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Suffering turns us against God or to God

The following quotations are from Philip Yancey’s book, “Where is God when It Hurts?” published in 1977.

 

Arms Too Short to Box with God (96-109)

Some say that to the gods we are like flies that boys idly swat on a summer day. Others say that not a feather from a sparrow falls to the ground without the will of the Heavenly Father.

                          Thornton Wilder

                        The Bridge of San Luis Rey

 

You are lying in a hospital bed, kept alive artificially by tubes of plastic spilling from your arm and nose. A killer tornado has destroyed everything you own. All you’ve worked for—--your house, car, savings account—--has disappeared forever. Your family decimated, you have no visitors except some rather cranky neighbors. You are barely hanging on to life.

     You move through the usual stages of grief, your prayers and questions tinged with bitterness. If only God would visit me personally and give some answers, you say to yourself. I want to believe him, but how can I? What has happened contradicts everything I know about a loving God. If I could just see him once and hear him explain why I must go through this hard time, then I could endure.

      One person in very similar straits to these got his wish. Job, the prototype of innocent suffering, received a personal visit from God himself, who answered him out of a whirlwind. God’s reply to Job comprises one of his longest single speeches in the Bible, and because it appears at the end of the Bible’s most complete treatise on suffering it merits a close-up look. Perhaps God has already recorded what he would say directly to us.

       First, recall the setting. What could God say to Job? He might have laid a gentle hand on Job’s head and told him how much he would grow in personhood through the time of trial. He might have expressed a little pride in Job, who had just won for him a decisive victory: “Job, I know you’ve had unfair treatment, but you came through. You don’t know what this means to me and even to the universe.” God might have delivered a lecture on the necessity of preserving human freedom, or on the tragic results of the Fall. (He might even have enlightened Job on the value of pain, explaining how much worse his life would be with leprosy!)

       A few kind phrases, a smile of compassion, a brief explanation of what went on—--any of these would have helped Job. God did nothing of the kind. To the contrary, he turned the tables on Job, rushing in aggressively,

Who is this that darkens my counsel

    with words without knowledge?

Brace yourself like a man;

    I will question you,

    and you shall answer me. (38:2—3)

     From there, God proceeded to sweep Job off his feet with a series of questions answers—--that virtually ignore thirty-five chapters’ worth of debates on the problem of pain.

 

A Nature Lesson

     Much has been made about God’s magnificent speech in Job 38—41. In a passage that could be addressed to the terra Club or Audubon Society, God took Job on a verbal tour of all the wonders of nature. I, too, marvel at the splendid imagery, but along with my marvel comes a nagging sense of bewilderment. Why this speech, at this moment?

      Readers who quote admiringly from God’s speech, or needlepoint its beautiful poetry into slogans for wall plaques, may have lost sight of the context in which Job heard those majestic words: he was homeless, friendless, naked, ulcerous, in despair. What a time for a nature- appreciation course! Why did God sidestep the very questions that had been tormenting poor Job?

      Before a thoroughly dejected audience, God sang out with peals of divine glee. He called to mind:

sunrise. “Have you ever given orders to the morning, or shown the dawn its place. . ?“

rain and snow. “Have you entered the storehouses of the snow or seen the storehouses of the hail? From whose womb comes the ice?... Who can tip over the water jars of the heavens when the dust becomes hard and the clods of earth stick together?”

thunderstorms. “Who cuts a channel for the torrents of rain, and a path for the thunderstorm?... Do you send the lightning bolts on their way? Do they report to you, ‘Here we are’?”

lions. “Do you hunt the prey for the lioness and satisfy the hunger of the lions when they crouch in their dens or lie in wait in a thicket?”

mountain goats. “Do you know when the mountain goats give birth? Do you watch when the doe bears her fawn?”

wild donkeys. “Who let the wild donkey go free? Who untied his ropes? I gave him the wasteland as his home, the salt flats as his habitat. He laughs at the commotion In the town; he does not hear a driver’s shout.”

