July 12, 2020

Follow Up: The Most Basic Question (And how the chaplain blew it)

By Chaplain Mike

The other evening, we posted an Open Mic discussion based on a situation I faced in my ministry. Here is a recap of the experience I described:

It is a rare conversation that cuts right to the heart of the matter. It happened to me the other day.

I was visiting a terminally ill patient who was actively dying. Her granddaughter had come to see her, and as I entered the room I observed her talking with the doctor, upset at the sight of her grandma dying, wiping away tears, asking anguished questions. The doctor departed and I introduced myself. In return, she briefly told me her story—Her father had committed suicide over a decade ago, when she was a teenager. Shortly after that, her grandmother had a stroke and was placed in a nursing home. That was the last time the young woman had seen her. Today that changed. After more than ten years, she had driven several hours to visit and finally face all the emotions, now rising up and choking her like fine dust from the place she had tamped them down for so long.

She asked me a little more about myself, and my ministry. Then, these words: “I don’t mean to offend you, but may I ask you a question?”

“Sure,” I said.

Looking me directly in the eyes, she asked the most basic question, “Why do you believe in God?”

And that’s when I blew it.

That’s right, the chaplain blew it. Oh sure, I gave an OK answer. I said something like:

Well, first of all, when I look at the world God made and think about the wonders of creation, I just can’t bring myself to believe that it all came from nothing. And then, second, as a Christian, I believe in Jesus, and I have become convinced that he came to us, died, was buried, and rose again so that we might know that God and his love for us is real.

Not bad. A fair and concise summary of my apologetics. Creation declares the existence and glory of God (Romans 1:20). Jesus, “the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, has made him known” (John 1:18).

Then I asked her, “What about you?” And she said, with little emotion, “I gave up on him long ago.”

I felt constrained to address that, and my reply ran along a path I’ve found helpful before: “I know you’ve been through some very painful experiences and that you have a lot of questions. I don’t claim to understand why these things have happened. But I believe it is better to go through such things with God to help me, rather than thinking I’m all alone. Does that make sense?”

She nodded. And that was the end of the conversation.

Like I said, I blew it.

My “answer” was not what this woman needed at that moment.

I’m ashamed to admit it. I think about how to minister to hurting people all the time. I teach others about it, I write about it, try hard to do it well. But on this day, when push came to shove, at the moment of relating to someone face to face in a specific situation, I missed the signals and failed to truly love this hurting woman in a way that might have helped her deal with her painful faith questions.

What were my mistakes?

  • Number one: Though I understand and try to practice “pastoral presence” in situations with folks every day, this time I failed to let myself be completely “in the moment”. I like to think I’m a sensitive person, and that I have the capacity to act compassionately toward others in a way that is appropriate to the context of our conversations. Perhaps on this day it was because the scene has become so familiar to me: a hospital room, a dying patient in the bed, a grieving family member paying a visit. Maybe it was because I had dealt with other members of the family prior to this conversation, thought I had a grasp on their issues, concluded I knew what was going on. For whatever reason, I heard what this granddaughter said, but I didn’t adequately process it, didn’t give it time to resonate within my mind and heart. I opened my mouth before I gave full attention to what was going on.
  • Number two: I forgot that when a hurting person asks, “Why?”, they aren’t really looking for an answer. “Why?” is more often than not an expression of pain, not an intellectual inquiry. When this young woman turned to me and asked, “Why do you believe in God?”, she was not asking for proof, a testimony of my experience, or anything to satisfy her understanding. She was making a statement: “I can’t believe in a God who would do this to people!” She was crying out like a psalmist, “What kind of God would allow fathers who have teenagers to take their own lives, would sanction incapacitating strokes that put beloved grandmothers in nursing homes for decades, would put people through long death vigils that drain all joy and hope and patience from a family’s heart?” I guess I was simply so stunned by the directness of her question about faith in God that my brain shifted into its default position: when someone asks you a question, you give an answer. Wrong.
  • Number three: I forgot that my job, most of the time, is not to give answers, but to help people get their own answers from God. There is obviously a place and time for imparting information. This was not that place and time. This woman would have been better served if I had been more quiet, a better listener, a friend who asked a few probing questions to draw her out and help her express the pain and disappointment she was feeling. Hurting folks are rarely helped simply by someone (especially a stranger!) saying something to them. They need companions who will walk with them on their journey, give them time and space to work through their thoughts and feelings, talk things out, gain perspective. I failed to respect the process, and as a result I did not participate in it in the most helpful way.

