If you’re a Christian for long enough, you’ll notice that something sad starts to happen. A lot of the people who started the journey with you end up walking away.
They leave for various reasons and go out different doors. Some leave loudly, announcing that they no longer believe in God. Others drift away without so much as a whisper.
I wrote my first book on 20-somethings who shed their Christian identity. They had lots of reasons for leaving. Many were hurt by other Christians. Some were drawn to behaviors that were incompatible with Christian beliefs. Others were plagued by doubt. The interesting thing to me is that some of the most faithful Christians I know have experienced identical challenges.
What explains why some leave while others stay? Sometimes the only difference I could see is what they did with their trials. The first group ran away from God while the second ran toward him. Instead of letting doubt and disappointment fester in darkness, they dragged it into the light. They joined the great biblical tradition of prophets who expressed their grievances to God, often in harsh and accusatory language.
In the landmark book On the Varieties of Religious Experience, 19th-century American psychologist William James described two kinds of Christians. One he called “healthy-minded” believers. These folks are natural optimists. They rarely, if ever, struggle with doubt. James describes their souls as “sky-blue” and observes that their “affinities are rather with flowers and birds … than with dark human passions … and they think no ill of man or God.”
I know a lot of “healthy-minded” believers. They’re not simpletons. They just take God’s promises at face value and walk out their faith unencumbered by doubt.
I envy them, probably because I fall into James’s second category, which he calls the “sick soul.” For these believers, faith doesn’t come easily. They’re besieged by doubts. As James writes, they “cannot so swiftly throw off the burden of the consciousness of evil, but are congenitally fated to suffer from its presence.”
But for James, the “sick soul” label was not a pejorative. And I’m convinced his definition fits many authors of Scripture. Who can read Paul’s anguished accounts of battling sin without hearing the cry of a sick soul? “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?” (Rom. 7:24). Or consider David, who railed against the unfairness of life and aired his feelings of abandonment. “How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?” (Ps. 13:1).
These biblical writers went toe to toe with the reality of evil and suffering. They asked hard questions. They even accused God of being silent or indifferent to their plight. But they didn’t give up on God. They saw the darkness but placed their trust in the only one who could ultimately dispel it. Even when they didn’t understand what was going on, they kept coming back to God, if only to complain.
I’ve always been drawn to the story of Jacob wrestling with God. If you’ve read the Book of Genesis, you’re familiar with Jacob’s antics. He famously conned his older brother, Esau, out of his birthright, bribing his brother with a bowl of soup. Later, he dressed up in animal furs to fool his dying father into giving him the blessing. Then he fled his childhood home before Esau could kill him.
After years on the lam, Jacob receives a scary message. Esau “is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him” (Gen. 32:6). The night before the meeting, Jacob is all alone. That’s when the divine wrestling match happens. A stranger appears. Initially, we’re told nothing of the man’s identity, just that a fight ensues. They wrestle all night. Jacob realizes there’s something special about the stranger because he begs the man to bless him (v. 26).
Then the man does something odd. He renames Jacob. “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome” (v. 28). Then he grants Jacob’s request and blesses him. Jacob limps toward the sunrise a different man. The dreaded encounter with Esau turns out to be a reunion. The brothers embrace and weep.
Jacob was far from perfect, but he got one thing right. He hung on to God. He was flawed, but he had faith. And tenacity. He knew the only thing more dangerous than wrestling with God is letting God go.
Parenting gives you a glimpse of God’s perspective on why we wrestle with God. Your children are made in your image, and you love them so desperately you can hardly stand it. Yet half the time they’re convinced you’re trying to make them miserable!
My youngest once threw a massive fit because I demanded she hold my hand in a busy parking lot. From her perspective, I was a monster ruining her fun by imposing arbitrary restrictions.
Such moments help me realize that our doubts don’t usually arise in a vacuum. They tend to come during seasons of suffering. And when we suffer, it’s easy to assume God is indifferent or inflicting pain arbitrarily. Like a strong-willed toddler, we thrash about, failing to see the bigger picture.
The timing of Jacob’s wrestling match with God was no coincidence. It happened on the hardest night of his life, when he was scared to death that he was going to die. If Jacob could wrestle with God when he hit rock bottom, we can too. In coming to God, even if we’re uncertain or angry, we show that we trust him, that we haven’t given up.
As my children grow, I’ve noticed that they trust me more. Sure, they still argue and complain. But they no longer assume I’m a sadistic monster bent on destroying their lives. Why? Because they know I love them. They’re starting to understand that even when they can’t comprehend my actions, I still have their best interest in mind.
That’s a good theology lesson. If we have a bedrock trust in God’s goodness, we don’t need to know everything. We don’t need to solve every riddle. We can keep walking through the storm, confident that we’re led by a good God.
Adapted from Just Show Up: How Small Acts of Faithfulness Change Everything (Moody, 2023) by Drew Dyck. Used by permission.
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