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On forgiving God

By Jeannie Ewing
Contributing Writer

I bowed my head in the confessional. Then, the sobbing: “Father, I think I have lost my faith.” I wasn’t sure I could speak what I had been mulling over, and the words formed weakly, barely audible in between heaves and tears.

My fear of the priest’s response was quelled by his Christ-like tenderness: “Your sins are forgiven. Keep coming back.” I nodded, recited my Act of Contrition, and quietly exited. The relief from voicing my anger towards God felt liberating.

Months earlier, I’d discovered I was expecting our fifth baby. Some call this an unplanned or surprise pregnancy, which it certainly was for us. Our youngest child, Joseph, was only six months old at the time, and I was suffering terribly from postpartum depression. To learn that another baby would soon arrive after I’d barely recovered from my most recent pregnancy pummeled my hope in any chance of rest and recovery.

This wasn’t the first time I felt rage toward a God I’d been conditioned to believe was all-loving, all the time. In 2013, my husband Ben and I learned that our second daughter, Sarah, had a rare genetic anomaly called Apert syndrome. We knew nothing of her condition until the moment of her birth.

In those early days, I found myself questioning everything I’d been taught to believe, both in my home as a child and in the classroom of my Catholic grade school. God knew everything. He permitted even the sufferings we did not want or understand, and I accepted this. Theology was never difficult for my mind — or heart — to readily grasp. Living it out, however, proved to be a far more difficult feat.

With countless diagnostic tests, surgeries and therapies on the horizon for Sarah, every single dream I’d conjured for our family instantly shattered. Daily, I shook my fist at a silent God, which only hurt me more. How could you forget me in a time like this? I would lament. There was no response, only the agonizing absence of the love I so deeply craved.

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Western culture carries an underpinning of two things that damaged my spirit in the aftermath of Sarah’s birth and the discovery of my fifth pregnancy: You chose to have these children, so you have to deal with raising them, and do not display any emotion that might startle or disrupt the comfort of those around you.

From 2013 to 2019, I had attempted to reconcile the unspoken expectations of a society not built on the structure of solid community, connection, or accompaniment. I made the most of the positive messages well-intentioned family members or friends would share, like, “Don’t worry, it’ll get better!” or “At least it’s not as bad as so-and-so has it” or “It could be worse.”

Every last cliché I once used when others were suffering, I suddenly found repulsive and harmful. Especially coming from devout Christians who would quickly silence my pain with, “I’m so sorry I can’t do more to help you, but I am praying for you.”

The idea that God doesn’t give us more than we can handle, or that everything happens for a reason, does not hold when true suffering reveals the bare bones of our faith. When you find yourself crushed under the weight of your own cross — one that was not desired or sought, yet handed to you for some lofty reason you may not understand in this life — you often walk alone.

Though technically God does not need our forgiveness because of his perfect nature, we sometimes need to confess our anger, rage and resentment of God’s ways that cannot be comprehended. The point of every person’s pathway to heaven lies in the simple but challenging act of fidelity to God.

My spiritual director told me after that healing visit to Confession that it was, in fact, good that I believed I’d “lost” my faith. “Maybe you’ve actually outgrown it,” she offered. We explored the metaphor of a snake shedding its old skin as it grows, and I heard the power in what she was suggesting. Maybe it was true that the boxed-in ideals of how Catholicism was supposed to operate could not actually contain the grandeur of a God who is Mystery Incarnate.

My belief that a monotheistic God existed never wavered. I have not faltered in the truth that he is omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent. But I have tangled with him over and over in my mind and heart when new trials appear, particularly when old sufferings have not been resolved.

Often, I have berated myself for revisiting stale questions I myself have answered, albeit insufficiently, in past writings. My primary problem was why God would permit loss after loss with little, if any reprieve, yet still love us with great mercy. I could read the Psalms, which once offered me consolation, and instantly become incensed at a God who reveals his gentleness to others, but not to me or my children. I felt forgotten, forsaken.

These thoughts and feelings were private, never shared with my loved ones. I stored them all in a cloud of guilt and confusion, which became muddled with the “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts” I’d told myself in the past to get through hardships: “You should think of Job. He was still faithful to God even when he lost everything.” “You shouldn’t question God’s goodness, because he cares for your every need.”

Something strange happens to a person when she no longer accepts these narratives yet continues to search in desperation for some semblance of truth to uphold her frail faith and hope. It was easy to come up with a rebuttal for these thoughts of God’s infinite mercy and goodness and love. Often, I’d pause in the middle of reading a Gospel parable or flowery prayer written by a popular saint.

Once, I said aloud, “Who would give someone a snake when he asks for a fish? You would, God. You did to me.”

There are times when the soul seems to move away from the suffocating God of his childhood, the stern deity who created all living things, yet rigidly requires humans to abide by many rules. Even within Catholicism, there are theologians who eagerly wield dogmas and doctrines to answer the problem of suffering. While we need these parameters in order to learn how to navigate the capricious intonations of a you-do-you culture, responding to someone’s raw and gripping pain with quotes from the Catechism tends to become more Pharisaical than loving.

We cannot expect to deepen our relationship with God through regulations alone. Authentic spiritual maturity happens when we are willing to admit that we will not find all the answers to our myriad questions.

Though technically God does not need our forgiveness because of his perfect nature, we sometimes need to confess our anger, rage and resentment of God’s ways that cannot be comprehended. The point of every person’s pathway to heaven lies in the simple but challenging act of fidelity to God.

Faithfulness to God means that we remain open to every human experience, and that we offer every honest thought and feeling that passes through us to him. It means showing up every day in conversation with God, whether it’s in five minutes of weary tears or an hour of formal Eucharistic Adoration.

How we learn to forgive God paves the way for how we learn to forgive others, to forgive ourselves, and ultimately, how to walk with and carry the wounded to the Shelter of Love.

Jeannie Ewing is a Catholic author and speaker. She lives in northern Indiana with her husband and their five children. Read more about her and her work at jeannieewing.com.

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