more specifically from the Christian perspective, but I hope that folks from other religious traditions or even no religious tradition might get something out of it. Of course, you will have to be the judge of that.
Divine Anger and Human Fear
I think a lot of people, perhaps even most people, who take their faith seriously worry at some point or another that God is mad at them.
Some of our fear is completely understandable and comes from a healthy conception of God. God, after all, is this vast, mysterious, and perfect Being. It is right to feel some fear and awe in the face of such a Being.
On the other hand, too often distorted religious teachings cultivate an unhealthy fear of God.
We run into distorted religious ideas all over the place. They can be in churches, but we can also hear them from teachers or other authority figures, from politicians, or from unhealthy interpersonal relationships.
You have to decide what you do or do not believe about God. However, I would invite you to consider that the purpose of religion is to connect us with God, the Source of the Universe (who is Love) so that we can become the fullest, most flourishing and loving versions of ourselves: an expression of God’s light in the world.
The purpose of religion is also to help us connect more fully in loving relationships with one another.
All major world religions teach that God created us out of God’s wisdom and love. All world religions teach that God is the light of the world, and God’s light is in us. It is what is most true about us. We are a ray of God’s light, is how I like to think about it. Everyone is a ray of God’s light.
“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will
have the light of life.” (John 8:12)
“For in him we live and move and have our being…” (Acts 17:28)
If this is the case, I would invite you to consider that a religious teaching is distorted when it tells us that God hates us–that who we are at our core is sinful and depraved and that this is what is most real about us; that God hates some people and loves others.
Teachings such as this denigrate the image of God in every human being, and that image is what is most real about us.
I am certainly aware of the arguments people use to support such religious teachings. My goal here is not to examine those arguments.
My goal, rather, is to point out that teachings like this exhaust us. They surround us constantly with the anger, rather than the love, of God.
They divide us from ourselves and from other people and from our light. As a result of such teachings, we feel surrounded by a constant cloud of shame, self-loathing, hate, and fear.
And this is why many people lose their faith.
Because they are exhausted. Because they are afraid. Because they are ashamed. These feelings become an unbearable burden, and in order to survive, people eventually have to cast off such dreadful feelings. And because many people associate these feelings with their faith, they cast off their faith, too.
It is understandable why people would do this. No one can sustain these emotions long-term and remain a healthy, functioning person.
I have experienced the weight of such feelings.
I have had religious faith that meant a great deal to me since I was a young teenager. I was raised in a religious family in the Christian tradition, and the messages I received about God early on were mostly healthy ones.
The exception, of course, were those stupid tribulation movies that were making the rounds in the seventies and eighties, and that scared the #$%^ out of every child and teenager that watched them.
Whoever made those movies: You, Sirs, deserve to be punched.
Besides that, my first experience of God was this vast, oceanic feeling that God was everywhere, that He loved me, and that whenever I was scared or confused, I could ask for help, and God would give me wisdom.
That was the best possible first lesson I could have learned about God.
But as I grew older and was exposed to a wider variety of religious messages, I begin to receive a lot of distorted messages about God’s continual anger and wrath towards me.
This led me to spend a lot of years trying to be perfect, to have all the right answers, to know all the right doctrine, to do all the right things, worrying all along that it still wasn’t quite good enough.
It was exhausting. Maybe you have faced a similar exhaustion.
I did not lose my faith, but partway through my life, I definitely got a flat tire.
I asked God to give me a new way to look at my faith, and shortly after that was when I realized that God is not mad at me. He’s not mad at you either.
Tantrums and God
Last summer I was visiting my brother and sister-in-law, and one afternoon, I babysat my nephew and niece so that my brother and sister-in-law could run errands.
My nephew and niece are adorable, and I love hanging out with them. They like to watch Winne the Pooh videos, and so that is what we were doing this particular afternoon.
The video we were watching finished, and then I put on another one. Suddenly my nephew got very upset and he began kicking my niece. And then I got upset. I was afraid my nephew would hurt my niece. I couldn’t understand why he was acting that way.
And then it dawned on me. I realized that my nephew likes to watch Winnie the Pooh videos in a certain order. He really, really likes routines. It confuses and upsets him when they are disrupted. I also realized that this was one of the first times I had babysat my nephew and niece, and this was probably confusing and perhaps quite scary to him.
For my nephew, routines mean safety and love and peace. So, his acting out was a result of him feeling cut off from the safety, love, and peace. No wonder he is acting out, I thought. I would do the same thing if I was in his shoes.
