Grieving God: A Hard Story That Ends Well

 Grief: n. Deep mental anguish, as that arising from bereavement. 

I’ve always been an all or nothing kind of guy.  I learned in high school that I was horrible at sports.  Learned that lesson even earlier, actually.  I played basketball in the seventh and eighth grades and scored a total of two points both years combined.  In the eighth and ninth grades I tried football.  Also baseball anHoly Name Cathedral, Chicagod track, etc.  Horribly uncoordinated.  So I dropped them all and refused to attempt a single sporting endeavor for the remaining three years of high school.  I knew how to make money however, so I just worked.  At the local grocery store, I worked every day after school.  Five days a week for those remaining three years.  All or nothing.

And the same went for my pursuit of God.  I didn’t do anything halfway, and I was sold out from the beginning.  Went to my first evangelism conference in Washington, DC at age 14 and started an award-winning soul-saving public high school ministry at 16.  That same year I underwent training with the Billy Graham Crusade and was a floor counselor when the good reverend came to the Minneapolis Metrodome.  Preached my first Sunday morning sermon when I was 17.  Bible camp counselor every summer through high school.  Yada yada yada……

I’m not sure I had any real friends.  But I had God.  And who needs humans when you have the Master of the Universe?

All or nothing.

But I loved it though.  I loved life and I loved my place in the church and ministry, my place in this world!  I would drive down the road, listening to the local pop station on the radio.  I’d hear love songs and picture myself singing them to God.  I had a girlfriend, but what I had with Jesus and his heavenly Father was on a completely other level.  Higher and richer than anything I could otherwise experience.

And over the next 15 years, my faith would become my everything.  My everything.  It would drive my education and quickly become my profession.  It became the essence of my social standing and my prominence in the community.  Not only had my faith convinced me to marry my first girlfriend without ever even dating a second, not only did it lead me to pack up from my small-town Minnesota surroundings and move to the big city of Chicago, not only did it teach me to trust that changing lives was more important than making money–even worth going into huge credit card debt over, not only did my faith do all of these things within me, but it actually  became me.  My whole identity.  Everything I was.  I was my faith and nothing more.

I’ve heard psychology stuff talk about how men may be especially prone to defining themselves according to their jobs.  Maybe this is due to engrained cultural boxes more than anything else, but apparently and for whatever reason, a plumber sees plumbing as the definition of his essence and when he can no longer plumb, he feels as if he’s lost himself and is no longer sure of who or what he is.  The same could apparently be said of a printer or lawyer, a business owner or surgeon.

For me this was especially the case.  My work as a pastor tied into my faith and the very core of my being.  By the time I was 30, MY ENTIRE LIFE was Jesus.  I was sold out.  And I was good at it.  I was successful.  Achieving my goals as a servant of the Most High God with a beautiful family to boot.

And then it all fell apart.

All or nothing.

The how and the why — what happened exactly — we will leave for another time.  There’s kind of a lot to it.  A long and hard journey of discovery.  Can’t cover it all here…

But when my faith began to collapse, it was the most difficult experience I’ve ever had to endure.  Seriously, the hardest thing I’ve EVER gone through.  I felt numb inside.  Just numb.  Spiritually dead.  Completely numb and dead everywhere all over.  Like a dear friend was leaving me.  Abandoning me.  But the kind of best and most dearest friend who has your entire soul bound up in theirs, interweaved together in the most intimate of ways. And then they betray you and rend you in two.  Just disappear and never say a word.

I would often see myself on a rocky shore at midnight.  The moon barely striking through a cloudy and stormy onyx sky.   Sound muted, no thunder, no patter of rain.  Just a terrible deafening silence.  All in slow-motion.  And there in the crashing waves as I stood on jagged stones, I would see God on a boat.  A large and tattered barge slowly pulling away from me.  A mysterious ghost named God was there staring back at me and reaching toward me, yet ever pulled further and further away.  No calling.  No swimming.  No running around in panicked circles.  Just standing there watching me, his gaze undeterred, even as I fell out of reach.  I too stood in silence as the fog overtook his image.  And then after a few immortal moments, God would be gone.  God was gone.

How do I even begin to explain what this felt like without going into the whole of all that transpired over that two-year period?  It was as if I came to a point where my mind refused to let me believe in God any further, as if the reality of a godless world had so completely saturated my awareness that my mind said, “Nope, not gonna let you believe it anymore!  Open your eyes and look around.  I won’t let you escape this!”  Yet, my heart longed for God to continue.  And even as my mind refused to leave my soul in peace, my heart continued to frantically search in vain for the love of its youth.  But eventually my mind won the day.  And in so doing, my heart and soul were bruised.  Wounded and lifeless for a good long while.

I couldn’t move.  Inside, at least.  Oh, my body kept moving.  Kept working.  Kept manufacturing that wonderful smile.  But my heart was dead and awaiting those blessed paddles of defibrillation.  With the absence of that spiritual ecstasy that kept my life aflame, I lost all sense of purpose in this world and all bearing of time-space trajectory.   All the fruit of my life had been hollowed out, and all that remained was a wasting watermelon shell.  I patched it up as best I could, but the empty hole remained.

I was empty.  And bitter.  And angry.  And feeling duped, tricked, and manipulated.

Basically, I just wanted God back.  And the story of God.  And my place in his world.  But to cope, I sealed off those emotions.  Constructed an impenetrable wall over them.  And I moved forward.

But I had to figure things out.  Who was I?  What was I?  What is my place in this world?  And what am I to do?  What’s to be my new profession?  And since I had very intentionally developed all sense of morals and ethics from my understanding of biblical theology, I now felt the need to go back to square one and reconstruct the whole system.  What do I believe is right and wrong?  And who or what am I living for???

I felt claustrophobic.  I didn’t know what to do or who I was.  And I needed to get away to figure things out and find myself.  I let my wife know I would be leaving.  We did it in a highly structured way.  But we separated nonetheless.  We kept contact.  And I had my kids every other weekend.  Did everything just as it’s supposed to be done.  But I left nonetheless.  I loved them all dearly, but I had to go.  In losing my faith, I lost everything.  But myself, this I had to find once more.  Even if it was all that remained.

As the divorce neared later that year, my wife was fighting to gain my attention.  She wanted me back.  But I had to be willing to come back.  And honestly, I was in a place where I wanted nothing.  There was nothing within me that was capable of wanting.  Just an empty hollow shell, living only for the moment and any temporary thrill that could somehow provide a sensation of feeling and life.

She sent me a new song that had been playing on the radio.  It was her call to me.  A call for a response.  And a warning of what would come if I should still sit silent to her pleadings.  It was a popular song, one that granted a lot of attention to the new band Great Big World.  When she sent “Say Something” to me, this was the first time I had heard it.

Say something, I’m giving up on you
I’ll be the one, if you want me to
Anywhere I would’ve followed you
Say something, I’m giving up on you

And I am feeling so small
It was over my head
I know nothing at all

And I will stumble and fall
I’m still learning to love
Just starting to crawl

Say something, I’m giving up on you
I’m sorry that I couldn’t get to you
Anywhere I would’ve followed you
Say something, I’m giving up on you

And I will swallow my pride
You’re the one that I love
And I’m saying goodbye

But as I played the song, I didn’t think of her.  I did envision her singing it to me.  I was capable of that much.  But the song really made me think of God.  Even though I was already public with my atheism, I was still silently and hopefully begging him to reappear in my life.  I still wanted him present.  I still longed for his comfort and friendship.  My mind knew he wasn’t real, but my heart was still calling out to him, just in case.  And so as I saw my wife singing this song to me, I was singing this song to God.  She was pleading with me to return to her.  But I couldn’t.  I was too busy pleading with God to return to me.  And too emotionally exhausted and immobilized to even communicate with her.  We were both grieving.  With the fall of our marriage, the center of her world was collapsing.  But mine was already gone.

Thankfully that was pretty much the low-point.  At least in terms of how my “relationship” with God goes.  I was saying goodbye.  And I did.  The rest of my life continues to be an adventure, the subject of many more rambling discussions to come.  But I said goodbye to God.  I had to.

And life is actually really good now.  I’m thankful to have found an extraordinary sense of healing and recovery post-faith.  And though my ex-wife and I are now divorced, this same sense of healing and recovery seems to be permeating within each of us and within our children as well.  I am learning to be joyful and to embrace the glimpses of peace and wonder that do from time to time flutter across my path.  A smile on my heart and a readiness for tomorrow.  It has not been an easy road but certainly a necessary one.  One that is more honest and real than the other could have ever been.

Losing the idea of God was certainly the most torturous experience of my life, but it was the threshold to something even greater: Life without him.

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