Losing faith in times of suffering

by Heather Kranz, MEd, CRC on November 2, 2012 · 1 comment

in spirituality

Grief, loss and suffering are unavoidable components of life; in fact, they’re such common experiences that numerous books, treatment programs and theories have been developed to help people cope during these tough times. When misfortune affects others, we express condolences, offer encouragement, perhaps even quote from sacred texts.

However, when the tragedy is our own, we are sometimes left asking, “Why did this happen to me?” Regardless of what faith or spirituality you might identify with, for those who believe in a higher power, questioning how such a powerful force could allow incredible suffering is a shared experience.

Interestingly, it is often in times of trial that many people make decisive judgments about their commitment to faith or spirituality. Some grow in their devotion to a higher power, while others angrily discount or even renounce their faith – wondering why a benevolent and powerful being could allow such pain and misery.

SCIDs and suffering

In my work conducting the Structured Clinical Interview for the DSM (SCID), I frequently encounter patients who are questioning their faith – they may mention offhandedly that they no longer believe in a god, or that they lost their faith after experiencing incredible tragedy. For these patients, Menninger’s chaplain, Rev. Salvador Delmundo, Jr., can prove to be a vital resource, offering guidance and support while they struggle with questions about their spiritual beliefs and experiences and wonder how it all fits together with their mental health and overall wellbeing.

In an effort to answer some of the more common questions, I spoke with Rev. Delmundo, who shared some of the initial questions he asks patients struggling to answer “How could God allow this to happen to me?” He stated that he asks patients about their god images – thoughts, assumptions and feelings evoked when they include God or the thought of a higher power in their conversations. Learning about a patient’s feelings toward their faith helps him create a picture of how the patient defines his or her faith connection.

The importance of challenging assumptions

For some, a higher power is a benevolent force – a being that offers strength and comfort in times of need. For others, their god is defined by strength and power – a being that is all powerful and thus has the ability to prevent suffering. Rev. Delmundo references Harold Kushner, author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People, as he discusses the benefits of seeing God as a “benevolent being,” one that is comforting and loving in times of suffering. Seeing one’s higher power in this manner takes the focus off of “why did this happen” and refocuses on “how can I get through this.”

Rev. Delmundo stated that one way he engages patients in conversations is by helping them identify and dispel the assumptions about God that don’t work for them. He explained that we don’t question our assumptions about faith until they stop working. For example, the assumption that because one is faithful/spiritual/religious their God will/should protect them from pain and suffering is questioned when suffering occurs.

Asking oneself “how is this assumption working for you?” when thinking about your own spiritual beliefs can shed light on how spirituality shapes your experiences. One way we can “unfreeze” assumptions is by simply rephrasing them into questions. This requires one to switch into a curious frame of mind in order to see if recent experiences support the belief or if one is mistaken in the belief.

Helping yourself

Rev. Delmundo suggests the following for those struggling with spiritual questions in the context of recent tragedy or loss:

  1. Locate a support network, which can be family, friends or a faith community.
  2. Resist the temptation to immediately assign meaning to what has happened (in the context of grief, one’s judgment is often clouded and assigning meaning can cause one to be resentful in the long run).
  3. Listen to other people’s perspectives on what has happened to you and don’t limit yourself to clichés.

For patients struggling to make sense of their experiences, the counseling and guidance from the chaplain can be very beneficial. If you don’t have access to such resources, asking yourself “Who is my God?” and “How is this working for me?” may reveal more about the way in which you experience your faith and provide more guidance into how you can better utilize your beliefs as a strength in times of suffering.

Editor’s note: If you enjoyed this post, check out Heather’s other recent blog posts:

Be Sociable, Share!

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Ingrid Ann April 2, 2013 at 4:34 pm

The answer is yes, I got faith and so do you. Faith is very much individualized. Faith is personal and unique just the way the Creator made us. We may share same beliefs but our faith, well that’s something extra special :-) . I hope my answering your question has taught your Clinic something new so that you are better able to assist and support your Clients. Answering your question certainly taught me, ” I got Faith” :-)

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: