“I don’t think God loves me anymore.”

“Do you realize / we’re floating in space?”: The Flaming Lips, “Do You Realize?”

During one of my recent calls to a patient I have, Louise*, she quite literally began our conversation with, “you know Sam, I don’t think God loves me anymore.”

This was a rather remarkable statement and took me by surprise at the time. Louise and her husband live in an assisted living community in a local suburb. Both are strong Catholics and maintain a daily spiritual practice that is almost monastic in some ways. They both get up early to read their devotions together, pray and sing hymns. Throughout the day they will stop and pray together as well. She also is an avid reader of Christian literature from Protestant as well as Catholic traditions. She is tremendously warm and open, however she’s declined visits for now as she finds that her cancer wears her down so quickly that phone calls are more welcome than visits.

When Louise told me how she felt, I wasn’t so much taken aback as I was curious. I asked her to tell me more. Very matter-of-factly she told me of how much she had struggled with pain over the winter. Many days she was either in too much pain or physically sick to get out of bed. Several times I was only able to talk with her husband as she was too ill to talk. It was on the heels of a long episode of significant illness and pain that she told me that she wasn’t sure if God loved her.

We often think of faith as a kind of shield in difficult times, absorbing the arrows of the world’s distress and our own weakness. Yet I find that it’s not those with the weakest faith that struggle most with death and suffering, but those with the strongest. Dr Ken Pargament recently spoke at a CPSP regional conference I organized on the topic of working with those in spiritual struggles, taken from a recent publication (which I highly recommend). He stated that faith and spirituality can act as sort of an inoculation against some spiritual struggles and challenges, but that same faith can be beaten down and even shattered by others. The differences he found between cases was not a matter of magnitude, but rather in focus. Spiritual distress affects those with broad, liberal views of God as well as those with narrow, conservative ones. He found that when core personal beliefs about the world as well as how one relates to it are threatened, spiritual distress is heightened. Paradoxically, this happens more in those who may consider themselves strong in their faith as well as those who consider themselves agnostic.

Spiritual struggles are not just questions about God or one’s own faith. They are foundational challenges to core concepts about the world, how it operates and how one relates to it. Pargament calls this one’s “orienting system”. It encompasses more than the idea of “world view”, as it includes one’s notions of ultimate purpose and meaning. While religious systems and beliefs often are the source for orienting systems, non-theists also have orienting systems that are grounded with similar senses of ultimate importance and significance. Astronomer Carl Sagan for example approached the cosmos with a sense of awe and wonder that many would consider spiritual:

“The Cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be. Our feeblest contemplations of the Cosmos stir us — there is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation, as if a distant memory, of falling from a height. We know we are approaching the greatest of mysteries.”

Carl Sagan, Cosmos

What Louise was experiencing was a dramatic blow to her orienting system. Her “north star”, the idea that God was good and loved her unconditionally, had been shaken by her ongoing illness and the feeling that her prayers were going unheard. She felt abandoned in her time of greatest need. Her pain – emotional, spiritual and physical – called other patients’ stories back to mind. I remembered the patient I had years ago who proclaimed with a feeling that was almost joy that she was ready to die and be with her Jesus, only to ask months later as her body withered and bled from cancer why God hadn’t taken her. I remembered the woman I had just seen who, confined to her bed, wonders every day through tears what God’s purpose is for her.

These same stories and struggles also take me back years to another patient I had who dealt with her own struggle of faith. Grace* was bed-bound, frail and emaciated, blind and almost deaf. Yet she transformed this suffering into purpose in the most wonderful way. She saw that even though physically she was completely dependent on others for care and could do almost nothing for herself, she could pray for others. She turned this into a calling. She told me she began to pray for the staff that would come in to see her and care for her. Soon, the facility staff as well as other residents started coming to her room to receive prayer. In my visits with her, after we prayed together, she always prayed for me with joy and enthusiasm. It was hard not to leave her room feeling in some way touched by God.

