And I asked “why, why, why, oh God? Why did it have to be only my sister who was killed on the patrol that day?” -20-year-old female American soldier speaking at her twin sister’s funeral.
It is the mystery that always seems to move further from our reach the more we reach out for an answer. The issue you bristle at hearing. The question you can’t help but ask.
Why do bad things happen to innocent people?
Years ago I would have responded to this question differently than I do today. Like most questions, I assumed this one was a blank needing to be filled in, a query looking for the most biblical and reasonable solution that can be offered. And while that is partly true, it is obvious that for many who voice these words, it is not a question at all. It is a cry of anguish. It is the way people say, “I am hurting so badly, and I just don’t understand it.” No matter what “answer” someone gives to the problems of pain and evil, suffering people are still left with the gap of what or whom they have lost. Answers don’t replace people. The question is not one of philosophy, but of personal need: “Why, oh why, does this have to be?” Or, as the Psalms so often say, “How long, O Lord?”
I’ve been asked many times by someone in a severe crisis, “Why?” The blank expression, the lines etched deeply in the face, the wide, searching eyes all echo the question. No matter what “explanation” I offer, the emptiness in the face doesn’t disappear. It is like pouring water into a bucket with holes in it. The one thing that does seem to “take” is the truth that God is with us. And sometimes we are more aware of that when we are suffering than at any other time.
How can we explain that the people who suffer the most are usually driven not toward the black hole of skepticism, but toward God? The parent who loses a child, the worker who loses a job, the young woman whose doctor tells her she has to come back for a biopsy-how frequently these people cry out to God in their distress, their pain not taken as proof that no one above is listening, but as the occasion to believe all the more, to pray that most solemn of prayers: “Have mercy on me, O Lord.”
Philip Yancey quotes Scottish theologian James Stewart on this point, “It is the spectators, the people who are outside, looking at the tragedy, from whose ranks the skeptics come; it is not those who are actually in the arena and who know suffering from the inside. Indeed, the fact is that it is the world’s greatest sufferers who have produced the most shining examples of unconquerable faith.”
Some people have looked for a common-sense, real-life kind of answer, and have thus wondered, “Maybe God isn’t good, or maybe God isn’t almighty.” The first “solution” proposes that bad things happen because God can simply do whatever he wishes, and it just doesn’t matter that it seems bad to us. The second is to say that God would like to prevent bad things from happening, but that he is just not able to do it–perhaps not even God is able to keep up with all the chaos in the world. If only God had one war to deal with at a time…
But most of us realize that to give up on God’s goodness or his greatness is to believe in an utterly different kind of God. Not God at all, really. But this is not what Job or Jeremiah or David meant in the Old Testament when out of the pits of their distress they asked, “Aren’t you good, O God?” In their most honest prayers (intentionally left there as markers in Holy Scripture so that we can know that God would rather have us say anything than stay silent) these sufferers were simply saying, we know, God, that the evil things that happen are so contradictory to who you are, such a violation of what you stand for-please reassure us that you are in fact the Good God.
Another misleading solution is to simply believe that God is not. But atheism has always been and always will be a cheap answer. Augustine pointed out that if you ask, “If there is a God, why is there so much evil?” then you also have to ask, “If there is no God, why is there so much good?” Atheism solves nothing. It offers no comfort, takes away no pain, provides no hope. The only comfort it provides is an act of supposed resignation that says, you should have known all along you are only dust. Forget God, and the Genesis breath that turns dust into man.
Others have tried to suggest that maybe the solution to the problem of pain is that suffering is illusory. It deals with pain by saying we only think we experience pain. The religion founded by Mary Baker Eddy, Christian Science, teaches this. Yet, Mrs. Eddy did die. The idea that suffering is an illusion flies in the face of common experience. Even if it is an illusion, the illusion hurts a lot. There is still a problem.
Excerpt from Putting the Pieces Back Together: How Real Life and Real Faith Connect. Free DVD available now.
Next time: what God’s word says about suffering