It seems that at some point in every believer’s life, something happens that causes us to be disappointed with God. Perhaps disappointment is too mild a word. Usually we get angry, hurt, frustrated, or disillusioned. Oftentimes, though not always, this disappointment is triggered by the death of a loved one. In what follows, I hope to share my experience in this area, and some insights that might help you out of these struggles if you are currently confronted by them.
My first and most serious disappointment with God came when I was 23 years old, after about 5 years as a committed believer. There was a man who I had come to know through a men’s prayer breakfast. I don’t know his age precisely, but I’d guess he was in his fifties, perhaps even late forties. I had come to admire him for his active faith, and looked up to him as a mentor. After I’d known him for a year or so, he was diagnosed with cancer. I don’t remember any more what kind of cancer (I think it was lung cancer), but in the early eighties a diagnosis of any kind of cancer was a very serious thing, because there were not that many successful treatments for any cancers, unlike today where there are high success rates with many kinds of cancer.
Since the men’s group was a charismatic or Pentecostal group, we believed in God’s healing power, and many of us devoted ourselves to serious prayer (and fasting) for his healing. A number of us, including me, believed we had heard from God that He was going to heal our friend of his cancer. My friend underwent treatment for his cancer, and things seemed to be going well. Then one night I got a call from another friend in the men’s group who told me that my friend had died the previous evening. He started feeling badly, and his wife drove him to the emergency room, where he died. I later learned that the doctors decided that the cause of death was a heart attack rather than cancer, but the fact that he didn’t die from cancer but rather a heart attack was not much comfort.
Not only had I lost a friend and mentor, and therefore had to deal with the grief that comes with that, but I felt extremely let down by God. How could He let my friend die like that, especially after I thought He said He was going to heal him?! How could I ever trust God again? Furthermore, since I really didn’t believe that God could be a liar, it must have been the case that God didn’t speak to me at all about healing my friend. But if I hadn’t heard God speak to me, then what did God’s voice sound like? Was I never to be able to hear or discern God’s voice? And why were so many other people able to hear God’s voice, but not me? Was I not a true Christian? Or was it simply that I was an inferior Christian, not up to the level of those who heard God’s voice clearly?
Let me begin by saying that if you have recently lost a loved one, my heart goes out to you. My dad died a few years ago, and there is a grieving that we all have to go through when a loved one dies. This is a natural part of life, but a difficult part of life. If you feel like you are stuck in your grief, where it seems to go on and on or has effectively disabled you for work or other normal life activities, may I encourage you to join a bereavement group or talk with a pastor or counselor, and seriously consider talking to your family doctor about whether it might be worthwhile to go on anti-depressants for a while, until you have worked through some of your grief.
If any of the issues I mentioned above happen to be your issues, I hope and pray that something that I am about to share will help you out of your dilemma. I certainly didn’t get any answers right away. In fact, I was hurt and angry with God for a year or more, and I really didn’t get my faith back on track for a while, because I didn’t know how to interact with a God who confused me and who I felt like I couldn’t trust.
Perhaps an illustration will serve as a nice introduction for sharing about what I learned about walking with God. When my son was one and a half, he tripped and got a large and deep cut above his eye. It bled a lot! After slowing the bleeding, we decided that it may need stitches, so we went to the emergency room of our local hospital. The doctor on duty agreed with our assessment about the stitches. Getting stitches can be a painful experience, especially for a young child. First, the nurse had to clean the wound, to get out any dirt and germs. Then the nurse said that our son had to get into what was essentially a straight-jacket, designed to keep him from grabbing at the needle and his eye while the doctor was sewing him up. But the straight-jacket was confining and scary. Then he was given several shots near his eye to numb the pain. Finally, the doctor put in the stitches. I was right there with him when all this was going on, trying my best to comfort him. But it hurt him a lot, and scared him, too.
My son could have easily concluded that I was untrustworthy and perhaps did not love him, because I was allowing this additional pain to occur in the same place that was already hurt earlier. Maybe he did think that for a short time. He didn’t understand the rules we were operating under, that if he didn’t get stitches the bleeding might continue or might easily start again, and that he would like have an ugly scar that he would perhaps later in life prefer not to have. He didn’t understand that chances of infection were much higher if he didn’t get stitches, and that if he got an infection, it would hurt even worse, and possibly make him sick. Ultimately my son’s trust that I had his best interest at heart and that I loved him won out.
Now back to the story of my disappointment with God. Many years have passed, but it has only been the last year or so that I have felt like I have come to understand some of my mistakes and misunderstandings that precipitated my crisis of faith. I had come to be a believer by faith. I spent time with God, and I realized that He was for real and deeply cared for me. I heard the testimony of others about God, and I read in the Bible about what Jesus did for us by dying on the cross and rising from the dead. Even though I started my walk with God by faith, I had somehow decided that to learn about what God was like, I had to use the scientific method. Do you know what I mean? Instead of learning about God’s character from the Bible, I decided that I had to learn about God’s character by my own experiences and observations. At the time, it seemed like the only reasonable approach to learning about God. I also believe that most Christians take this approach, at least at some point in their lives, and especially those who are newer or younger believers. A fuller, deeper, and richer faith requires us to learn about the characteristics of God as revealed in the Bible, and trust in them in interpreting life events, rather than letting life events interpret the character of God.
