When Healing Doesn’t Come
Pondering the mysteries of God and suffering
by Rick Langer
I still recall a funeral I did for a young mother almost two decades ago. She was a delightful person, happily married, devoted to her four young children and a faithful member of our congregation. A few months after being diagnosed with a virulent strain of leukemia, with the disease ravaging her body, she passed away.
I remember sitting in her living room with her broken husband shortly afterward. “Why?” he quietly asked.
I groped for words as his gaze oscillated between me, his despondent children and the blank wall. Apparently we all seemed equally likely sources of a good answer.
“Why?” is not so much a question as a ghost that haunts our suffering. It comes unbidden, penetrates all walls we erect to hold it out and lingers long after it should be gone.
Job, possibly the oldest book of the Bible, is preoccupied with “Why?” The author also adds related questions such as, “How long?” and, “What have I done to deserve… ?” Three thousand years later, philosophers and theologians continue to ask these questions. If answers make questions go away, we clearly have not found the answers.
“Why?” is almost always a personal question that needs a pastoral answer.
Unfortunately, “Why?” questions have proven as unavoidable as they are unanswerable. So even if we admit they cannot be solved, they press upon us nonetheless as we listen to the pain around us. What do we need to grasp about God’s perspective on suffering in order to convey His compassion and His truth to others in the midst of their pain?
First, a cautionary word. “Why?” is a deceptive question. Despite appearances to the contrary, it’s almost never an intellectual question. I learned this by trying to give intellectual answers. The fact is, “Why?” is almost always a personal question that needs a pastoral answer. The best response is often silence, lamentation, prayer or just a hug.
“Why?” is also deceptive because the real question is usually, “What now or what next?” Now that my wife is gone or now that my legs are paralyzed or now that my husband has Alzheimer’s, how will I live? How can I go on?
“Why?” might sound like an intellectual question, but, “What next?” is an existential crisis. The former is merely puzzling; the latter is positively frightening. “What next?” looks forward and demands action, which feels almost impossible in the midst of grief or pain. So asking, “Why?” is safer.
This is not a rebuke to those who ask “Why?” It is simply a bit of perspective—both for those who ask and those who attempt to answer. So with this clarification in place, let me offer some thoughts on expectations, questions and answers related to our experience of suffering.
Christians often fall prey to extrapolated expectations. These expectations come from applying logical or philosophical reasoning to theological truths. It works like this: God is omniscient, so He knows if we suffer. God is good, so He would not want us to suffer. God is omnipotent, so He can stop our suffering. Therefore, we should never expect to suffer. Case closed.
When we suffer, we are joining the fellowship of the biblical saints in every age.
Our expectations would be far more accurate if we drew them from biblical narratives rather than extrapolated them from theological principles. It’s clear from Scripture that as long as we live in a fallen world, God’s people should expect to suffer. Israel suffered, and the early church suffered. Both Adam and Eve suffered, Moses suffered, Hannah suffered, and David suffered. Jeremiah elevated suffering to an art form. Jesus suffered, and all of the disciples suffered.
If nothing else, this keeps us from wondering if something strange is happening to us. When we suffer, we are joining the fellowship of the biblical saints in every age. Realizing this may not solve our problem with suffering, but it puts it in a broader context.
Our extrapolations can also mislead us when it comes to questioning God. It is natural to assume that questions imply doubts, which imply lack of faith. We know that we are commanded to have faith (1 John 3:23), that without faith it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6) and that anything that does not proceed from faith is sin (Romans 14:23). When we put all this together, surely (we reason), questioning God should be forbidden to a Christian.
But again, the Bible itself disproves this conclusion. God seems to welcome His followers to ask hard questions.
Since God inspired Jeremiah to ask hard questions, one might assume God would answer those questions.
Abraham questions God concerning his lack of an heir (Genesis 15:2,8) and concerning the righteousness of His judgment (Genesis 18:22-33). Moses questions God’s wisdom in calling him (Exodus 3:11), God’s faithfulness to deliver Israel (Exodus 5:22) and His faithfulness to provide in the wilderness (Numbers 11:11-15). David’s Psalms are full of questions.
Those who would question God find a kindred soul in Jeremiah—not only in the Book of Jeremiah but in the one aptly named Lamentations. His unvarnished candor finds expression in the hard questions of a wounded heart, ranging from, “Why me?” to, “How long, O Lord?” In Lamentations 3:3 he cries: “Surely against me He turns His hand again and again the whole day long.” Most of the rest of Lamentations is made up of similar cries.
