Why Would God Let This Happen?—Keeping The Faith When Times Get Tough

Why does God let bad things happen? Why am I going through this? What does this mean for me? … Do these questions sound familiar? You’re not alone.

Although we can sometime feel guilty when we question God or doubt his love, it’s more than okay to ask these questions. In fact, it’s even good to ask these types of questions—as long as we bring these questions and struggles to God. The world is not as it was meant to be, and figuring out how to respond to everything that is broken in our lives and in the world is a big job that carries a lot of pain with it. The good news is, God doesn’t want us to have to deal with this pain on our own. He wants to help. He wants us to bring the hurt to him.

Theology of The Body reminds us that faith and life are not meant to be separate things.  In fact, being a disciple of Christ begins with giving our body to Christ so that every part of us can serve him and learn to love others as he would have us love them. Truthfully, rather than making things simpler, living out our faith can make things seem more difficult at times because bringing our lives and relationships in line with Gods will is hard work.  Doubts and struggles are not a sign of weak faith. Theyre an invitation to deeper faith.  As long as we keep bringing our doubts, struggles, and confusion to God–instead of letting them lead us away from him–the more God will use those struggles to draw us into closer union with his love and his will.


Do you want to learn more about balancing struggles and your faith?

Check Out:
Broken Gods—Hope, Healing, and The Seven Longings of The Human Heart


How do we bring our struggles to God? Keep the following tips in mind.

Be Where Youre At–We often think that we have to pretend with God; like were not allowed to admit that we have doubts, fears, or even anger with God.  But Jesus reminded us that we are not meant to approach God as fearful slaves, but as friends.  God desires our friendship, and friends are real with each other.  They dont pretend.  They dont put on airs.  God wants to be with you wherever you are, so let him.  Tell him your doubts, be honest about your fears, vent your anger.  Trust that God is big enough to take whatever you have to dish out. 

Why does God want you to be this honest and vulnerable with him?  Because it is only by revealing your heart to God that he can heal the hurt.  The best way to experience Gods mercy, love, and healing, is to simply be honest about where you are at and how you feel about him, your faith, and your life.  Let it out and ask him to heal whatever is broken, to give you the wisdom to see things the way he sees them, and to respond to everything in a manner that will glorify him regardless of what youre dealing with.  If you can manage that much every day, God will take care of the rest. 

Re-center Yourself–Because we tend to turn to our faith and spiritual practices as a source of comfort, we also tend to abandon them when we feel like were not getting the emotional payout we were hoping for.  Thats especially true when we are experiencing faith-related struggles. 

While its understandable to want to give up on God, our prayer life, or even our faith in times of spiritual dryness or pain, abandoning these things simply creates a vacuum that tends to be filled with unhealthy thoughts and behaviors that cause us even more pain.  Instead of giving up, re-center your spiritual life with a few simple steps.  First, re-examine your approach.  If the way you are praying isnt bearing fruit, try a different approach.  If you usually talk to God, focus more on listening and meditation.  If you usually use a more spontaneous approach, explore some of the more traditional prayers of the church—or vice-versa.  Whatever you do, dont quit–RECOMMIT! 

Second, instead of focusing on your feelings and processing your faith through your emotions, process your feelings through your faith.  Confess whatever you are feeling to God–no matter how ugly or messy it is–but ask him to help you sort out your emotions in light of what is really true, in light of what gives glory to him, and in light of his grace.  Feelings are important but when they occupy the center of our lives instead of our faith and spiritual life, they tend to cause a lot of pain and confusion.  Dont deny your emotions, but make sure to process your feelings through your faith.  Youll be amazed at the peace this can bring.

Talk to A Spiritual Mentor--If you feel like your spiritual struggles are too much for you to manage on your own, reach out for good spiritual support.  Talk with your pastor.  Seek out a spiritual director or pastoral counselor who can help you reconnect with your spiritual resources.  The Theology of the Body reminds of what God said in the Book of Genesis, It is not good for man to be alone.”  Dont let the devil separate you from the heard and pick you off like a lonely gazelle. If you are struggling in your faith, reach out to the people God has put in place to help you.  Dont be too prideful to seek out a Simon of Cyrene to help you carry your cross.

If you would like to talk to a spiritual coach or pastoral counselor, visit us online at CatholicCounselors.com.

This is Your Brain on Terrorism…Any Questions?



Dr. Eric Haseltine is a recognized expert in both neuroscience and counter-terrorism.  He has a great article in Psychology Today about how understanding the way our brains work can lead us to a healthy response to terrorism.  Although he is not writing from a religious perspective, regular readers of Faith on the Couch will recognize how consistent Dr. Haseltine’s approach is with the Theology of the Body, the assertion by Pope St. John Paul the Great that by understanding the way God made our bodies and brains to function, we can discover His plan for healthy relationships and creating a Civilization of Love.

From Psychology Today…

It’s very rare that my backgrounds in Neuroscience and Counter Terrorism  collide, but the Paris terrorist attacks have just  made this happen.