I am not saying God can’t use the words I said. They represented truth. Despite a lack of listening and my premature answer-giving, I hope the young woman heard something that might help her. After all, if God were only allowed to work through us when we do it right, where would we be?

But God has not called us merely to speak truth. He wants us to “speak truth in love” (Eph 4:15).

In reflecting upon the way this situation went, I’ve since imagined what it might have been like if I’d been more of a friend and pastor to this young woman.

  • Instead of immediately answering her question, I might have been quiet for a few moments, and then reflected back what I heard her really saying, or posed my own question in response: “I hear you saying that it’s hard for you to believe in God. What’s that like?” or, “Before I answer your question, is it OK if I ask you something? You have obviously been through some painful things. How has that affected what you think about God? Where do you think he has been as you’ve gone through these difficult experiences?”
  • Before answering her question, I might have reassured her by saying it is OK to have doubts about God, to be angry with God, to feel like she had been abandoned by God. I might read her a verse or two from a psalm that expresses anguish and a sense of God’s absence. I would ask her if this is how she feels, and try to help her see that this is not abnormal, but part of our common human experience.
  • I might have asked her if she had anything in her own words that she would like to say to God. I might tell her I would be happy to serve as his representative, and encourage her to say those things to me.
  • Maybe after letting her think and talk through some of these things, I would be able to tell her about Jesus and how he makes God known to us.

Christians are taught to give answers. However, the process by which those answers become effective in helping others is rarely delineated. In our culture we tend to think in terms of technology and production. A problem appears, I solve it. A question is asked, I answer it. And that’s that.

But what if we thought more in old-fashioned agricultural terms—of preparing the ground, sowing seed, cultivating a crop, and (only then) harvesting the fruit? What if we thought more about giving attention to the little signs along the way that might require a little hoeing here, a bit of watering there, watching out daily for pests or spots of disease that must be dealt with?

Or we tend to be academic. But what if we conceptualized the whole “ministry” thing less in terms of books and outlines and classrooms and tests, and thought more about friends walking together, talking freely and honestly, listening to each other, challenging one another, allowing each other time and space to think and grow and work through problems.

We have the answers. Do we have the patience of the Spirit…

  • to let life work the way it does,
  • to let other people be where they are, and
  • to accept that our task is to humbly participate in what God is doing rather than thinking we must do it ourselves?

On that day, I lacked that patience. As a result, I may have been a “miserable comforter”.

Kyrie eleison!


  1. I appreciate that.

  2. Jeff Lee says

    Frequently, I think we aren’t called to give answers so much as be an answer (1 Peter not withstanding :)). By reflecting Christ in our love for others we can accomplish a great deal.

    • Rick Ro. says

      “…we aren’t called to give answers so much as be an answer…”

      I like that, Jeff Lee!

  3. My grandmother recently died of cancer. Born in the deep hills of Virginia, my grandmother wanted to be buried with her kin (the cemetery is on a hill steep as stairs, I kid you not). My mother traveled from North Carolina to Virginia for the funeral and burial and when she returned she did not have a good opinion of Christians.

    According to her, the pastor at the eulogy gave a fiery message on being sure that we are saved before we died. At the burial my mom was accosted by an emotional sister who demanded that she be absolutely sure that she was saved. Needless to say, my mom had a graveside argument over the issue. For my mom, the moment was about the death and burial of the dead, not the salvation of the souls of the living.

    So here I am, praying and hoping that I might show my family the grace of God when such incidents serve to do great damange. When my mother told me of the situation, the only thing I could do in the face of her hurt and indignation was say that I was sorry. I felt completely impotent.

    • cermak_rd says

      When my mother recently passed, the pastor also preached on the theme of surety of salvation. I was not offended because being offended by a Baptist preacher preaching on that is like being offended at a hawk for hunting mice. It’s just what they do, they really don’t mean anything personal by it.

