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"Good God, Lousy World, and Me" by Holly Burkhalter

good god

It took me a little while to make it all the way through this book because I couldn’t stop crying– sad and happy tears. There were so many times when all I could do was shake my head and laugh and think dear LORD do I ever know what she means.

One of the things that I’ve loved about all the books I’ve read from Convergent has been that the authors are not just honest. I’ve read plenty of books where the voicing has been authentic, when you could feel how genuine the author is– but Convergent books take it one step further. Almost all of the other religious books I’ve read are desperately trying to wrap up all of their books with a bow, to tie it up with a neat, uncomplicated, applicable message. Even Rachel Held Evans– whose writing I love– sort of beats you over the head with her point at times.

Holly’s book doesn’t do that. She invites you into the struggles of her life and is straight with you the entire way through, but she leaves it to you to think about what she’s said. There are very few conclusions presented anywhere in the book, and they’re all in the context of this is my story, this is where I’ve gotten.

At times, it’s actually been a frustrating thing to experience, for me. The fundamentalist that lives in a tiny sliver of my brain gets upset and starts shouting no, just tell me what to think about this! Make an argument for your position and defend it, dammit! That Holly never does that is a beautiful thing, and I’m glad that the part of me that wants the neatly packaged apologetics manual is getting smaller.

I want an answer to the question that was at the core of Holly’s life: If God is good, why is there so much suffering? It is the single greatest roadblock to my faith, and there are many days when I can’t get around it, and Holly talks about the days when she couldn’t get around it, either– both as a non-believer and as a Christian. I’m still there, inhabiting this question, and I can’t see a point in my near future where I’ve settled this, where I’ve resolved it. Holly hasn’t either– and that comforted me. I’ve grown to strongly resent it when much older Christians are blithe about suffering, who seem perfectly content to ignore the darkness in this world and chirp about how amazing God is when they keep their tire from going flat.

That was one of my favorite stories Holly shares– it was about a woman who praised God for keeping their tires inflated when they were in the middle of a war-torn, genocide-stricken African country. Holly’s reaction is my reaction– seriously?! How can someone thank God for the state of some rubber when they just spent all day talking to people ripped apart by shrapnel?

That the bulk of Christian culture seems just as happy to not truly, actually confront the darkness and evil in this world is one of the biggest things that bothers me about it. They can effortlessly hide so far behind their privilege that they can’t even identify the fact that they’re hiding. Well, Holy confronts it– has spent her entire adult life face-to-face with it, and came out on the other side of it a believer.

That gives me a lot of hope. Some days I’m barely holding on to my faith, and the darkest moments come when I have to ask myself is the only reason why I’m still a Christian because I don’t want to face the bleak reality of a world without God in it?

Holly, over the course of her book, points to all the reasons why she believes in God. Because of prayer (a concept I do not understand … at all), because of compassion, and empathy, and love, and kindness, and help. Because of Christians, because of people, who see a world full of pain and want to do something to end it.

Reading this book helped settle some of my doubts, although they’ll never be completely gone. It’s nice when love is the answer to a question you’ll always have.

note: I received this book in exchange for my review on “Blogging for Books.”

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  • On the other hand, it could be said that the world is this shitty even if God is in it. My attempt at a pat take-away is that if God is good, Zie is hands-off in regards to us.

  • Book now on my wish list!

  • Sarah S

    I haven’t found compassion, love, empathy, kindness and help to be Christian traits. They are human traits. One of the things that helped push my faith out the door was the love I saw in people outside of Christianity. Love with a lot less judgement and fewer strings attached.

    • Aibird

      This. I had a similar realization. They’re not Christian-only traits. They’re definitely human traits.

      If I have any belief at all, it’s in the idea that love really can heal, but we just are so filled up with other stuff that we can’t receive or give it out enough, and I think that’s part of the cause of suffering. We’re so filled up on everything else that love can’t penetrate through to where it’s needed. As for the source of love? Well, sometimes humans are the source of it. And sometimes it’s other stuff — and it’s that other stuff that I’m uncertain about and don’t know what exactly it is, and I guess there’s where I’m struggling to define what I believe. Because sometimes I feel loved by just sitting in a meadow with trees sprinkled on its edges and the sun beating down on me. Maybe that’s self-love? Or is it something else? Don’t know. But it’s nice.

    • L

      Exactly… those are wonderful traits, but I realized after a lot of struggle that there was no reason to connect them with a god.

  • Thank you for reflection. You have got me interested in the book. I appreciate your naming that we need not be afraid of questions, struggle and suffering. I also appreciate saying that faithfulness is not always easy. Thank you for being vulnerable with us.

  • I’ve been on the lookout for honest Christian memoirs, this one will get added to my list. I would have had the same reaction to that prayer about the tires…I’ve seen posts on Facebook asking for prayers for a new house, new car, and meanwhile families are being slaughtered in Israel. Trying not to judge, but it’s…difficult.

