The Colorado Theatre Shootings And The Goodness Of God
I just read a blog post by a Christian who was in the infamous theatre watching the midnight showing of Batman when a gunman opened fire. When the bullets started flying, she told her two daughters to get on the floor, and draped her own body over them. This makes perfect sense to any parent: it is what we would all instinctively do. Then she got all of them out of the building as soon as she could. Now, the interesting part to me is the comments she began to get on her blog, where she writes about the Christian life. More than a few readers apparently thought that now that something truly bad had happened to the blogger personally, she might change her mind about God’s mercy. Her post is titled “So You Still Think God Is a Merciful God?!” a question someone asked her.
I see this sort of dilemma commonly portrayed in the movies. In ‘Signs” Mel Gibson is a pastor who pulls back from faith because of his wife’s death, and Harvey Kietel in ‘Dusk to Dawn’ plays another husband who decides he is done with God because of his wife’s untimely death. I guess I just find myself wondering – do people get to adulthood without realizing that bad things happen? Do they build their lives on belief systems that won’t apply unless tragedy never strikes?
Maybe my own life has been so completely different that losing your faith because something bad happened makes no sense to me. I grew up in a very different world. Bad and inexplicable things were part of the air I breathed. When I was quite young, maybe before I had started Kindergarten, maybe a bit after, are my first memories of my grandmother threatening to send my mother to live on the street, ‘And that baby of yours too!’ My mother had left my PTSD afflicted father, had no money of her own, and was dependent on my grandmother for a place to live. As an adult, I know this threat was not real, it was just my grandmother throwing her weight around. But as a child, I took her at her word. I believed her triumphant declaration that without her house to live in, ‘Bugs will crawl on you!”
I never panicked: I was calm, I said nothing, and plans formed in the back of my mind. I might have to live on the street, and so I kept an eye out for buildings that looked seldom used, where Mom and I could go. I mentioned this to a friend last year, told her that as a child I stayed on the lookout for abandoned buildings where I could live. I had never verbalized these thoughts before. My friend said quietly, “You do realize that a child thinking things like that is not normal. Your life was crazy.” I don’t think I had realized that until she said it. Not consciously.
When Jesus came into my life I was 14. As the child of a bipolar alcoholic, my world had the stability of swampland. True, my mother had her lovely side. She also had her terrible side. One day I would be floating along happily, believing I was the center of her world; the next, the wheel of alcoholic insanity would turn beneath my foot, and I was awakened from a deep sleep by a drunk she brought home from the bar pounding on our piano.
Jesus, when he arrived, changed my fundamental experience of the world. He, I sensed, was unmoving as bedrock. The chaos of the world may not have changed, but I was no longer adrift in it. He was calm, he was sane, he was unafraid. And so I was able to be those things also.
Not long afterwards, having identified myself as a person of faith, I began to run into the ‘Aren’t you angry at God about how awful the world is?’ line of thinking. It made no sense to me. Jesus had rescued me from the awfulness of the world – why would I blame him for it? From my perspective, he was the good guy. I suppose you might say I was coming at the whole question from the other side. Which brings me back to the Colorado movie theatre shootings. Is a long time believer going to have a bad experience, and then change her beliefs about God? I suppose it could happen, but I think it is uncommon. Most people, by the time they reach adulthood, have dealt with the fact that bad things happen, and found some balance for themselves in their belief system.
Maybe another way to say this is that I experienced Jesus as a person who met my needs at a particularly desperate point in my life, a point when everyone else had failed me. It is personal for me. My loyalty to him is a point of honor, in addition to simply being something that has always made sense.
Po Bronson's book on his research on children - an excellent book, though the study I mentioned is on his blog, not in this book
Research on how children perceive God
A few years ago I read a study by Po Bronson (author of Nurture Shock) about how children perceive God. Most of it is hardly surprising: in general, children think God resembles their parents. If a child’s parents are warm, giving and accepting, they think God has those qualities. If the parents are aloof and judgmental, the child forms an idea of God based on these attributes. The surprise came when the study looked at children whose parents had either abandoned them altogether, or been severely dysfunctional or abusive. These children, contrary to expectations, were prone to form the most powerful and positive images of God. With parents so bad they were dismissed out of mind, these children projected the qualities of the ideal, perfectly nurturing parent onto God. They saw God as wonderful.
And here, in a scientific study, I found the dichotomy I have often observed. People who have suffered profoundly often find themselves capable of the deep connections to God, in spite of the pain of experience. Perhaps it is a grace He gives to those of us who need it. “God is a father to the fatherless” says the Bible, and “God is nigh unto the brokenhearted.”
I don’t think that we ‘project the qualities of the ideal parent onto God,’ as the study phrased it. I think we see God as he truly is.
Is God negated when bad things happen? In my experience the opposite happens.
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