On Keeping the Faith

It’s hard to tell if human sin or natural disasters pose the most serious challenge to people’s faith, but a combination of the two can be devastating.  Is it possible to survive those challenges today as they rock the Church and shake the lives of her people?

When William Lobdell was assigned to the religion beat at his paper, the Los Angeles Times, he was delighted.  A born-again Christian, he was preparing to convert to his wife’s faith, Roman Catholicism.  As a reporter, he dedicated himself to “report objectively and respectfully about how belief shapes people’s lives.”  His obviously sincere quest, however, led him eventually to leave the Church and all but abandon his faith.

Investigating sexual abuse cases in the Catholic Church, Lobdell was shocked and scandalized to learn the extent to which hierarchs had engaged in a decades-long cover-up.  He became familiar with the violence endured by so many children as well as by vulnerable adults who had become the victims of those most responsible for their spiritual welfare.  He found a similar hypocrisy in the Mormon practice of shunning those who had left the faith.  But like the sexual violations, he at first took shunning to be an aberration, untypical of Church culture in general.  Over the years he became increasingly disillusioned.  Abuse cases multiplied, prominent evangelical preachers were caught up in financial scandals, and all of it reeked of hypocrisy, duplicity and lies.  Finally, he says, “I began to consider the possibility that God doesn’t exist.”1

Not long ago I had a talk with a friend, an Orthodox Christian, who told me how deeply his faith had been shaken by various natural disasters that have occurred in recent years.  He cited a multitude of “acts of God,” from the tsunami in the Indian Ocean to fires, floods and hurricanes in the U.S.  Then he added the case of those lost in mining accidents and other tragic mishaps across the globe, including the Iraq-Afghanistan war with a horrendous death toll on all sides.  To his mind, the world is out of control.  Can we really pretend that God is present in and through all of it, that He is somehow in charge?  Can we seriously pray the morning prayer of the Optino Fathers, with its reassuring yet troubling affirmation that “Thy will governs all” and that “all things are sent by Thee”?  Where does this leave us with the problem of “theodicy”: why bad things happen to good people?

Other friends, including a sizeable number of clerics, have expressed similar thoughts in the wake of the turmoil that has recently shaken the Orthodox Church in America.  If the scandal involves not only financial mismanagement but conduct far more serious – on the part of hierarchs as well as prominent priests – how can we talk of “the Holy Orthodox Church”?  How can we possibly live and worship in an organization without appropriate leadership or even a sense of accountability at the highest levels?

Couple all that with the suffering caused by our own personal legacies, and for some of us it’s just too much.  Like William Lobdell, we see the results of human sin and assume that God is simply absent.  If He really is present, then He doesn’t care, or else He’s too weak to do anything about it.  Unless He provides some evidence of His power and purpose, unless He helps us make sense out of what seems so senseless, then we abandon our faith and conclude that maybe God doesn’t exist after all.

For some people, that reaction is one of spite, even childish revenge: God seems unconcerned about me, my family or my neighbors, so I’ll simply stop believing in Him (“Take that, God!”).  For many others of us, though, God’s apparent absence in times of crisis provokes a feeling of overwhelming sadness and grief.  The agnosticism we fall into simply adds to the pain, and we find ourselves courting despair.

We want, more than anything else in life, to believe.  But we just can’t.  The enormity of the tragedies, the hypocrisy, the abuse and the loss are simply more than we can bear.

When feelings of this kind well up and threaten to do us in, there’s one thing we can and must keep in mind (I’m talking to myself here, but I really believe it pertains to all of us).  It’s the fact that in every tragedy, every disaster, every experience of anguish and pain, Jesus is present as the Suffering Servant and Crucified Lord.  To come back again to Pascal: “Christ is in agony until the end of the world.”  That agony is over the world’s pain and the sinfulness that so often underlies it.

This means that the crucified and living One not only knows our every experience, good and evil, but that He also shares in them, He takes part in those experiences to the full.  In the midst of every natural disaster, just as in crises provoked by human ambition, greed, weakness, stupidity or pride, He is with us, sharing fully in that situation, assuming its consequences, and bearing its bitter fruit into eternity.  God does not simply “break into” our domain of time and space on occasion, to work out some particular project or effect an astonishing miracle, as some Christian theologians would have it.  Orthodoxy has always known that God “is closer to us than our own heart,” that He knows, governs and participates in every aspect of our life, without exception.

But this means as well that there is nothing that happens – no event or occasion, however tragic it may be – that does not in some mysterious (sacramental) way, serve His purpose for our salvation and the salvation of all creation.  This does not mean that God creates tragedy or encourages sin.  These are consequences of human freedom in a fallen world.  Nevertheless, whether we can perceive it or not, there is no such consequence that God cannot and does not use for His purpose and to His glory.  When it is assumed with faith, however shaky, there is ultimate meaning to all of our suffering, no matter what its cause or how great its intensity.  With the apostle Paul, we can have absolute confidence that our anguish “completes what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions,” and does so by God’s grace “for the sake of the Body, that is, the Church” (Col 1:24).

Christ in His infinite mercy and compassion is present, sharing all the pain and suffering of those who are victims of natural disasters, of abuse perpetrated by those who should know better, and of their own legacy that often means ongoing depression and misery.  He is present, but not merely to accompany us.  Because that presence is one of suffering love, it serves also to heal, to bless, and to save us.

If we allow disasters in the world or in the Church to plunge us into a reluctant agnosticism, we have simply missed the point.  That point is that God is truly Lord and that the Church into which we are called by His boundless, unqualified love is truly the Body of the Risen Christ.  That living and life-giving Body is and will remain the source of salvation for us and for the cosmos itself.  And we can be certain – we can bank our very life on it – that the Church will endure and thrive, even against the onslaughts of hell.

  1. Lobdell’s article, “I got the story, but lost my faith,” is copyrighted by the Los Angeles Times and appeared in This Week magazine (Aug. 10, 2007). []