How the Brain Keeps Faith in a Good God Amid a Weary World

Both C. S. Lewis and Job held onto their faith when their worlds imploded. Now psychologists suggest clues to understanding how the mind endures in suffering.
How the Brain Keeps Faith in a Good God Amid a Weary World
Image: Illustration by Rick Szuecs / Source image: Getty

C. S. Lewis was briefly, but blissfully, married to his wife, Joy, before she died of cancer in 1960. He journaled through his grief, later published as the book, A Grief Observed, where he retorted in its early pages:

Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolation of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.

Lewis, as one of the best-known Christian apologists of his time, knew plenty of compelling theological answers for suffering. Indeed, he had written an earlier book on the topic, The Problem of Pain. But in his deep personal loss, you see him turn to God with his questioning and even anger. “God,” he writes, “hurts us beyond our worst fears and beyond all we can imagine.” In the same way, in the Book of Job, Job holds onto his faith tightly while his world implodes. Yet he also questions the very purpose of his life, “Why did I not perish at birth, and die as I came from the womb?” (Job 3:11)

You see through Lewis’s journaling and Job’s long discussions with his friends the human need for making sense of how pain and faith interact.

A 2012 psychology study by Russell McCann and Marcia Webb brings into focus our brain’s ability to grapple effectively with the paradox of a suffering world and a good God. It offers intriguing possibilities for understanding how God created our minds to support our faith. Could this be God’s bodily gift when it feels like our world is falling apart?

McCann, a professor at the University of Washington, and Webb, a professor at Seattle Pacific University, looked at how human cognitive flexibility interacts with our faith. Cognitive flexibility, “the ability to adapt behaviors in response to changes in the environment,” is a critical part of the brain’s executive function and is often noted for its role in childhood development. We use cognitive flexibility to learn as children, to switch tasks as adults, and in daily tasks in everything from sorting laundry to multitasking at work.

McCann and Webb used various assessment scales on 193 participants to assess their cognitive flexibility, traumatic symptoms, and how their faith endured during suffering. Then, they compared how cognitive flexibility, trauma, and faith related to each other.

Unsurprisingly, they found that the more someone had experienced trauma, the more likely they were to struggle with God. This is backed by previous research demonstrating that trauma can strengthen some people’s faith while weakening others.

However, they also found that those with higher cognitive flexibility struggle with God “to a lesser extent.” Those with high and medium cognitive flexibility also “endure more with God as traumatic symptoms increase” in comparison to those with low cognitive flexibility.

In other words, higher cognitive flexibility is linked to enduring in faith despite trauma. McCann and Webb note that this may be because cognitive flexibility helps “individuals alter their perceptions surrounding the traumatic event” and to “better tolerate mystery and paradox.”

If there is a book of the Bible that embraces mystery and paradox in a suffering world, it is the Book of Job. We are told in the very first verse that Job was God-fearing and blameless. Yet, then we see God allowing Satan to rain destruction on Job’s life, family, and health. Job and his friends are forced to grapple with what it all means. McCann and Webb refer to this paradox in their research as “why a God they perceive to be all-loving, all-wise, and all-powerful would allow negative life events to occur.”

Job’s friends, with a rigid understanding of how God interacts with the world, have a simple solution in understanding Job’s suffering. Bildad points out that God doesn’t pervert justice (Job 8:3) so logically Job has been so severely punished because of his enormous sins. It seems like Job’s friends were unable to consider a paradox—Job suffered despite his righteousness. They assumed the very worst of Job and declared that Job’s “wickedness” was “great” and accused him of everything from stripping his brothers naked to mistreating widows (Job 22:5–11). Job’s suffering only made sense to them if Job had committed horrible sins.

McCann and Webb point out that religious sufferers in a denomination that “adheres to the notion that traumatic events occur as the result of an individual’s sin” will have persistent traumatic symptoms and be more likely to struggle with God. Job certainly calls his friends out for being “miserable comforters,” and they only added to Job’s pain.

Finally, God inserts himself into the narrative and speaks to Job out of a whirlwind, justifying Job, and rebuking his friends. God also speaks to Job at length of his own power and how even the smallest interactions in the natural world are under his care. What he doesn’t do is give Job a rundown of why he allowed Job to suffer such devastating loss and pain. Job’s words at the beginning of the book still ring out, “The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord,” as acceptance of God’s mysterious work.

Job’s faith is what helps him grapple with his suffering while still believing in a good God. But this research gives us a beautiful thought—perhaps God also gave our minds the ability to accept the mystery and paradox that our faith demands from us.

Furthermore, this brain function can improve. McCann and Webb conclude the study by pointing out how tapping into cognitive flexibility can help religious sufferers reframe their suffering away from “maladaptive beliefs about God”— such as moving away from the belief “I have been hurt, therefore God doesn’t love me and is weak” to instead recognizing “I have been hurt, but I have grown through this suffering, and I have seen God’s love and power in that growth.” They also observed that Scripture such as 1 Peter 1:6–7, which discusses how suffering and trials refine our faith, supports reframing our suffering.

The authors recommend “strategic efforts to increase cognitive flexibility” as well. They mentioned that mindfulness training may help strengthen cognitive flexibility and writing can help process negative life events. Other research shows that physical activity also helps strengthen this important function of our brain.

Lewis, who both wrote and walked a lot in those early months of grief, found he could eventually accept mystery and paradox as part of his faith. After weeks of feeling that God was silent, God met some of his questions not with an answer but rather the impression from God: “As though he shook his head not in refusal but waiving the question. Like, ‘Peace, child; you don’t understand.’” Lewis found two convictions emerging. First was that this life is even more painful than “our severest imaginings.” But second, he also believed along with Julian of Norwich, “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” Lewis, at peace in his faith, concludes that heaven will resolve many of the contradictions we worry about, not by reconciling them, but rather, “the notions will all be knocked from under our feet. We shall see that there never was any problem.”

Kimi Harris writes at kimiharris.com and is the wife of worship leader and music teacher, Joel Harris. They live in beautiful Portland, Oregon, with their three girls and a cat.

April
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