“If God is good, then why does He condemn me and my girlfriend for what we do in the privacy of our own bedroom?”
“If God is good, then why does He hate my gay friends?”
“If God is good, then why did He take my mother from me just when I needed her most? Why did He let cancer win?”
“If God is good, then why do those who claim to represent Him support Donald Trump?”
These questions, or ones like them, express the doubts many Americans (and especially younger Americans) have about religion. Perhaps they express some of your own doubts. It is hard to believe God is good—especially when we do not understand what He is doing or when His values seem to clash with our own.
A challenge as old as the Bible
In our last conversation, we learned that, almost from the beginning of His relationship with the people of Israel, God emphasized His goodness as a foundational aspect of his character. But we also saw Israel repeatedly fail to trust that God is, in fact, good. It is not hard to see why.
It isn’t just that Israel faced the daily pressures of life and sometimes lost sight of the big picture. It is that questions about God’s goodness were woven into the very fabric of Israel’s story. After all, what kind of God asks Abraham to murder his own son and burn him as a sacrifice on an altar? What kind of God allows His people to be enslaved in a foreign country and threatens them with future enslavement if they do not do exactly what He says? What kind of God commands what we would now call ethnic cleansing? And there are more questions where these come from.
What won’t work
It isn’t just Israelites of the past, or unbelieving Americans in the present, who struggle with these questions. I struggle with them, too. And yet, I’m committed to this God—the one who reveals himself at Sinai as “good” and the one who demonstrates His goodness by dying on the cross for my sins. So, how do I survive? How do I keep my faith intact while acknowledging the struggle?
I don’t think attacking the questions themselves is the best approach. Sure, we can dispense with some objections to God’s goodness by getting some clarity about who He is and what He does, but there are always more questions to replace the ones we knockdown. More importantly, God simply will not be held accountable by us. He will not allow us to sit in judgment over him, and He will not justify His actions to us.
Having said all of that, I don’t think it helps to pretend our questions don’t exist, either. For one thing, people around us need to see we are wrestling with the evidence as it really is and not as we wish it was. For another, if we really believe God wants to know us just as much as He wants us to know him (cf. Galatians 4:8-11 and the work of Christian psychiatrist Curt Thompson), then we must concede it does not advance this purpose to hide our questions from God.
What does work
So, if pretending our questions don’t exist and trying to find answers to them doesn’t work, then what are we supposed to do? As I read the Old Testament—and reflect upon my own experience—I have come to the conclusion we must begin by keeping company with God. We must walk with God over the long term, observing His behavior and noting carefully how He interacts with us, and we must do so with our questions explicitly in the front of our minds and at the center of our prayers.
We gain at least three benefits from walking with God over time.
- Provision. We experience God’s goodness through the ways He provides for us. These experiences of divine largesse form a counterbalance to the experiences of pain and deprivation that often dominate our thinking. As such, they can help us find emotional equilibrium as we think about and interact with our Creator.
- Perspective. As we walk with God over time, we gain the experience (and, hopefully, the wisdom) to look back on our lives with a more generous, sophisticated, and humble eye. We learn how complicated life can be and how finite we are. We sometimes even gain a glimpse into what God was doing when He allowed (or even caused) certain painful events in our lives.
- Presence. Most importantly, we experience the comforting and correcting presence of God—perhaps especially when we suffer. We see we are not alone, both in our joy and our pain. We learn, at an emotive level, what pleases God and what grieves Him, and we learn to share His pleasure and displeasure, just as He shares ours.
Walking with God in this way will not answer all of our questions. And when I say “our,” I mean it. I still have questions, and some of my questions may never be answered to my satisfaction. But walking with God over the long haul allows us to come at those questions from a different place. It allows us to acknowledge their reality, and their emotional weightiness, without being swallowed alive by them. We have experienced God’s goodness, and that experience is just as real—if not more so—than the experiences which stand behind our pain.