By Simon Presland
My friend’s father died in his arms. “Where is God?” he asked me in the days and weeks that followed. Several people I know have lost their jobs for extended periods of time. “Where is God?” was their constant refrain. Over the last couple of years, a few couples in our congregation have gone through divorces. “Where is God?” I was asked more than a few times.
Doubt in the dark times.
We’ve all experienced it, and we have struggled to understand how a God who loves us can allow us to go through grievous times. We question God’s mercy, his goodness, and his care for us—and we question him.
The basic answer is that we live in a sin-stricken world. Sin, coupled with humanity’s freewill, can create havoc, heartache, and the deepest of sorrow. Well-meaning Christians will tell us that God never leaves us nor forsakes us (Hebrews 13:5) and that “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1). While we may know such verses in our heads, when we are going through hard times it can be difficult to transfer those words from our minds to our hearts. So what can be done to help a loved one, friend, or coworker when they are doubting God?
A Heart of Understanding
It is easy to think that doubt is sin. We can feel that if we doubt anything about our walk with God—where he is, what he is doing, why he allows us, and those we love, to go through struggles—then we are not strong Christians and lack faith. But the truth is, we can doubt and still believe. In fact, doubt can draw us closer to God as we seek answers.
Consider the prophet Jeremiah. He had a deep and intimate relationship with God. He never doubted that God was real, but at times he questioned God’s sovereignty. He also felt God was unfair in calling him to be a prophet (Jeremiah 20:7, 8). He even wished that he had never been born (15:10; 20:14-18).
In the days and weeks that followed the death of my friend’s father, my friend often called me, pouring out his heart as he went through a hurricane of emotions, including raging at God.
When one of my good friends lost his job after many years of dedicated service, it took him weeks to find another one. In the time preceding his new employment, we would meet at a restaurant when needed. We first revised his resume, then reviewed job leads and rehearsed interviews. Throughout our time together, he would often express his doubts, fears, and worries, but our conversations helped him to take practical steps to move forward, even in the midst of doubt.
While enduring the heartache and consequences of divorce, a congregational member asked to meet at my office on a weekly basis. Over cups of coffee, he asked many questions as he grappled with his new reality: Why didn’t God fix his marriage? Why did God allow this to happen? What was he going to do now that his spouse was gone?
All three of these people wrestled with doubt. Yet the very fact that they questioned God proved their faith was still intact; after all who talks to or about someone who is not real?
The Deeper Question
For the one who is grappling with where God is, we can truthfully reply: God’s presence and watchful care never leave us. “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; and great is his faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:22, 23, English Standard Version). Hebrews 4:13 notes: “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight.” And the prophet Jeremiah 23:24 states: “‘Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see him?’ declares the Lord. ‘Do not I fill heaven and earth?’”
Oftentimes a doubting person is really asking: “Why did God allow this to happen to me?” And no one has the complete answer to that question. Yes, we can surmise; we can offer insights and even what we think are biblical answers. But only God knows the details of a person’s life and how he will use circumstances to bring about that person’s good and his glory.
How to Help
So what can you and I do for those who are struggling with doubt? How can we help? In the book of Job it is interesting to note that, before Job’s friends espoused their theological views regarding his situation, they listened to him first. “Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was” (Job 2:13).
Listening and silence are two great gifts we can give. Listening in silence means that we hear what is being said—not just with our ears, but with our hearts.
My friend who lost his father told me later that by listening to him without offering answers and by affirming his feelings, I provided him with comfort and care. After the other friend I had been meeting with found a new job, he thanked me for hearing his heart and working through his struggles with him by listening. The now-divorced congregational member told me that my ability to listen in silence, and affirm what he was feeling when necessary, provided a safe sounding board. He could fully express himself, knowing that I would hold our conversations in confidence.
When we refrain from offering answers, we are saying, “While I cannot fix this, you are not alone; I’m here for you.” By not interrupting, we are telling the individual that they matter; they are the most important person in the world to us at that moment.
When people can pour out their hearts without being interrupted, they are able to process what is going in their hearts and minds so they can begin to accept what has happened.
If you are privileged to help someone through their time of doubt and struggle, at some point the individual will look to you to help make sense of their situation. You can then offer a third great gift: asking open-ended questions.
Open-ended questions require more than simple yes or no answers. They invite discussion, promote honesty, and explore feelings. These questions are objective. They don’t lead to a specific conclusion but help the individual come to their own understanding. Questions such as:
• How are you feeling today?
• Is there anything I can do to help?
• Would you like to talk about it?
• What kind of a day has this been for you?
• How can I support you?
Simple questions such as these allow the struggling person to say or express themselves in a way that is most helpful.
As Christians, we are the hands, the feet, and the heart of Jesus. Helping someone through times of doubt is one of the most compassionate acts we can do for others. In doing so, we can help them answer the question, “Where is God?”
Simon Presland is a freelance writer in Clinton Township, Michigan.