Taken from Philip Yancey “Disappointment with God”
Have you ever been disappointed with God? It’s hard to admit, I know. It seems somehow wrong. Yet after I wrote the book, Disappointment with God, a little over a year ago, I started getting letters, all kinds of letters from all kinds of people. Each of them told me in a different way, “I’ve been disappointed with God.” It’s a common experience, almost universal, among Christians. Many of them went on to tell me their stories. Some became disappointed with God because of a tragedy. The most common one was the loss of a child. At such a moment of pain they turn to God and say, “Why? Why would a loving Father allow something like this to happen to me?” Other people wrote and said, “There is no one specific thing on which I can pin down my feeling of disappointment, but the relationship I have with God sometimes seems very close and personal and other times He seems far away.”
There is a bumper sticker I have sometimes seen in church parking lots. It says, “If you feel far from God, guess who moved?” Some of these people said to me it seemed like God moved. Disappointment with God. If you have ever felt that, I start with an encouraging word. The word is you’re not alone. Not only have other Christians felt that same experience, but many of the people who wrote the Bible have experienced disappointment with God as well.
A lot of us turn to the Book of Psalm when we want comfort. If you really read those Psalms carefully, by my estimate about a third of them are written by disappointed people. They will call God to task. They will say, “I thought we had a deal, God. Why are these bad things happening? I followed your will and yet I am surrounded by enemies. My life is caving in. It’s not fair.” They look around them and say, “This world is not fair. Wicked people seem to be prospering while righteous people like me are suffering. It’s not so easy. Explain yourself, God.” About a third of the Psalms have something of that tone.
It is not just in the Psalms. There are other books like Jeremiah and Habakkuk in which disappointment with God is a major theme. There is one book in the Bible, however, where it is right at the center. That book is the Book of Job. Bible scholars say that Job may be the first book written in the Bible, the oldest book. I find it interesting that when God set down the word He wanted us to know about Him, He began with one of the hardest questions of all.
It’s not always big things that cause us to questions things like, “Is life unfair?” I find that often for me it is the petty things – when my car won’t get started. Maybe you have ten pounds you’ve been trying to lose for two years and you can never keep them off. For me as a writer, the most discouraging thing is when I work all day, or a couple of days, on an article and then through some computer foul up, I lose it and have to start all over. It’s at moments like this that I start thinking life is unfair.
When I got to the portion of Disappointment with God that dealt with the Book of Job, I decided to look around me and find the person I knew who was most like Job. I found such a person. He was a righteous man in the same sense that Job was righteous. He was a good man. He had been trained as a psychotherapist, but he gave up a lucrative practice and started to work in the inner-city among poor people. Yet after he did that, his life started to fall apart as well. The first thing that happened was that his wife came down with a case of breast cancer. She started taking chemotherapy treatments and that affected his whole family. She was always tired and often felt sick. Douglas, the man’s name, had to pick up a lot of work around the house. The spot of cancer spread and appeared on her lungs. Her life was seriously threatened and a new series of treatment started.
Douglas had to deal with that new situation. In the middle of his pain and in the middle of the suffering of their family, they were involved in a serious traffic accident. They weren’t doing anything wrong; they were driving down a road. A drunken driver crossed the median, and smashed into their car head on. Douglas’s twelve-year-old daughter went through the windshield and was badly lacerated in the face. His wife was also hurt. The worst injuries were to Douglas himself. Douglas hit his head on the dashboard. First, he had trouble with his vision. One of his eyes wouldn’t cooperate and he saw double. He couldn’t even walk down a set of stairs without stumbling. The worst thing to him was that he could no longer read. Douglas loved to read. I knew Douglas. I knew his story.
When I started to write about the Book of Job, I decided to interview Douglas. I called him up and scheduled an appointment. We met for breakfast. He told me some of the story. We sat and chatted for a while. After breakfast had been served I said, “Well, Douglas, I’m writing a book about disappointment with God. I thought of all the people I know you have the right to be disappointed with God, you’re right at the top of the list. Tell me, what would you say to people who are disappointed with God?” Douglas thought for a minute and stroked his beard. Finally he looked at me and said, “You know, Philip, I don’t think I’ve ever been disappointed with God.” This was a great shock to me. I was amazed. I had specifically chosen Douglas because I thought of all the people I knew, he was the one most likely to be disappointed, even angry at God, because of the unfairness he had seen.
I asked, “How can this be?”
He said to me, “You know, Philip, I learned a long time ago and especially through this accident not to confuse God with life. Is life unfair? You bet. My life has been unfair. What has happened to my wife, what has happened to my daughter, what has happened to me, it’s unfair. But I think God feels exactly the same way. I think He is grieved and hurt by what that drunk driver did as much as I am. Don’t confuse God with life.” He said, “As I read the Bible, especially the Old Testament, I notice that those people were able to separate the physical reality of their lives from the spiritual reality of their relationship with God.”
As we sat there together, we went through some of those people. We turned to a passage, for example, in Ezekiel where God tells about three of His very favorite people: Daniel, Noah and Job. Think about those three people. One of them spent the night with a bunch of lions; one of them lived through a huge flood that killed thousands of people and then, of course, there’s Job, the greatest example of unfairness in the Bible. Yet when God looks at those people, He says these are three of my favorites.
