While working at Pine Rest, I often heard people saying, “I don’t see where God is when I am in trouble,” or “I don’t understand why God let this happen to me.” They cry out, “I am mad at Him because He is just staring at me and did not help me.” When I hear these kinds of statements, two ideas burst from my heart: one is gratitude, and the other is curiosity. I am grateful to hear their anger or disappointment directed toward God because they are at least acknowledging that God exists (or God is alive). Their efforts to understand Him shows that they believe in a personal God. Their acknowledgment that God placed them in the troubled situation means that they believe that God is omnipotent. If they did not believe God exists in the midst of tragedy and trouble, they might just swear and rage and ascribe their difficulties to fate or misfortune. If they did not believe that God is a person, they would not be able to understand His purpose or motivation in their circumstances. If they did not believe that God is omnipotent, they would not blame or complain to Him about the negative events in their life. Actually, this is often a helpful reaction.
Besides gratitude, I also become curious whenever I hear their stories. Why did God allow this to happen? How can I understand this tragedy? God is not putting us into a lab or labyrinth like so many mice, just to observe our responses in desperate situations. And He is not like a child throwing stones at frogs—God is not torturing us for fun. I know God is utterly good, but the irony of seeing God’s children at the lowest points in their lives makes me unsteady. Although it is a most common answer, I can say that these hardships are causing us to grow. I may not know the immediate purpose for their hardships, but the result must be either to point them to God or cause them to grow in faith.
In what sense can we grow in faith or spirituality? We can use the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget’s idea of cognitive development as an analog to the idea of the development of faith. Piaget proposed four stages of cognitive development: the sensorimotor (from birth to age 2), preoperational (from age 2 to age 7), concrete operational (from age 7 to age 12) and formal operational period (from age 12 to adolescence). Piaget observed and proposed many ideas regarding human cognitive development, but we will focus on three concepts derived from the first three developmental stages.
OBJECT PERMANENCE “If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.” – PSALM139:9-10
In the sensorimotor stage, children learn that they are separate from the environment. They become conscious of and can remember some aspects of their surroundings, even when objects move beyond the reach of the child’s senses. According to Piaget, the development of object permanence in this stage is one of the most important human accomplishments. Object permanence is the child’s understanding that objects continue to exist even though they cannot see, hear, feel, smell, or taste them. “Peek-a-boo” is a good test of this level of development.
This led me to think about facing a bad situation. I ask myself, “‘Where is God?” as I experience the absence of God. This is the same question and experience I have heard from many patients who were experiencing tragedy in the hospital. Pain and suffering prevents them from seeing or hearing God, thus for them God is not there: “He is absent when I really need Him.” However, on a day when clouds are thick, the sun is still there even when the sun cannot be seen. Likewise, the clouds of pain and hardship may make it impossible to see the light of God’s love preparing to shine on them. Mom can hide her face behind her hands, but if her baby “believes” that mom is there behind her palms, the baby still feels secure. When the baby develops “object permanence” of mom, then no matter what may come between them, the baby will not cry. This may be related to the “secure attachment” revealed in the Ainsworth attachment experiment. Even though mom is out of sight, if her baby believes and knows that mom is behind the door or wall, the child feels secure even in an unfamiliar room with unfamiliar things. In the same way, no matter how many clouds are between God and me, and no matter how many doors or walls are between me and God, if I firmly believe and know that God is there above the clouds or behind the walls I can feel safe, protected, less anxious, and less unstable even in the midst of the hardships and tragedies in life.
PERSPECTIVE TAKING ABILITY “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” – ISAIAH 55:9
The second idea in cognitive development is perspective taking ability; in other words, overcoming egocentrism. In the preoperational stage, children are egocentric, i.e., the child is unable to distinguish between their own perspective and that of another person. Children tend to maintain their own viewpoint strongly rather than considering the viewpoints of others. Indeed, they are not even aware that such a concept as “different viewpoints” exists. Egocentrism is revealed in an experiment known as the “three mountain problem” performed by Piaget and Swiss developmental psychologist Bärbel Inhelder. In this experiment, three views of a mountain are shown to the child who is then asked what a traveling doll could see at the various angles. The child will consistently describe what they can see from their own position regardless of the doll’s perspective. Egocentrism also leads a child to believe, “I like Sesame Street, so Daddy must like Sesame Street, too.” Many people, not just patients, judge their situations only from their own perspective. It is often difficult for people to recognize that their own judgement is sometimes flawed. In fact, many times my own conclusions are wrong because I have a limited perspective.
