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September 17, 2013 |

Why Does God Allow Pain and Suffering?

BY Jen Hatmaker

A very special and rare collaboration is happening among churches in Austin this fall. Over 350 churches – Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, Episcopal, Presbys, Non-denoms – have come together in a citywide sermon series called “Explore God.” Across all these boundaries, we are discussing the same Giant Life Questions in our sanctuaries and small groups for seven weeks:

  • Does Life Have a Purpose?
  • Is There a God?
  • Why Does God Allow Pain and Suffering?
  • Is Christianity Too Narrow in Our Culture?
  • Is Jesus Really God?
  • Is the Bible Reliable?
  • Can I Know God Personally?

I’ve never seen anything like it. I am deeply proud of my brothers and sisters for setting aside differences for the sake of the city. It makes me incredibly weepy.

This Sunday is Question #3: Why does God allow pain and suffering?

Suffering transcends all class, race, ethnicity, culture, privilege. The wealthiest, most successful man on earth could lose his only daughter in a car wreck this afternoon. There is no corner untouched by grief, no demographic, no alliance. If you haven’t suffered, just live longer.

With anything so viscerally devastating, the Christian community has long tried to explain it. At the beginning of the written word, we see this tension: Job has suffered in ways incomprehensible leaving a wake of crushing confusion. God tells us it was Satan, Job tells us it was God, his friends tell Job it was him. The finger-pointing is instinctual, because what we have always wanted to know when tragedy strikes is WHY.

To this end, the church has a history of formulizing suffering, giving it tidy origins and endings and whitewashing the horrid, debilitating middle. We’ve assessed the complicated nuances of universal sorrow and assigned it categories, roots, principles. Or in the face of uncertain causes, we recite cold theology:

“Well, you know God is sovereign.

In an attempt to understand the ordinary grief of human life, I fear we’ve reduced a complicated reality to an unmanageable burden; we’ve put a yoke of despair on people who mourn, assigning accolades to those who “suffer well” and, in ways overt and subtle, urging our brokenhearted to buck up. Then adding insult to injury, we fall into the trap of explaining suffering, as if any one of us could possibly understand its eternal scope.

Here is what we know about suffering from Scripture:

  • Sometimes people suffer because of self-inflicted misery. Humans have long been their own worst enemies. We are a self-destructive people. Adam, Eve, Jonah, David, Saul, Judas.
  • Sometimes people suffer at the sins of others, which God would never cause, endorse, or initiate. It is contrary to his holy, perfect nature. Bathsheba, Daniel, Tamar, Hosea, The Good Samaritan, Paul.
  • Sometimes people suffer through no human fault at all. The best of God’s saints had their night. This is no indicator of divine disfavor. Life is simply hard.
  • Sometimes people suffer because people get sick and die. This happens to every person, family, and community on earth. There is zero immunity from death. Even Jesus wept salty, human tears at death and the grief of his friends.
  • Sometimes people suffer because we live on a physical earth involving tornadoes, earthquakes, wildfires, tsunamis. Natural disasters are a part of any living, shifting, fluctuating planet. (And the longer we irresponsibly plunder and harm it, the greater it will groan and creak and protest, but that is a different blog.)
  • Sometimes people suffer because we have a vicious enemy who hates us and is out to steal, kill, and destroy everything redemptive and beautiful.

The point is, there is no formula for suffering. There is no one answer. There is no pat explanation. Simply stating that God is sovereign is woefully incomplete theology, as Scripture has clearly identified numerous root causes of suffering, some of which are entirely incompatible with God’s character. We cannot possibly explain sorrow in a 25-minute sermon with three points that all begin with an M.

To put the burden of stoic acceptance onto our people is cruel and unusual, as is suggesting their suffering is likely punitive. Our platitudes will fall dangerously short. In the face of brokenheartedness, we need not counsel people in the way of spiritual justification, for we know not what we say. Nor should we lead them in the way of tidy grief, for we heap burning coals on aching heads.

Suffering invites us to be radically human with one another, perhaps doing nothing more than reaching across the table, clasping hands, and weeping together. We are afforded the chance to create a safe place for someone else to mourn; nothing is needed but space, proximity, presence, empathy. You cannot possibly give an answer, so don’t try. Grief cannot be sidestepped; it must be endured, so may we be a people who endure with one another rather than constantly mitigating, explaining, propping up. Let’s just hold one another through the dark night and wait for the sun to rise.

Though it is human nature to master all knowledge, we simply must concede that so much of life is a mystery, as is the way God moves and redeems. How can we possibly fathom it all? We don’t always get the answer to WHY this side of heaven, so we need to stop talking about spiritual mysteries as if we are in possession of all understanding.

Here is what we know about suffering and what we should cling to:

  • God is impossibly loving. He loves us. He loves our families. He loves creation.
  • God restores things; all of history points to a God who makes sad things right.
  • God is very much paying attention. He is on the move – healing and transforming. He can do this. This is what He does.
    • There is nothing too broken that God cannot mend and redeem. Really. Nothing.
  • God doesn’t tempt, abuse, endorse wickedness, abandon, or hate.
  • In our darkest moment, when we are crushed, Jesus is as close as our own breath.
  • He has given us to one another as agents of love and grace and safety.
  • He told us 100s of times to comfort each other, making sure we are cared for.
  • Jesus wept over death and grief; shed your tears, friend. We have a Savior who cries.
  • It is not the Body’s responsibility to explain why. We are family. We circle the wagons. We make casseroles. We weep with those who weep.

Pastors in Austin and everywhere else this weekend, friends, church, let’s be gentle with our broken. Let’s hold fragile hearts with loving hands, terribly careful with our theology, using it as a balm, not a bludgeon. May we be slow to formulize and quick to empathize, because life is so very hard and until God makes all things new, people are dying for a cold cup of water in their suffering.

If you are suffering today, imagine me grabbing both of your hands and inviting you to mourn; we will stand watch while you grieve. No need to pretend or whitewash. That is unnecessary among brothers and sisters. We may not get a why, but we know the how: together. Jesus is so good and He loves you. The sun will rise with healing in its wings, but until it does, may we all learn to be a soft place to fall, cushioning the blow of suffering until Jesus turns it all into glory.