Conversatio Divina

Forgiving God

A Matter of Heart Over Head

Gary W. Moon

During the past decade forgiveness has become a topic of increasing interest among many mental health professionals. The psychological literature has begun to reflect this, specifically, as well as a growing investment in other spiritual resources and strategies. It seems that God (his words, person, and presence) is being viewed as an overlooked source of psychological health. But what if one’s perception of the Divine as a spring of comfort has become obscured by tragedy and subsequent anger with God? The present article examines three common theodicies as cognitive strategies for reconnecting with God after the experience of catastrophe. The limitations of each of these (Augustinian, Irenaean, and “Kushnerian”) is critiqued in light of ‘‘forgiveness” of God. Several practical suggestions are then presented. Unlike the three theodicies, these strategies are more targeted to the heart than the head.

Originally Published in Marriage & Family: A Christian Journal Issue 2 . Volume 2

Psychological Studies Institute, Atlanta, Georgia

01.  Introduction

According to McCullough, Sandage, and Worthington (1997), a small, quiet movement been taking place in psychological science. Forgiveness has become a venue of interest to mental health academicians and practitioners. It is being increasingly seen as a strategy for promoting healing for the individual, for relationships, and for the world.

They offer the following definition: “Forgiveness is an increase in our internal motivation to repair and maintain a relationship after the relationship has been damaged by the hurtful actions of the other person” (p. 22); for a more formal definition see McCullough, Worthington, and Rachal (1997). Implicit (and often explicit) in their work is the notion that God is the author and potential enabler of this healing process.

But what if—following the experience of a tragedy (so severe that some might label it “evil”)—an individual feels himself or herself festering with hurt and anger directed toward the Divine? What if the One who is desperately needed as a source of healing grace is viewed as the perpetrator of (or bystander to) the calamity? Perhaps it leaves the individual and God in need of relationship repair. (Of course, in a strict moral sense holy perfection means that God cannot be culpable. “Forgiveness” is not being used here in a strict forensic sense. Instead, attention is being directed to the phenomenological perspective of one who is suffering and has made causal attribution—albeit false—to God. The focus here is on reconnecting with God after such a false attribution.)

Smedes (1984) addresses the notion of forgiving God in his book Forgive and Forget. He opens the discussion with a story about a tailor who told a rabbi of his prayer to God.

The tailor prayed, “Lord, I cheat on pieces of cloth; you let babies die. But I am going to make you a deal. You forgive me my little sins and I’ll forgive you your big ones” (p. 111).

Yes, it was hard to type that without looking up to check for an errant lightning bolt But the honesty of the prayer is refreshing. And it calls attention to a concept that might be more comfortable to ignore—”forgiving” God. But how does one open himself or herself to reconnection with God after tragedy/evil has closed the heart?
As Hick (1978) states, the fact of evil constitutes the most serious objection to belief in a God of love. It is not surprising that so many attempts have been made to formulate theodicies that offer ways to pre¬ serve God’s love in the presence of human pain and suffering.

In the words that follow, a story will be told. It’s a true story (although some details have been altered). It’s about my cousin. He died tragically at age 21. His death almost killed my uncle. It wounded a lot of people’s faith.

Several “counselors” tried to help my uncle. They often offered him one of the three common theodicies (Augustinian, Irenaean, and Kushnerian) in hopes that it would help him stay plugged in to God. But these strategies proved to be a bit too heady for someone suffering from such a serious searing of the soul.
Following this story will be a critique of the theodicies—viewed here as cognitive strategies for understanding and reconnecting with God—which were offered to my uncle. I’ve added a “fantasy” ending (as a model of intervention with someone needing to forgive God) and suggestions for other divine forgiveness strategies.

02.  A True Story

“Mr. Jensen, this is Dr. Miller, Dean of Students at Highpoint College.” There was an ominous tone in his voice.

“I’m afraid I have some bad news. Your son, David. was found unconscious in his room about 30 minutes ago. He’s been rushed to the hospital. Apparently he passed out after playing a pick-up basketball game. Roommate found him. Said David had been ill but played anyway. He’s at the hospital. Brown Memorial. We’re all praying for him.