    • It was a similar situation at my father’s funeral that caused me to swear I’d never enter the doors of a church again. God had other plans for me, but I still remember the pain my family felt. That preacher may have led a church and meant well, but he did evil to a hurting family.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      According to her, the pastor at the eulogy gave a fiery message on being sure that we are saved before we died. At the burial my mom was accosted by an emotional sister who demanded that she be absolutely sure that she was saved. Needless to say, my mom had a graveside argument over the issue. For my mom, the moment was about the death and burial of the dead, not the salvation of the souls of the living.

      Same thing happened at my mother’s funeral in 1975, thanks to the only “church” we knew of at the time being that borderline cult I was involved with.

      Looking back, I chalk it up to this:
      “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”
      Add Wretched Urgency and stir well.

  4. Thanks- that is really helpful even though I’m on a seperate continent! I appreciate your honesty- I blow it too!

  5. This is a very encouraging, enlightening, and timely post. As Christians one of the best ways to shine God’s light (to those who are actively hurting) is to show His love by our understanding, and all these come through our actions. Most times our actions will propel these ones to chase God all the more.

  6. Mike,
    Thank you for sharing your “failure”, tho we often never know the way in which the grace of God uses them. I feel very experienced in saying the “right things” at the wrong time or in the wrong way. May we continue to learn from the Spirit how to be present with others and listen/speak/act as Love goes leads us.

  7. Scott M says

    Great post, Chaplain Mike. Most of us, evangelicals in particular, want to try to “fix” things. Hence the apologetic defense of God.
    In addition, the revivalist preaching has taught to prepare for just such a moment, like it may be the only time when someone is ready or capable to accept Jesus.
    Reminds me of billboards along the turnpike in Kansas. “Accept Jesus and you will be saved”. These have been there for > 20 years. Sometime over the last five years someone added the postscript “or regret it forever”. Someone had received the increasingly desperate preaching that said that those who don’t make that “decision for the Lord” will burn it hell regretting it forever. Forget the possibility that God may be dealing with that person over along period of time. That one moment was more important. A good new message became a militant message.

  8. Forgive me if I’m wrong, but it sounds like you think you failed because the woman didn’t talk to you further. I don’t know about that. I haven’t been in her situation, but I’ve been in situations like that and asked questions like that. And to be perfectly honest, if you’d answered the way you wish you’d answered, I’d have wanted to smack you. When I ask a question I mean it as a question, not as a smoke signal that I want to talk about my deepest feelings with a stranger. Maybe she just didn’t want to talk at that point. Maybe that will come later.

  9. Chaplain Mike,

    Don’t throw yourself in front of a train.

    I think you’re right about the first part of your reply to her–the part about creation/general revelation and then the gospel message. That may have been a little too “correct” for the occasion. But what you said next may have been a home run:

    [“I know you’ve been through some very painful experiences and that you have a lot of questions. I don’t claim to understand why these things have happened. But I believe it is better to go through such things with God to help me, rather than thinking I’m all alone. Does that make sense?”]

    As others have said, what’s important is just being there and showing that you care. You did that. Let’s pray that the Holy Spirit does the rest.

    Speaking of home runs, these two posts have been outstanding. Thank you.

  10. Rick Ro. says

    Chaplain Mike…

    I , like others who’ve posted, appreciate your honesty and sharing this. I, like others who’ve posted, suggest you not be too hard on yourself, either. Maybe only Jesus himself would’ve truly known how to respond “perfectly.”

    This story reminds me a little of John the Baptist in prison (specific text Matthew 11). John the Baptist, in prison, sends his disciples out to ask Jesus, “Are You the Expected One, or shall we look for someone else?” John was looking for some evidence. I think there’s no doubt the granddaughter in your story, asking “Why do you believe in God?”, was looking for some evidence she could grasp, just as John the Baptist was. The words you used with her, while maybe not “perfect,” certainly were evidence of why YOU believe in God. And I don’t think there’s much more we can do than offer the evidence WE see, give testimony of why WE believe. Then it is up to the receiver to view that as evidence that provides proof.