And the atrocities have lead me to a strong opinion about what we should do about ISIS

The bottom line is that both Neuroscience and lessons from Counter Terrorism experience argue that military force, by itself is, not going to solve the problem. Neither will efforts to “de-radicalize” Islamic teenagers. Ditto for diplomacy, support to foreign governments  that  motivate them to fight ISIS harder, or efforts to win over “hearts and minds” of Sunni populations  that support ISIS.

We’ve  tried these approaches for decades, and the best you can say is that they’ve only partly succeeded.

The reason for the mixed success is that these approaches focus primarily on “them” (terrorists) and very little on  “us” (victims or potential victims of terrorists).

Here’s what I mean.

One of ISIS’s objectives in the Paris attacks was to polarize non-Muslims  against Muslims.  This increased anger could produce two things ISIS covets:  Western military responses  in Muslim countries that  deepen Islam’s resentment of the West, and increased  bias against Muslims, which, in turn, increases alienation of Islamic youth in Western countries.

Resentful populations in Muslim countries are more likely to support ISIS and so are disaffected Islamic youths in the West.

So… how we react to the events in Paris will play a big role in how often such incidents are repeated.

And , unfortunately, the latest Neuroscience suggests that our response will be dangerously imbalanced.

Bear with me while I explain.

Dr. Gregory Berns at Emory University has shown that the part of our brains that respond to “utility” (cost vs. benefit) are entirely different from the parts involved in “sacred values” (absolute right vs. wrong). And it’s because these two parts are unconnected that I’m worried.

For instance, when faced with decisions like “how much money would it take to get you stop drinking Coke,”  fMRI scans showed that  test subject’s  right Inferior Parietal neocortex activated. But when asked whether money could make them kill an innocent person, other areas, such as the Tempororparietal Junction and amygdala lit up.

In other words, no amount of cost/benefit analysis will change the strong responses in our brain to fundamental beliefs, like” terrorists are evil and should be killed.”

So, in responding to terrorism, our “sacred value” brains will tend to ignore cost vs benefit–  such as how much American military action will raise our taxes. Or how many more American soldiers  and  civilians will die with escalated military operations. Or– most important–will added military action really work?

Worse, the attacks are likely to make our sacred beliefs about Muslim  terrorists—and by association all Muslims—even more sacred. This is bound to affect some of our conscious and unconscious attitudes towards Muslims.

And Muslims in the West are bound to feel it.

And some of them will become more radicalized. If that happen, ISIS wins.

Not just once, with military attacks on Muslim countries that increase ISIS support

Not just twice with increased alienation of Muslims in the West.

But  three times with attitudes we pass on to our children.  READ THE REST.


Theology of the Body & Sleep Training–Part Deux (Or, every time you sleep-train, does a puppy really die?)

My post on sleep training, learned helplessness and the TOB predictably netted a lot of comments.  Many of those comments were not posted because they did not reflect well on the correspondent and I feel strongly that it is my job to protect people’s dignity.  I’m happy to publish criticisms, but  I won’t post something that I think you’ll regret when you calm down.

But some comments were stellar.  One exchange I had with Dr. Kathleen Berchelmann was, I felt, worthy of it’s own post.  While, as you can see, I disagreed with her comments, I appreciated her points.  I hope you enjoy the exchange.

Dear Dr. Popcak,

I want to personally thank you for all your excellent writing.  I’ve been a fan of yours from a distance for some time.  I promote your work on my blog under “Parenting Resources” at: http://www.catholicpediatrics.com/resources/parenting

In general I am a supporter of most aspects of attachment parenting.  I would, however, like to bring to your attention a September, 2012 article from the journal Pediatrics.  In case you don’t have access to their full-text articles, here is a popular press summary of the study: http://healthland.time.com/2012/09/10/its-o-k-to-let-babies-cry-it-out-at-bedtime/

I am assuming the study you refer to in your post is the August 2011 study from Early Human Development, “Asynchrony of mother–infant hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis activity following extinction of infant crying responses induced during the transition to sleep.”  It’s a very interesting study.  I agree that persistently elevated cortisol levels show that there isn’t a lot of “self-soothing” taking place.  But I think, as parents and health care professionals, we have to ask ourselves the larger question, “What are the negative consequences of this physiologic sign of persistent stress?” 

I feel it is a big jump to equate this persistent rise in cortisol of a baby who cries him or herself to sleep with the learned helplessness of the studies you cite above.  The stressors in each case were different.  They are not equivalent experiments.  There is no data to suggest that babies who “cry it out” have an increase risk of depression or anxiety disorders as you suggest in your second to last paragraph.  The Pediatrics study I cite above actually showed the opposite– that babies who “cried it out” did not have increased risk of emotional, psychological, or behavioral disorders at age 6.  In fact, babies who were in the control group (not left to “cry it out”) actually had a higher risk of behavior disorders. 