When caught in a traffic jam, I just want to go faster so I change lanes several times. However, it seems that whenever I do change lanes, the cars in my previous lane begin to go faster. This invariably happens in the checkout line at the store as well. If only we had a “bird’s eye view” of the road, we could easily choose the right lane or even the right road to take, even if it means going in a completely different direction to avoid the congested stretch of highway. There is a sense in which hardships are blessings in disguise. Troubles may be painful in the moment, but sooner or later when I relive the moment, I often recognize that the most trying way was actually the best way. My limited perspective did not allow me to judge whether any situation was “good” or not in the sense of eventual benefit. Humans are confined in terms of time and place. We don’t like “walking in the valley of the shadow of death,” and often criticize the Shepherd, asking why He is letting us walk this dangerous place. It is because we don’t have the higher perspective of God Who sees that beyond the valley, there is a green pasture and still waters. When we overcome our egocentric viewpoint we can admit that God’s perspective, though often different from ours, is always perfect, and it is certainly better than ours. Then we can set aside our impetuous judgment and complaint or anger, and can wait with patient expectation for the good that each hardship will eventually bring to our life.
THE CONCEPTION OF PRESERVATION “My grace is sufficient for you…” – 2 COR. 12:9
The conception of preservation is included in the concrete operational stage. Piagetian tests are widely known in testing for the development of concrete operations. The most common tests are for conservation. The experimenter must take into account several important elements when performing experiments with children. One example of an experiment for testing conservation involves taking two glasses of the same size, filling them to the same level with liquid, and having the child acknowledge that they are identical amounts of liquid. Then the experimenter will pour the liquid from one of the glasses into a glass of a different size and shape. The experimenter will then ask the child if the new glass contains more or less liquid, or the same amount of liquid as the old glass. The experimenter will then ask the child to explain his answer. Younger children almost always think that tall thin cups contain more liquid than short wide cups even when they contain the same amount of liquid. This is because the children may only be considering the question in terms of “height.” Basing their answer on only one variable inevitably leads to a wrong conclusion.
In the same way, one of the most common mistakes Christians commit in their life of faith is to measure how blessed we are or how much grace we are receiving by only one factor. We can easily regard wealthy Christians as being more richly blessed by God while thinking that poorer Christians are less blessed by Him. Christians can also measure God’s grace in terms of health, appearance, job, or social status. This reveals a lack of understanding the means of grace. As the father of two daughters, I love them both equally, i.e., each 100% and not 50-50. If I have another baby (my wife says, “Don’t even think about it!”), I will love each of them not 33-33-33% but 100-100-100%. Love transcends any mathematical equation. God’s love towards us is the same. Both the quantity and quality of God’s love for each of His children is the same: 100%. However, even though I love each of my children 100%, I express my love differently toward each of them. For my eldest daughter who, like myself, struggles with the language barrier in school, I express my love through reading funny English story books to encourage her to develop her language proficiency. For my younger daughter who needs to develop her larger muscles as well as fine motor skills, I express my love through playing “piggy back” or Origami. I love them exactly the same, but the expression of my love is totally different. Likewise, God loves His children fully and exactly the same, but the shape of His love is different for each of us. He gives some health, others money, another the joy of serving others, etc.
We each receive our own grace from God and it can’t be compared with anyone else’s. The result of comparing oneself to another may result in either a sense of deprivation or of superiority. For example, a sick person with a supportive, loving family may envy the healthy person, or the healthy person with a quarreling family may wish for more love and support. Instead of envying another’s grace or complaining, I can know that God utterly loves me. When life brings discouragement, counting our blessings will lead us to grow in faith.
These three integrations are part of my own experiences and struggles. During my times of hardship, I sometimes feel lonely and even have doubts as to whether God is with me. Sometimes I criticize God from my own limited perspective, feeling superior but mostly inferior to others in comparison to me. I don’t want to have to struggle, and I pray that God won’t put me in the way of temptation and hardship, but if God allows hardship to come into my life, I just want to use it as a stepping stone to become more like Jesus. ∞
Sea Ho is a 2nd-year Th.M. (Pastoral Care) from Seoul, South Korea. He hopes to open a church-based clinic after pursuing a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology.