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Compassion for Unbelievers
We need to sympathize with those who see God as cruel and insensitive because of abuse from parents and others in authority. We need to present God as He really is in Christ.

Billy was brought up in a Christian home and dutifully attended church with his parents. But, at age 17, he refused to attend church anymore. The choice he made was largely based on his experience with his earthly father and, by extension, what he was led to believe about his heavenly Father.

In his book, Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America—and Found Unexpected Peace, William (Billy) Lobdell writes on how it came about: "My doubts about faith were often amplified after church by the sound of my father yelling at us, sometimes before we even pulled out of the parking lot. We had just spent more than an hour trying to get closer to God, praying for help and guidance, singing His praises, listening to His Word in Scripture and being told to humble ourselves and love our neighbours—and even our enemies—as ourselves. Though church bored me, I couldn't help but absorb some sense of holiness during the services and often felt spiritually uplifted by the time I walked out those huge wooden doors. This same feeling apparently escaped my father. My dad's tirades after church struck me as a blow against Christianity How could we so easily discard His teaching even before we made it home?"

That explains Billy's loss of confidence in his dad. What about his confidence in God the Father? He writes further: "I had fused together the image of God and my father. To me, the Lord acted like my dad: quick to anger, capricious in his wrath, willing to withdraw His love and never satisfied. In other words, like the God I knew from the Hebrew Scriptures, someone who wiped out entire populations, including children, in angry fits. I was scared to be around that God, just as I was sometimes scared to be around my father." (Too bad Billy was not shown how Christ came to correct ancient misunderstandings of what God is like. He is exactly like Christ; Jesus said, "From now on you do know Him and have seen Him" (John 14:7 NRSV).

Lobdell's book traces his rocky life story from conflicted childhood and adolescence through profligate years and then into his conversion to Christ. As the religion editor for the Los Angeles Times, he carefully researched and reported on the horrific stories of sexual abuse perpetrated by priests and ministers along with other stories of gross hypocrisy in religious organizations and in television religion. Sadly, he then tells about his withdrawal again from church and finally his total unbelief in God.

There was a complex of issues that led Billy to finally disbelieve that God exists. Chief of all was his inability to reconcile the claims of the "authorities" of the Church with what he found to be true by experience as a newspaper religion reporter. It was unfathomable for him how the Church could lie and deny when the facts were out in the open in the swelling scandal of clergy sexual abuse cases, along with a plethora of instances of fraud by popular televangelists. William Lobdell could not comprehend it: if God exists, how could He allow His earthly representation of Himself, namely the Church, to be so abjectly corrupted?

It would be nice for me to be able to say that Billy's story is interesting and tragic indeed but that his view of God and the Church is not applicable to anyone or anything in my church. However, let readers determine for themselves what to think on this matter. The one thing I am absolutely certain of is the dynamic of how the behaviour and preachments of our parents and authority figures in the Church impact the picture of God that we carry in our heads which, in turn, affects our religious beliefs. And the consequences are deep and lasting.

To illustrate again with something that is shocking to contemplate, I refer to a CBC radio report that grabbed me forcefully: genetic scientists have found that when a child is sexually abused, the trauma interacts with some genetic factors to predict certain outcomes. In the abstract of an article in the journal Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, (December 1, 2008), Kevin M. Beaver reports, "A rich line of empirical research has indicated that antisocial behaviours are the result of genetic factors and environmental factors working interactively ....To address this issue, data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health were analyzed. The results of the analyses reveal that childhood sexual abuse interacts with genetic risk to predict involvement in violent delinquency for males."

I make no claim of scientific evidence to support the following, but perhaps religion and science have come together to help us realistically understand how traumatic experiences literally change us in predictable ways. In his book, Lobdell admits to the "trauma" he himself experienced when he interviewed molestation victims. After they told their horrific stories, he was often unable to sleep, and for a time he took up using alcohol in order to erase from his mind what he had seen and heard.

In the spirit of inquiry, I am now led to ask: if it is true that antisocial behaviour is predictable for a molested boy, are there predictable outcomes for children, youth and adults that result from other kinds of life experiences that traumatize them?

William Lobdell tried very hard to maintain his faith in God during the years he was carrying out his research. However, after exposure to the unimaginable stories from victims of sexual abuse perpetrated by clergy and then covered up by the Church, along with amazing financial deceit by church organizations—especially religious broadcasters—his mind was traumatized, and he lost total confidence in the Church's profession and claims. We might say it was predictable. At one point a spiritual mentor of his made an appeal to him to not abandon his spiritual journey in life because of some religious leaders who were bad. The mentor made the point by asserting that those clergy who molested children could rightfully be convicted of committing spiritual murder on their victims. But, he warned, "if we let their actions kill our faith, that would be spiritual suicide." Lobdell said those words resonated with him for a time, and he vowed never to take that road.

Nevertheless, the time came when he found that the mentor's advice was wrong: "Spiritual suicide infers that people make a conscious decision to abandon their faith. Yet it isn't simply a matter of will. Many people want desperately to believe, but just can't. They may feel tortured that their faith has evaporated, but they can't will it back into existence. If an autopsy could be done on their spiritual life, the cause of death wouldn't be murder or suicide. It would be natural causes—the organic death of a belief system that collapsed under the weight of experience and reason." It happened that way for Billy.

This experience of a fellow Christian becomes a big reason why we who walk in relationship with Jesus need to be compassionate toward those who have drifted away from God. Could it be that some former church members have had their belief systems collapse under the weight of what they experienced while they were active members—something quite predictable? Try to imagine what it would be like to want to believe but not be able to because of exposure to the worst that life in this world offers. We need to sympathize with those who have comprehended God in the image of cruel, insensitive and abusive parents and/or other authorities who impacted their lives. And, we must do better at presenting a picture of God as He really is in Jesus Christ.

How then shall we draw back again those who have lost their religion as Billy has? I do believe the answer is in the power of love. It is the only power that can lead a former believer back to God. In Jeremiah 31:3 God makes known His way, and it must also become our way of relating to those whom we would draw back into the faith: "I have loved thee with an everlasting love: therefore with loving kindness have I drawn thee."

D. Douglas Devnich is a former president of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Canada. Even in retirement, he contributes to the Church through his writings and speaking appointments.

Originally published in Canadian Adventist Messenger, June 2009.

 

 
 
 
 

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