Dr. Popcak, I also love Theology of the Body, and as a pediatrician I have found TOB an invaluable tool for teaching healthy sexuality to children and adolescents.  Please see my project, Text4RealSex, http://www.Text4RealSex.com.   To the best of my knowledge, however, Blessed John Paul II never mentions baby’s crying and sleep patterns in his development of Theology of the Body.  When we elaborate on TOB themes and apply them to new situations, as I often do, I think it is important to indicate that these are our thoughts, not JPII’s. 

There are many tired parents out there struggling to deal with crying babies.  I think we have to be very careful before we lead parents to think that they are causing irreparable harm to their infants or violating the teachings of the Catholic Church. 

Thank you for your faithfulness and your beautiful commitment to Catholic parenting and mental health. 

Warmest Regards,

Kathleen M. Berchelmann, MD Pediatrician Washington University School of Medicine and St. Louis Children’s Hospital


Dr. Berchelmann,

Thank you for your excellent comments. I appreciate your wisdom and your expertise.

As you know, good vagal tone  (note:  the vagus nerve resets the stress-out body to a normal unstressed state.  “Vagal tone”  refers to the efficiency with which the vagus nerve rests the body’s stress signs) is associated with healthy emotional regulation and greater resistance to both depression and anxiety. I’m sure you are also aware that long term cortisol exposure is antithetical to developing good vagal tone.

I want to be clear that I am not saying–as some have accused me in an attempt to exaggerate my point to make it easier to dismiss me–that sleep training causes “brain damage.” (Or, for that matter, as some have accused me of saying, that parents who sleep train are “abusers”  or “bad Catholics”  or for that mater, that every time a parent sleep-trains a baby, a puppy dies.)  What I am saying is that the idea of self-soothing in infancy is a convenient fiction.  What is the mechanism or process infants use to self-soothe?  How does this magic happen?  Everything I know about developmental psychology says that it isn’t possible.  Unless someone can show me the process of self-soothing, I have to assume that the idea that babies can self-soothe is wishful thinking at best and junk science at worst.  There is just no evidence that it can be done.  So, if the baby isn’t self-soothing, what IS happening?  Well, the evidence would appear to show that what is happening is learned helplessness.  When cortisol levels are elevated for a long-enough period that help seeking behavior is extinguished in the presence sustained stress, that is learned helplessness.

Now, it is a fair question to ask just how damaging this degree of learned helplessness really is, but I don’t think there is a question that it is, indeed, damaging to at least some degree. I don’t know of a single study that suggests learned helplessness is a good thing.  How helpless should anyone want to feel?

I appreciate the study you cite, and I have read it before, but to my eyes all it is saying is that sleep training gets babies to sleep and when babies sleep moms and dads are happy.  But to go from that to say that sleep training is safe begs the question of how sleep training actually works.  What is the mechanism?  If the mechanism is self-soothing, then how does that actually happen?  If the mechanism is learned helplessness, well then, let’s admit that and deal with the reality of the situation.  Maybe a little learned helplessness is a good thing maybe its not, but let’s not be too cowardly to ask the question.  Any pharmacologist will tell you that one really can’t say something is safe if one is unwilling to look at the mechanism of action.  That is where the study you cite over-reaches.  You cannot say something is “safe” if you don’t know how it works.

Likewise, the study indicates that sleep-trained children were easier than children who were not sleep-trained, but if the mechanism of action of sleep-training is learned helplessness, this makes perfect sense.  Parents typically report quiet children as better behaved. Children who have learned the pointlessness of crying through sleep-training will be quieter and seen as better behaved by parents.  But is a quieter baby really a healthier baby?  Or is a quieter baby a depressed baby?  We don’t know because the study you cite refuses to look at the mechanism of action behind the efficacy of sleep-training.

Finally, regarding TOB. I don’t believe I claimed JPII wrote anything on sleep training or crying-it-out but don’t make the mistake of thinking that TOB is just about sex.  JPII is the father of the theology of the body, but the theology of the body is it’s own theological discipline, like Christology or ecclesiology.  Just because JPII didn’t write about it doesn’t mean it isn’t consistent with the principles of the TOB. I am happy to take full credit for being among the first people to apply the principles of TOB to parent-child relationships and family dynamics.   That said, in my response to Terri, I referenced the work of Dan Seigel, author of Parenting from the Inside Out and Editor-in-Chief of the Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology.  It might interest you to know that JPII was an admirer of Daniel Seigel’s work, and that he brought Dr. Seigel to the Vatican to present on Mother-Infant bonding and the developing brain.   There is a great deal of evidence showing that JPII was very interested in understanding the process of attachment and bonding and his interest is reflected in his work on the feminine genius–which is foundational concept of TOB.

In conclusion, I thank you for taking the time to write.  I do appreciate and respect both your expertise and your tone and I hope you will be a regular reader/commenter.  But until someone can show me how, exactly, an infant self-soothes, I cannot in good conscience do anything but remind people that the idea of self-soothing is a myth and that the mechanism behind sleep-training is, by all indications,  learned helplessness.  I believe parents should have the right to use it as long as they can give informed consent and they can’t do that if they aren’t told the truth.

May God Bless you abundantly,

Dr. Greg