Henry sat in the second row of the sanctuary. It was 4:10 p.m. He had knocked on Pastor Jenkins’ office door, but there was no response. Henry sat, mulling over his spiritual struggle of the past few weeks – how he had dared to open up, speaking the truth about his doubting himself and others. He sat, trying to steel himself for today’s encounter; he had been thinking about it most of the week, with some fear and shame.
“Hello, Henry,” sounded a familiar voice. “I apologize for being late. I was called unexpectedly to the hospital. One of our parishioners had emergency surgery. I am sorry that I kept you waiting. Please come into my office.”
Henry found his way to the familiar overstuffed chair and waited for Pastor Jenkins to hang up his coat and sit down.
“How has your week been, Henry?”
“Better in some ways and not so good in others.”
“Well, studying Scripture, using the Pray, Think, Stop, Decode method you talked about gave me some direction. I kept stopping when reading about Peter. When Jesus asked, ‘Do you love me?’
I had to ask myself if I loved Jesus, or if I loved God, for that matter. Then when Jesus said, ‘Feed my lambs, feed my sheep,’ that really stopped me. I thought about that a lot, and I think I finally got what you were saying last week. Though I doubt myself, Jesus still trusts me; and though I doubt others, Jesus is challenging me to change my attitude, to stop isolating myself and to start caring for others as he cares for me.”
Pastor Jenkins was a bit stunned. “Henry, I’m not sure what to say; it sounds like you really made Peter’s story your own story.”
“Yes, well, then there is the not so good part. When Jesus asked Peter, “Do you love me?” I thought about that a lot, too. That question troubled me.”
“What troubled you?”
“I am ashamed to say so after growing up in the church, but I don’t really think I believe God exists at all. How can you love someone who doesn’t exist?”
“Tell me more. When did you start feeling this way?”
“As I said when we first got together, I have seen a lot. In the service, I saw people who seemed to get along fine, who had good values, who were kind and understanding, hell… er, I mean heck, they would have died for me.”
“Yes, go on.”
“Well they didn’t believe in God and they seemed to be good people.”
“The children. I saw children living in poverty, dying from our own well intended but misdirected actions. And then one of my buddies actually saw a teenager blow herself up. They said it was because she believed God would reward her. I have seen so much suffering; I can’t believe there is a God. It’s more than doubting God’s existence; it’s that I can’t believe at all.”
“Is it that you can’t, or that you won’t?”
Henry was startled by the pastor’s question. “Well how could I believe in a God that would let stuff like that happen?”
“Well, if you can’t believe in a God that would let children live in poverty, or blow themselves up, or let people suffer, what kind of God could you believe in?”
“What do you mean, what kind of God could I believe in? How many Gods are there?”
“The Scriptures portray many beliefs about the nature of God. There were those who saw God as the Creator as in the creator of the world in the book of Genesis, those who saw God as the giver of the Law as in Leviticus, those who saw God as the punitive judge as in the story of the Noah and the great flood, those who saw God as the covenant maker as in the Ten Commandments, those who saw God as the one who tests us as in the story of Job, those who saw God as the faithful lover as in the book of Hosea, those who saw God as the one to uphold justice as in the book of Amos, those who saw God as the one who sent his Son to call us to join God in attending to those in prison, the hungry, the naked, and the orphaned, those who saw God as the one who sent his Son to die for our sinfulness, and those who saw God as one who sent his Son to reveal that God also suffers in love with us rather than take revenge.
“I apologize for going on so long, but I am wondering what God is it that you don’t believe in, that has caused you to doubt so much?”
“I never thought about it that way. I don’t know. I never thought about the Scriptures giving us so many different pictures of who God is. I never thought about what kind of God I believe in and what kind of God I don’t believe in.”
“Well, now that you are thinking about it, from what you have seen in the world, what kind of God don’t you believe in?”
Henry squirmed uneasily in his chair. It didn’t feel as comfortable as it had. He closed his eyes and pictured the impoverished children he had seen; he saw again his friend being shot and dying, he smelled the death of enemy combatants after battle.
“Take your time; think about it. What kind of God, after all you have seen, don’t you believe in?”
“I don’t believe in a God that would let children suffer, I don’t believe in a God that would promise some kind of reward to a teenager for blowing herself up; yet, I don’t believe in a God who protects good people from all the bad stuff that happens.”
“OK. And, Henry, I don’t believe in that kind of God either. I only have to look at what happened to Jesus to know that doing good doesn’t protect us from bad things happening to us. In fact, it often seems that doing good may lead to suffering. I guess most of us would like to think that God is going to favor us if we just believe hard enough, just have enough faith; but as I look at the lives of Jesus, the disciples, and those who have really lived the life of faith, whether Christian or otherwise, that doesn’t seem to be the case.”
“Then I don’t get it. What’s left to believe if I can’t, or as you say if I ‘won’t’ believe in a God who protects the good people and punishes the bad ones?”
“That’s a fair question, and one that is often asked. So are you willing to take another assignment of Scriptures, questions and a daily prayer?”
“You mean you aren’t going to answer my question? That isn’t right. You are the pastor; you’re the one who has devoted your life to God. You should tell me who God is.”
“Well, I will make a bargain with you. If you read the Scriptures I give you, answer the questions, and pray the daily prayer; and if you still want me to tell you who God is, I will give you my answer next week. Deal?
“O.K.; I don’t like it, but O.K.”
“O.K.; here is the list of Scriptures, the questions, and the prayer. As you read the Scriptures, your assignment is to answer two questions:
What is the person who wrote this particular scripture telling me about who they believe God is?
Do I believe in this kind of God?