Religious and spiritual struggle during times of adversity
Posted Oct 19, 2017
This article was inspired by conversation with Deanna Thompson.
Marian Fontana was living a good life. She had been happily married to her husband, Dave, for 17 years, with whom she had a young son. Marian had frequent “conversations with God,” as she put it. As a normal part of her daily life, she would thank God for all that was going well and ask God to bless others in need.
Then came September 11, 2001.
When Marian saw the World Trade Center crumble on television, she knew her life was crumbling as well. Dave was a New York firefighter who was called to the scene. After sensing his death, her initial response was to wander into every church in her neighborhood to pray and pray and pray for Dave’s life. But, this prayer was to go unanswered.
“I couldn’t believe that this God that I’d talked to in my own way for 35 years could… turn this loving man into bones. And I guess that’s when I felt that my faith was so weakened… My conversations with God that I used to have, I don’t have anymore… Now I can’t bring myself to speak to Him… because I feel so abandoned…”
Years later, Marian is doing better. She has written a memoir about her experience (“A Widow’s Walk”), and she reports being less angry. Yet, as she said in a live chat organized by PBS 10 years after Dave’s death, “[I] still don’t have conversations with God the way I used to.”
An adverse life event such the loss of a loved one can function like a crucible in many people’s religious or spiritual lives. For some, religiousness or spirituality may increase—refined or deepened under trial. For others, like Marian, religiousness or spirituality may decline in some significant way.
A team of psychological scientists led by Julie Exline at Case Western Reserve University has started to investigate what happens during times of religious or spiritual struggle. Interestingly, in several studies, this research group has found that 44 to 72 percent of research participants who indicate some atheistic or agnostic beliefs report that their non-belief is, at least to some extent, due to relational or emotional factors (with percentages varying across samples and methods).
(Click here for more discussion on how religiousness and spirituality are declining in the United States, and some possible cultural reasons why.)
One factor that may predispose people to shift their religious or spiritual views during difficult times concerns their pre-existing beliefs about God. Recently, Exline and her team published a study showing that individuals holding non-benevolent ideas about God are more likely to decrease religious and spiritual activity following adversity. In particular, those who endorse beliefs that God causes, permits, or cannot prevent suffering are most likely to experience a decline.
Marian Fontana is an example of this common pattern. In her grief, she hasn’t been able to reconcile the beauty she observes around her with the thought that God was somehow responsible for turning her loving husband “into bones.” Given this, it is understandable that she has lost interest in having “conversations with God.”
Of course, individuals differ in how they respond to tragedy.
To further clarify these dynamics, in another article, Exline and her colleagues distinguished three general ways individuals “protest” against God during adversity. These forms of protest may exist on a continuum, ranging from assertive protest (e.g., questioning and complaining to God) to negative feelings (e.g., anger and disappointment toward God) to exit strategies (e.g., holding on to anger, rejecting God, ending the relationship).
For instance, in my personal favorite book of all-time, “Night,” the late Nobel Peace Prize winner, Elie Wiesel, eloquently chronicled some of his struggles with God during the time he was taken captive by the Nazis. In one of the book’s most famous passages, Wiesel wrote about his initial reaction upon arriving at Auschwitz:
“Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky. Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever.”
In other passages, Wiesel described in raw honesty some of his anger toward God for allowing this suffering to occur. For example, on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement when Jews fast, Wiesel stated:
“I did not fast… I no longer accepted God’s silence. As I swallowed my ration of soup, I turned that act into a symbol of rebellion, of protest against Him.”
Decades later, on her radio program, “On Being,” Krista Tippett asked Wiesel what happened to his faith in the years that followed. Wiesel interestingly responded:
“I went on praying. So I have said these terrible words, and I stand by every word I said. But afterwards, I went on praying… I never doubted God’s existence.”
Of course, many Jews—and many Europeans—did reject belief in God following the Holocaust. Like Marian Fontana, they understandably could not reconcile a belief in an all-powerful, loving God with the immense suffering that took place. Elie Wiesel, in contrast, interrogated God and developed great anger toward God, but never exited the relationship.
For individuals who want to maintain a relationship with God, it may be very helpful to realize this option of protest without exit. In their article on the topic, Exline and colleagues expand on this possibility:
“An ability to distinguish between exit behaviors (which typically damage relationships) and assertive behaviors (which can help relationships) could be crucial… [P]eople can remain close to God while leaving room for the experience of anger and other negative emotions… Some… individuals may… [believe] that the only reasonable response to such anger [is] to distance themselves from God, perhaps exiting the relationship altogether… But… what if one discovers that some tolerance for protest—especially in its assertive forms—could actually be part of a close, resilient relationship with God?”
Deanna Thompson is a Christian theologian who has been wrestling with this question since she was diagnosed with incurable stage IV breast cancer approximately 10 years ago. For a good part of this year, we have been discussing connections between psychological research and theology in relation to her latest book project, “Not Yet Resurrection: Cancer, Trauma, and Getting to Hope.”
As a theologian, Deanna is interested in exploring what it means to recognize religious and spiritual struggle not as obstacles—but as integral parts—of Christian tradition. For example, she refers to the importance of praying through the full range of emotions recorded in the Psalms, including Psalm 88, which ends in despair with the author’s statement that “darkness is my closest friend.” She discusses how Jesus feeling forsaken at the time of his death is critical for Christians wanting to place their story of suffering into a broader context of a God who also suffered.
These views dovetail with research conducted by Exline and colleagues. In the study mentioned previously, benevolent theological beliefs—including beliefs that God shares in our suffering and has planned suffering for the good—were found to predict growth in religious and spiritual activity following adversity.
As Deanna Thompson exemplifies, there is often space in our religious and spiritual traditions for disorientation and even irresolution of problems, if we are willing to explore the traditions deeply. In fact, decades of research show that remaining committed and involved in religious or spiritual communities can be an effective resource for coping well with adversity. Ultimately, for those so inclined, it is important to remember that faith and hope require trust, not certainty nor the absence of struggle.
Andy Tix, Ph.D. also blogs regularly at: The Quest for a Good Life. You can sign up to receive e-mail notifications of new posts at this site.
Exline, J. J., Kaplan, K. J., & Grubbs, J. B. (2012). Anger, exit, and assertion: Do people see protest toward God as morally acceptable? Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 4, 264-277.
Wilt, J. A., Exline, J. J., Lindberg, M. J., Park, C. L., & Pargament, K. I. (2017). Theological beliefs about suffering and interactions with the divine. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 9, 137-147.