I worked the rest of the afternoon to help him feel safe, peaceful and loved. Things weren’t perfect, but they definitely got better.
All of us—the whole human race—are a lot like my nephew. We long for safety, love, and peace.
These are very real human needs. They are not just something that would be nice to happen. They must happen for us to flourish and reach our full human potential.
When these needs go unfulfilled or when we get cut off from our ability to meet them, we become angry, sad, depressed, confused, violent, addicted, despairing, cruel.
If we can look at young children and understand that they misbehave because they are scared, confused, and attempting to meet good needs in a bad way, how much more does an all-knowing, all-loving God understand this?
There is no doubt that human beings do bad, stupid, and wrongheaded things (and they do terrible and evil, things, too, which I will address at the end). I would like to suggest, though, that we are much like little children, throwing tantrums and doing stupid things because we don’t know how to get the love, safety, and peace we need.
God knows this and understands this, and that is why God is continually reaching out in love, rather than in wrath towards us. He knows that love is what we are looking for.
Thinking Differently About God
Many of us have gotten so used to thinking of God as an angry Being, wrathfully brooding over us, that we have trouble conceptualizing God differently.
When we learn to adopt different images of God, I believe it opens the door for us to recover or revitalize our faith.
So I want to offer three different pictures for thinking about what God is like.
What is God like?
God is like the Most Loving, Nurturing Mother.
God loves you and desires for you to thrive and become fully yourself, which is an expression of God’s light. God does not want to terrify you; to hurt you; to confuse you; to abuse you to; to dominate you; to shame you.
God longs to hold you in her vast, loving arms; to answer all of your questions; to soothe your pain and fear; to help you solve your problems; to listen to why you are angry at her; to feed you; to give you beautiful gifts; to let you rest comforted and safe; to allow you to return to the world nurtured and empowered to love yourself and others.
What is God like?
God is like an Extravagant Gardner.
God is like an extravagant gardener who flings a bunch of seeds joyfully and with abandon into the world with the intent to grow the most exuberant, beautiful, and diverse garden imaginable.
He watches over the garden, waters it, envelopes the garden in sun, and prunes back its self-destructive growth.
God delights in the diverse and radiant growth of this garden every day and loves it as an expression of his creativity and wisdom. We are that garden.
What is God Like?
God is like a Joyful Musician.
God crafts a symphony of instruments and then conducts the symphony. He delights in the particular voice of each instrument, tuning them when they go sharp or flat, and he delights in their universal harmony.
He is the effervescent crafter and conductor, and composes new symphonies eternally.
The Purpose of Religion
You certainly don’t have to accept these pictures of God, but I suggest that pictures of God like this help remind us the purpose of religion—to connect us to the light in ourselves, in one another, and the light of the world.
But Wait a Minute…
You might be thinking to yourself at this point, “Wait a minute. Does this mean that I cannot be angry at people who do evil and cruel things? Does it mean that we do not punish people who do bad things?”
I would suggest that anger is a perfectly normal human response to people who do evil and cruel things, and I don’t think God ever asks us to pretend that we don’t have the feelings we have. Furthermore, justice demands that people receive the proper punishment for bad behavior. This is how order is restored in human communities.
It is right for us to feel anger at people who do cruel things because in our finite, human condition, cruelty robs us of our innocence, our hope, and our feelings of love and security. How could we not feel upset about these things? It is also right for us to long for justice to restore order.
Perhaps this is why forgiveness is a miracle. When we forgive (and I don’t think this process can be rushed), we both recognize the great hurt that people have done to us and others, and it allows us to see that people do the bad things they do out of a place of pain, darkness, and disease in their inner lives.
Forgiveness allows us to hold people accountable and also to wish for their healing and wholeness.
Perhaps this is why Christ, God in the flesh, both drove the money changers out of the temple (John 2:13-16) and also, when he was being crucified, prayed for his executioners and people responsible, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).
And this is perhaps also why Christ was referred to (and referred to himself) as the Great Physician (John 5:1-9). Physicians recognize that health and wholeness are the normal states of the body and the disease is parasitic on health. No one really wants to be sick. The goal is to restore health and wholeness, and that is the main focus of the physician.
Dear Friend: If you have lost your faith or got a flat tire, please know that God is always waiting and always loving, and you are welcome to rest and return whenever you are ready.
And if you have done or are doing really bad things currently (and quite frankly we all do bad things), please know that God is still your Loving Mother. You are still a part of God’s garden and his symphony. Love is always around us an inside us, and it wants to heal us.
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