As 2012 drew to a close, I accepted perhaps the hardest assignment of all, not in terms of quantity of suffering — can it ever be quantified? — but in the sheer intensity of horror and intimate grief. The weekend after Christmas I addressed the community of Newtown, Connecticut, a town reeling from the senseless slaughter of 20 first-graders and six of their teachers and staff members.
That weekend I heard firsthand accounts of the tragedy from affected families and also counselors, first responders and staff from Sandy Hook Elementary School. Among the adults I talked to, I sensed no spirit of revenge, rather bewilderment and deep sadness. No one had a clue to the "why us?" questions.
The surviving children were coping in different ways. Anger flared in some. Others showed signs of panic attacks and anxiety, fearful of going back to school.
What happened at Sandy Hook was a parent's darkest nightmare. By God's grace, most children will never experience that particular kind of tragedy. But everyone, in varying ways and degrees, suffers pain.
In two decades of writing, I have interviewed many people in pain. All of them, without exception, experienced deep and nagging doubts about God because of their suffering.
Pain calls our most basic beliefs about God into question. Listening to those who have suffered, I hear four basic questions expressed in varying words:
- Is God competent?
- Is God really so powerful?
- Is God fair?
- Why doesn't God seem to care about pain?
Whenever pain touches the lives of our children, they may ask one or more of these questions. Helping them find meaningful answers can deepen their trust in a God who is beyond our understanding.
Is God competent?
I confess that I once viewed pain as God's one great goof in an otherwise impressive world. Why mess up such a world by including pain in it?
My doubts about God's competence were shaken in a most unusual place. To my amazement, I learned that a world without pain actually exists, within the walls of a leprosy hospital. As I walked the corridors of a leprosarium in Louisiana and got to know victims of the disease, my doubts about the value of pain faded away. People with leprosy do not feel physical pain — that, in fact, is the peculiar tragedy of their disease. As the disease spreads, nerve endings that carry pain signals fall silent.
I met a leprosy patient who had lost all the toes on his right foot simply because he insisted on wearing tight and narrow shoes. I know another who nearly lost his thumb because of a sore that developed when he gripped a mop handle too firmly.
I learned that in a thousand ways large and small, pain serves us each day. If we are healthy, pain cells alert us when to change shoes, when to loosen our grip on a mop handle. I came away with a bedrock conviction that pain is essential to normal life on this planet. It is not an innovation God devised at the last moment of Creation to keep us mortals humble. Nor is it God's one great goof.
Is God powerful?
Of course, physical pain is only the top layer of what we call suffering. Death, disease, earthquakes, tornadoes — all of these summon up harder questions about God's involvement on earth. Is God powerful enough to rearrange the universe in a way that would relieve our suffering?
Job is an Old Testament book about a man who suffered severe and undeserved anguish. In His conversation with Job (chapters 38-41), God had a perfect opportunity to discuss divine lack of power, if that indeed was the problem. Instead, God asserted His wisdom and power.
Other parts of the Bible convince me that perhaps we ought to view the problem of pain as a matter of timing, not of power. We get many clues that God, like us, is unsatisfied with the state of this world, a creation marred by an evil antagonist. God feels grief and anger over the violence, the warfare, the hatred, the suffering; and God plans to do something about it someday. Throughout the writings of the prophets, Jesus' teachings and the entire New Testament runs a theme of hope, of a great day when a new heaven and new earth will replace the old. "I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us," said the apostle Paul (Romans 8:18).
Like Job, we are called to trust God even when all the evidence seems stacked against trust. God plans a much better world someday, one without pain or evil or tears or death, and asks for our faith in the promise of that new creation.
Is God fair?
"Why me?" we ask almost instinctively when we face great tragedy. If, in fact, God is all-competent and all-powerful, doesn't that imply God controls every detail of life?
Few of us can avoid such thoughts when suffering strikes. Immediately we begin to search our conscience for some sin that God must be punishing: What is God trying to tell me through my pain? And if we find nothing definite, we begin to question God's fairness.
Once again, the only reliable place to test out our doubts about God is the Bible. What do we find there — does God ever use pain as punishment? Yes, as a matter of fact. The Bible records many examples, especially punishment directed against the Old Testament nation of Israel. But in every case, punishment follows repeated warnings against the behavior that merits the punishment.
Does that pattern resemble what happens to most of us today? If not, I have to question whether the pains most of us feel are punishments from God. Frankly, I believe that unless God specially reveals otherwise, we would do best to look to other biblical examples of suffering people. Once again, Job provides the best example.
Job's friends insisted the problem was with Job, not God. But God insisted that Job had done nothing at all to deserve his pain, and it was not a punishment for his behavior.
At two different places in the New Testament, Jesus made the same point. Once, His disciples pointed to a blind man and asked who had sinned to bring on such suffering — the blind man or his parents. Jesus replied that neither one had sinned (John 9:1-3). Another time, Jesus commented on two current events from His day: the collapse of a tower that killed 18 people and a government massacre of some worshipers in the temple. Those people, said Jesus, were no guiltier than anyone else (Luke 13:1-5). They, too, had done nothing to deserve their suffering.
We live in an imperfect world that includes forces opposed to God's original design, and not everything works out the way we wish. If anything, the book of Job implies that the answers are beyond human understanding.
"Is God fair?" we ask in the midst of our pain. God's only answer is: "I am in control, no matter how it looks." And then God has just one question for us: "Do you trust Me?"
Does God care?
The last great doubt prompted by pain is subtly different. Other questions are more abstract and philosophical; this one is personal: "Why doesn't God show more concern for me in a time of need?"
There are two expressions of God's concern that apply to all of us, everywhere. One is Jesus' response to pain. The other involves everyone who calls himself or herself a Christian.
In Jesus we have the historical fact of how God responded to pain on earth. Jesus spent much of His life among suffering people, and His response to them also shows us how God feels about pain. He responded to hurting people with sadness and grief. When Jesus' friend died, He wept. And then He reached out with supernatural power and healed the suffering.
Even so, Jesus did not stay on earth. So what about us? How can we sense God's love? We have the Holy Spirit, of course — God's presence in us. And we have the promise of the future, when God will set the world right and meet us face to face. But what about right now?
That is where the church comes in, the community that includes every person who truly follows God. The Bible uses the phrase "the body of Christ," which expresses our new identity on earth. We are called to represent what Christ is like, especially to those in pain.
There is only one good way to understand how the body of Christ can minister to a suffering person, and that is to see it in action.
Martha was a very attractive 26-year-old woman when I first met her. Her life was permanently changed when she learned she had contracted ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease.
I began visiting Martha at her rehabilitation hospital. We talked about death and, briefly, about Christian faith. Martha thought about God, of course, but she could hardly think of God with love.
It soon became clear that ALS would complete its horrible cycle quickly in Martha. She badly wanted at least two weeks out of the hospital, in her own apartment in Chicago, to invite friends over one by one, say goodbye, and come to terms with her death. But two weeks in her apartment posed the problem of getting round-the-clock help.
Only one group in the Chicago area offered the free and loving care Martha needed: the Reba Place Fellowship of Evanston. That Christian community volunteered all that was necessary to fulfill her last wishes.
Finally Martha, seeing the love of God enfleshed in the people around her, came to that God in Christ and presented herself in trust to the One who had died for her. The unanswered questions of her pain were met by love in action, and her doubts about God gradually fell away.
Becoming the answer to our questions
One final question came from the audience on my last night in Newtown, and it was the one I most did not want to hear: "Will God protect my child?"
I stayed silent for what seemed like minutes. More than anything I wanted to answer with authority, "Yes! Of course God will protect you. Let me read you some promises from the Bible." I knew, though, that behind me on the same platform, 26 candles were flickering in memory of victims, proof that we have no immunity from the effects of a broken planet.
At last I said, "No, I'm sorry, I can't promise that." God provides support and solidarity, yes, but not protection — at least not the kind of protection we desperately long for.
Why? We have no more definitive answer than Job got. We have only the stubborn hope — so different from naive optimism — that the story of Jesus, which includes both death and resurrection, gives a bright clue to what God will do for the entire planet. Optimism promises that things will gradually improve; Christian hope promises that creation will be transformed. Until then, God evidently prefers not to intervene in every instance of evil or natural disaster, no matter how grievous. Rather, God has commissioned us as agents of intervention in the midst of a hostile and broken world.
Philip Yancey is a best-selling author. Portions of this article were adapted from his book The Question That Never Goes Away.