The God Squad: What does God promise us?

Rabbi Marc Gellman, Tribune Content Agency on

Q: My friend's husband died in a single-engine plane that crashed into the ocean three years ago. His body was found and she "viewed" it three weeks later. She blames the plane manufacturer for his death. She also does not seem to be making any progress in the grief process.

She seemed to have had the "perfect" marriage (I've only known her for two years) and misses him terribly and sometimes I am concerned that she will commit suicide. She has no family/children/friends (except me and a few long-distant phone friends). I also only see her weekends for three winter months as I am a snowbird to Florida.

She does not really believe in God anymore as He did not "save" her husband and has not answered other prayers to him in the past. How can I help her? I've given her books, articles to read, (don't think she reads them) let her cry, given hugs, and tried to get her into group counseling. She called and the counselor didn't call her back!

Any words of wisdom? Advice? Thank you so much if you can answer this email. – (From K)

A: In my experience the most common cause for a crisis of faith and the most common cause for an affirmation of faith is the same. It is the death of a loved one. The deeper the love, the deeper the crisis, and for others, the deeper the love the deeper the faith that we will not be separated forever from those we love.

For some like your friend, dear K, death — particularly sudden traumatic unanticipated death — is shattering to faith. This is the result of what I call a transactional faith. Transactional faith is built on the belief that if we do what God wants, God will reward us and those we love with a long healthy life free of burdens and bumps. When I teach children, I call this “gumball machine faith.” You put in a prayer and God spits out a gumball of blessing. No prayers — no gumballs!


The problem with this type of faith is that it is not faith at all. It is just a divine bribe. God’s love for us is not a payoff for our observance of religious rituals. Then when we do experience loss we are immediately driven to the conclusion that God has abandoned us or betrayed us or is not there at all. Transactional faith is what has put your friend into her deep hole of despair.

The other type of faith has an opposite reaction to the death of a loved one. This is existential faith and it is the only real and authentic form of faith I know. This is the faith of the most famous Psalm, Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd.” In that psalm we are taught by God through King David that even though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death we will fear no evil because God is with us. This is the great and fundamental teaching of faith. Faith does not protect us from evil. Faith guarantees us that we will not be alone when we go through evil times. We are not promised a protected life by God. We are promised an accompanied life with God. This kind of existential faith does not lead to anger, apostasy and betrayal. It leads to serenity and confidence and hope. This true faith does not take away the pain of loss. Love lost will always leave tears in its wake. What this faith does do is take away the suffering caused by loss. That suffering is ameliorated by our belief in a God who will protect our souls and the souls of our dearly departed after death as they continue their spiritual journey in heaven. Belief in life after death is the belief that gives us enough hope to survive death.

If your friend believed any of this, dear K, you would not have to worry about her. However, she is what she is and she deserves your comfort and care. The first advice I have for you is not to try to convince her of anything. Just appear at her home and hug her and feed her and talk to her about any happy memories she might have left in her tortured soul. Talk at length about the blessings that are still real in her life. Take walks in nature. If you can, go with her to volunteer serving at a soup kitchen for the homeless. When you leave make sure that she knows the suicide hotline telephone number which is 988. Mostly just sit with her and if you can sing — then sing.

(Send ALL QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS to The God Squad via email at Rabbi Gellman is the author of several books, including “Religion for Dummies,” co-written with Fr. Tom Hartman. Also, the new God Squad podcast is now available.)

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