  • Crystal

    You’re right, Samantha. People in the West have it so good. The problem with us is that we are too rich. We have too much. Many of us don’t know what it’s like to be poor. We want small things like “Oh God please heal my sore finger” while all around us people are starving, in Haiti, Africa, and other Third World countries. If we should pray, pray for them. I speak of myself too–I also am guilty of the same.

    Speaking of prayer, prayer is talking to God as I am talking to you. And God answers you. Try looking into the books “The Freedom Diaries.” They will change your life and the way you view prayer!

  • “is the only reason why I’m still a Christian because I don’t want to face the bleak reality of a world without God in it?” I don’t understand why the choice has to be between Christianity or a world without God. Or between any religion and a world without God. We have put, or tried to put, the Almighty into this mold, this persona that jives with human understanding. Is it any wonder that the Creator of the Universe proves to be something consistently beyond our comprehension? It’s not necessary or even possible to reconcile the concept of a “good” god with the existence of human suffering. Perhaps human suffering is–has always been–humanity’s problem to recognize and alleviate. Perhaps, out of our impotence to do so, we have shirked that responsibility on to an all-powerful “god” with the power to heal all our ills…who does not do so. But if the Creator does not fit the definition we have ascribed to it, the blame does not lay upon the Creator. Just because “God” turns out not to be who or what we have believed it is, does not mean “God” does not exist.

    • Rebekah

      There is a very real and deeply puzzling philosophical problem with reconciling the traditional conception of a theistic God with the fact of suffering. Waving your hand in a gesture of dismissal doesn’t negate this. You have to wrestle with the premises of the problem as it stands. It’s ok to say you don’t know what the solution is, but casually dismissing the extant problem doesn’t make it go away. For example, you can say you don’t believe in the historical theistic conception of God (as omnipotent, omnibenevolent, omniscient). From your comment, it appears that might be the route you’d take. That’s a very interesting approach, but one that proves problematic for orthodox Christians.

  • “That was one of my favourite stories Holly shares– it was about a woman who praised God for keeping their tires inflated when they were in the middle of a war-torn, genocide-stricken African country. Holly’s reaction is my reaction– seriously?! How can someone thank God for the state of some rubber when they just spent all day talking to people ripped apart by shrapnel?”

    I thought she was praying because she was rushing to get someone to a hospital for a medical emergency, in a jeep. Or because she had to deliver medical supplies. Because those would seem an entirely reasonable prayers, to me. Guess I was wrong :s

  • Theodicy is probably the biggest single difficulty in believing in a just, caring God. Honestly, I think that problem is a pretty compelling argument for atheism, or at least agnosticism. It’s certainly something I stuggle with. I still think of myself/am a Christian, but I’m about as close to agnosticism/atheism as you can be in that context. There are some, actually, who believe it is possible to be both an atheist AND a Christian. There’s at least one Episcopal priest/theologian (his name escapes me, but I really want to look into what he has to say again, so anyone who knows who I’m talking about feel free clue me in) who thinks that is possible. One passage in the Bible really stuck with me that I heard recently. This comes from 1 John 4:7-12:

    “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. 9 God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.”

    That reads to me almost as a man who does not believe God exists in a tangible way, particularly in the culimination of that passage in verse 12. I think that we can see God when we see people loving one another, doing justice, and what is right by each other.

    How do we love God, with all our heart, soul, and mind? Well, the second commandment is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. Everything else depends on that, to paraphrase the Summary of the Law.

    Anyway I think I’m starting to ramble, and I certainly don’t think I have the answer, but I offer that as one possible explanation. I think it’s clearly something every reasoning person of faith has to grapple with. It may be an irresolvable question.

  • I have been questioning yet will never understand why God doesn’t stop suffering since my daughter was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2000. She has suffered with debilitating disabilities ever since then. I absolutely hate when other Christian parents proclaim that their child’s cancer turned out to be a blessing in disguise. I guess I’m just not that spiritual. That statement actually makes me sick. What a truly insensitive and cruel thing to say about an ill child! I can assure you that there is nothing blessed about a child suffering through cancer treatments.

  • I would push back a bit against some of the sentiments echoed here; while I certainly don’t think that using prayer and thanksgiving as an excuse to publicly gloat over one’s prosperity is a good thing, I also don’t think it’s healthy to feel guilt over lamenting/praying over suffering simply because one’s pain might be light compared to that of another. As a corollary, I do not think it wise to feel guilt over thanking God for small deliverances because others who experience bigger problems have not yet been delivered. While it is good for the relatively prosperous Christian, on the one hand, to humbly realize and acknowledge that his or her problems might be small compared to the great sufferings of others, it is unhealthy in my opinion to compare our sufferings to others’ in a way that discourages us from lamenting pain and celebrating God’s deliverance both privately and publically.

    In no way do I mean to endorse the kind of “prayer and thanksgiving” that merely reveals an attachment to mammon in a person’s heart, that is, praying for more worldly possessions and accolades and gloating in worldly gain my means of public “thanksgiving.” But we are encouraged to take all of our cares, no matter how small, to God in prayer, anything from mild stress and anxiety to extreme persecution and the threat of death.