Grace’s story is one that I share often with patients who are struggling not because she is some pillar of strength or faith, but because it shows how one person dealt with the questions they themselves might be asking: what is my purpose? what can I do? where is God in my suffering? It encourages fellow sufferers to continue to press on with those questions rather than fall into a pit of despair. When one’s spiritual compass is no longer trustworthy, I ask “what gives you hope?”

I’ve spoken with Louise several times since that call I spoke of previously and thankfully she is feeling quite a bit better since then. She noted several reasons for this. Her pain and weakness, while still significant, are better controlled and managed than before. The celebration of Easter helped renew the sense that, as Christ overcame suffering and death, she may overcome it as well. She even commented, “you know, I don’t think about the resurrection enough!” I also see a renewed sense of hope for the future, something which had been shattered before by her spiritual struggles. Last we talked, she spoke of looking forward to her husband’s birthday and their anniversary, and also being outside with her beloved plants and nature. She told me about the white squirrel that shows up outside from time to time, as well as the many birds outside their patio home. She told me how much she looked forward to seeing the trees lit up by fireflies on summer nights “like pixie lights on Christmas trees.”

It can be tempting to give my own prescription for meaning in someone else’s life. It’s so hard to watch someone struggle spiritually and it’s hard not to try and take that pain away. Recognizing and affirming that struggle though is one of the most important things we can do for our fellow sufferers. Many feel the struggle itself is a problem, maybe the problem. However spiritual struggles are often simply part of the cost of having faith, whatever that faith may be in. We can help by pointing out strengths, including that the struggle itself is a sign of strength. We can focus attention on what one can do rather than what one can’t do. We can listen and bear witness, lending strength through the telling of our own struggles as well as those of others who came out on the other end of them, not in the sense of “go and do likewise” but to give hope that struggles are common and can be worked through.

In the same way that Grace’s story has helped others many years after her passing, I hope Louise’s can provide hope and healing as well.

*all names have been changed to preserve anonymity

Choice, or Lack Thereof: Lenten Reflections in a Pandemic

You have no idea how important this choice is (from The Stanley Parable)

I started a computer game last night that spoke to the times in an interesting way. No, not The Walking Dead or Plague, Inc.: it’s The Stanley Parable (and it’s free for a limited time as of this writing on Epic). Sure TWD and Plague, Inc. certainly share the paranoia and dread of today, but The Stanley Parable deals with something that has affected us all around the world, and that choice – and the lack thereof. Without giving too much away, TSP is game in which the isolated protagonist office worker Stanley discovers that he has suddenly stopped receiving directions from his boss. The parable that ensues makes you consider whether or not the choices you make are really your own and how much control do you have of the story being told – if there even is a story.

I’ve been very aware of choice over the past week, as have all of us I expect. We are all now much more limited in where we can go and what we can do. Some choices are made for us, like what stores are open, and others are made on our own. Others’ choices impact our own lives as well, from refusing to follow precautions to hoarding paper towels. The idea of choice and the lack thereof has impacted my life most significantly in my work as a hospice chaplain and bereavement counselor. Continue reading

Guest Post: Remembering Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Through Activism, by Dominic Fuccillo

Guest Post: Remembering Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Through Activism, by Dominic Fuccillo

The following article was contributed by Dominic Fuccillo and originally appeared in CPSP Pastoral Report on Jan 20, 2020, Perry Miller, editor:

Editor’s Note: In this time of division, even with forces designed to legitimize expressions and actions fueled by hate and racial discrimination, we need to hear and re-hear the voice and message of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. but more is required. We must commit ourselves to an activism that aligns ourselves with the redeeming power of justice articulated by the inspiring dream and hope of Dr. King. 