The drive to Madison was a blur of dark thoughts. and emotions. “Why did he play!? . . . He knows his  is weak! . . . He’s my only son! . . . Please, God, don’t let him die! . . . I’ll do anything you want!”

“Room 211. Room 211,” he repeated to himself as he raced down the long hallway. He turned through the doorway and his eyes met those of the doctor who quickly glanced down at the floor. The was brief silence. All was loudly communicated without words.

“No!” Ned Jensen blurted out. He then focused an agonized gaze on the lifeless form lying on the hospital bed. Time stood still. It was a vacuum for hope. An escalator of light poured through the window. It illuminated the still figure that used to be his son.

“I’m very sorry,” the doctor said as he walked past.

Three hours later, Ned’s pastor arrived and found him sitting by the empty hospital bed and staring out the window.

“Why?” he eventually asked—to no one in particular. “Why did God do this to me? To David? Why this punishment?”

“Ned,” the pastor said, “I know you are hurting. You must feel like your heart has been tom out of your best. But you can’t blame God for this. It’s the Fall, Ned. There is sin and evil in the world because of the Fall.”

Ned looked away.

“Our sin is simple. You know this, Ned. We were born people, people in the middle of a sinful, fallen world. So blame Satan. Blame sin. But don’t blame God. You’ll just end up bitter.”

After a long silence, the pastor sat down and said, “Let me pray with you, Ned.”

But the prayer words served only as fading, background noise for Ned. They drifted further and further away, like shrinking footsteps down a hallway. Ned’s thoughts were turning even darker and more desperate. “If only I had gone to church more often. If only I had always paid my ,tithe. If only David hadn’t gotten involved with drugs. If only it could be me instead of him.”

As the pastor continued to assure God of his innocence, Ned felt alone, angry, and somehow responsible for this senseless tragedy. He felt further from God than a hiding Adam and Eve.

It was dusk as Ned slid the key into the lock of the family car. It had been several hours since this nightmare began, and he was past ready to wake up. His wife had joined him. They were faced with a mound of unwanted arrangements.

Just as the door swung open Ned felt someone plant a hand on his shoulder. “Mr. Jensen,” an out-of-breath voice said. “Mr. Jensen, I’m Bob, an intern chaplain here at the hospital. I just came on shift and heard about what happened. Well, I just wanted to say something before you left.”

Ned was enough alive to recognize the note of sincerity in the youthful voice.

‘‘This may not be the best be the best time. And it may not be of much help, but, well, I wanted to tell you, both of you, there is always a purpose in everything that is allowed to happen. There is always a good and justifiable reason.”

Ned’s knees felt weak. He had to fight an urge to fling the young chaplain’s hand from his shoulder.

“Look around you during the coming weeks; look at your son’s friends, at yourself,’’ the chaplain continued. “I just bet you will see a lot of good coming out of this. We’re only here for a few seconds out of eternity. The important thing is ‘soul making.’ That’s what God is after. Just trust him in this and watch him turn it into a real maturing experience for you and others. You can’t allow this to separate you from God.”

Ned allowed the weight of the young man’s words to push him into the car. He closed the door and looked through the window at the exuberant face of the would-be cheerleader. Darkness is closer to light than were his feelings to those of the chaplain.

When Ned finally arrived back at his home he found a note taped to the front door. It was from his neighbor.

“Ned,” the note began, “I heard about the terrible tragedy. It’s horrible. Senseless. As someone who is also a Christian—and who recently lost a son—I just wanted to leave you with a few words that will, hopefully, be of comfort. God is not perfect. He has let you down by permitting this tragedy. But never, not for a second, think that he doesn’t love you. I know he does. Feel his love in spite of his weakness and limitations. Although he can’t, or at least doesn’t, stop tragedy, he loves you deeply. I know this. I have felt it and feel it now.”

Although Ned sensed a tinge of warmth in his veins, he let the note slide through his fingers.

03.  Three Strategies for Forgiving God—From the Head


Ned’s first comforter took an Augustinian approach to theodicy. According to Hick (1978), the main motivating interest of this theodicy-type is to relieve the Creator of responsibility for the existence of evil (see p. 236).

