Of all the reasons people lose their faith, by far the biggest is the experience of suffering and injustice. How can we help people struggling with this?
Here are five things we Christians often get wrong, and what we can do to fix them:
Mistake #1: Reacting in fear instead of love. The first thing we need to do is react in love rather than fear. Threats and condemnation wont help, and will probably push them away more. So be a friend, listen, make room for their struggle. Show them by your support that it is okay to be real, it’s okay to hurt, and it’s okay to have real questions.
Mistake #2: Trying to explain the problem away. Tragedy is devastating, and it can be hard to hold on to trust and hope in the middle of these dark times. In times like these people don’t want explanations, they want healing, they are crying out “No!” and we need to realize that this is a good cry that God has placed in all of our hearts. We need to realize that Jesus did not come offering explanations, but offering his life to end suffering. So in our struggle to make sense of suffering we need to make sure that we never excuse suffering and misery. That is not what Jesus wants. Jesus wants us to join him in working to end suffering.
Mistake #3: Suffering is not good, love is. Often in an effort to comfort others people will suggest that God has caused the suffering for some greater purpose. God is not the author of suffering or evil. God may work good in the middle of suffering, and calls us to do that too, but God does not ask us to call suffering good or tolerate when people are hurting. God does not call us to suffer, God calls us to radically love and stand with those who are suffering. In doing that we can often make ourselves vulnerable to suffering too. Jesus did this with his whole life as he stood along side the oppressed and the marginalized, sharing in their pain. But we need to remember that suffering isn’t good, loving is.
Mistake #4: Faith is not certainty. We need to find a way to trust in love in this broken world of ours. That’s really hard, especially when we open our eyes to the struggles of others and share in their hurt. Maybe that’s why so many of us react defensively when others express doubt, because it threatens our own feelings of security. Caring requires courage. So does vulnerability. A strong and healthy faith is not one that never questions, but one that allows room for those honest questions. A strong faith is one that is not afraid to be real.
Mistake #5: Doubt belongs in church. Many people leave faith due to tragedy because they feel there is no room for their doubt and honest pain in church. So often we only allow questions that we can quickly solve with some snappy apologetic answer, rather than really honoring these questions as a healthy expression of our faith. Doubt is a part of faith, just as struggle and hurt is. Church isn’t supposed to be a place for people who have it all together. It’s supposed to be a place where we can bring our honest questions and doubts, our real pain and struggles, and find support and compassion.
Derek Flood is the author of Healing the Gospel: A Radical Vision for Grace, Justice, and the Cross. He is a featured blogger for the Huffington Post, Sojourners, Red Letter Christians, and writes regularly at his website theRebelGod.com. A longtime voice in the post-conservative evangelical movement, Derek’s focus is on wrestling with questions of faith and doubt, violence in the Bible, relational theology, and understanding the cross from the perspective of grace and restorative justice.