Mental Health and Worship: Relating Faith and Psychology Part 3

Last time I wrote about practical ways in which churches can work to address the concrete needs of those affected by mental illness and emotional distress in their congregations. That frankly is something that is not too difficult or controversial. The more difficult task for clergy is how to address mental health during the service. Here as well I think a holistic approach is best and necessary. Every aspect of the service, from choice of music to sermon, can and should speak to these issues. Continue reading

Mental Health and Your Congregation: Relating Faith and Psychology Part 2

Previously I wrote concerning the importance of faith communities as well as professional support in addressing mental health in our congregations. I advocated using a holistic approach, addressing the spiritual, emotional, physical and social aspects of the whole person. Today I am going to look at practical ways that churches can do that. Continue reading

Relating Faith and Psychology From the Pulpit: Part 1

Mental health is a major concern in the United States, and Christian books concerning depression, anxiety and other mental health issues are common bestsellers. Yet the majority of pastors rarely or never discuss it on Sunday mornings.

A 2018 study by Lifeway research brought the issue of how mental health is addressed in churches to light. The study found that although 66% of pastors rarely discussed mental health issues from the pulpit, over half have counseled someone with an acute mental illness, and ¾ of those surveyed knew someone personally who suffered from clinical depression. The study found that almost a quarter of pastors surveyed struggled with mental illness themselves. If this is the case, why aren’t pastors speaking about this more often? Continue reading

The Political Chaplain

An image from the Arbor Day foundation: “A rotten inner core … can cause a split trunk. The wounds are too large to ever mend.”

I have a game at home called “We Didn’t Playtest This At All”. It’s a really fun game (to some at least) based on unique cards that people play during the game that change the rules of the game as it’s played. For example, one card simply says “You Win” and when you play that card, you win (but only if you’re a girl in one case). Unless someone has the card that allows them to make someone lose whenever that person just won (but they also lose). My favorite card though is called “Politics”. When you play that card you are told to say “everything is ruined!”, then all players turn in all their cards and pick new ones. Because, as we know, politics ruins everything. Continue reading

The Bookshelf: “Why Do Christians Shoot Their Wounded?”, by Dwight Carlson

The relationship between body, mind and soul is one of the most complicated and least understood in the modern world. One reason is that while the three certainly seem distinguishable (at least to those who believe we have a soul) the boundaries are extremely hazy. Is depression a result of a chemical imbalance, a poor self-image, or guilt from personal sin? How you answer this question will be a reflection of not simply your faith but your worldview as well (and the answer is most probably “yes” to all three). Continue reading

Repost in Response to John Piper: The Chaplain and Mental Illness

Recently John Piper, through his Desiring God twitter account, sent out the following message: “Stop seeking mental health in the mirror of self-analysis, and start drinking in the remedies of God in nature.” The result was a backlash from many concerned with this apparent disregard for the nature of mental illness. A friend of mine told me afterward that he had recently lost a friend to suicide and that this sentiment was not helpful in the least.

Piper later walked back on his statement a bit, adding the context of the statement for clarification, noting that “mental health” meant something different 40 years ago.

To be quite honest, the suggestions included in the text (“10 Resolutions for Mental Health”) were quite interesting and would be beneficial for anyone. I recommend you read them. However couching this advice for “mental health”, knowing that true mental health is not just an intellectual endeavor but involves the interplay of biology and psychology as well, is still irresponsible.

Many shared their own stories of the battle between faith and true mental illness.


Christianity today still has much to learn about mental illness. Following is a post I originally wrote in 2015 which speaks to this further. Continue reading

Assurance When You Aren’t So Sure: Chaplains, Funerals and Nonbelievers

Funerals are something that Chaplains are well acquainted with. I’ve attended and presided over more than I can count over the past ten years. These can be challenging for Chaplains as more often than not, we know very little about the person we are eulogizing. Many times we may know little more than a person’s religious background and the stories told about them by friends and family.

Chaplains are also occasionally called on to perform services for those who never believed, at least as far as we know. I’ve done a few of these services myself, and they can be challenging. Ministers who believe in the final, eternal punishment of the unrepentant sinner can feel torn when asked to perform a funeral for someone whose faith may be unknown, unclear, or even blatantly unbelieving. Typically at the funeral of a believer we comfort those who mourn with the assurance of heaven and salvation. How do we comfort those for whom that assurance is not so sure? Continue reading