This attempt is made through one of two primary channels: (1) The responsibility is placed squarely on the shoulders of dependent beings who have misused their freedom, i.e., human beings or Satan. Much talk is made of “the Fall” and “original sin.” And the question, “Why did you do this, God?” is not asked. It is replaced with wistful if only’s, such as if only Adam had not sinned, if only sin had not entered the world through the Fall. (2) Augustinians often rename evil and tragedy based on philosophical justifications. Evil is purported to be a non-entity. Just as shadow is the absence of light, evil is said to be the absence of good. All that exists is good and its absence.

At first glance—these two approaches would seem to be successful in “getting God off the hook,” and the victim of tragedy back in God’s presence. The first approach offers God’s defenders both ease of conceptualization—God made all things perfect, humankind sinned, through this one man (Adam) evil entered the world—and ample ammunition for proof-texting their arguments.

The second (the renaming of evil) offers the more philosophically ambitious a “step-by-step guide for making evil disappear into the backdrop of an aesthetic vision of the perfection of the universe as a complex harmony” (Hick. 1978, p. 236).

Unfortunately, glaring logical problems seem apparent. The argument that human beings were at first morally good, possessing love for their maker, flawless in nature (created perfect), but yet preferring to be evil and miserable cannot, according to Hick, “be saved from the charge of self-contradiction and absurdity” (p. 69). The argument leads to “the Fall,” which leads back to the omniscient, omnipotent God.

If one says God did not know that Adam would sin, then God’s omniscience is sacrificed. But to punish Adam, and ultimately billions of his descendants, foreknowing that Adam would sin if created, would seem to make God cruel. The attempt to protect one of God’s attributes (i.e., his not being responsible for evil) would seem to render other attributes suspect. left to ponder: If the designer of a prototype automobile volitionally omitted placing a brake system in the vehicle and the automobile plummeted over a cliff during its maiden voyage, who would say that the maker was not responsible? If the maker then, in anger and frustration, decided that all future models must also be created brakeless, who would say that he was not cruel? And which vehicle owner would turn to him as a source of comfort after a crash? (Yes, I am being a bit absurd here. The emphasis, however, is to draw attention to the emotional experience of the one who has suffered a tragedy.)

In response to the other argument, that evil is a nonentity, it would seem to suffice to say that this has more aesthetic than ethical value.

However, a more unfortunate defect in the Augustinian theodicy is its probable impact on one experiencing tragedy. It would seem to make it difficult for that person to think of God and his attitude toward hurting humanity in fully personal and agapeistic terms.

The chasm dug by the Augustinian apologists—between the God who deliberately makes creatures who are cursed and the God of love and comfort so often described by Jesus—seems so great that few might chance its crossing during storms of suffering. Ned did not want to make that trip while he, and not God, was carrying the heavy load of responsibility. After hearing his pastor, he still needed to forgive and reconnect with God.


The Irenaean type of theodicy stands in marked contrast to the Augustinian type in that no attempt is made to relieve God of the responsibility for evil. According to Hick (1978; see p. 236), its main motivating interest is to show that, while God is responsible for evil, evil exists for good and justifiable reasons. Just as the body of an athlete is strengthened and conditioned through the pain and stress of rigorous exercise, the soul can only mature in an environment that permits pain. “No pain, no gain.”

Instead of the doctrine that humanity was created perfect but somehow destroyed this perfection and plunged into misery, the Irenaean position suggests that humanity was created imperfect and immature, therefore needing to undergo moral development and growth and eventually to be brought to the perfection intended by the Creator. While a human being is seen as created in the image of God (an intelligent creature with moral freedom and responsibility, capable of fellowship with God), he or she grows/matures into God’s likeness (righteousness, wholeness). This growth requires time and it requires the pain and stress of evil.

The Irenaean theodicy type presents many positive features. While it has not enjoyed the acceptance of the Augustinian position (indeed, most Catholic and Protestant Christians would probably assume that the Augustinian argument is the Christian position), it has been an enduring alternate Christian theodicy. It is an optimistic, forward-looking position. While the Augustinians look to the past, to a catastrophic fall, the Irenaeans are eschatological. They find justification for the existence of evil in a future good that God is necessarily bringing out of the present temporal process.