the ostrich. “The wings of the ostrich flap joyfully, but they cannot compare with the pinions and feathers of the stork. .. . God did not endow her with wisdom or give her a share of good sense. Yet when she spreads her feathers to run, she laughs at horse and rider.”

the horse. “Do you give the horse his strength or clothe his neck with a flowing mane? Do you make him leap like a locust, striking ten with his proud snorting?”

birds of prey. “Does the hawk take flight by your wisdom and spread his wings toward the south? Does the eagle soar at your command and build his nest on high?” (from Job 38—39)

      Stalking lionesses, soaring eagles, streaks of lightning, crocodiles, wild oxen—--God summoned up these and other images for Job with the satisfaction and delight of a proud artist. After each description, he either stated or implied, “Job, are you powerful enough to duplicate these feats? Are you wise enough to run the world?.. . Do you have an arm like God’s, and can your voice thunder like his?” God even employed sarcasm in 38:2 1: “Surely you know, for you were already born! You have lived so many years!”

      God’s words hit Job with devastating power, prompting an overwhelmed, repentant surrender. “I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted. . .Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know” (42:2—3).

       Did God answer Job’s questions about suffering and unfairness? Not really. He seemed deliberately to avoid a logical, point-by-point explanation. (I find it ironic that so many people have written books attempting to defend God’s reputation as it regards this messy problem of pain when God himself saw no need for self-defense.) Why, then, the combative tone? What did God want from Job?

       God wanted, simply, an admission of trust. The message looming behind the splendid poetry reduces down to this: Until you know a little more about running the physical universe, Job, don’t tell me how to run the moral universe.

       If we, like Job, are so ignorant about the wonders of the world we live in, a world we can see and touch, who are we to sit in judgment of God’s moral government of the universe? Until we are wise enough to orchestrate a blizzard—--or even manufacture a single perfect snowflake—--we have no grounds to sue God. Let him who is about to accuse God consider the greatness of the God accused.

        A God wise enough to rule the universe is wise enough to watch over his child Job, regardless of how things seem in the bleakest moments. A God wise enough to create me and the world I live in is wise enough to watch out for me.

 

A Best-seller’s Oversight

        God’s speech at the end of Job is one of the central reasons I cannot agree with the conclusions of a well-written popular book on the problem of pain, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote it after watching his son battle the cruel disease progeria, which bizarrely speeds up the aging process so that the young boy grew bald, wrinkled, and weak, then finally

died.

        In the book, which became a surprise best-seller, Kushner explains that he learned to accept God’s love but question God’s power. He came to believe that God is good, and hates to see us suffer, but simply is not powerful enough to straighten out the problems of this world—--problems such as children with progeria. Suffering exists on this planet because “even God has a hard time keeping chaos in check,” and God is “a God of justice and not of power.” In other words, God is as outraged by the suffering on this planet as anyone, but his hands are tied.

         Kushner’s book became a best-seller because people found it comforting. The rabbi had voiced for them what they had wanted to believe all along: that God desires to help, but cannot. When we call on him to solve our problems, we are simply expecting too much of God. Kushner’s ideas sound like something we may want to be true. But are they true?

         If Kushner has discovered hidden truths about God, why didn’t God reveal these same truths in his speech to Job? That biblical book could conveniently be subtitled “When the Worst Things Happened to One of the Best People.” The final climactic scene offered God a perfect platform from which to discuss his lack of power, if that indeed was the problem. Surely Job would have welcomed these words from God: “Job, I’m sorry about what’s happening. I hope you realize I had nothing to do with the way things have turned out. I wish I could help, Job, but I really can’t.”

        Instead, Job 38—41 contains as impressive a description of God’s power as you’ll find anywhere in the Bible. God never once apologized to Job for his lack of power; rather his verbal fugues about ostriches, wild oxen, snowstorms, and constellations all served to underscore it.

        If God is less-than-powerful, why did he choose the worst possible situation, when his power was most called into question, to boast about his power? Elie Wiesel might have had the most perceptive comment on the God portrayed by Rabbi Kushner: If that’s who God is, I think he ought to resign and let someone more competent take his place.

