Good News Gone Bad: Why Does My Heart Fear God Isn't Good?

        The most important claim of Christianity is that God is good. While I believe this with my mind, I’ve come to realize that my heart fears that it might not be true. I want to know why, but to figure it out will require concentrated introspection, and I’ve found that the best way for me to do that is to write because it forces my brain to think things through. I’ve decided to make that process public in the hopes that it might be of help to others. The result is akin to a polished journal entry. I hope you find this look into my mind and thought processes useful as I attempt to uncover the reasons why my heart fears God might not be good.

Part 1: Doubting God’s Goodness

        It is my general belief that a key source of these fears has its origin in culture, both Christian and secular. To be clear, many of my issues aren’t from things people deliberately taught me; rather, they’re things I absorbed. Unfortunately, cultural osmosis has proven to be the worst way to learn things because it’s often shockingly wrong. For example, before watching Star Trek: The Original Series, I believed Captain Kirk was a sort of James-Bond-esque character—a witty, self-assured womanizer. This understanding was entirely obtained through cultural osmosis, and when I watched Star Trek, it proved to be wrong. Sure, Kirk was happy to play a sort of femme-fatale role when it was to his advantage, but he was loyal to his crew and dedicated to his duty, even when under the influence of powerful pheromones. In other words, he wasn’t a womanizer, but he was willing to use his sexuality in traditionally feminine ways when it was to his advantage to do so, and I could see how that could be misinterpreted by many, thus resulting in an incorrect image of Captain Kirk making its way into the zeitgeist.
        This kind of error has happened a lot with Christianity as well. How often is heaven portrayed as clouds, people there being shown in white robes with harps? How many song lyrics have lines about singing forever? How many people think the devil rules Hell? How many people think anything pleasurable is sin? The list can go on, and I’ll be digging into many of these here because this sort of thing is at the root of my heart’s fears that God might not really be good.

Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?

Let’s start with the most popular question, mostly as a formality. Many would contest the “good” part of this, insisting that people are entirely wicked. In my experience, this isn’t quite right; rather, we contain both good and evil, with neither fully canceling out the other. The problem is that we do any evil at all, not that we don’t do any good, but at this point I digress.

The real problem with answering this question is that it’s an emotional question, not a logical one. Nevertheless, I can present a logical explanation. There are two types of bad things, natural ones and ones that result from human cruelty or negligence. For natural ones, we Christians believe that this world was fundamentally broken with The Fall, resulting in the natural world rebelling against proper order. This is the explanation for things like natural disasters, disease, and vicious animals.

Human cruelty comes from free will. We logically must possess the ability to choose to not love if we are to possess the ability to choose to love—after all, we all know that love potions, mind control, or any other form of coercion cannot produce real love. God can do many things we would consider impossible, but not even He can force humans to love each other against their will because that creates a paradox.

Therefore, humans must be able to be cruel to each other so that we can also be able to love each other. Unfortunately, this results in us being cruel to each other in one way or another, and there isn’t a way for God to prevent that when His desire is for us to love each other.

This is my explanation for why bad things happen at all, regardless of who they happen to, but it lacks in one regard: while it explains why God doesn’t stop people from being cruel to each other, it fails to explain why God doesn’t stop natural disasters from happening to His people. I’ll admit, that one bothers me. The best explanation I can come up with is twofold. First, there are many things that don’t happen to us that we don’t realize. To have good things happen to us is grace, and to avoid bad things happening to us is mercy—there are many instances of both that happen to us every day that we either take for granted or otherwise don’t notice. In other words, I believe God does prevent bad things from happening to us, and not only that, but He gives us good things, too. We’re just often very bad at noticing things that don’t happen (for obvious reasons). The second is that passing through suffering can build character, especially in areas of compassion and empathy. Still, there are many bad things that happen to people that I personally wish to avoid; this is something I’ll get into in more detail momentarily.

Of course, as I said, this is all a logical answer, which can’t satisfy an emotional question. It might be a comfort to some, but for most, it’ll do nothing to address their grief or pain. It’s my answer, and I find it overall satisfactory, yet it does nothing to comfort my heart because the simple truth is I do have bad things I want God to spare me from but no sense that I can trust Him to do so, and so I live in fear of those bad things. I do take comfort that God will walk with us through suffering, but that doesn’t do as much to change the fear as I’d like. To be honest, I’d rather God prevent the suffering outright, and I suspect I’m not alone in that.