The Bible tells us that Jesus was an exact representation of the Father. Furthermore, we know that the fruits of the Holy Spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, goodness, and self-control. Even though the verse is talking about fruit in our lives, it must be true that these are also the characteristics of the source of the fruit: God, as revealed in the Holy Spirit. So we have a good idea what is true about God. The way of faith is to decide to believe Biblical truth about God rather than to see if we can discover truth of God’s character by observation alone.
Hebrews 13:5-6 tells us that God never leaves us or forsakes us. Romans 8:28-39 tells us all the horrible things that can happen to even believers, but that God is right there with us, having our ultimate best in mind for us. This Romans passage also tells us that none of these horrible things can ever separate us from the love of God.
We have a tendency to blame Him for tragedies in our lives, because He is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent — that is, all-powerful, all-knowing, and ever-present — and we reason that if He really cared for us, He would prevent the big hurts we experience from time to time in our lives. When these happen, we conclude that God really doesn’t love us, or at least He is not very trustworthy.
The trouble with our reasoning is that we are ignorant of a myriad other things about God and the spiritual realm and the way this world operates. We are well-aware that there is a spiritual war going on, and that the problem with the world is that Adam turned over the keys to it to Satan when he made the first really bad choice. For reasons beyond our understanding, God has chosen to allow evil to operate in the world for a season, until Christ returns again to set everything right.
Because there are rules to the operation of this world that are beyond our understanding — they are cloaked in mystery, at least to us — it is wrong to interpret tragedy as God’s lack of love for us (or His lack of power or knowledge or wisdom). In fact, we usually cannot see or understand the reasons why He did not act. There are some smart theologians, pastors, and writers who try to explain the operation of the spiritual realm and God’s constraints, but they have always left me more confused and unsatisfied. Perhaps if I were smarter they would make sense, but I’m content to believe that there are some things about how the world works that I will not understand until I get to heaven, yet God loves me and is trustworthy. This is just like when my son decided that I knew what was best for him under the rules of how the body and medicine works, despite the pain that I was putting him through.
Being Secure in God’s Love
As for my struggle with whether or not I had heard from God, and if not, then why not and how would that impact my life: these questions were all valid. However, the feelings in me that they evoked were a lot more intense because I was insecure in God’s love for me. This seems to be a common problem for Christians, and is especially true for those who are relatively young in the faith.
Let me say to anyone reading this that God loves you. He doesn’t love you for what you do for Him or how well you perform, He loves you because… well, because He loves you! If you can explain love, then it probably isn’t love. He loves you because He created you and you are His child. He loves you because you have put your faith in Him, and have come into relationship with Him. You are not an unwanted child of His — you are dearly loved. He delights in you!
Two books which helped me address my issues of not trusting God and doubting His love for me are by Brennan Manning. One is called “The Ragamuffin Gospel”, and the other is called “Ruthless Trust”. The first is like a broad-spectrum antibiotic and probably better addresses the issue of God loving me without me having to impress Him, while the latter focuses on our trust issues.
Mistakes in Hearing God’s Voice
But what if I can’t hear or discern His voice, especially since others seem to discern it so well? Now that I added another 20 years of hearing God’s voice and walking with God, let me say that it is extremely important to one’s Christian walk to learn to discern God’s voice AND it is easy to make mistakes as to the source of what you hear! Both of these are true!
Be skeptical of those who claim to hear from God with perfect accuracy. I don’t believe anyone is a hundred percent accurate in separating God’s voice from their own desires. Of course, we should try, but that doesn’t mean we won’t fail a lot of the time. Remember all the fuss leading up to “Y2K”, the supposed problem with computer chips that would leave western civilization in chaos, at least for a period of time, after the year changed from 1999 to 2000 (Year 2K)? The biggest-name prophets in the world all foretold the chaos that would ensue, and they were all backed up by the big-name preachers, teachers, and evangelists. But what actually happened? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
I believe God allowed this whole thing to happen to humble all of these big-name people, and to free up all of us “little guys” in the church to recognize that discerning God’s voice is a challenge. God meant this to set us free us from religious manipulation, and put the burden back on each of us to wrestle with discerning God’s voice, rather than mindlessly following the lead of these “superior Christians” and “God’s gift to the Church”.
As John Eldredge pointed out in “Waking the Dead”, God lives in the hearts of believers, so when He speaks, He speaks to and through our hearts. The trouble with discerning God’s voice is that our own emotions come from our hearts, as well, and it is not easy to separate the two voices. Remember Elijah on the mountain. God was not in the fire, earthquake, or wind, but was a quiet voice (1 Kings 19). When somebody whispers to me, I sometimes misunderstand what they are saying. It is like that with God’s voice.
We shouldn’t despair about the challenges to hearing God’s voice, but we should be humble and recognize the inherent difficulties. It’s why we need the Bible and other believers in the Body of Christ to help us make sense of everything. We will make mistakes, especially in discerning God’s voice when our hearts are involved. But let’s not give up. Let’s keep pressing into God. He is a very real comfort to us, especially when we can still our hearts to hear Him and sense His presence. Bad things happen in life, though I am convinced that less bad things happen when we pray. God is not mean, He is not weak, He doesn’t get surprised by the devil, and He always loves us.
May God comfort you and strengthen you and gently restore your faith and confidence in Him!
If you found this article helpful, you might also find helpful a related article called When You’ve Been Faithful to Follow God… And Life Isn’t Turning Out Like You Expected.