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When Religion Makes Grief More Difficult

In many religious traditions, God is believed to be responsive to the needs of believers, and in difficult times, the faithful turn to God for comfort and guidance.

When God is viewed as a benevolent protector that can shield us from harm, what happens to faith — and healing — when God fails to provide that protection? How do believers cope with a situation in which they’ve prayed to God to heal a sick loved one, but despite fervent prayers and deep faith, the loved one dies anyway? 

When God is viewed as a benevolent protector who failed to provide protection, a crisis of faith can emerge that can complicate the mourning process. 

Current academic research on the impact of religious belief on loss and grief finds that religious coping can be both helpful and harmful. It’s a vague conclusion at best, but there’s a good reason for the lack of a decisive answer… researchers cannot accurately define religious belief. Traditional research questionnaires have measured religious life in terms of church attendance or “belief in God,” but this doesn’t account for people who believe in some form of God but never attend church, nor does it allow for variations in individual concepts of God or a spiritual life that doesn’t fit within established religious traditions.  

We can’t define God any more than we can say that one religion’s depiction of the afterlife is more accurate than another’s. But we can say that some interpretations are more life-affirming, more personally empowering and more healing than others. And nowhere is this more evident than in the lives of grieving or traumatized individuals grappling with a spiritual crisis.

We find a wide range of theological constructs that can inhibit the healing process for those who are grieving a profound loss. Doctrines such as original sin, salvation and eternal punishment in hell can be soul-crushing for someone dealing with loss and trauma. Similarly, the belief that petitionary or intercessory prayer can change the course of events can lead to confusion and guilt when prayers don’t produce the desired results.

Most Americans grew up with a Sunday school image of God as a protector/punisher, and go through their lives without ever questioning that image. For some, a profound loss or trauma can inspire deeper exploration, but for those don’t – or won’t — question their faith, trying to make that image fit with actual human experience is like trying to put a square peg into a round hole.The square peg is a belief in divine reward and punishment. The round hole is the way life actually works. By the time most of us are young adults we have observed that the good are not necessarily rewarded and the bad are not necessarily punished. Real human experience proves that it just doesn’t work that way.

   
When traumatized persons cling to the image of God as a protective parent, they often focus their energy on being angry at God for letting them down rather than on the inner resources needed for resilience and healing. If they also see God as a harsh judge and punisher, the anger may mix with guilt and fear, further inhibiting the healing process. 

Some religious adherents believe that anger is a sin, or that we shouldn’t grieve at all, because we should rejoice that our loved one is in Heaven with Jesus.  Conversely, if the loved one isn’t “saved,” he/she won’t be in Heaven, but in hell, punished for eternity.  Some believers might attribute a tragic loss as divine punishment for an earlier transgression. For example, a woman whose teenage son died from leukemia believed his illness and death was her punishment for an abortion she had 20 years earlier.  

These ideas and images are not only irrational… they are dangerous and toxic. But the good news is that these ideas are changing. As more and more people abandon traditional religious structuresandopttoidentifyas“spiritualbutnotreligious,”notions ofsuffering,sinandredemptionareon their way out.Thetermhassincebecomeitsowntheological framework, sparking research and commentary by theologiansworldwide. It has even earned an acronym:SBNR.

Theology professor Linda Mercadante,  in studying  people who  identify as SBNR,found  that  SBNRS are not concerned with “future-oriented expectationstraditionally associated with salvation or various other afterlife schemas,”[1]and in order to be a good person, it  is not necessary to believe in a god that rewards and punishes.[2] Current data from the Pew Research studies on America’s religious demographics reveal a similar picture. Traditional religious beliefs have given way to a population that identifies as religiously unaffiliated; a group that now makesup 23%of the adult population in theU.S.[3]

*Terri is the also the founder of the Afterlife Education Foundation and producer of the annual Afterlife Awareness Conference. Terri also has a new book, GRIEF AND GOD: When Religion Does More Harm Than Healing, which you can find on Amazon. 


[1]Elizabeth Drescher, Choosing Our Religion: The Spiritual Lives of America’s Nones (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016). 119

[2]Ibid. 189

[3]Benjamin Wormald. “U.S. Public Becoming Less Religious.” Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project. November 02, 2015. Accessed March 16, 2017. http://www.pewforum. org/2015/11/03/u-s-public-becoming-less-religious/.207 Harvey Cox. The Future of Faith (New York, NY: Harper One, 2009). 5

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