I fear health problems like cancer, dementia, blindness, deafness, diabetes, heart attacks, and other deadly or debilitating diseases. I fear the sudden and unexpected death of loved ones. I fear the loss of property. In all of these, I’m far from unique, and I fear these things because they happen to people, Christians and non-Christians alike. I find myself wondering, why should I be unique? I don’t feel like I can trust God to protect me from these things I fear—in particular, I think of Nabeel Qureshi, who died of cancer. I want a reason why, and I grasp for some reason why God would spare me that fate. I can think of nothing other than perhaps He will be merciful—but why wasn’t He to Nabeel? I wish I had an answer.

God As Drill Sergeant

Drill sergeants are people who put you through pain and suffering with the goal of improving your capabilities, but they’re also known for being sticklers pushing towards conformity, for tearing you down, and for treating you brutally. In other words, it can feel like they don’t care about you at all—and to an extent, they don’t. If you can’t measure up to their standards, you deserve to be cut because you won’t be able to do the real job. In other words, part of a drill sergeant’s job is to weed out the inadequate.

As I think about it, if we envision God as a drill sergeant who puts us through constant suffering in order to build our character (an easy interpretation of, for example, James 1:2-4), we also live with the consequent fear of failing to measure up. Life is a string of constant trials that we must pass, or we fail—whatever that failure may mean. Regardless, this produces a constant feeling of pressure, an unending need to perform and live up to expectations. Our religious leaders often contribute to this feeling in one way or another. Sure, we get told that the Holy Spirit will help us, but what does that really even mean? We expect the drill sergeant who will tell us exactly what to do. But so often, it feels like it’s up to us to figure out what God is doing, what His will is, and then do that.

This is because God isn’t a drill sergeant, so He doesn’t act like one. This is some good news! God isn’t making soldiers; He’s raising children. He expects us to grow up, to mature in a manner that makes us similar to Him, but He isn’t trying to weed out the weak.

Jesus does have expectations of us, but those expectations are that we would trust Him, walk with Him, and grow with Him. We all grow at our own pace, and transformation comes from walking with Jesus and the Holy Spirit. What I’m trying to say is that there isn’t some sort of uniform line we’re supposed to pass.

I make these claims out of logic. Yes, we’re in spiritual warfare, but not as soldiers. Rather, the Scriptures make it clear that we have become God’s children; He has adopted us. Furthermore, why would God want uniform soldiers? That makes no sense—He made each of us unique and distinct; why would He bother with that if we were to just be uniform?

Jesus’s Mech Suits

So much of the colloquial language we use when discussing walking with Jesus takes after positions that lack autonomy. It’s like we act as if we become passengers in our own bodies, kind of like we become mech suits piloted by Jesus rather than our own persons. What else can someone mean if they use the phrase, “Jesus, take the wheel”?

I have never experienced such a loss of autonomy, nor do I expect to.

What would be the point?

You don’t raise mature children by overriding them, by depriving them of autonomy. Rather, you help them grow, you apply appropriate discipline and rebuke to help them improve, you encourage them, and you support them through their struggles. If we are God’s children, wouldn’t this be how He’d treat us?

I think it makes much more sense to think of Jesus as our navigator, at least if we’re going to use a driving metaphor (though perhaps it’s more accurate to say that this is the Holy Spirit’s work). It’s our choice to follow where He directs. Do we trust He knows where we’re going? Do we trust that He knows the way?

Completing the Assignment

As I think about this and synthesize the previous couple of sections, a common thread is that we want clear assignments to complete. When we were students in school, we were given assignments to do, and if we did them well, we’d get good grades. When we think of God as our teacher (as we rightly should, for that is one of the roles He plays), it is only logical that we should default to thinking in the patterns we’re used to—of school in an assignment/grade paradigm. I think we often want our faith to work the same way, where we get clear assignments to complete in order to get good grades. This would all be working at the subconscious level, which is what makes this type of thinking so insidious—we aren’t engaging in it deliberately.

