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I’m writing a blog which is most likely to make sense to Christians or people with an experience of Christianity and/or the church about doubt. This is the second half of a blog about emotionally rooted doubt and is focussed on suffering. 

Suffering and experience
Given the last blog, I wouldn’t want to suggest though that everyone who has a negative emotional reaction towards God has mental health problems or emotional issues! Far from it! 

One of the biggest influences of how we feel about God and Jesus seems to be our experience – in life, in what we see in the wider world, and of church. How many people have had a negative experience of Church which means they have never darkened the door of a Church again and have turned away from God too, not able to reconcile faith in Jesus with the Church that is supposed to represent him? If someone has been abused by a priest; treated cruelly by a Christian leader or friend; witnessed corruption within a church that was shoved under the carpet or maybe even just experienced cliques and unfriendliness that has frozen them out, that’s going to provoke strong emotions such as anger, sadness, loneliness and frustration. All of these emotions tend to create mini earthquakes within a person’s faith – if we feel rotten about God, if we feel betrayed by him and his followers we are not very likely to trust him.

Some of the teachings of Christianity can also be a trigger for emotional responses. For example, teaching around hell can cause a lot of distress and doubt around God’s love and anger. My husband experienced this when running the London Marathon. Part of him loved the experience but, already struggling with anxiety and depression, he looked around him at the thousands of people taking part in this amazing event and felt an overwhelming sense of desolation at the idea that these people were to be condemned to hell. And then extreme anxiety about whether or not God could possibly be loving if he were to condemn people to hell. 

Strong emotions are also likely to be provoked by suffering in general – losing a child; experiencing great physical or mental pain and distress; relationship breakdowns and witnessing the suffering and injustice of the world – the deaths of those in the Grenfell Tower; the enslavement of Yazidi women by ISIS; the razing of Palestinian villages by Israeli forces as in order to build settlements. The questions come of, why did God not intervene? Does God care? Does God have power? We feel let down by God because we expected him to resolve the situations – and it is hard to trust someone who you feel has let you down, or let others down before. Many people walk away from God at this point – or keep their distance, unwilling to fully commit themselves because they feel like they would be setting themselves up for a fall. Emotions of anger and disappointment become a huge barrier, raising all sorts of questions about God’s love, goodness and power.

We can never question the horrors and suffering that many go through, and presenting theological arguments to people who have such experiences is (in my opinion) not only inappropriate but not very helpful either. 

However, I do think it’s interesting and important to observe that not everyone who suffers pain, injustice, loss or is hurt by Christians and the church automatically loses their faith. Human history is full of disease, natural disaster and war – in fact life was much more brutal in years gone by with no antibiotics, very weak law and order and many incidences of horrors committed in the name of Christ – the Crusades being just one of those. Yet many retained a Christian faith in the face of such difficulty. 

It seems that some people’s faith survives despite incredible challenges to it. I think the story of Philomena Lee is pretty amazing – a woman who was forced to work in the Irish laundries for years by nuns, who had her child stolen from her and then was repeatedly lied to when she tried to find him. And when she discovered where he was she was too late as he had already died. Yet she still retained a Christian faith. 

Mother Theresa’s experience also makes me think. She had some glorious experiences of intimacy with God in her younger years, culminating in her calling to found the Sisters of Charity. But after that, the spiritual intimacy ended and apart from one brief period of hearing from God decades later, never reoccurred. We can debate the reasons for this apparent sense of God being silent – but regardless of the reasons, her emotional experience was that of abandonment and total desolation. Yet she made very deliberate and conscious choices that she was going to do what she believed what God wanted her to do anyway. All her work amongst the poor was done whilst living through decades of a spiritual desert. 

Honesty in emotions

I think one thing that’s pretty important in all of this is just being honest about emotional doubt and expressing those emotions. There’s a long history of this amongst people of faith. Probably the most obvious example is King David who frequently raged at God and lamented about how abandoned he felt. “My God my God why have you forsaken me.” If you read the Psalms in one go it’s like going on an emotional rollercoaster. The prophet Elijah was also pretty doubtful about God’s faithfulness (1 Kings 19 v 9-18) and Solomon felt like everything was meaningless (check out the book of Ecclesiastes).

The very presence of these outpourings in the Bible would give me the suggestion that it’s actually a very normal part of a person’s relationship with God to go through periods of emotionally driven doubt. Their presence would also suggest that it’s also really important to express those emotions and to be honest with yourself, with others – and with God about how you feel. Negative emotions are likely to lead to a deeper questioning of who God is and who we are in relation to him – which isn’t a bad thing. Our faith can grow and evolve by asking these types of questions so we shouldn’t encourage people to avoid them or push them away. And we should be honest about them in our own lives – in the songs we sing, in the stories (or testimonies) we tell and in the conversations we have. Not everything has to be or should be relentlessly positive! Hopefully then it will become less taboo to be going through a tough time with faith, with emotions and doubt becoming something to learn from rather than something to run from.

There’s no doubt that there are times when negative emotions need to be called out and recognised for what they are – emotions and not necessarily reality. Poor mental health can cause havoc with faith – especially if it’s spiritualised.

But what’s very important is that the church becomes a place where emotional honesty is welcome and OK so people can be encouraged to have a mature, deep relationship with God – and look after their mental health. 

Church communities could be places where people learn to process emotions and the doubts that come with them rather than running from them or denying them. It wouldn’t be spiritually or emotionally healthy if we were communities who stayed forever in the same place when it came to negative emotions and emotional doubts – processing and working through them is essential. 

I have been reading old Christian poets recently and you can see the richness of faith that emerges from this kind of honesty and learning to live with difficult emotions and contradictions. The poem “Bitter-Sweet” by George Herbert is a short but powerful example of this. 

This kind of stuff is hard and messy. It means you might hear people saying stuff that will make you think they have lost their faith, stuff that you think is downright heretical. Both of those might be true and they might end up by walking away from the Christian faith. But repression isn’t going to stop either of these things from happening. People cannot wrestle through emotions by spouting a theology that isn’t making emotional sense to them or wearing a fake smile and forcing themselves to church. And they cannot wrestle through emotions and doubt if they have sacked off church and a relationship with God entirely because they have a whole load of emotions that make it impossible for them to approach him. 

Hard as it may be, I think one important thing is not to panic or begin judging if someone expresses emotional doubts. That type of reaction just leads us to try to reason with a person when all they need is someone to listen to them, offer love and unconditional acceptance and help them process. The pain and the suffering need compassion – not a theological. This will also mean that house groups are likely to be placed with less small talk, more awkward conversations and more uncomfortable things said. As someone who is totally rubbish at small talk I’m actually quite keen on the idea! 

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