 

Response, Not Cause

        Although God’s speech resolved Job’s questions, it may not resolve ours. (Looking back, we may have trouble understanding why Job felt so satisfied with a seemingly evasive answer, but, then, we didn’t hear God speak out of a whirlwind either.) In the end, it was God’s presence that filled the void. But what lessons apply to the rest of us, those of us who did not have the privilege of hearing God’s speech in person?

        In my view the book of Job reinforces the pattern followed by Jesus in Luke 13 and John 9. Suffering involves two main issues:

       (1) cause—--Why am I suffering? Who did it?—and

       (2) response.

        By instinct, most of us want to figure out the cause of our pain before we decide how to respond. But God does not allow Job that option. He deflects attention from the issue of cause to the issue of Job’s response.

        It’s as if God has walled off two areas of responsibility. He fully accepts responsibility for running the universe, with all its attendant problems. To someone like Job, who focuses on those problems, God has one word of advice: “Stop your whining. You have no idea what you’re talking about.” Or, as Frederick Buechner puts it, “God doesn’t explain. He explodes. He asks Job who he thinks he is any way. He says that to try to explain the kind of things Job wants explained would be like trying to explain Einstein to a little-neck clam... . God doesn’t reveal his grand design. He reveals himself,”

        As for Job, he had only one thing to worry about: his response. God never explained the origin of Job’s suffering, but rather moved the focus to the future. Once the tragedy has happened—--now what will you do? Casting about for blame would get him nowhere; he needed to exercise responsibility in his response, the one area he, and not God, had control over.

        This biblical pattern is so consistent that I must conclude the important issue facing Christians who suffer is not “Is God responsible?” but “How should I react now that this terrible thing has happened?“ For that very reason, I will shift my main focus in this book away from the theoretical questions about suffering. Instead, I will direct attention to personal examples of actual people who respond to pain.

        In the Bible, at least, the problem of pain is less a philosophical riddle than a test of human response and faithfulness. As Florida pastor Stephen Brown expressed it, in a statement not to be taken too literally, every time a non-Christian gets cancer, God allows a Christian to get cancer as well, so the world can see the difference.

        What difference? What response is best? The Bible replies often, with an unwavering but disturbing answer:

    Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance, Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. (James 1:2—4)

    Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. (1 Peter 4:12—13)

    In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. (1 Peter 1:6—7)

 

        One of the best expressions of the Bible’s ideal attitude toward suffering emerges from a rift between Paul and the Christians in Corinth. In a fit of pique, Paul had sent a strongly worded letter. Reflecting on it later, he writes, “I am no longer sorry that I sent that letter to you, though I was very sorry for a time, realizing how painful it would be to you. But it hurt you only for a little while. Now I am glad I sent it, not because it hurt you, but because the pain turned you to God. It was a good kind of sorrow you felt, the kind of sorrow God wants his people to have. . .(2 Corinthians 7:8—9 LB).

       “Pain turned you to God”—--Paul’s succinct phrase serves an accurate summary of the role of suffering. It underscores the Bible’s emphasis on response, not cause. It also fits the lesson that Jesus applied from the two tragedies in his day (Luke 13): “Don’t you realize that you also will perish unless you leave your evil ways and turn to God?”

 

Something Produced

       “Rejoice!” “Be glad!” How do these suggestions differ from the insensitive hospital visitor who brings a smile and a “Look on the bright side!” pep talk? Read further in each biblical passage, for every such admonition leads to a discussion of productive results. Suffering produces something. It has value; it changes us.

        By using words like “Rejoice!” the apostles were not advocating a spirit of grin-and-bear-it or act-tough-like- nothing-happened. No trace of those attitudes can be found in Christ’s response to suffering, or in Paul’s. If those attitudes were desirable, self-sufficiency would be the goal, not childlike trust in God.

