I asked myself this question as I was listening to Maybe God, a podcast in which Rev. Eric Huffman interviewed Mr. Bart Campolo, the Rev.Tony Campolo’s son. In the interview, Mr. Campolo stated that he had become a secular humanist, giving up on God, because his prayers repeatedly went unanswered.
I remembered many prayers that were not answered the way I had thought they should be – the healing for my mother’s cancer that did not come, the death of my two-year old nephew who had heart disease, our church members’ broken marriages, their financial situations, etc.
I still believe in God, though. I scream. I cry. I pout. I question God in the midst of it all. Sometimes, it almost makes sense to give up on God.
And yet, the question remains. Why have I not stopped believing?
Theodicy, or the problem of evil, is one of the reasons people often give for not believing in God. If God exists, they reason, and if He is good and omnipotent, why does He allow bad things to happen?
My mind went back to the first time I encountered God as I listened to that podcast. “God, if you are real, please help him!”
This was my prayer when I was asked to pray for my friend’s brother who was in a bicycle accident. I was a senior at Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo, where I had met this friend. Methodist missionaries founded the university in the 19thcentury, and my friend was a third generation Christian, who came from a devout Christian family. I, on the other hand, grew up in a Buddhist family, with a large ancestral worship altar, and a little Shinto, household shrine. I had no idea if God the Creator existed or not, so when I was asked by my Christian friend to pray for him, I did not know to whom I would pray. And, although I, and others prayed, my friend’s brother died a few days after the accident.
Prior to the accident, my friend had invited me to go to a Christmas concert that was sponsored by her campus ministry group. The concert featured a former Japanese pop singer, who had become a Christian singer, and I had agreed to go with my friend. The day before the concert, she called me to make sure I would go, though she could not. In the middle of the conversation, I said to her, “I don’t understand. If God is real, why would He let this accident happen to a good Christian family like yours?” She responded that she did not know why, but she felt like the ocean during a storm – though the surface was rough, she had peace deep inside.
The next day I went to the concert, and for the first time in my life, I heard the Gospel. The preacher spoke from John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” For the first time in my life, I believed that God exists, God created me and loves me, and He gave me Jesus so I can go back to Him. The preacher said Jesus is the first Christmas gift for us, and I decided to receive the gift! I felt like God grabbed me tight with His love. In a strange way, I felt like I was given “permission” to exist in the world, and at the same time, I felt ashamed that I had lived my life as if God did not exist. How could I ignore God, when He loves me so much? God became so real to me that I could not deny Him. I wanted to go back to Him and be with Him forever!
I never got the answer as to why my friend’s brother passed away. God did not answer my prayer by healing him, but God answered the first part of my inquiry: “If you are real….”
During the podcast, when I asked myself why I still believe, I went back to this first encounter with God. I had never felt that my ancestors or the gods of the Shinto shrines loved me. But God was different. He loves me and he wants me. I used to offer food to our ancestors’ worship altar to please them, or to appease them. I gave money at Shinto shrines so that gods would answer my prayers. All of this was transactional faith, but my faith in God now is relational.
The day after the concert, I called my friend, told her what happened, and asked her if she knew of any church I could attend. As we talked, she shared with me the Philippians passage her brother had highlighted – “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.” I knew God loved him, and I believe he knew that, too. No, it did not make the death all right, or easy to go through, but I felt like I understood a little bit of the peace my friend was experiencing in the middle of the storm.
One of the thoughts I had after I became a Christian was, “Why had no one ever shared such a Good thing with me?” We do not have all the answers to the question of evil and unanswered prayers. There are times we doubt and question God. However, we do have the Good News to share with the world, a world that is so accustomed to hearing bad news.
Ten years after that Christmas concert, I met that preacher in person, at a conference, in Japan. I shared with him what had happened at the Christmas concert, and thanked him. He smiled big and said, “Thank God! Thank God!” I realized then how many people must have been praying for the concert — the preacher, my friend, and her campus ministry group.
God answered their prayers.
God is at work, seeking those who are away from Him. In Genesis, after the fall, when the man and his wife were hiding from God, God called to them, saying, “Where are you?”
Jesus said in in the Gospel of Luke “For the Son of Man came to seek out and save the lost.” God wants people to come back to Him, and He took the initiative in beginning a relationship with us, by sending Jesus. He works in us and changes us to be more like Him, so that we can participate in His work with Him.
Pray for people who have no idea if God is real or not, or who might actually be praying, “God, if you are real…” Continue to invite people to places they can meet God, and share the Good News. The Gospel has power. In the middle of a tragedy, the Gospel had the power to bring me, even me, to God.
By Nako Kellum
June 18, 2019
The Rev. Nako Kellum is co-pastor in charge at Tarpon Springs First United Methodist Church in Tarpon Springs, Florida. She is also a member of the Wesleyan Covenant Association Council.