Saturday, January 03, 2009

H-n-T's Pick of 2008: "Questioning God"

Maria Sue Chapman, the five-year-old daughter of veteran Christian singer Steven Curtis Chapman and his wife, Mary Beth, was accidentally struck and killed by a car last week. As I read the news of Maria’s death, I asked God my most oft-repeated question: Why?

On learning the details, I shifted to a more accusatory question: How could you allow this, God? Some of the Chapman children witnessed the accident in the family’s driveway. The driver who accidentally hit Maria was her 17-year-old brother. And their mother, Mary Beth, has long struggled with depression. From my perspective, the loss was too much for the Chapman family. From my perspective, God should have stopped the car.

Throughout my youth, I thought questioning life events—including suffering—was wrong because, some Christians told me, God has a purpose and plan for everything. A Christian naturally responds with absolute faith, they said, because “in all things God works for the good of those who love him” (Romans 8:28). Some people even cited the story of Job and told me, “Job never questioned God.” So I feigned faith. I did my best to express the trust and peace I thought all Christians possessed.

Yet when, as an adult, I read the book of Job, I saw he indeed questioned God. Early in his suffering, Job wishes he’d never been born. This desire is surely a question about God’s will and plan, since God gave Job life. Job becomes increasingly accusatory: “Why does God let me live when life is miserable and so bitter?” (Job 3:20, CEV); “God has made my days drag on and my nights miserable” (7:3). Job even asks questions similar to mine: “Why is life so hard? Why do we suffer?” (7:1).

Two years ago, my friend Rosie asked those very questions when she lost her 39-year-old husband, Gordon, to cancer. Because Rosie had prayed and believed God would restore her husband’s health, she was spiritually devastated at Gordon’s death.

I was, too, because I’d believed God would offer some meaning for Gordon’s horrific physical suffering. At the least, I’d thought God would give family members and friends total peace, assuring them Gordon was in heaven. We had much peace, but we also had much pain—and many questions: Why did God allow this cancer? Why did he take Gordon away from his kids, a toddler and a teenager?

The Bible outlines several reasons for suffering: It can develop character and spiritual maturity; it can provide opportunities to share faith; it can correct sin; it can prepare for comforting others; and it can bring glory to God. Yet, such knowledge may be meaningless to the sufferer. Knowledge doesn’t always soothe. Quoting Romans 8:28 repeatedly hasn’t removed my questions. I haven’t found any pat answers or fast fixes for the problem of suffering. More often, the only meaningful prayer for me and suffering friends is, “Why, God?”

Too many Christians expect faith to come easily. Effortlessly. I used to think, I’ll never understand why suffering exists, so I just need to have faith—as if I were born with deep, mature faith! But perfect faith isn’t innate, nor does it come with salvation. Rather, faith has grown gradually in me. It seems to grow when I suffer or share others’ suffering, when I’m so overwhelmed that I run to God in prayer.

And in that desperation, my prayers are often anxious, furious, or miserable. I certainly don’t approach God with trust and peace. But faith doesn’t grow if I try to fake it. Instead, those moments of emotional rawness are the times I’m most receptive to hearing God out.

Perhaps God wanted me to struggle with the concept of suffering while witnessing Gordon’s illness, and now while reading about the Chapmans. I need to pray honestly: “God, I have no idea why you’re allowing suffering. Frankly, I don’t trust your plan right now, and I don’t see any good coming from this pain. But I do recognize you’re God: You fully understand the purpose of human suffering. I’m glad I can unload my frustration and confusion on you. Please use these events to teach me and others.”

When I pray honestly, I rarely receive my desired answers. God’s never shown me suffering’s ultimate purpose. He simply allows me to wrestle with the “Why?” question to expose my hurt and mistrust. And I’m starting to realize that to get to real faith, I need to start with real doubt.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


I'm the same person who commented on your response to the divorce issue.

Your search for the meaning of suffering renders perhaps the most vexing question we humans can articulate. (I nod in recognition to a fellow traveler in the quest for some kind of answer.) I disagree with your conclusions regarding why God not only permits it but doesn't explain it.

My conclusion is there is no God - leastwise not one resembling the Abrahamic God of our western tradition. Your conclusion is that the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Jesus, and Mohammed not only exists but insists on total and irrational faith in him. Ok. We'll agree to disagree, 'cause I don't think we're gonna convince each other.

But let me just say this about suffering. We can quibble about suffering caused by humans (which of course leads into a labyrinth of debate over free will) but we're not just talking about suffering caused by humans. Think of all the suffering from the cataclysms of nature, the quake in Indonesia, the inundation of New Orleans, the infestation of East Africa by malaria-carrying mosquitos. What purpose did that human suffering serve?

Why limit ourselves to humans in fact? Think of the muted and appalling suffering of animals, Rowe's famous roasted fawn, the terror and pain of a rabbit being dismembered by dogs, the agony of a tortoise infested with parasites, how some wasps lay their eggs in living spiders who are then consumed from the inside out. Bot flies lay eggs in their hosts (including vertebrates most disturbingly perhaps among them, humans) and their maggots feed on the tissue around them, basically eating their way out. Untroubled by notions of evil, cats appear to enjoy tormenting mice to death. The venom of pit vipers "breaks down" muscle and nerve tissue - basically dissolving the unfortunate field mouse from the inside. Think of the eons of agony visited upon animals.

Then let's go back to humans for a sec. Huge numbers of children die of malaria every year and have for as long as our ancestors have lived in proximity to mosquitos, millions of years (I assume you don't completely reject geology, paleontology or biology). Humans have even adapted to this relentless attack by the protozoan plasmodium - unfortunately the adaptation - sickle cell - itself causes a painful and pointless death usually by the mid-teens. Do you detect purpose here or arms-race logic of natural selection?

If you could ring a little bell everytime nature caused some hapless creature to feel agonizing pain the result would resound like the thrum of cicadas on summer evening. And this cicada thrum has gone on without explanation or even questioning by a soul (ok save for the last three millennia) since before our ancestors were tree shrews. Is this a universe created by a compassionate God? Or is it created by an indifferent - or even hostile - one? Perhaps the question makes no sense?

That's almost all I have to say. If you believe there is some kind of moral reason for suffering, despite the absence of any evidence, (God works in mysterious ways) the conversation will end here. Not to be impolite but I think that answer is so deeply dissatisfying it warrants no further examination. If you believe there is no reason for it but God lets it happen anyway (he's imperfect, he's not all powerful, deism etc.) the conversation gets more interesting. The important thing, in my opinion, is that one should hold oneself to a high standard of intellectual honesty.

I needn't tell you that you and I are not the first to seek these answers and many good people have preceded us - I speak as a former believer myself. If you're serous about really exploring the problem of evil, you need to read what atheists and those critical of theism have to say. Do the arguments of Augustine, Anselm, William Paley, Kreeft or the extra-rational appeal to the need to live by faith alone truly scratch that itch to know why suffering happens? If so, ok. In my opinion you're limiting the search to one neighborhood of inquiry - one that is familiar, comfortable, and reassuring. That won't get you closer to the truth. (Though admittedly it might make you happier in the long run...who says truth must make us happier? That again could be another dimension of suffering, one that is particularly ironic for rational beings like us.)

If you haven't read these already, (if you have read them, I'd be very interested in your analysis) I recommend Voltaire and the Existentialists (ok start with Kierkegaard maybe - a Christian existentialist). Compare and contrast with Neitzche of course, Bertrand Russell then Camus and Sartre. Lastly, take a look at Peter Singer, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris (though he's somewhat lacking in the sense of humor department). IF all of that is too much just read "Why I'm not a Christian" by Russell and "The God Delusion" by Dawkins. Therein are some powerful, accessible and really fascinating ideas.