        Nor is there any masochistic hint of enjoying pain. “Rejoicing in suffering” does not mean Christians should act happy about tragedy and pain when they feel like crying. Rather, the Bible aims the spotlight on the end result, the productive use God can make of suffering in our lives. To achieve that result, however, he first needs our commitment of trust, and the process of giving him that commitment can be described as rejoicing.

        Romans 5:3—5 breaks down the process into stages: “We also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.” Quite simply, a quality like perseverance will only develop in the midst of trying circumstances. Think about it: a person who always gets what he or she wants has no chance to learn perseverance, or patience. Suffering can be one of the tools to help fashion those good qualities.

        Seen in this light, the apostles’ command to “Rejoice!” makes sense. James does not say, “Rejoice in the trials you are facing,” but rather “Count it pure joy when you face trials. . . . “The difference in wording is significant. One celebrates the fact of pain; the other celebrates the opportunity for growth introduced by pain. We rejoice not in the fact that we are suffering, but in our confidence that the pain can be transformed. The value lies not in the pain itself, but in what we can make of it. The pain need not be meaningless, and therefore we rejoice in the object of our faith, a God who can effect that transformation.

        A few chapters after his step-by-step analysis in Romans 5, Paul makes a grand, sweeping statement, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him. . . . “ That statement is sometimes twisted and made to imply that “Only good things will happen to those who love God.” Paul meant just the opposite. The remainder of chapter 8 defines what kind of “things” he had in mind: trouble, hardship, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, sword—--all pages from Paul’s autobiography. Yet, as the apostle’s life well illustrates, God used even those things to advance his will in and through Paul. It would be more accurate to say that God was working in Paul through harsh circumstances than to say he was at work in the circumstances themselves.

        Does God introduce suffering into our lives so that these good results will come about? Remember the pattern established at the end of Job. Questions about cause lie within God’s domain; we cannot expect to understand those answers. We have no right to speculate, “Some relatives came to Christ at the funeral—--that must be why God took him home.” Instead, response is our assignment. Paul and other New Testament authors insist that if we respond with trust God will, without doubt, work in us for good. As Job himself said so presciently, “ . . . those who suffer he delivers in their suffering; he speaks to them in their affliction” (36:15).

        The notion of suffering as productive brings a new dimension to our experience of pain. Human beings undergo goal-directed suffering quite willingly, as athletes and pregnant women can attest. According to the Bible, a proper Christian response to suffering gives similar hope to the person on the hospital bed. As we rely on God, and trust his Spirit to mold us in his image, true hope takes shape within us, “a hope that does not disappoint.” We can literally become better persons because of suffering. Pain, however meaningless it may seem at the time, can be transformed.

        Where is God when it hurts? He is in us—--not in the things that hurt—--helping to transform bad into good. We can safely say that God can bring good out of evil; we cannot say that God brings about the evil in hopes of producing good.

        Once Dr. Paul Brand and I were discussing individual Christians who had undergone great suffering. After he had related several personal stories, I asked whether the pain had turned those people toward God or away from God. He thought at length, and concluded that there was no common response. Some grew closer to God, some drifted bitterly away. The main difference seemed to lie in their focus of attention. Those obsessed with questions about cause (“What did I do to deserve this? What is God trying to tell me? Am I being punished?”) often turned against God. In contrast, the triumphant sufferers took individual responsibility for their own responses and trusted God despite the discomfort.

 Then Dr. Brand told me about one of his most famous patients, Mary Verghese. (Mary’s story is told in Take My Hands by Dorothy Clarke Wilson.)

 Mary was not a leprosy patient. Rather, she worked as a medical resident at Brand’s leprosy hospital in India. One day she went on a picnic outing in a station wagon driven by a young student out to demonstrate his bravery. After following a poky school bus for several miles the driver, thoroughly exasperated, jerked the car into the passing lane and floored the accelerator. When he saw another car coming head-on, he instinctively stomped on the brake pedal—but hit the gas instead. The station wagon veered over a bridge and tumbled down a steep embankment.

       Mary Verghese, promising young physician, lay motionless at the bottom of the bank. Her face was slit in a deep gash from cheekbone to chin. Her lower limbs dangled uselessly, like two sticks of wood.