    That said, even as I type this I wonder how the following adjustment would’ve played out. She asks you, “Why do you believe in God?” and you simply reply, “I believe in God because He is the Great Comforter.” And then proceed to simply comfort her.

    You’ve definitely got my brain rattling around with this post, Chaplain Mike! Thanks!!!

  11. Chaplain,
    Thanks for the truthful personal sharing. I think even if it felt like a failure, it’s better to have been yourself in that moment, even if that meant falling back out of habit on what seemed like an imperfect “rote” answer. I think IM in one of his great essays cautioned against befriending people just so you can work in the gospel or making every encounter too programmed and manipulative. So even though I appreciate the thoughts about what you could have done differently to make the most of the situation, I’m not sure that anything other than just being yourself would have been better. Even the most well-thought-out attempts aren’t guaranteed to “work.” Just offering support for what you actually did say from a different perspective—in your weakness, God’s strength is made complete.

    • Thanks for the kind words. I am posting this, not to beat myself up, but in hopes that my “weakness” will provide something instructive for others.

  12. dumb ox says

    I agree. You were there; you cared. In this day and age of the entrepreneurial, director-of-marketing church leaders, you could have delegated her to the visitation committee. Instead, you were there among the suffering. That’s theology of the cross in action. I think you got the most important thing right. I don’t envy pastors. With or without the vestments, you represent the Good Shepherd, and for a hurting, angry person, beating up on the pastor is probably as good as beating up on Christ Himself.

  13. Arthur Dimmesdale says

    Thank you for your honesty in your experience. It’s hardest when we learn this way, but God, of course still teaches us (and uses us) when we feel we’ve blown it (but you already know that). I do know this – you were right where God wanted you to be and when He wanted you to be there, despite the fact you felt the words weren’t the best ones for the situation. Our feeble stammerings are all His when our hearts are tuned to Him.

    May God bless you richly.

  14. Chad Williams says

    The people who say they were offended by a minister preaching on salvation at a funeral, I feel you have missed the point. A funeral is a oppertunity to reach lost souls that would never step in a church or listen to the Gospel message otherwise. When my grandmother on my mom’s side passed away the message was one of salvation with a little brimstone tossed in for good measure. Other than my mom and one of her sisters the other seven siblings are hard core sinners. Funerals are the only time they are brought to an emotional point where they will listen to the Gospel message. So I stand by the practice of giving a salvation message, any time I preach I will call for sinners to repent. Any preacher worth his salt would do the same.

    • Chad, I’m ok with what you say, but there is proper preaching on salvation and there is insensitive preaching on salvation. If a Christian minister is officiating a funeral, the hope offered in Jesus Christ should always be shared. However, as an example of the insensitive type, I was just asked by a family to clean up a mess caused by a pastor who was brought in to do a funeral service. He never met with the family to learn about their situation, and never even mentioned the deceased by name, gave thanks for his life, or shared anything personal in his remarks at all. He completely hijacked the service for his own agenda—high pressure revivalistic preaching. IMHO, that is absolutely not appropriate.

      • Chad Williams says

        I agree you must meet the family to learn what kind of situation you are walking into. The deceased should be given respect, if they were a believer rejoice the memory of their life’s testimony and use that to point the blessings of a Christian life. If they were not a Christian, be kind and respectfull, but do not gloss over the faults. But above all else preach the Gospel. And thank you for keeping this blog going. It has giveen me a different look at the church world. For the record I am a Assemblies of God minister in Southwest Virginia, so I guess I probably in the minority here but thank you again for allowin me to participate.

        • Savannah says

          I have been to numerous funerals which included everything but the alter call (I think one might have even included that), and mostly non-Christians just seem really aggravated and put off. In fact, even Christians often feel aggravated and put-off. Maybe some preachers are better at this than others, but the attenders often feel like the service should be about the deceased and their family’s loss. I think the message of the gospel can be introduced sensitively with a mind toward the comfort found within a relationship with God, but the event is often used to just blast people.