If we actually thought about this behavior, we would, I should think, find its obvious flaws. Even beyond the fact that it’s inherently works-based, while Jesus was known for giving lectures (a.k.a. sermons), when it came to teaching the disciples, it is clear that the approach was very different from our classrooms.

In effect, the disciples had a very hands-on apprenticeship. They followed Jesus around and learned from Him in various ways: they watched what He did, carried out tasks (such as the sending of the seventy-two in Luke 10), and, notably, spent time with Him as a friend.

We become like those we spend time with—this is why the saying exists, “Bad company corrupts good morals,” and why choosing good friends is important. However, the reverse can also be true: good company can build good morals. As the disciples spent time with Jesus, they started to become more like Him.

I believe Jesus still teaches us in these sorts of ways. Direct teaching is often done through the Scriptures, but we also learn through all of life as we walk through it with Jesus. We learn from our fellow Christians. The Holy Spirit also teaches us, and reminds us of what Jesus taught.

We need to let go of thinking of our faith like school, with generic homework for everyone that needs to be done a specific way to get a good grade. Instead, we must realize that we’re taught through life, individually and uniquely. There is not a one-size-fits-all lesson plan; there are no standardized tests. God is interested in our growth and maturation as His dearly beloved children, after all. He wouldn’t have made us so unique and diverse if He didn’t want us that way.

Part 2: The Challenge of Diversity

Diversity is a huge challenge! It naturally leads towards disunity. The miracle of the work of Jesus is that we’re able to find unity in God—a unity of purpose, an intentionality in relationship, and a willingness to adjust to accommodate each other. There are a lot of challenges here, though, and some ways in which the church has often made this notably difficult.

Morality and Authority

The Bible often talks about things being right or wrong in someone’s eyes. It does this because morality is subjective; that is, everyone has their own moral lens. The church often acts as if morality is objective, but it simply isn’t, and we can know this from the Scriptures themselves—as I said, it often says that something was right or wrong based upon an individual’s perspective.

Any one person’s morality is only relevant to others so far as they have the power, or authority, to force it to be relevant. Typically, this is done through accolades and punishments. To give a contrived example to illustrate my point, if someone thinks wearing blue is evil, that moral belief is irrelevant to others unless the person with that belief takes action to force others to care. If enough people share that belief, they can band together to try to enforce it. This is where we get things like lynchings, where a subset of the population has decided something others find fine is evil and needs to be punished. Because the law will not intervene, they become vigilantes and commit what some consider murder and others consider justice. It’s all a matter of perspective.

Because God’s authority is absolute, it is His moral lens that is the most important one. It is important to remember that God much prefers people follow His moral lens than to punish them for violating it, as He states plainly when speaking with Ezekiel in Ezekiel 18 and as is mentioned throughout the Scriptures.

The challenge here is that, as humans, we do not share moral lenses. Even more of a challenge for the church is that human moralities are often differently-shaped than God’s. What I mean by this is that we’re often more restrictive than God is, such that the overlap of our moral lenses is much more constricted than God’s morals. This is the sort of thing Paul wrote about when discussing the eating of meat sacrificed to idols—to some, this was simply eating meat; to others, it was an act of idol worship. In other words, it was a morally neutral act to some, but a wicked one to others. In general, we have more freedom, broadly speaking, than we tend to consider, because our own moral lenses constrain us. This is only natural, but it also leads to a source of potential conflict within the church, since we can easily begin inappropriately judging each other where we’re more restrictive than God. There is a reason the Scriptures warn us about this!

Moral lenses are developed by our environment and our own natures. Logically, our moral lenses are not yet formed as children. We have natural inclinations and instincts that then interact with our environment—cultural forces, parents, role models, and other authority figures—to shape what we believe is right and wrong. However, our core nature will always affect this. Some people re-evaluate their morals over time and adjust what they believe. Others are more rigid. Some have very binary morality, seeing things in terms of black and white, while others see things as largely gray.

And so cultural differences in moral lenses, along with individual differences, can become a huge source of conflict. Exacerbating this is that many churches have taken the position that morality is absolute, which inevitably means that church leaders elevate their moral lens as the absolute one. This results in us treating a human moral lens as if it were God’s—an error common to humanity. Leaders often make appeals to divinity to justify forcing others to submit to their preferences.

Now, I’m not accusing most church leaders of doing this deliberately (though I’m sure a small percentage have done so), but rather, that it is a subconscious, unintended side effect of certain doctrinal stances. Of course, most teachers will say that it’s God’s morality that is the absolute one, which is close to accurate from my perspective (just lacking a level of precision), but that brings us to another, related issue, which is where the real problems with this teaching begin.

Our Interpretations Are Not Infallible

The Scriptures are presented as infallible and without error. While I do believe this to be so, it quickly leads to two very dangerous beliefs. The first is the belief that our translations are likewise infallible and without error. The second is the belief that our interpretations of the Scriptures, translated or not, are likewise infallible and without error. We should not be so arrogant as to think them thus.

We humans will naturally form different interpretations of Scripture. Often, these are interpretations that support our preferences or political positions. We—and I very much include myself in this!—will feel that interpretations that align with our perspectives are correct because all humans suffer from confirmation bias, which is a tendency to consider any information that aligns with our views as correct.

These days, I tend to hold my interpretation of Scripture somewhat loosely. Of course, I believe that it’s correct (provided I can arrive at a conclusion—it is much better to state ignorance or uncertainty where it exists than to pretend otherwise), and I am happy to give my reasons for the interpretations I hold, but I’m also willing to change them if presented with an interpretation that makes more sense to me. Most importantly, I’ve come to recognize that while my interpretations make sense to me, others’ interpretations make sense to them, and I cannot definitively claim that mine are right and theirs are wrong.

Differences of interpretation have been present within Christianity for a long time. Consider just how many denominations there are! Some of those are stylistic, of course, but not all are. There have been a lot of differences of opinions on many theological topics, with intense debates throughout the centuries. May we learn a lesson of humility from that.

Part 3: A Trustworthy Goodness

Let us return to an important topic. My heart fears that it cannot trust God’s goodness. I’ve been seeking to understand why, as I want to “Trust in the LORD with all my heart, and lean not on my own understanding.”

I have come to realize that I am often tempted to lean on my own understanding. In part, this is because of my belief that I need to somehow complete God’s assignments, as I discussed earlier with the erroneous picture of schoolteacher God. It also comes from the belief that I have to somehow make things happen. I believe this comes from American culture; consider our unBiblical proverb, “God helps those who help themselves.” This is nowhere in Scripture—indeed, we’re told the exact opposite, that God helps those who wait on Him.

Being patient to wait on God is hard. It requires trust. In most ways, it also flies in the face of American culture, which emphasizes independence and action. So, submitting ourselves to God’s timing and recognizing our dependence on Him is culturally difficult for someone who grew up in American culture.

The Model Christian

The concept of a model Christian is inherently problematic because it implies a singular way to be a Christian. I almost wrote “perfect” there instead of “singular,” and perhaps that has the proper implication. Perfection is an odd topic because it implies a pinnacle of which there can be only one. But it’s also a term used in the Bible. For example, in 1 John 4:18, the apostle writes that “perfect love drives out fear.” Jesus also commands us to be perfect in love—after instructing us to love our enemies, He describes how the Father does so by, for example, sending rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. After this example of how God loves, Jesus instructs us to be perfect as the Father is perfect; that is, in order to be perfect like the Father, we must love our enemies.

As I think about it, we have a few different sorts of ways that we use the word “perfect.” For example, a “perfect fit” is a common way of using the word, whether it satisfies a desire (consider when you respond “perfect” to someone giving you a glass of water you’d been wanting) or lines up well (a puzzle piece fitting “perfectly” into place). Another major way we use “perfect” is in the sense of flawless, such as with a perfect gem. Then there’s the use of “perfect” to mean “ideal.”

I suppose some things can combine these senses of the word “perfect.” I think the original sense I was thinking of, the model of a “perfect” Christian, carries with it a sense of flawless refinement and the ideal—that which we call “perfection.” It is this kind of pinnacle, of peerlessness, that, when attributed to an abstract model of something, becomes problematic at best. At worst, such ideals create mental illness in those who try to measure up to them since they’re typically impossible to achieve. Consider digitally altered models on magazine covers for a common example—we know such models no longer represent a real human but an idealized vision. We know no person can actually look like that if even the person who is supposedly pictured doesn’t actually look like that, yet how many people try anyway, to their detriment?

