Have you ever felt abandoned by God? Not everyone has, but in recent days, I have had the opportunity to visit with some people close to me who have, or do. I found the conversations both sad and hopeful at the same time. One reason I am happy to talk about the subject is because – brace yourselves – I have felt abandoned by God. Even beyond feeling abandoned, I have been angry at Him as well. I don’t recommend it, but it can happen.
The most personal and specific example in my life was a stretch of time earlier in our marriage when my EC and I had four young kids in the home, ranging from two to eleven years old. During an eighteen month period we had a non-stop run of heartbreak and challenge. I say this knowing full well that to some of you, our challenges will look difficult, yet to others, they will look like a walk in the park. Everyone faces their own challenges, and they can be wildly different. Our challenges were kicking my butt.
To start off the stretch, we lost a baby to miscarriage. A few months later, my father-in-law passed away from a painful illness. Three months later, my mother died unexpectedly. Shortly afterwards, my father suffered a massive stroke that rendered him invalid. Finally, a few month later, my EC suffered a life-changing leg injury that left her confined to a hospital bed for three months, unable to walk for six.
It was during this last event that I remember how I felt. My wife was stuck sleeping on her back in an extra room in a rented hospital bed, fuzzy from pain medications. The kids were upstairs asleep when I decided to go outside for a walk. I was so tired. Tired from playing nurse, tired of trying to keep a business afloat, and tired of taking care of a houseful of kids. I was still mourning my mom and dad, and just trying to keep my own head above water.
I vividly remember standing in our driveway that night and bursting into tears. Not tears of sadness, or exhaustion, but tears of anger. I was angry at God for abandoning us. I was angry that he allowed all of these life-crisis to pile up on us without even time to mourn or breath before the next gut-punch came. I felt cheated that our reward for doing our best to live righteously was to be repeatedly pummeled by tragedy. I felt alone and cheated.
It was an unfamiliar feeling to me.
As I tell this, I’m sure that many of you are nodding your heads and saying, “Been there, done that.” I also know that many of you are taken aback because you have never grappled with those kind of feelings. I do guarantee that someone you know and love has walked this path.
One of them is the prophet Joseph Smith. When he was suffering in Liberty Jail, his frustration and feelings of abandonment bubbled up, as recorded in scripture. He pled:
O God, where art thou? And where is the pavilion that covereth thy hiding place? How long shall thy hand be stayed, and thine eye, yea thy pure eye, behold from the eternal heavens the wrongs of thy people and of thy servants, and thine ear be penetrated with their cries? (D&C 121:1-2)
He went on to offer God a list of suggestions of how He could better do His job, but mostly his plea was full of questions. Where are you? Why aren’t you helping? Way aren’t you listening?
The greatest example of feeling abandoned in the scriptures is from the Savior’s own lips. As he hung on the cross, suffering more than any man ever would, or could, he called out to God.
And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? (Matt 27:46)
Apparently it happens to the best of us.
The danger in harboring feelings of abandonment or anger towards God is not in that moment, but what it can lead to if unchecked. Something has to stop the slide before we find ourselves hurtling into the abyss of atheism or agnosticism. (Think of Tom Cruise sliding off that skyscraper in Shanghai.)
It would be both trite and naive to suggest that we just “snap out of it.” These challenges are real and can run deep. What I can suggest are some ways that we can stop the slide and climb back into a healthier relationship with God.
– Find something to grab onto to stop the slide.
Might I suggest this thought: Anger towards God is a personal testimony that you believe He is real and that He lives. You wouldn’t be angry if you didn’t believe in Him, right? Grab onto that basic, pure testimony that He does live, and begin to work your way back. As frightening as it is to think God has abandoned us, it is more frightening to think that He doesn’t exist. He does.
– Find a sense of proportion.
Nobody, and I mean nobody wants to be told that things could be worse, and I would suggest that you never, ever do that to someone who is suffering. Yet that is exactly how God responded to Joseph Smith when he called out to Him from Liberty Jail.
“My son, peace be unto thy soul; thine adversity and thine afflictions shall be but a small moment; And then, if thou endure it well, God shall exalt thee on high; thou shalt triumph over all thy foes.
Thy friends do stand by thee, and they shall hail thee again with warm hearts and friendly hands.