Additionally, it makes the best type of sense: common. It requires neither the abandonment of reason necessary to accept the Augustinian position on the Fall fully, nor the deluge of reason necessary to philosophically drown the actual presence of evil. Yet problems abound. Can the proposed ends possibly justify the present means? Can there be a future so good that it makes acceptable all the present pain, suffering, and cruelty? Perhaps many who have experienced tragedy would conclude that the price that is paid for spiritual growth is often too high to be justly exacted.

Also, there is the problem proposed by the apparent random occurrence of evil. Does the assembly-line worker at station A-11 who lost two sons in Vietnam need more spiritual growth and maturation than the worker at station A-12 who experienced no such tragedy?

A further problem may lie in how this explanation for evil feels to one who is suffering—who needs to “forgive” God. It would seem that Ned felt that the young chaplain was minimizing his present pain while asking him to look through his profound grief and catch a glimpse of the future good for himself and others. Surely a man bleeding from the stumps of amputated legs would not be expected to ignore his pain and experience joy at the news that someday prosthetic procedures will provide him with new legs which will allow him to run as fast as the Six-Million Dollar Man.



Rabbi Kushner watched his son die—of old age—before he was fifteen. His son suffered from progeria, rapid aging. Kushner’s pain must have been inexpressible. In his own agony, he asks the tough question, “Are you capable of forgiving . . . God . . . when he has let you down (1983, p. 112)

In his popular work, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Kushner seems nobly motivated to restore logic to the following propositions: God is good; God is all powerful; bad things happen to good people. Kushner believes that all three cannot be true and chooses to sacrifice God’s power. In the presence of obvious tragedy, he feels forced to choose between a good God who is not totally powerful and a powerful God who is not totally good. He chooses to believe in God’s goodness.

Kushner’s work offers many poignant features. He writes with an obvious compassion that calls attention away from our own elaborate theodicies and to the pain of the one experiencing tragedy. In his own words:

The books I turned to were more concerned with defending God’s honor, with logical proof that bad is really good and that evil is necessary to make this a good world, than they were with curing the bewilderment and anguish of the parent of a dying child. They had all the answers for their own questions but none for mine (1983, p. 4).

Kushner also argues against the responsibility of either God (at least in the present) or humanity for evil by making a strong case for the randomness or naturalistic origins of much evil. Most important, however, he exhorts that it is not the origin or circumstances of tragedy that are important. It is our reaction to tragedy that is primary. It is. “the ability to forgive and the ability to love [that] are the weapons God has given us to enable us to live fully, bravely”(p. 148).

So much of Kushner’s thesis is appealing that it is doubly distressing that he leaves us with something less than God. Whereas Augustine and Irenaeus go through elaborate gyrations in an attempt to preserve both God’s goodness and power, Kushner readily sacrifices God’s power on a cross that will not tolerate paradox or mystery. He entertains no vision of a God who can be both good and powerful, but who allows evil for some reason that will forever be beyond the grasp of finite human intellect. Kushner magnifies his own power (ability to understand the ways of the divine) while diminishing the power of God. Additionally, while he rightly calls attention to the painful present of the one who suffers, that attention remains fixated and is never shifted to a redeeming future that may lessen or reframe present suffering.

If the Augustinians err in overemphasis on the past, and Irenaeans err in overemphasis on the future, Kushner errs in his magnification of the present.

While someone such as Ned may feel a much-needed tinge of warmth and compassion in interacting with a Kushnerian comforter and find solace in the assertion that “God didn’t do it,” this feeling may be quickly followed by the discomfort of being suddenly cast adrift in a captain-less vessel.

04.  A Fantasy Ending

Ned was completely alone in the middle of the crowd of comforters who had gathered in his home that evening. He was weary of listening and nodding. Wasn’t it enough that he had lost his son? Why did he now have to assure everyone that he was okay, that life was okay, that God was okay? His frustration was at flood-stage proportions when the doorbell rang. It was Ned’s best friend, Bill.

“Want to walk outside for a minute?” Bill asked.

Ned followed. They stopped and leaned against the nearest car. A long silence enveloped them.

“Ned,” Bill’s words punctured the silence. “You must be in a living hell. I can’t even imagine.”

