I am heart broken tonight, heart broken because I saw that a friend is losing faith. Is it a loss of faith in God? In His goodness? In His power? In His knowledge? I'm not sure it matters because these are so interconnected and in the end they all come down to whether one is willing to remain in relationship with God, whether He exists or not, is powerful or not, is loving or not, is all knowing or not.
Please take this with love and humility. I am the husband of a soldier, the brother of a man with a significant disability and I just observed along with many of my friends the ten year anniversary of the death of a wonderful Christian young man who died far too early. My approach to this topic is with the understanding that no answer is enough in the face of intense grieving and suffering in the moment. So here is my answer for faith in the midst of suffering such as it is. I claim no novelty in anything that follows, in fact probably every idea could be found in the works of Saint Paul, Karl Barth, C. S. Lewis and John Macmurray but I am writing off the top of my head for the purpose of edifying those who will not likely read the latter authors.
If you are not familiar with the Book of Job in the Old Testament, I strongly suggest giving it some thoughtful study. Job is a wealthy and devout man who is well regarded by everyone. God suggests to the Adversary in His divine court that Job is a more righteous man than any other. The Adversary argues that Job is only righteous because he has had everything given to him on a silver platter and he has no reason to curse God. So God allows Job to be tested so that his belongings, family and health are taken from him to see if he will still love God. As Job mourns and cries out against the apparent injustice, his wife tempts him to curse God and die while his friends insist that he must be lying when he argues that he has done nothing to deserve this plight. By the end of the book Job is demanding an audience with God so that he can make his case and show that his situation is unjust. Then God shows up in the form of a tornado and speaks to Job and asks if Job is God or if He, Yahweh (the name God refers to Himself by), is God (this is a significant summary of God’s actual wording to make a point). As a result Job repents for daring to ask for an audience and God requires that Job make sacrifice and pray for his friends in order for their false statements to be forgiven.
So why do I bring up Job? Well Job is about the human attempt to control relationship with God. See Job's friends had the idea that if you do good, good things will happen and if you do bad things, bad things will happen to you. What's more, they believed that if bad things happen, you must deserve it and if good things happen you must also deserve it. What Job's story shows us is that this idea does not hold up. Let me be clear: Karma is a lie! Moreover, if his friends were correct, they could essentially control God as long as they did the right things.
I would like to ask a personal question at this point: can you think of a time when you thought that if you did things just right you would get what you want from someone else? I know I can, and it wasn't that long ago either. That is called manipulation. It is the attempt to control someone else's behavior for your own edification. Essentially it is the act of treating people like machines because machines are designed to give a certain output when given the proper input and nothing else. People do this all the time to one another. We try to get people to like us or love us. We attempt to get in with the right crowd so we will feel accepted or worthy. We tell people lies about them so that they will have a good disposition towards us all to avoid the uncomfortable situation when we tell them that they actually are a terrible singer or look terrible in that outfit. None of these things that I have described have to do with the genuine benefit of others for their own sake, but rather are things we do for our own benefit and convenience.
Am I hitting a nerve yet?
What we have just felt convicted of concerning our own families, friends and coworkers is exactly what we are guilty of before God. We want God to like us so that our lives and our families' lives will be pleasant and comfortable. We want God to like us because we think that our value is based on how people feel about us. We want God to be happy because it is dangerous to anger Him.
Here is the problem. When we see the world through eyes that look only to our own self-interest and we approach God this way, we are so alien to love that we wouldn't know it if Love died on a Roman cross for us! We are approaching relationship with God for our own sake rather than for His, even while He is approaching relationship for our good rather than for His.
Now I am preaching to myself because I need this word more than anyone!
Over and over we try to establish the terms of relationship with God. When we see God's goodness we attempt to be good enough for Him. This may take the form of perfectionism where we try to do everything with excellence and avoid anything that we can't do to such standards. We may also attempt to show how God's standards are relative so that when we go to be judged we can say "at least I didn't do what that guy did!" or "I was doing what everyone else was doing." Another way of fulfilling God's goodness is through punishing ourselves so that He doesn't have too. This can happen through addiction and all sorts of self-abuse.
The problem is that not only can we not walk in real relationship with God when we are self-focused, but all of our attempts to climb up to Him and determine the terms of relationship fail. Our self-abuse will never be enough because it only leads to more, and our attempts to be good enough or not as bad can never withstand the light of His Face.
However, God has not abandoned us. In fact, He has come down to us to lift us back up to Himself (Philippians 2). God became a man in Jesus so that He could take the punishment that we deserve and fulfill His goodness for us. It is God who wants relationship but it is only through self-giving love that we can enter in.
Honestly, can you say that you have been looking for God, or just what God can give you? Can you even say that about any relationship that you are or have been involved in? It is a serious question, one that every Christian has to ask over and over because it is the core of the faith. God is love and love is always self-giving and self-sacrificial. Love pours out for the sake of others when they don't deserve it.
Faith is not about whether God holds up to His side of a deal or our expectations. Faith is about making God the point, the center, the goal of our lives. Faith is making our identity so wrapped up in God that we would rather die than deny our Savior Jesus Christ. Faith is letting Jesus have it all, even when it hurts.