Wednesday, December 29, 2004

"Why has God turned his back on me?"



That is the one question I get from nonmembers that I have no idea how to answer.

I enjoy going on exchanges with the local missionaries every once in a while. Last night we had the chance to teach a young agnostic/atheist couple, "living in sin" as it were, but nice kids who were more than happy to talk to us about the Gospel and the Book of Mormon and what religion means to them. Between the missionaries and myself, we came up with some great answers to their questions - answers that won't make them jump out of their seats and declare "Your church is the true church!", but answers that will get them thinking more, praying more, and so forth.

However, towards the end of the discussion, I found out that both the young man and the young woman had been fervent Christians until only a few years ago. The young man, who by the way was brilliant, had planned to study to become a Lutheran minister. His live-in girlfriend had been a Baptist who devoted many of her waking thoughts to figuring out how best to serve God, and who wanted nothing better than to be a missionary (I have no idea what the Baptist missionary program is like, but certainly it would require similar degrees of faith and determination as the LDS program).

Over several years, despite their professed faith and service to God, life just kept getting more and more difficult for them, and they encountered personal hardships, and couldn't help but conclude that God had abandonned them, or that maybe He didn't exist at all. I didn't think it would be proper ask them what kind of hardships they went through, although in retrospect maybe I was wrong.

I simply can't identify with their experiences. When I was growing up in my Presbyterian church, I didn't take the commandments and teachings very seriously (and for that matter, neither did most of the congregation). Once I started investigating the LDS church at age 22, and tried to implement those commandments for the first time, I saw the multitudes of blessings that came into my life, and I felt the confirmation of the Holy Ghost. Thus I have never had a situation where I was obeying God but my life kept getting worse and worse.

So my question for you folks is: How would you go about answering the these two young investigators who wonder why God would allow their lives to become awful even as they were faithful to the scriptures?

Here's a few potential (bad) answers I've come up with:
1. "You must have not been following the sciptures well enough." Very possible, but if I had actually said that without being able to know how hard they were really trying at the time, I can imagine that they would have gotten angry at my attitude and kicked me out of their apartment.

2. "God needed you to fall away from your old church so you could find the true church and be a Mormon." Again, they would probably be justified in kicking me out into the hallway.

3. "Consider reading the book of Job." I've only skimmed it, personally, but I'm sure it has some good insights.

4. "Pray and ask God what his goals are for you, and why he has put you in these situations." The danger here is the God may not answer right away - maybe not even for weeks and months. Perhaps He will try to answer them but they will not understand.

5. "You should keep on trying to follow God regardless of the consequences." That's an awfully big thing to ask for someone who isn't feeling the love of God and is doubting his existence. I would imagine it takes more faith than they have.

Anyway, like I said, I hope you good folks will tell me how you would answer this question, or perhaps how you actually have answered it in the past and what came of it. All ideas are appreciated.

10 Comments:

At 1/02/2005 08:10:00 PM,

Chris, as a 22 year-old convert (I don't know how old you are now), I wonder if you have served a mission. If not, you have found what for me is the quintessential constant in missionary work: how can you really share or transfer your spiritual knowledge to another person so that it causes in them the same change of heart that it caused in you? I like to look for the classic examples of scriptural conversion for clues on how this takes place: Peter's early sermons in Acts; Zeezrom's conversion in the BoM; King Lamoni; Lamoni's father; Amulek's testimony about his conversion; and others.

I don't have a very complete reply to this question now, but will probably post again after giving it more thought. But that's the true challenge of being involved in missionary work, for me at least. Maybe others have a more innate ability to help people adopt a completely new world view.

I would assume, for starters, that these people are seekers, and feel driven to discuss and learn about spiritual things. Also, as harsh as it sounds, #2 seems like a decent explanation in my mind (but your caution is very well founded, and I am not recommending to clean the whole mess up with that tidy explanation).  

Posted by Jason Kn

 
At 1/03/2005 12:01:00 PM,

Jason, in response to your question, I just turned 24, and I'm giving serious consideration to serving a mission beginning in the summer. I like your idea of looking at stories of conversion in the BoM and other scriptures.... I'm glad to say that I recognize all the names you mention, although sadly I couldn't tell you which books they appear in or anything else about them. Sigh... I'm terrible with names, but I will make a point of looking up those stories in the next few days.

The "transfer of spiritual knowledge," as you put it, is certainly no easy task, and I know this from being both on the giving and receiving ends of the transfer. I was an investigator for about four months before I decided to be baptized, and during that time I was coming to church nearly every week, in addition to meeting with the missionaries once or twice a week. Even after those four months my faith was rather shaky, and I now know why. To quote my favorite ward Sunday School teacher, "I can preach at you until I'm blue in the face, but you will not believe unless you go out and LIVE these teachings." So I wouldn't put too much stake in any one missionary discussion in terms of converting someone: the missionaries show that there is a door, and if they're good missionaries they'll show how to open the door, but they can't make the investigator walk through the door.

Another thought just occurred to me: the two investigators mentioned in my original post may have been led astray by questionable teachings in their own churches. A lot of other denominations tend to have rituals, doctrines, maxims, and so forth that have no scriptural basis, but have come about through questionable notions of the clergy, which may have been developed centuries ago and passed down from generation to generation. (To take an extreme example, the Catholic church has somehow come up with the idea that it is appropriate to pray directly to the various saints of that church and not always to God Himself. They also think that saying a certain number of "Hail Marys" is sufficient to forgive various sins. Et cetera.) And if the individual ministers/preachers in these denominations have their own personal misconceptions, their congregrations would certainly be susceptible to adopting these misconceptions themselves, considering that they listen to the same guy for a good forty minutes week after week. 

