When a loved one’s death tests our faith

| Father Michael Schmitz | April 11, 2018 | 0 Comments

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Q. I have been having a really hard time trusting God lately. Ever since a family member died, I keep blaming God and finding it difficult to keep my faith. Do you have any thoughts on what I can do?

A. Thank you very much for writing. First, please allow me to express my condolences for the death of your family member. The Bible teaches us that death is the final enemy that Christ will ultimately destroy, and until then, we all experience its effects in our lives. I don’t know if encountering death ever gets easy. In my life as a priest, I come up against death on a regular basis. If I am simply thinking about death as an intellectual topic, then it is very straightforward, and I’m unimpressed by it. But every single time I encounter death concretely — up close — it hurts. Because of that, I want to acknowledge your loss as something that I think I (and most people reading this) can relate to; death not only destroys the natural life of the person, but it also plows into the lives of those all around it.

Because of that, it is not difficult to imagine why you would say that you are turning toward blame and struggling with faith. But let’s take a closer look at this.

First, whenever we are in pain, we desire to find the source of our pain. Think of the last time you got sick. I’m guessing that, somewhere in the midst of your coughing and being achy and feverish, you wanted to know, “Where did I catch this bug?” You might have asked, “Who got me sick?”

This is not because knowing that it was that random co-worker who came to work sick or it was your second-grader who came home with the sniffles who was the culprit helps anything. It doesn’t actually matter who it was who passed the sickness along to you. But we naturally want someone to blame. I want to know the immediate cause of this pain that I’m experiencing now. That way, my pain can be re-directed as anger and blame, and I will get some relief from that “re-direction.” But it doesn’t actually do anything. It doesn’t help a person get better or help them avoid sickness in the future. It is a useless exercise in blame.

Most blaming is just that: useless. For example, maybe it was your co-workers who passed the illness on to you, but that wasn’t intentional, and maybe they passed on the contamination before they even knew they were sick. What is more, they had to endure the same illness themselves, so what good would it do to blame them? If we think about it, you probably passed the sickness on to more people than you imagine as well. This is the result of living in a world touched by sin, suffering, sickness and death.

If I can’t find someone to blame for a bad thing, then the most obvious person to accuse is God. I mean, after all, he is God. If anything happens at all, it is ultimately his fault, isn’t it? He created the world. He could change whatever he wants, however he wants, right? God is the easiest target of blame, especially when we secretly believe that God owes us something. But the hard truth is: God doesn’t owe us anything.

Now, I want to pause a moment and reaffirm what I said at the beginning. Whenever we suffer a loss or a death, this is real, and the pain is real. But to turn this pain into blame is the wrong move. It reveals that we ultimately believe that God is in our debt; that, in order to get our love, God has to do whatever we ask of him.

But that isn’t a relationship. And that isn’t faith in God. That is more like manipulation. It’s less like faith and more like superstition. If I will only trust God as long as he gives me whatever I want, then I have revealed that I might actually not want him, I just want what he can do for me.

This is one of the reasons moments of pain and loss are essential for our faith. These times reveal in whom we are truly placing our trust. These moments can serve to clarify our intentions and purify our hearts. You have suffered. You are definitely invited to grieve. But God has revealed that he enters into our pain. He isn’t the one to blame for our suffering; he is the one who has embraced our suffering and redeemed it. One of the main reasons why he did this was to prove to us that we can trust him, even when we are hurting most.

I invite you to bring your sadness and loss to the God of the Broken Heart — Jesus, who suffered abandonment by his friends, who grieved the deaths of those he loved, and who entered into the darkness of death himself so that we wouldn’t be alone in our moments of abandonment, grief and death.

Father Schmitz is director of youth and young adult ministry for the Diocese of Duluth and chaplain of the Newman Center at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Reach him at fathermikeschmitz@gmail.com.

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Category: Ask Father Mike