          I have also noticed, over the last 10 years or so, that many people are choosing to have the services for their loved one at the funeral home and not their church – with no minister. I’ve wondered if this has had something to do with it.

          I am no pastor, but I was a hospice volunteer for seven years. Sometimes I got to know families very well, as there was a long period between their loved one being assigned to hospice and their loved one passing, and sometimes it was very short. I never used the emotional time of the loved one’s imminent or just-passing to push my own agenda. Hopefully, God used the ministry of the preceding weeks or months when I was just there to show sincere care to the family for their good. Many times people would want to talk about faith, and those were great opportunities, but I always tried to remember that it was the Holy Spirit’s job to soften their hearts towards Him, not mine.

          • Savannah says

            Sorry, that should have said “altar”, not “alter”.

          • I’ve felt the same way. The preacher’s primary objective is saving souls, while comforting the family and loved ones takes a back seat.

            It reinforces the image many non-Christians have of Christians, which is that they worship an angry, vengeful God who doesn’t care about our tears and pain, only whether we say we believe in him. Loving thy neighbor begins and ends with the alter call.

            I know that 100% of preachers would disagree that they portray that image of God, but when the receiver doesn’t catch the ball, it goes on the quarterback’s stats. If your message of salvation drives 9 people further away from God for every 1 you baptize, you aren’t winning the game for God.

            It’s sad but this is the essence of many funerals: Jesus is the ultimate get-out-of-hell-free card and you’d better get it today, or you’re going to burn in hell eternally just like your son/daughter/Mom/Dad/brother/sister is probably doing right now. Amen.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            It reinforces the image many non-Christians have of Christians, which is that they worship an angry, vengeful God who doesn’t care about our tears and pain, only whether we say we believe in him.

            And taking it another iteration down that dark road, “believing in him” means only “say the magic words at the altar call.” Been there, done that, and seen the damage it can do.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Chad, I’m ok with what you say, but there is proper preaching on salvation and there is insensitive preaching on salvation.

        i.e. “DON’T GET STUPID WITH IT!”

        See my above comment in this thread re what happened at my mother’s funeral in ’75.

        Though in that case, it was more general cluelessness on everybody’s part than insensitivity or altar-call tunnel vision.

  15. Just an aside, but maybe you need to think a little about your personal why you believe. People dont’ want to hear the Apostle’s Creed, or even intelligent design–both get cliche. How does God grab you in the gut and tell you I AM?

    • Celeste, with all due respect, “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. I dare not trust the sweetest frame [i.e. how God “grabs me in the gut”], but wholly lean on Jesus’ name. On Christ, the Solid Rock, I stand. All other ground is sinking sand.”

  16. In one of the few truly inspired moments of my life, one of my students once asked me this question in front of a class full of his peers. And he really meant it.

    My answer (seemingly from nowhere, but I think not given his response) was “Because the world would be a cold, dark and lonely place without Him.”

    Since then I’ve thought long and hard about it, and though it seems like something of a cop out at face value, I think it has grounded me ever since.

  17. Louis Winthrop says

    A question like this, asked of someone in the social role of pastor or chaplain, presumes a certain predictable answer. It sounds as though she was less than interested in the details of your belief, so a simple “yes” would have sufficed. And when she said “I gave up on him a long time ago,” that was your cue to ask “Why?” and then listen to her spiel.

    Alternative courses of action might be to glance at your watch and say “Oh dear, look at the time!” Or to offer her a nip of whiskey, something like that. (“Pastoral presence” is not necessarily an improvement on ordinary human behavior.) But even if you had responded completely differently–with opportunities for repeated do-overs, like in the movie “Groundhog Day”–it probably wouldn’t have made much of a difference. Life is full of interactions like this.

  18. I for another don’t think you blew it as bad as you thought. Ok, so it wasn’t psychologically textbook perfect, but you got the cross of Christ in there. Even if she is really offended by what you said, the cross is the best offense to give anyone. Granted it may not be the only thing she might take offense at, but if she thinks about your answer later, she will have to deal with it. God’s word went out, and though you are a flawed messenger, it is still the “foolishness of preaching” through which God has decided to bring sinners to repentance. You may not have turned her on to your personality, but that’s ok. You make a pretty lousy savior. At the end of the day, you pointed her to the only one who is the answer, even if the pointing itself wasn’t perfect. It’s the object pointed to, not the finger pointing, where the power lies.