Posted by Chris Potter

 
At 1/05/2005 09:03:00 AM,

Chris,

Joseph Smith's experience provides Mormon doctrine with a very clear-cut definition of the nature of God, a doctrine that solves a lot of issues that have hampered religion over time.

However, while I am aware of God's many characteristics (omnipotence, etc.) and his nature (i.e. the personage that visited J.S.), I am hardpressed to find a very clear definition for God's role in the world and, more specifically, our individual lives. Many Church leaders teach that God (in some form) is involved in the intricacies of our lives. Others see God's influence in the form of warm fuzzies for service rendered, or a pit in the stomach when you are contemplating a plan that may be spiritually hazardous.

I am not quite sure where I stand on this issue. For instance, I like to believe that if I live by the principles of the gospel God will bless me with happiness. Yet, there is often very little correlation between these two events. On the one hand I also question the existence of God, or maybe even his reasoning behind withholding the blessings to which I feel entitled. On the other hand I wonder if it really is God's role to "give us" trials or otherwise intervene in our lives.

I am not sure why God would "allow" these two friends of yours to suffer trials while living good lives. However, I think that a better understanding of God's role in our lives can provide a better insight into our relationship with Him, and help us better understand his dealings with us. 

Posted by Doug Spencer

 
At 1/05/2005 09:27:00 PM,

Chris, one of your original suggestions was to send them to the Book of Job. These passages both thrill me: Job 1:21, "the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed by the name of the Lord" and 2:10, "What? shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?"

Along the lines of D&C 122:7-8, I think that only Jesus can tell another person, in words or by impression/inspiration, to "buck up", but if you can have the kind of peaceful, testimony-friendly contact with them, and are able to share your own feelings along these lines, that may help this couple to better understand our view of this type of dilemma. 

Posted by Jason Kn

 
At 1/07/2005 01:44:00 PM,

Oh the horns of our augustinian dilemma!!! Forests have been decimated for all the books that deal with this problem. For those of you that haven't wasted time on this unending discussion, here's the problem of theodicy: 1.) God is all powerful. 2.) God is all good and 3) Despite 1 & 2, evil exists. Buddhism, for example, answers this dilemma by denying 3; for them, evil is illusory.

I believe (and I think this is the position of the LDS scriptures too) that our is with number 1. We need to revise what we mean by "all-powerful". I believe in a God bound by some sort of law (whether He binds himself, or the universe binds Him is for another time). Because of this, he is not all-powerful in the full sense. He cannot, for example, save us against our will b/c part of the process is in voluntary submission. It's impossible.

Along these lines, I believe that "laws" for spiritual growth exist. Resistance and response brings growth, there's no other way. It is impossible for us to obtain exhaltation meeting and responding (correctly) to resistance. So, in a sense, evil is a good; resistance is a tool for salvation. It all hinges on how we respond.

 

Posted by Chris Patton

 
At 1/07/2005 10:07:00 PM,

While I don't know if my views are entirely faith promoting, I wonder if an unlimited conception of God may eventually back fire. While it is certainly possible to conceive of God as being one step above everything we can imagine, perhaps we can imagine more than reality allows. I have found that people who have become very fundamental in their beliefs tend to attribute much to direct divine intervention. While this may be faith promoting for some people, for others, it may do just the opposite. If many small things are falsey attributed, it is hard not to let it effect other things.

Belief in a God that lies between the extremes of atheism and fundamentalism isn't easy. It is especially hard when people want religious belief to be a refuge or an escape. When it becomes a test about keeping faith in a God whose power appears to be diminishing because of over zealous conceptions, motivations for a belief in God get questioned. Personally this doesn't really bother me, but I think it really unhinges alot of people. It is sort of like when people start to realize that drugs and medical diagnosis are rather less precise than we usually imagine. It doesn't change what they do, it just makes many people think that their home remedies may be just as effective. 

Posted by chirs g

 
At 1/09/2005 07:45:00 PM,

Hey, I was just skimming people's blogs and yours happened to come up. I just read through this and well, I can't say it's half bad. I definately coudln't do any better. But, I was wondering if you wouldn't mind if I sent these to my sister. (She's serving a mission in Thailand, so she get's that a lot.) I just thought it might help a little.
Answer on mine, if you will: http://megathack.blogspot.com/
thanks
megan 

Posted by Megan

 
At 1/10/2005 05:36:00 PM,

William Safire has a very good column on this very subject in today's New York Times. I'm not going to copy and paste the text here, due to copyright laws, but you can read it for free for the next few days at:

http://www.nytimes.com/2005/01/10/opinion/10safire.html?hp

I'm also realizing that this topic could go on ad infinitum if we let it. Obviously many philosophers and theologists throughout the ages have had their say on this subject, but then again, a lot of them have their hearts in the wrong places, so that narrows down the recommended reading list considerably.

And, just to clarify, I'm not looking to answer this question once in for all. I was originally looking to just come up with some brief, palatable, Spirit-induced (and Spirit-inducing) suggestions for investigators when they have questions like these. 

Posted by Chris Potter

 
At 1/28/2005 12:43:00 AM,

Are things going well with your friends (the investigators), Chris?

Conversion remains still largely a mystery to me. I am a late-teens "convert" to the LDS faith; though I was raised as a Latter-day Saint, I didn't believe for a long period. Then I did, and passionately. I wanted to, I am sure, and I put in the hours with the Book of Mormon, with reflection and thought and prayer. But even having been essentially "there" it is baffling for me to attempt to help others cross that same point between true believing faith and its absence.  

Posted by Jason Kn

 
At 1/28/2005 07:00:00 PM,

Oh, the investigators in question are in Pittsburgh. I went on an exchange with the local missionaries when I was home for a week over Christmas. Sadly, I have no idea how they're doing.
 

Posted by Chris Potter

 

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