Thou art not yet as Job; thy friends do not contend against thee, neither charge thee with transgression, as they did Job”. (D&C 121:7-10)
It was a gently rebuke, looking at the bright side – but then the Lord came back again, gave him a dose of proportion and dressed him down:
“And if thou shouldst be cast into the pit, or into the hands of murderers, and the sentence of death passed upon thee; if thou be cast into the deep; if the billowing surge conspire against thee; if fierce winds become thine enemy; if the heavens gather blackness, and all the elements combine to hedge up the way; and above all, if the very jaws of hell shall gape open the mouth wide after thee, know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good. (D&C 122:7)
The Son of Man hath descended below them all. Art thou greater than he?” (D&C 122:8)
– Find a sense of eternal perspective.
The Plan of Happiness does not always mean “Instant Happiness.” it is a plan for playing the long-game. Studying that plan, and what God desires for us, helps us weather the inevitable storms life brings. The immediacy of our current struggles sometimes overwhelms the reality that this life is indeed a “blip” on the eternities. While that perspective does not reduce the pain, it can make it a little more tolerable. It helps to know that God is aware, and that he loves us – even when we can’t tell.
President Boyd K. Packer taught, “Do not suppose that God willfully causes that which, for His own purposes, he permits. When you know the plan and the purpose of it all, even these things will manifest a loving Father in Heaven” (link)
– Find some blessings.
When upon life’s billows you are tempest-tossed,
When you are discouraged, thinking all is lost,
Count your many blessings; name them one by one,
And it will surprise you what the Lord has done.
So amid the conflict, whether great or small,
Do not be discouraged; God is over all.
Count your many blessings; angels will attend,
Help and comfort give you to your journey’s end.
Sure, it’s a little cheesy, but the concept is sound. When we focus on gratitude, we become humble. Humility helps us in the next step:
– Find some grace.
President James E Faust: In the many trials of life, when we feel abandoned and when sorrow, sin, disappointment, failure, and weakness make us less than we should ever be, there can come the healing salve of the unreserved love in the grace of God. It is a love that forgives and forgets, a love that lifts and blesses. (link)
As the Lord pointed out to Joseph Smith, “the Son of Man hath descended below them all,” placing the Savior in the remarkable position of having total empathy, understanding and compassion. Turn to Him. By seeking healing through the atonement of Jesus Christ we can mend our strained relationship with God.
I testify that the Savior invites all of us to come and partake of His Atonement. As we exercise our faith in Him, He will lift us up and carry us through all of our trials and, ultimately, save us in the celestial kingdom. (Elder Evan A. Scmutz)
– Find common ground through prayer.
Standing in the driveway that night, I had a one-sided conversation with God, and it wasn’t pretty. But at least I was having a one-sided conversation with God. Fiddler on the Roof is one of my favorite plays/films. The lead character Tevye, walks through his life in a constant running dialogue with God. It is not only funny, but exemplary. I’ll admit standing in a driveway – full of tears and rage – is not the best way to converse with God, it is at least an honest attempt, and the best I could muster at the time. The next step would be to dial it back, and search for a two-way communication that involves much less complaining, and much more listening and searching for understanding.
Elder Bednar added this counsel: “Discerning and accepting the will of God in our lives are fundamental elements of asking in faith in meaningful prayer. However, simply saying the words “Thy will be done” is not enough. Each of us needs God’s help in surrendering our will to Him.
“Prayer is the act by which the will of the Father and the will of the child are brought into correspondence with each other.” Humble, earnest, and persistent prayer enables us to recognize and align ourselves with the will of our Heavenly Father. And in this the Savior provided the perfect example as He prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, “saying, Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done. … And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly” (Luke 22:42, 44).
Ultimately, when we are angry at God, or feel abandoned by Him, we are focusing on the idea that we know better – that things should run according to our plan. Until we let go of this false sense of control and actually submit our will to His, we will be at odds with God. It is a lifetime challenge, and tougher to embrace when we are mired in struggle.
To those who are suffering, I feel for you and hope you can stop the slide and climb out. To those of you who have never experienced the feelings of abandonment and frustration with God, I am happy for you, and hope you never do.
God does live, and He does love us – even though sometimes we can’t see it.