  19. I am working through training for disaster relief chaplaincy and this story really hit home with me. Thanks for sharing.

  20. For some reason I keep thinking about that guy who wanted to follow Jesus but asked if he could go bury his dad first – Jesus’ response was very comforting 🙂

    • I have also been wondering if a response such as, “Because Jesus promised life will not always be this way”, is a gentle way at such a time as the girl was facing?

      • Debbie, I have been in situations when what you are suggesting might have been appropriate. (I’m sure I blew it on many of those occasions as well!). I’m not saying we shouldn’t ever say hard things. Sometimes that is perfectly appropriate in helping people along in their journey.

        This was not one of those situations, at least not at the point in the conversation where we were.

        • Yeah I inderstand Mike – I was just pondering out loud that sometimes Jesus’ response to people was not all cheery pie and icecream.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            Most important, Jesus knew WHEN to say hard things and WHEN to break out the “cheery pie and ice cream”.

            Think of those Pentecostals whose only “Gift of the Spirit” they ever want or will even consider is “Tongues, Tongues, Tongues, Tongues, and Tongues”. I heard it all the time when I was mixed up in that scene, and it never made any sense.

            Hold out for Wisdom. Because Wisdom is the command control over all the others, telling you WHEN to use them and more important, WHEN Not To.

          • Yep – I have only been to one pentecostal meeting – that was enough for me.

  21. This is a wonderful bit of sharing you’ve done with us Chaplain Mike. It falls right up there with some of my favorite IM posts. Thanks so much.

  22. I appreciate very much that the purpose of your post is not to beat yourself up. In fact your “weakness” is very instructive to me. Being a staff chaplain in an ICU unit for 12 years, how often I have blown it while thinking that because I spoke just the right theological answers, that all is now well, all are now comforted. When really what was happening is more my own need to “minister” to the “problem” or provide an answer to the “question”….and go my way, feeling good about myself. Thanks, Mike, you”ve challenged and encouraged me.

  23. Ekstasis says

    Chaplain Mike,

    I like what you said about the garden metaphor. Connecting with people is so much more than an exchange of information. To draw a parallel, take a look at medicine. In the West, until recently at any rate, it has been primarily about “fixing” what ails us, through the mechanical process of taking a dose of something or performing a procedure. Does this sound a bit like how we approach spiritual matters? In the East, on the contrary, it has been viewed more organically — watering and fertilizing and nurturing. Maybe presenting information is meant to be more the end of the process, rather than the beginning. Whether we realize it or not, most people can sense what someone thinks of them, and whether they are valued, without the content of the words.

  24. Chaplain Mike,

    Been there, done that. I feel your frustration. I hope I learned from my mistake, too.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Chaplain Mike, my whole life has been getting blindsided and caught speechless or saying something dumb, then a day or two later figuring out “What I SHOULD have said.” Always a day late and a dollar short.

  25. Radagast says

    I seemed to have experienced some of this from my wife… she may have been looking for an opportunity just to vent, not really wanting an answer initially but maybe a probing question, as you mentioned above Chaplain Mike, to just get the ball rolling, to let the dam break. Of course I am not very good at letting that happen because I like to be a fixer of things. Sometimes it just part of the process to let go irrational emotion.

    Then there are times when someone legitimately asks for my opinion on why I believe… and I try to keep it simple (and I may be criticised for this). I say I believe because rationally I have something to lean on in bad times (faiith), I treat others with love and respect while I am in this body because I am called to (so that’s a positive thing – love) and I look forward to spending eternity in heaven (hope). If all this does not exist then huimanity still benefits from me because of my belief.

    My thoughts…

  26. I came across this passage in Chesterton recently. Not sure how it fits with the conversation, except to confirm that our first impulses in dealing with grief often aren’t the right ones:

    “The way to lessen sorrow is to make a lot of it. The way to endure a painful crisis is to insist very much that it is a crisis; to permit people who must feel sad at least to feel important.”