Monday, April 25, 2011


Is it difficult to maintain one’s faith in God when things go badly in life? Trials certainly test a believer’s faith and it may be tempting to ask, “God, why did you let this happen after all those years of Christian service and church attendance?” Maybe we have tried to live as a Christian, giving up all of the vices, tithing, and doing good deeds, only to have hard times in life cause us to wonder if it was worth it. This “Christian thing” doesn’t seem to make a difference, life is still bad, so I may as well live like I please and forget about God. It appears He forgot about me. Has anyone ever had thoughts like these? Why do some people hold onto faith in God like a lifeline, while others toss it aside with disgust?

This is a complex issue and a simple answer would be trite; however, one component in the mindset of those who choose to retain their faith involves expectations. These form part of a person’s philosophical outlook on life. These perspectives that color our perception of events often take the form of imperatives such as “should” or “must”. For example, “everyone I meet should like me” or “circumstances must always turn out good.” Other beliefs can include “It’s unfair that life is difficult”, “I deserve to be happy”, and so on. Clinical Psychologist Albert Ellis developed rational-emotive therapy (RET), which is based on the theory that irrational beliefs are a cause of distress in life. This is not new: 1st century philosopher Epictetus allegedly stated, “Men are disturbed not by things, but by the view that they take of them.” The imperatives in our cognitive belief system (“should” and “must”) are generally followed by perceived outcomes or cognitive distortions, such as catastrophizing. For example, “If something bad happens in life, it is a catastrophe.” For this mindset, there is often no middle ground, situations are good or bad, black or white.

Aaron Beck, father of cognitive therapy, listed typical cognitive distortions, some of which include:
• Overgeneralization - making a broad statement based on one, or a few, instances
• Polarized thinking - separating life events into only positive or negative, either a success or total failure
• Selective abstraction - pulling one event out of context to arrive at an erroneous interpretation
• magnification or catastrophizing - as the name suggests, is like turning an ant hill into Mount Everest
• Heaven’s reward fallacy - the expectation that our sacrifice and self-denial will pay off, as if someone is keeping score. We feel bitter when the reward doesn’t come.

So, how can irrational beliefs be countered? Books have been written on these topics, but we'll be brief here. The first step is to recognize and admit the problem by thinking about what we’re thinking about. We need to act as our own counselor and ask ourselves leading questions, such as “If X happens, will the world really end?” or “Because X happened, is my life over?” The irrational beliefs – and logical conclusions – must be disputed with reason. A second step involves changing our language, even if it is only in our head. For example, “should” and “must” can be replaced by more reasonable language, such as “If X happens, it will be difficult, but my life will not end and God will help me to recover.” As a caveat here, it is understood that some people go through very difficult circumstances in life and this is certainly not meant as a quick solution.

Concerning the issue of expectations, a man who lived long ago and suffered many difficulties said: “Shall we indeed accept good from God and not accept adversity?” This was spoken in response to the man’s wife who instructed him to “Curse God and die”. This is exactly what the enemy of our soul tells us when things go bad: “Curse God, He’s not helping you. If He even exists, He let you down.” As Al Pacino said to Keanu Reeves in The Devil’s Advocate, God is “an absentee landlord”, not really helping people. But Job did not accept that irrational reasoning and, instead, “Through all this Job did not sin nor did he blame God” (Job 1:22). The matter of expectations is vital. If we expect life to always be good, it will be easy to lose faith when things go badly. But, even Jesus did not promise an easy life: “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33). James stated, “Consider it all joy … when you encounter various trials” (James 1:2) and Peter wrote, “In this you greatly rejoice … you have been distressed by various trials” (1 Peter 1:6). If we expect difficulties at times in life, our faith will not be destroyed when they come. And, we have the promises that God will take us through the trials and reward perseverance. King David expected trouble at times: “Many are the afflictions of the righteous”, but he also expected help from above – “but the Lord delivers him out of them all.” After Jesus warned his disciples to expect trouble in the world, He said, “take courage; I have overcome the world."