Letter to a Friend about Suffering and God

by Ian McFadden

April 30th, 2009

Debbie,

Thanks for your question about where to point people who are struggling to mentally and emotionally reconcile the existence of a good, powerful God with the presence of such evil and anguish in the world.   You should know that I feel your same queasiness about getting asked that question—not because I’m worried that God has left us alone or without any answers, but because the response that God gives us doesn’t come in the shape we expect and doesn’t remove all the question marks.   So answering that question well requires both that you try to discern what is motivating the question (is it an intellectual puzzle? Is it hurt they’re currently feeling? Or is it an attack on Christianity to avoid the challenge of the gospel?) and that you demonstrate in your relationship with the person that you are willing to enter their struggle with them regardless of having only partial answers.

More often than we should, we want to explode someone’s questions with such watertight answers that we forget how important it is that the Bible asks the very same question. The book of Job, the book of Lamentations, a large bulk of the Psalms, and the book of Habakkuk all raise this question.  So the Bible is intellectually honest enough to raise the question!   When we try to answer the question, though, we often overlook how the Bible tends to answer it when the question is submitted most explicitly.

When Job wants to know why his family has all died, his property been destroyed and his body become wracked by disease, he isn’t given a rationale.  When the Psalmist wants to know why he is being pursued and surrounded by people who want to do him harm, God doesn’t tell him that each experience is shaping him to be the future king or that he will be vindicated.  When Habakkuk asks God why he allows the evil and injustice that he sees around him, he is not told why God has allowed it or where God has been or why it has taken him so long to answer.   God does respond in each of these circumstances, but not the way the questioner wanted him to, expected him to.

God’s answer to both Job and to Habakkuk is long and poetic.  Instead of enumerating reasons, he gives lyrics about his glory and power.   The effect is one of putting distance between God and the questioner.  It doesn’t downplay God’s love, his concern or his goodness, but it certainly makes the questioner realize that he (the questioner) is not God and thus doesn’t get an answer full of reasons, either because he couldn’t understand it, he isn’t entitled to it, or is asking questions that place himself at the center of things rather than God at the center of things.

The sermon series we’re in presently kind of takes this tack.   If people are feeling frustrated that God’s answers don’t seem to line up fully with Habakkuk’s questions, I’m right there with them.  The answers aren’t what we’d want or expect.  But, short of giving reasons, the responses do affirm that God is good and that he’s powerful  even if his plans and actions and responses are sometimes bewildering to us.

For those people to whom this all feels incredibly callous, it is sometimes helpful to emphasize that God is with us in pain.  More than that, he’s no stranger to the deepest suffering and loss and injustice that anyone has ever experienced.  This—to be sure—doesn’t give us reasons or a full answer, but it is some comfort.  His resurrection too, is the grounds for our most wonderful hope.  It argues that suffering and injustice and pain are not the final word.  They aren’t in vain.  The resurrection doesn’t tell us why bad things happen to some people and not to others, it doesn’t give the detailed, personalized answer we’d like, but it shines a bright light into the black tunnel and says there’s reason to hope.

One of the best books I’ve read about grieving the death of a loved one, called Lament for a Son by Nicholas Wolterstorff, makes it clear that people don’t usually want us to try to explain away their pain, to give them a nice tidy theological answer about sin and brokenness in the world.  That sort of thing feels cold and thin in the face of genuine suffering.  But, it is helpful for a Christian friend to cry with them, to sit with them in the grief, to admit that God’s reasons for the suffering seem hidden and then to assure them that while the loss and pain are real, they are not the whole story.  There is also good, there is also hope.

Debbie, I’m including a couple of articles for you that do a much better job of tackling this question than I can.   Both of them, I think, are excellent in that they don’t pretend that we have a fully satisfying answer.  They’re humble enough, honest enough to admit that.   Other than that, though, you’ll see they’re quite different.   Perhaps their differences are all the stronger suggestion that the answer you give to your friends should be modulated by why they’re asking and by what lies behind the question.   And don’t worry about not having a hermetic answer to give, even if you can’t remember half of what those articles say, when you come to answering your friends they’ll respect your God more and respect you more if you enter their suffering with them, admit that we don’t the complete answer, and point them confidently but humbly to your God, who can’t be contained by our intellects, but who offers bright hope in the darkness.

Thanks for shining His light in dark patches.

Your brother in Christ,

Ian

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One thought on “Letter to a Friend about Suffering and God

  1. I so enjoyed your response Ian. Thank-you for staying so honest and humble. The heartfelt presence of people – and of God – is the best answer to suffering.

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