       Mary’s next few months were almost unbearable. As summer temperatures reached 110 degrees outside, Mary lay in her sweltering hospital room, in traction, wrapped in a perspex jacket and plastic brace. She faced agonizing hours of therapy. Each week nurses would test her for sensation, and each week she would fail, never feeling the pinpricks on her legs.

       After observing her downward spiral of despair, Dr. Brand stopped by her room for a visit. “Mary,” he began, “I think it’s time to begin thinking of your professional future as a doctor.” At first she thought he was joking, but he went on to suggest that she might bring to other patients unique qualities of sympathy and understanding. She pondered his suggestion a long time, doubting whether she would ever recover sufficient use of her limbs to function as a doctor.

       Gradually, Mary began to work with the leprosy patients. The hospital staff noticed that patients’ self-pity, hopelessness, and sullenness seemed to fade when Mary Verghese was around. Leprosy patients whispered among themselves about the wheelchair doctor (the first in India) who was more disabled than they were, whose face, like theirs, bore scars. Before long Mary Verghese began assisting at surgery—tedious, exhausting work for her in a sitting position.

       One day Dr. Brand met Mary rolling her wheelchair between buildings of the hospital and asked how she was doing. “At first the threads seemed so tangled and broken,” she replied, “but I’m beginning to think life may have a pattern after all.”

       Mary’s recovery was to involve many excruciating hours of therapy, as well as major surgery on her spine. She remained incontinent for life and fought constantly against pressure sores. But she now had a glimmer of hope. She began to understand that the disability was not a punishment sent by God to entrap her in a life of misery. Rather, it could be transformed into her greatest asset as a doctor. In her wheelchair, with her crooked smile, she had immediate rapport with disabled patients.

        Eventually Mary learned to walk with braces. She worked under scholarship in New York’s Institute of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, and ultimately headed up a new department at the Physiotherapy School in Vellore, India.

        Mary stands as an outstanding example of a person who got nowhere asking why a tragedy happened. But as she turned toward God and asked to what end, she learned to trust him to weave a new design for her life. In doing so, Mary Verghese has probably achieved far more than she would have had the accident not occurred.

        Mary Verghese offers a great contrast to people I know who have turned away from God because of their suffering. They talk about their illness, often hypochondriacally, as if it’s the only part of their lives. They give full vent to the self-pity that smolders beneath the surface in each of us.

        The suffering person faces choices. She can recoil in anger and despair against God. Or she can accept the trial as an opportunity for joy. I do not mean to imply that God loves one type of sufferer and rejects the other, or even that one is more “spiritual” than the other. I believe God understands those people who kick and struggle and scream as well as those who learn that suffering can be a means of grace, of transformation. (Remember, God had far more sympathy for Job’s honest ravings than for his friends’ pieties.)

        God does not need our good responses for himself, to satisfy some jealous parental hunger. He directs attention from cause to response for our sakes, not his. Indeed, the path of joyful acceptance is self-healing: an attitude of joy and gratitude will reduce stress, calm nerves, allay fears, help mobilize bodily defenses.

        Would it really help us to know exactly why God permits a specific instance of suffering Such awareness may engender even more bitterness. But it does help our actual condition when we turn to him in trust. It can break down self-sufficiency and create in us a profound new level of faith in God. It can transform our suffering into qualities of lasting, even eternal, value.

I ask you neither for health nor for sickness, for life nor for death; but that you may dispose of my health and my sickness, my life and my death, for your glory.. . . You alone know what is expedient for me; you are the sovereign master; do with me according to your will. Give to me, or take away from me, only conform my will to yours. I know but one thing, Lord, that it is good to follow you, and bad to offend you. Apart from that, I know not what is good or bad in any thing. I know not which is most profitable to me, health or sickness, wealth or poverty, nor anything else in the world. That discernment is beyond the power of men or angels, and is hidden among the secrets of your Providence, which I adore, but do not seek to fathom.

                —a prayer by Blaise Pascal

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