More silence. Then Ned opened his mouth. His words began as a trickle but quickly became spurts and splashes—of hurt, anger, pain, and questions. He talked and he cried and he groaned in misery. Then he stopped.

Another long silence settled in. It was pregnant with expectation. Ned’s friend, Bill, knew it was his turn. He desperately wanted to say something healing. But his mind was blank. Twenty years of teaching theology, and his mind was blank.

Perspective! he wanted to say—but did not. We just don’t have God’s cosmic vantage point. All of our earthly existence is such a fleeting instant of time. Our whole lives are like the quick opening of a camera lens. Imprinted on the film, or consciousness, is the image. It’s like a picture of grass that is bountiful and flourishing in streams of sunlight. In the center of the picture is a thin twig that seems totally enveloped and choked out by the grass. Then the lens closes. We don’t see how the scene changes with the passage of time. We don’t see how the sun parches the grass, nor how the wind blows it away. We do not see how the same sun and wind aid the growth of the twig which slowly grows and becomes a mighty palm tree. From our limited picture, we cannot see that evil and pain are like the grass, or that righteousness and goodness are like the twig that becomes a towering palm tree.

But these thoughts didn’t seem helpful to a man whose family had been ripped apart. Bill didn’t let them become words.

Wait a second, Bill thought. What about Christ? Didn’t he enter into our world and become a victim of the greatest evil of all—the murder of the Son of God? And didn’t this become the greatest good of all—ultimate victory over evil? He participated in our suffering. He returned the most difficult shots that were served up by evil. Yeah, God, the ultimate tennis player. That’s it! Bill’s racing thoughts were in marked contrast to the stillness of his body.

“Ned,” he would say, “God is the supreme tennis player. He can return any shot that is hit. And, Ned, he’s on your side of the net. He isn’t the one hitting you the tough shots. He isn’t in the stands passively watching the action. He is standing behind you. With his help you can return any shot.

“Maybe he is ultimately responsible for programming the machine that sends you such a random variety of soft, easy lobs and screeching baseline shots. We may never know why he did that. But we do know what we need to know. He is on your side. He is a participant. He lets you try to get to the ball first, but if you miss, he’s there to return the shot for you. The longer you play, the tougher the shots that are sent your way; the harder you try, the more like him you become. That’s the good news. Through trials we become more like him. The even better news, Ned, is you eventually win the game. He’s a player, on your side of the net!”

But a glance at Ned revealed that he wasn’t receptive to a cheerleader. He didn’t look like a winner. He looked totally defeated. Aced.

Paradox! Yes. Finally. We don’t have God’s intellect. I’ll tell Ned it’s just like D. M. Baille (1948) suggests in God Was in Christ. Religious truth is always found in paradox. The small vessel that is our intellect simply can’t contain the vast truth of God. Divine intelligence sloshes out on both sides. We are like infants trying to understand the mind of an adult. Just as an infant cannot understand how an object can still be present in a room when it is hidden from vision, we cannot fathom how God’s love can still exist when it becomes concealed by tragedy. It is all but impossible to grasp how God can be all loving and yet allow pain.

Evil is not a problem. Problems have solutions. Evil is a mystery. It defies solution through human intellect. Only faith can remove us from the dark dilemma. Reason is not only useless but confounding.

Bill looked at his friend’s hollow face. These thoughts, too, were useless. They never became words.

After a few moments of silence Ned looked up and saw that wet compassion was streaming down Bill’s face.

He’s weeping on my behalf when I can no longer weep for myself, Ned realized. All was said that could be said. It was a picture worth a million words. The burden of Ned’s pain was very heavy, but it was a load now shared. What had been abstract was now concrete. The incarnate Christ was standing on the court with Ned. It was so plain an infant could see it.

05.  Discussion

Perhaps when it comes to God, one’s instinct is to defend him against complaints. Perhaps many react to the notion of “forgiving” God with the impulse: God cannot be blamed for anything—so he need not be forgiven.

Theologically, I believe that God can never be at fault. Eschatologically, I believe this will become common knowledge. But in the nasty here and now, people often become disconnected from their experience of God’s love and comfort, especially when they have been the victims of what their insurance companies may call an “act of God.” We often lose contact with God when we need him most.

