Thursday, April 15, 2010

Consider Ignoring Why Is God Ignoring Me?

My most recent review for the Tyndale Blog Network is Gary Habermas' Why is God Ignoring Me?: What To Do When It Feels Like He's Giving You the Silent Treatment. Tyndale House Publishers provided me a complimentary copy of the book to review.

With the focus of this blog on doubt and struggles, this is one of the most relevant reviews. When I saw the title and description, I jumped at the chance to review it, very excited with what I saw. I was hoping it would be a great resource to send people to when they are struggling or experiencing a dark night of the soul.

The description stated the book "gives us the freedom to ask our tough questions... and the wisdom to find the answers." This is the kind of thing I live on and love promoting. In the introduction, Habermas states that "what we tell ourselves is of utmost importance in terms of how we 'feel' about God's seeming silence" (p. xiii). I completely agree with that, as our anxiety about doubt often causes the problems. This anxiety prevents us from asking the tough questions, but rather let them sit and fester.

The problem is that the introduction is where the book stops being helpful. It transitions from a book that really could help people sit with the discomfort of experiencing silence from God into a book that truly fulfills the subtitle "what to do when it feels like He's giving you the silent treatment."

Habermas' proposition is that God does not give people the "silent treatment," but rather it is people's perceptions of God and his actions that make it appear like God is silent. While I agree that is often the case, this completely disregards authentic times that God may not be overtly speaking to us, specifically as in a dark night of the soul, in which God tends to be more passive.

Framing this experience as solely due to the individual's error not only invalidates the person's experience, but can make it worse. Therefore, I would not recommend this tome to anyone experiencing a dark night. The closest Habermas gets to describing a God-initiated silence is stating, "God's silence could also be a reprimand or time-out response" (p. 130). This can be true, but still puts blame on the individual in a negative way that is not congruent with a dark night.

Besides the poor framing of the book, the content overall is relatively good. It's just too focused on giving answers rather than really asking questions and struggling with the answers. I completely agree that we often expect God to work in ways that he does not always work. Habermas describes an Incarnational perspective very well, which I appreciate. He also talks about how our past, emotions, and thoughts can cloud our ability to see God at work. That's totally true. This book can be useful for people in those circumstances.

I had a couple of significant frustrations with some of the content, though:

Habermas frequently refers to unanswered prayers. While the Garth Brooks song Unanswered Prayers is one of my favorite songs, it is also one of the songs that annoys me the most. I think the concept of a prayer being unanswered is complete baloney. Yes, that is my theological perspective, but still. The way the term is often used is for prayers that are not answered the way we want them answered. That does not mean there is no answer. It's just a no. Or not yet. That's an answer. Framing it as unanswered leads to more problems than the convenience of using a simple phrase.

Habermas has an entire chapter entitled "What Do You Tell Yourself" that falls squarely in my area of expertise of the cross-roads of psychology and spirituality. His point in this chapter is that at times, "many of your problems have very little to do with God" (p. 108). Again, I agree with this statement. However, I dislike how he handles it.

He basically takes a cognitive therapy perspective about challenging false beliefs. Fair enough. I do that a lot in my blog. However, Habermas puts the whole problem and solution in our thinking. I disagree with this from a psychotherapy perspective and definitely from a spiritual perspective. While our thoughts definitely can cause problems, other elements of our psyche can, too.

He even moves into poor exegesis when he says, "the Bible tells you that you are free not to feel anger, not to hate, and not to return to others what they have given you" (p. 110). While transformation through Christ may make these things more likely, the one I do have major issue with is the freedom from anger. Anger is not bad. God gets angry. We should get angry at times.

In fact, Habermas takes such a strictly cognitive approach that he discounts feelings completely. He cites C.S. Lewis and asserts that "we must tell our emotions to take a hike" (p. 113). This is one of the statements for which I have the least tolerance. While our emotions can cause problems, they are also a blessing. The American church and the American people would do well to pay more attention to their honest and authentic emotions. If we did that, we may actually experience God more and perceive less silence.

1 comment:

  1. I haven't read the book but I do want to comment on a common Christian premise which it sounds as if this book represents (at least in sections).

    A lot of Christian "answers" to spiritual struggles amount to a form of co-dependence on God. When God "doesn't show up for work" we call in sick for him, make excuses for him, and figure out ways to take responsibility for the situation by blaming ourselves for his absence. Most of us have heard the saying, "if God seems far away, guess who moved."

    I agree that faulty thinking and unresolved personal issues (and even disruptions in brain chemistry) can get in the way of experiencing God.

    But all too often self-blame in the face of agonizing divine silence is like children who blame themselves when their parents divorce. When people tell them "it wasn't your fault" children may resist and continue to blame themselves.

    It's because of a problematic attribution: "If it's my fault then maybe it's under my control. And the world is a safe and predictable place after all. And by being really good I can make sure that nothing bad happens in the future." So the burdened child gets to work on the control project. Often with tragic results.

    Sometimes we just need to live in the face of mystery. Sometimes we need to grieve in the darkness and feel the pain of a world that isn't as simple as what some of us grew up believing. Sometimes we have to get on with life and find constructive ways to serve God even in the face of feeling abandoned by him. And without blaming ourselves or frantic flailing to try to "get him back."

    I'm all for dealing with thought patterns, baggage from the past, and even physiological factors (such as fatigue and chemical imbalances) that get in the way of experiencing God.

    But I never want to become codependent on God, where I have to come up with excuses or take responsibility and figure out a way to "get him off the hook" (often through self-blame). Nor do I want my spiritual life (or what I recommend to others) to be sort of like those self-help dating books filled with formulas on "how to get him to ask you out, call you back, fall in love with you, marry you, etc." We can't control or manipulate God. And, for whatever reason, darkness and silence are often a part of the normal Christian life.




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