Crisis. Shattered expectations. Change we don’t want. Loss. Grief. We all know it. Now with recent escalations of political and spiritual turbulence, our hearts and minds once again feel the heavy burden of disaster. But this is only added to worry for loved ones fighting for freedom in war, a depressed economy, broken relationships and vulnerable bodies struggling for life.
In such times, lots of questions are normal. Why is life like this? Will the pain ever stop? What does it mean? What am I supposed to do? It is also normal for our religious faith, to feel challenged and called into question. We might experience anger at God. Where were YOU? If we don’t already have faith when a crisis strikes, it would not be uncommon to suddenly decide to get some! In this article, it is my intention to offer some thoughts, some perspective and some hope.
If you have ever experienced a dramatic event in life, you are aware of how life changing it can be. Significant events of crisis, unexpected change or loss, can be disorienting leaving us with a sense of being out of control. Such feelings can influence us to do things that might seem out of the ordinary for others: We might suddenly decide to take inventory of our life, where we are and what it is we are focusing on. We may begin to consider the meaning of life, the end of life, and how we want what’s left of it to continue. These evaluations may bring beneficial change and awareness to the perspective of life and focus. Spirituality can be a major part of the considerations.
For our defintion, spirituality in the context of faith and religion will assume a belief in God and we will consider how people are sustained by their belief in God during crisis. We will also discuss how crisis impacts an individual’s spirituality.
First, let’s look at how westernized culture interacts with God. For the most part, according to Hoffman, et al. 2004, western culture engages with God vis-a-vis shaped cognition of Him. Religious individuals with a positive concept of God report a certain amount of knowledge of who God is regarding character, being and behavior. This knowledge creates a believable, understood and appreciated “relationship with God” in what is called God Concept. Through this lens, God is assigned a function and role for life and for the most part, serving as the Divine Originator of all things.
Western culture’s actual experiential relationship with God is much less developed. In fact, regarding our experiences with God, we generally consider them to be negative, meaningless and disappointing. Unmet needs of feeling heard, noticed and attended to by Him, shapes our experience as a whole that God is often non-responsive and not being there when we need Him most. But since most of our relationship with Him is able to be satisfied by our God concept, we continue to unconsciously support and protect belief in the idea of who He is.
Having a general perspective on culture’s relationship to God, it is easier to let’s look at how we commonly interact with Him in a time of crisis. In the course of crisis, both God concept and God image are called into functioning. What is generally revealed about a person’s belief in God during in those situations, is the unconscious difference between the cognitive concept of God and the experiential aspects of God.
If the God experience or image has been negative due to feelings of unmet needs, resentment and avoidance may define the nature of the spiritual relationship. A prologned state of a negative image of God can eventually bring a correlary construct validity threat to the God concept. However, since most of westernized culture’s relationship with God is based on the concept of God and because of the survival need to maintain belief system, the unconscious will work to protect our idea and positive God concept even while denying contradictory feelings. During crisis, it is particularly common to hear and see this process taking place.
A familiar pattern that might help us to understand this dynamic is when a crisis takes place and we are at a loss of how to reason with it. With all good intentions, we resort to detached platitudes in an effort to self-soothe. We protect the God Concept even though our heart and souls reel with pain and confusion.”God knows best.” “All things work together for the good.” “It is God’s will.” ‘”Don’t question, just accept.” “Our job is to obey.” These familiar statements, while suggesting a maturity of faith, do little to uphold a compassionate, immanent God Image, one who is safe and trustworthy. In essence, they reinforce an idea and expectation of a God that fails to meet personal needs and is void of experience. In actuality, they may hinder, even frustrate the strengthening of faith and development of the God Image, by denying growth opportunity that comes with struggling and wrestling with personal beliefs. Additionally, while meant to bring comfort, such sentiments may serve to further break the heart of an individual seeking God’s tangible grace as evidence of His love for the individual and involvement in life.
During crisis, how religion and faith sustain people and how crisis impacts faith will depend on the God Concept, the God Image and their development. Those with a strongly developed God concept will likely find greater comfort in increased religiosity as a coping mechanism. Those with a strongly developed God image will find strength supported by seeking to experience God’s personal presence in a variety of ways.
Regarding the impact of crisis on faith, what is predictable is that those who are equipped with either a strong God concept or a strong God image, in all likelihood, will face greater obstacles in long-term coping. For those equipped with both well-developed concept and image, the knowledge of God is reinforced by memory of experiencing Him positively, as present, responsive and attentive.
In summary, we understand that westernized culture has an intellectual relationship with the Divine. In times of crisis, people access their God Concept to stabilize and self-soothe. An intellectual concept of God may assist in sustaining an individual as a coping mechanism in crisis. A positive God Image, will allow individuals to feels free to speak openly with God, further developing spiritual growth. Without a positive God Image, the need to suppress strong feelings in order to protect an idea of God, will reinforce the concept of an experientially impotent faith, leading to depression, displaced anger and a prolonged sense of distance from God. For healthy emotional and spiritual functioning, it is important that pain be viewed as a normal human condition, and a valid place to find God faithful with attention and response.
One story which tells of the journey of one man and his family and how God shows up for him is that of Alfred Doblin, German artist and writer. His novel, Destiny’s Journey, translated in 1992, is about him and his family in the 1940’s fleeing France and Hitler’s armies. Because of Alfred’s status within the country, he and his wife decide it would be best if he went ahead and got out of France. The family of three would plan to reunite a short time later in a safer environment.
However, faster than anyone can plan for or could have expected, German armies force surrender of French territory, taking over all public facilities and transportation. Within days, citizens are labeled refugees and are forced to wait days that turn into weeks for trains or cattle cars going to any destination. Refugee camps are established quickly and become holding tanks for those trying to evacuate the country. Food and supplies evaporate within a short time. Inadequate food, shelter and hygiene access place former citizens in substandard living environments, risking health and survival under German occupation.
Doblin waits in the refugee camp with others. Many suffer and only a few are quite comfortable. For Doblin, frustration and the unknown are his constant companions during his stay at the camp. One Sunday, he decided visit to a cathedral within the camp. As he views the crucifix, he begins to understand in a way he never understood before, the significance of who Jesus is, in all of the world and in all of the pain. And he is changed for the rest of his life.
“Who, therefore, would Jesus be, he who hangs there on the cross? I have often looked to him to no avail. My eyes went to him empty and came back empty.
He is God, he is one and the same with, united with, the source of being. He is total meaning, meaning created in relation to the world and to ourselves. He is the call that pulls us back from the two chasms between which we live out our existence; the swamp of organic vegetation and doubt.
“Jesus” is more than knowledge – he is a new voice. “Jesus” says: We are on the path, and he provides the light of clear passage.”
For Doblin, the crisis of he and his family fleeing the country with thousands of French citizens was certainly overwhelming and significant enough to change anyone’s life. Many would question if the spiritual change that took place here was the result of a choice made under duress of a life threatening situation, as a coping mechanism. It would plausible to speculate the need for a coping mechanism as a valid reason for such a spiritual change for a man who had previously been known as Jewish radical socialist. For Doblin, however, the change was life long and the call that pulled him is recognized today in his work, his writing and his faith. His experience found God faithful…and we are invited to do the same.
facet for life: In our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God. ~Aeschylus
The article above was originally published March 16, 2011 in Paulette's blog site.
The opinions and views expressed are those belonging to Paulette Jackson LPC-MHSP and do not necessarily reflect those of any other professional or individual.