For these times I would like to echo a question raised by Smedes (1984): “Would it bother God too much if we found our peace by forgiving him for the wrongs we suffer?” (p. 112). I think not.

It should be noted, however, I am not recommending an abandonment of reason or cognitive interventions. I am suggesting heartfelt empathy in an environment free from the sharing of personal theodicies for the early grief state. Reconnecting with God—heart-to-heart-to-heart—is viewed as being foundational and prerequisite to future, and perhaps more cognitive, intervention.

Practical Suggestions for Promoting the “Forgiveness” of God

What follows are a few thoughts and images that I often use in helping individuals who are attempting to “forgive” and reconnect with God in times of tragedy.

Try to save discussions of theodicy for theology classes. I believe that Augustine, lrenaeus, and Rabbi Kushner have made profound contributions to the system of natural theology that seeks to vindicate divine justice—theodicy. Yet any truth, exaggerated at the expense of other truths, may become less valid in the process. It strikes me that coming to terms with theodicy may be more a process of miraculous additions of truth (across the three views presented) than one of human subtractions (tenaciously fending off challenges to one, personally preferred theodicy). In any event, such heady discussion rarely seems to soothe a broken heart.

Remember Job’s counselors. Job is perhaps the ultimate example of an individual who suffered—in plain view of God. His counselors are infamous for their bad advice. But they were doing great work—until they opened their mouths. Job’s counselors offered a ministry of presence and tears. In trying to help someone reconnect with God’s love at a time of intense tragedy, I try to be at least as good a counselor as Job’s—before they spoke. The best help Uncle Ned ever received for reconnecting with God was based on presence and tears, not the sharing of theodicy.

Accept the cries of the heart. Hurt, anger, and even hatred may be part of the forgive­ness process—even if directed toward God. I remind myself of this while biting my lip and offering only listening presence.

Don’t risk lightning bolts for the trivial. Make sure that God is being forgiven for a significant wound. I don’t think God needs to be ‘‘forgiven” for gap-tooth smiles or self-imposed bruises.

Recall that God is a fellow sufferer. Not only did God become human and suffer excruciating physical pain, but he is the parent who has witnessed every tragedy his children have experienced—in the history of the universe. God, above all others, is a co-sufferer. He suffers with us when we suffer unfairly.

Recall that God must also forgive. Unless God expects more of his creation than of himself, he must also forgive 70 x 7 times. God, above all others, is empathic to our attempting the process of forgiveness.

Hot coals of fire. I often ask clients struggling to embrace forgiveness to imagine that they are holding a white-hot coal in their hands. I ask them to imagine the physical pain and olfactory stench of searing flesh. The purpose of the exercise is to remind them that they are the primary victims of unforgiveness and encourage them to wrestle with the motivations for holding the coal more tightly.

Tagging out to Ghandi. The movie Ghandi contains a powerful scene that provides unforgettable images of the enormity of the task set before one who desires to forgive. A Hindu man approaches Ghandi, who lies near death following a self-imposed fast for peace. The man tells Ghandi that he is in hell. He has killed a Muslim child in a fit of rage. Earlier, his own son had been murdered by Muslims. Ghandi tells him that he knows a way out of hell. “You must find a child (the same height as your son who was killed) who has been orphaned by the war. You must raise him as your own. But he must be a Muslim child. And you must raise him as a Muslim.” I sometimes use this scene as a sobering reminder that there probably is a way out of hell—if we are willing to pay the price.

Bibliotherapy. I sometimes suggest bibliotherapy from books such as Amazing Love by Corrie ten Boom, When God Doesn’t Make Sense by James Dobson, Disappointment with God and Where is God When It Hurts? by Philip Yancey.

