The Solace of Nonbelief
Several months ago, someone I love dearly, Frank, underwent major surgery. Given his advanced age (he’s 83) and general poor health, there were some doubts as to whether he would survive the surgery. He did survive and has spent the intervening months in a nursing home, where he has been receiving physical therapy. In a recent meeting with his therapist, Frank and his wife were informed that he will likely be an invalid for the rest of his life.
My emotional response throughout Frank’s illness and rehab has been sorrow. Every time I visit Frank and see him in his wheelchair or bed, I can’t help contrasting that man with the younger man who cheered as I played softball, the man who joyfully wandered around a zoo with my young children, the man who drove 4,000 miles across North America to visit my family. I feel overwhelming sorrow that most of Frank’s days will now be spent in the confines of a nursing home. A man who has traveled around the world now finds that a wheelchair journey down the hall is a major event that draws upon all of his physical resources. How can that thought not make me sad?
The emotion that I have not felt throughout Frank’s ordeal is anger. At what or whom would I be angry? There is no god to blame for not intervening in Frank’s life and healing him. There is no god to implore for mercy, no god to whom I may inquire what Frank could possibly have done to deserve this fate after decades of faithful, loving service to his god. This is a sharp contrast to the anguish and anger I felt 25 years ago when I was a Christian and my Christian father was dying of cancer. My siblings and I were called to my father’s bedside about three weeks before he died. We spent two days visiting with him and my mother in the hospital in which he later died. When we said goodbye, we knew it was the last time we would ever say those words to each other.
A couple of days later, I woke up on a Sunday morning and thought, “I don’t want to go to church today. I’m not in the mood to worship.” Since I was the pianist, however, there was no way that my absence from the service would have gone unnoticed (and playing for the services was part of my job). So, I went to church. Since the band accompanied the first song, I was
able expected to sing with the congregation. The song was entitled, God is Love. I opened my mouth and nothing came out. I literally could not sing those words. At that moment, I didn’t believe that God was love. I didn’t want to worship him. I was livid with God for allowing my father, who was only 57 years old, to suffer the pain and indignity of death from cancer. I was angry at him for not answering our prayers.
I eventually got over my anger and continued living and believing as a Christian for another 24 years after Dad died. But, I never forgot that my belief in God did not provide consolation in my time of greatest grief. Now, 25 years later, as someone I love is facing the torment of a protracted illness, I don’t look to God for solace. My knowledge that the god of Christianity is false enables me to face Frank’s illness with, in addition to sorrow, a determination to do whatever lies within my power to help him and his wife. My knowledge that the god of Christianity is false allows me not to waste time and energy praying for healing that, if it comes at all, will only come by human agency. My knowledge that the god of Christianity is false frees me from the confusion and anger that arise from unanswered prayers, from the concern that the god that Frank worships has elected, for mysterious reasons that are beyond human understanding, not to intervene in his life and perform a miracle of healing. I just know that Frank’s illness is an aspect of life that must be endured, just as many aspects of life are enjoyed to their fullest extent.
There is no one to blame for what has happened to Frank, and there is no one to beseech for his healing. Knowing these things has given me greater solace in a time of sorrow than Christian faith ever did.
— the chaplain