The same sort of thing can happen with the model Christian. Most people don’t have the right “body type” (to extend a metaphor) to look like the model, and even those that do can’t look like something so unrealistic. This isn’t even a matter of being something that God draws us closer to—these models are made up by humans, not created by God. They’re simply too inhuman. (For whatever reason, it seems like humans are always trying to be anything else.)

I’ve found that I struggle with such a model. I’m not quite sure the origins, though I believe it was externally derived. That is, I think I picked up the idea from what others have said and what culture has presented rather than coming up with it myself. Like a girl seeing an unrealistic model on a magazine cover and thinking she needs to destroy herself to look like that, I’ve somehow been shown an image of “the perfect Christian” that I’m nothing like but feel I have to somehow become, even though that’s not only impossible, my mind knows full well that that isn’t even God’s will for me.

The Obedient Son

In Matthew 21:28-32, Jesus tells a parable of two sons: one who said he would be obedient but wasn’t, and one who said he wouldn’t be obedient but was. I relate a great deal with that second son. So often the words we use to describe the Christian experience are unpleasant to me, but when I think clearly, I see that I am actually wanting to do (and am often doing) those things.

I’m not quite sure why this is, but I suspect it’s because that language I dislike harkens back to that “perfect Christian” model. I feel like it tells me I have to be someone I’m not. Language about “dying to self” doesn’t help—it only further exacerbates this feeling.

What sort of “goodness” is this?! Such conformity feels devoid of any goodness—it’s the goal of a selfish tyrant. Fiction is full of stories of characters who try to impose this kind of twisted conformity. They’re always villains. And they often think of themselves as gods.

Now that I’ve written this, I can see the truth of this fear. Is Jesus like one of these villains? As Paul would write, Anathema!

A Humble God

Jesus called Himself humble numerous times. The first example that comes to my mind is Matthew 11:28-30, which in the NIV reads:

"Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light."

God is no tyrant. He desires a relationship with us, does He not? He relents from sending disaster. He takes no pleasure in punishment, preferring repentance instead. He prefers this so much that Jesus died so that we might be reconciled to Him. Not only this, He wants a relationship so intimate, it is described in terms of family: adoption as His children!

Through the process of writing this, John’s words have become increasingly poignant to me: “See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!”

Conclusion: A True Hope

Good news goes bad when our culture distorts the truth. Through the course of this, I’ve been seeking to uncover my fears, to name them. Fear has the most power when it is ambiguous, unknown, and unidentified. I have confronted numerous fears about God, but writing this has delved to a much greater depth, and I feel a sense of catharsis.

The good news (which is what “gospel” means) of Jesus Christ is contingent on the goodness of God. I can therefore only conclude that Satan wants us to doubt God’s goodness. If we think God is like a genie—a being that grants wishes but really wishes us harm, thus making the wish backfire—we will fear to lay our requests before God, or we will do so in excruciating fashion, like a ritual. This is another fear I’ve struggled with.

The desirability of everlasting life with Jesus depends upon who Jesus is. We humans have become very skeptical about utopias—most of our media depicting them shows them to actually be dystopias. As a result, is it any surprise that we’re skeptical that Heaven is actually good and desirable?

It doesn’t help that, at least in the eyes of general culture, Christians aren’t fun and pleasure is thought to be inherently sinful. Just like culture taught me Captain Kirk is a womanizer, it teaches people wrongly here. Despite the fact that it is wrong, this is what people know. This isn’t just ignorance! It’s the opposite: wrong knowledge. I feel like a lot of my journey of maturation has followed the words of Yoda: I must first unlearn what I have learned.

Of course, “Heaven” is a bit of a misnomer for what we’re hoping for, anyway. Our hope is the resurrection of the dead, a renewal of the heavens and the earth, the removal of the curse cast in Genesis 3, and the end of death. This will be an existence that’s better than the best we could hope for in this life. How could it be any less?

Sientir would like to acknowledge and thank his sister for her patient and studious help in editing this piece. She did a lot to improve readability and understandability. She also excised many, many extra commas.


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