All three of them—Daniel, Noah, Job—and many others—Abraham, David, who wrote some of the Psalms—learned to have a relationship with God that didn’t depend on how healthy they were and how well their lives were going.
A Jewish theologian named Abraham Heschel once said of the Book of Job, “Job gained a faith that could never be shaken because he got it out of having been shaken.” That’s the kind of faith that these people seemed to have.
We sat there together going through so many of these stories from the Bible. Suddenly Douglas glanced down at his watch and said, “I’ve got to go. I’ll leave you with one last thought and that’s this. If you are ever tempted to confuse God with life, go back and read the story of Jesus, the story of God on Earth. Ask yourself how Jesus would have answered the question, is life unfair.” Just before he left Douglas said, “For me, the cross of Christ demolished for all time the idea that life is supposed to be fair.”
I took Douglas’ challenge. I went home and read the Gospels and I asked myself how Jesus would respond to that question, is life unfair? When Jesus was with a poor person or a sick person, He never said, “Well, that’s your lot in life. You have got to accept it.” He changed it. He healed that person.
When Jesus had a friend who died, He responded much like we do. He cried. He grieved. When Jesus faced pain and possible death, He was afraid, as you or I would be.
The guest last week on this program was Henri Nouwen. He tells a moving story from the country of Paraguay. It is about a doctor who cared very much for the poor people in his little village. He would often treat them free of charge. But others—the authorities, the police, the government in the village—didn’t like him. They didn’t like his politics. They thought he was stirring up foment among the poor people. He was too popular for them to take on, so instead they kidnaped his son. They took his son, arrested him, put him in a jail and tortured him. They tortured him too much and the son died.
When news of the son’s death spread throughout the village, they wanted to hold a huge demonstration march. They wanted to carry his body through the village and demonstrate to the media, to the newspapers, what had gone on. But, the father said, “No, I don’t want to do that. I just want a funeral in the church here in the village. We will show in our own way.”
When people arrived for the funeral, they had a surprise in store. The father had taken the body of the son just as he had found it in the prison cell on a blood-soaked, dirty mattress. Instead of being all dressed up in a nice suit in an expensive coffin, the corpse in that little village was naked, lying on this mattress covered with scars. It was the strongest protest imaginable. What that father did was put the injustices of his village on grotesque display.
Henri Nouwen goes on to ask, “Isn’t that what God did at Calvary? He spread out for the whole world to see the injustice of this world. The cross in one minute showed what kind of world we have—a world of violence, a world of cruelty, a world of injustice, and what kind of God we have, a God of sacrificial love who gives Himself for us.”
Is God unfair? It depends on how closely you relate God and life. I challenge you not to confuse God with life. The question “Is God unfair?” is very different than the question, “If life unfair?” No one was exempt from tragedy, pain, disappointment. Job wasn’t. The other people in the Old Testament were not. Even God himself, when He came to earth, was not exempt from unfairness, from pain, from tragedy.
The story of the Gospel does not end there. If you want to find some disappointed people, read the stories of the disciples who were around Jesus when He died. They had waited and followed Him for three years. He was the hope of their world, but they were disappointed. When the time came, everyone of them—blustery old Peter, emotional John—left Him. They were afraid for their own lives. Life hadn’t worked out. They were disappointed people. That was Friday, Good Friday, the day that Jesus died. But that is not the end of this story.
The end of the story, of course, is on Sunday when those same people who were cowering in the shadows suddenly came out of hiding. They realized the story ends not with tragedy, but with Good News. When some of those same people, like Peter, sat down and wrote about suffering to suffering people, he had a wholly different tone. You read nothing of the questioning, of the doubts of a Job, or even of some of the Psalms, because Peter saw in person what God had done on Easter Sunday. He took the tragedy, the worst tragedy that could be imagined. He took the unfairness, the worst unfairness that could be imagined.
Job in the old Testament was a righteous man who suffered much. Jesus was a perfect man who suffered even more. Yet, God took that unfairness, that tragedy, and made it a great victory, a victory on which our whole faith rests. I believe that when the disciples wrote advice—men like Peter, who wrote to the Christians in Rome and other places, or the disciples who were in jail, or those who were being persecuted or tortured for their faith, like the doctor’s son in Paraguay—they wrote words like, “Rejoice in your suffering.” How can you rejoice in the unfairness that you see going on? If you read First Peter, I think the answer is clear. You can rejoice because Peter saw the darkness of Good Friday, but he also saw the brightness of Good Sunday—Easter Sunday. Peter believed because he had seen, he had felt in himself that the worst that can happen, the grossest unfairness, could be redeemed, could be made new, could be made to live.
Just when God seems most dead, He may be coming back to life. It certainly was so for the disciples. It may be for you. I love a sentence from the German theologian, Jurgen Moltmann. He said this, “God weeps with us so that we may one day laugh with him.” The disciples wept on Good Friday. They laughed on Easter Sunday. I believe, and my faith rests on that same pattern, that what He did on a cosmic scale at Calvary He is doing in a very small and personal scale in my life.
God weeps with us so that we may some day laugh with Him. The disciples wept on Good Friday. They laughed on Easter Sunday. So will we. It’s good to remember that we live out our days on earth, on the in-between day, on Saturday, in the midst of the unfairness, believing in Easter Sunday that is to come.