Since God apparently inspired writers like Jeremiah to ask hard questions, one might assume God would answer those questions. Indeed, there are passages of Scripture that imply this. Jesus calls us friends and defines a friend as a person to whom He has revealed what the Father is doing (John 15:15). James assures us that in the context of trials, we should ask God for wisdom and He will give it to us generously and without reproach (James 1:5).
But once again, the biblical narratives defeat our extrapolated expectations.
Job questions God for 37 chapters, but when God speaks in Chapter 38, He offers no answers. Instead, He asks Job where he was when God was busy creating the world. Job’s questions are never really answered; they are simply put into perspective. Job simply does not and cannot understand God’s ways and is therefore in no position to judge them.
God does not solve the problem of evil—He shares it.
Similarly, Paul repeats metaphors from both Jeremiah (18:6) and Isaiah (64:8) likening God to a potter and ourselves to pots. Then he asks, “Who are we to question the potter?” (Romans 9:21-22). He goes on to conclude that God’s judgments are inscrutable (Romans 11:33).
It is clear that God does not feel obliged to answer our questions, even if He does allow us to ask them. That God is not obliged to answer just means that every answer, or portion of an answer, He gives is an act of grace. If we attend to these acts of grace, at least three lessons will emerge:
1. The Bible never “solves” the problem of evil. Scripture is largely unconcerned with the logical tension between the existence of evil and the goodness of God. God does not solve the problem of evil—He shares it. Jesus enters our fallen world, shares our weaknesses and suffers for the sake of human sin. And because He has shared in our sufferings, we can draw near and “receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need (Hebrews 4:16).”
2. We see through a glass darkly. No one likes to see darkly, but such is our vision in this present age. Theologians see the problem of evil only darkly; they are like doctors struggling with cancer, groping in the darkness for a cure. Dark cures such as chemotherapy sometimes cause more suffering than the cancer itself. All too often I feel the same way about our answers to the problem of evil: They can cause more suffering than our questions. But they are the best answers we have until the day we see God face to face. Our obligation is to walk by faith even when we only see our path darkly, and to trust God’s goodness in that darkness.
3. We are part of God’s story, not our own story. We must remember that the Bible is written for us, but is not written about us. Scripture reveals His glory not our own. Its time frame is eternal, not three score and 10. Evil is not always punished in our world, and our righteousness is not always rewarded in our lifetime. God’s plotline takes a long time to unfold. In effect, God is writing a Russian novel, and we wish He were writing a blog post.
We most need to hear teaching on suffering before we are in the midst of it.
In addition to what has already been said, Scripture notes that suffering should not be surprising (1 Peter 4:12), is comparatively light and short (2 Corinthians 4:17) and is ultimately turned into joy (John 16:20). Suffering serves positive purposes in that it teaches us discipline (Hebrews 12:5-10), refines our character (James 1:2-4), reveals God’s glory (1 Peter 4:13), yields a good harvest (Psalm 126:5-6) and is the means by which we enter the kingdom (Acts 14:22).
Finally, suffering is a sign of our connection to God, not our distance from Him (Matthew 24:9, John 15:21, Romans 8:17, 2 Thessalonians 1:5). In light of these truths, we must acknowledge that although suffering is not pleasant, it is never pointless.
The biblical perspective on suffering is both realistic and rich. It does not whitewash the problem of human suffering or deny the pain. Indeed, biblical suffering finds enormous freedom of emotional expression.
Intellectually, the Bible makes room for passionate questioning. It does not explain suffering, but it sets it in the humbling context of other mysteries that are largely impenetrable to the human mind.
God really does have a lot to say to those who suffer. We may feel at a loss for words when facing the family of a recently deceased young mother. And in such situations, many things may be more important and more timely than words. However, the time for words will come. In fact, it is important for those who teach God’s Word regularly to address suffering clearly. We most need to hear this teaching before we are in the midst of suffering, so that we might be prepared to faithfully endure it.
When the time for words does come, we can speak the truth about God’s compassion and willingness to share in our suffering, even as we avoid false answers to mysteries that God Himself declines to solve. A well-formed mystery is often a better companion to suffering than a poorly formed answer—it leaves room for tears that answers try to staunch. Mysteries also foster a humble appreciation of God’s ways—which are not always our ways but are good and meaningful nonetheless.
Rick Langer is professor of biblical and theological studies and director of the Office for the Integration of Faith and Learning at Talbot School of Theology. He previously served as senior associate pastor at Trinity EFC in Redlands, California.