God, Jesus, and a 2 x 4. When I was a graduate student, Arch Hart suggested that when one attempts to forgive, three things can happen, and two of them are bad—pre-mature forgiveness and post-mature forgiveness. Premature forgiveness is nothing more than denial. Post-mature efforts are simply a form of emotional (and perhaps physical) catharsis. To avoid these pitfalls he suggested a mental movie that I have often used with individuals who long to forgive. In doing this (if the focus is on forgiving God), I would guide clients through images in which they would imagine that God is bound to a chair in a small cinder-block cell. The only other thing in the room is a wooden 2 x 4. I ask them to imagine that they pick up the board and hold it over their heads as they stand next to God. I ask them to experience the hurt, anger, and hatred they feel toward God for allowing their personal tragedy. (This is done to diminish the possibility of premature forgiveness—denial.) They are also instructed to avoid hitting God with the 2 x 4—avoiding post-mature forgiveness (catharsis that may feel good but leave the cathartee in a worse bind than before). At this point I ask them to imagine that Jesus enters the room. He walks over to where they are standing, raised 2 x 4 in hand. Then, I shut up and pray. I leave them there—somewhere between pre- and post-mature forgiveness—to allow Jesus to whisper his thoughts, his solution. To me this is Christian counseling—avoiding tempting false solutions (in this case pre- and post-mature forgiveness) while humbly tagging out for holy input. The solutions I have heard clients report have been amazing. When it comes to finding connection with God, Jesus has been an ideal teacher.

Helping a Family Member “Forgive” God

The ten suggestions listed above are primarily targeted to the professional counselor. Let’s briefly consider how a family can pro­ mote “forgiveness” of God when a family member is suffering estrangement from him because of tragedy.

Remember, it hurts like the devil. A person estranged from God has entered a dark chasm of isolation, loneliness, hurt, anger, and despair. Such a person needs time, space, warmth, and empathy for the pain he or she is experiencing.

Be willing to serve as a sounding board. Your silent presence is ministry beyond words.

Accept their emotions. Family members who are estranged from God may wish to cathart angry emotions at your expense. Be prepared to meet cold spews of emotion with kind eyes and a warm touch.

Offer books without words. After you have ministered with empathy and silent acceptance, you may wish to purchase appropriate bibliotherapeutic materials for discreet placement around the house. (See “bibliotherapy” for suggestions.) Remember, these gifts should be offered without comment.

Eventually you may need to tag out. All emotions are normal. What makes an emotion abnormal is if its intensity or duration is out of line with a triggering stimuli. It is normal for the experience of tragedy to produce painful emotions such as anger, loneliness, despair, depression, etc. However, if after you have done all that you can to appropriately help, a family member maintains a high level of emotional pain for three to six months after the onset of tragedy, it is time to consider referral to a mental health professional.

06.  Summary

Forgiving God has been examined in light of three classic theodicies and several heartfelt strategies. It has been argued that reconnecting with God in times of experienced tragedy is enhanced by avoiding the sharing of personal theodicies and practicing listening—presence and tears. God’s freedom from forensic blame does not mean an individual experiencing tragedy will not sever the relationship because of false attribution. Several practical suggestions for enhancing reconnection with God’s love were presented.

07.  References

Baillie, D. M. (1948). God Was in Christ: An Essay on Incarnation and Atonement. New York: Scribner & Sons.

Dobson, J. (1993). When God Doesn’t Make Sense. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House.

Hick, J. (1978) Evil and the God of Love. New York: Harper & Row.

Kushner, H. S. (1983). When Bad Things Happen to Good People. New York: Avon. M. E. McCullough, S. J. Sandage, & E. L. Worthington (1997). To Forgive Is Human: How to Put Your Past in the Past. Downers Grove, IL: lnterVarsity Press.

McCullough, M. E., E. L. Worthington, & K. D. Rachal (1997). Interpersonal Forgiving in Close Relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73, 321–336.

Smedes, L.B. (1984). Forgive & Forget: Healing the Hurts We Don’t Deserve. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Ten Boom, C. (1971). Amazing Love. Fort Washington, PA: Christian Literature Crusade.

Yancey, P. (1977). Where is God When It Hurts? Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 184.

Yancey, P. (1986). Disappointment with God: Three Questions No One Asks Aloud. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.


Gary W. Moon, MDiv, PhD, is the president of the Psychological Studies Institute in Atlanta, GA. He is a licensed psychologist and author of several books, including Homesick for Eden and Bible Ride: Adventures That Bring the Gospel to Life.

Juan Fernández Navarrete, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons