“Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not ‘So there’s no God after all,’ but ‘So this is what God’s really like.'”
– C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed
Last summer, a childhood friend of mine took her own life.
Earlier that year, she had found me on Facebook, and shortly thereafter she showed up at a reunion of old friends in Los Angeles, driving several hours to join the party. Prior to that gathering, I hadn’t seen her for decades, and I was thrilled at the opportunity to catch up and reconnect. And then, just a few months later, she was gone.
I was thinking about her on June 17, 2015 when a man joined a prayer group at that the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina and then proceeded to open fire on the people who had welcomed him with open arms. Nine people were killed, and many more injured, because they were kind to a vicious stranger who hated and murdered them because of the color of their skin. At the time I heard the news, I was in North Carolina teaching a training program to juvenile offenders, all of whom were black. The day of the shooting, we didn’t talk about much else. And the bitter irony of people reaching out to heaven as they were murdered by a devil did not go unnoticed.
I’ve never seriously doubted the existence of God. I find atheism ridiculous. And as I’ve watched a number of people wrestle with elements of Mormon history and disagreements with current church leadership, I’ve also never seriously considered leaving the Church. The Mormons are my people and my tribe, and, overall, I think the Church, even with all its flaws, is a force for great good in the world. In addition, I find solace in its unique doctrines that I can’t find anywhere else.
Yet I still wrestle with doubts, although they don’t seem to be the same flavor of doubts over many of the things I see others doubting. I’m not wondering if there is or isn’t a God, or if my faith is a fraud, or any of that kind of stuff. My deepest doubt/fear/faith struggles are more like C.S. Lewis’s question – is this what God is really like? Actually, my doubts take that question one step further –
What if God is a jerk?
What if God is, in fact, a “respecter of persons” who plays favorites? What if he only answers the prayers of people he likes? What if God has revealed inconsistent and contradictory things to people over the course of history just because he can? Because this often feels like the kind of world where God operates in that kind of capricious manner.
There’s a variation on that theme that I’ve considered, too – not Jerk God so much as Incompetent God. He wants to love everyone, but he’s not really as omnipotent or omniscient as he claims to be. Although, really, that would make him both Jerk God and Incompetent God, as he would be making false claims about his perfection, which is a jerky thing to do.
If you read that and panic that I’ve gone off the deep end, please know that while this is a dark place that my doubts occasionally take me to visit, that isn’t where I live. I’ve experienced God’s love both directly and through the inspired efforts of others, and I’m not willing to surrender to nihilism just yet.
Still, while I was holed up in a motel in North Carolina, thousands of miles from home, lonely, and wallowing in the bleakness of the world, I did write a song about all this. Unlike 99% of my back catalog, it’s not the least bit goofy. It addresses my friend’s suicide, the shooting in South Carolina, and my “God is a jerk” fears. It doesn’t have any real answers, but I felt better having asked the questions.
Anyway, I think the song isn’t going to change the world, but it might be worth a listen. I’ve named it after my late friend, but for public consumption, I prefer to call it “The Other Side of Rain.”