Where is God when life hurts?

It was a rainy evening, rush hour traffic. When the light turned green, I accelerated to 35 miles per hour. As I gained speed, suddenly, the driver in front of me swerved violently to the right. My reaction was one of perplexity more than alarm. I lifted my foot off the gas pedal, but it was too late. Before me were two vehicles stopped behind a stalled car. I swerved and braked. But not in time to avoid clipping the right rear of the car before me. I then nudged my crippled car to a halt in the emergency lane.

I agonized over my crinkled Mazda 626, but was thankful I had no personal injury. I looked back into the halted traffic. A 30-something woman stood beside her car, arms raised, head back, tears flowing, screaming, “Thank you, Jesus! Thank you, Jesus!” I walked up to her, assuming she was a victim of my recklessness. Quickly, she reentered her vehicle and mumbled something about being late for an appointment and sped off. I stood there somewhat confused, and it was only then that I realized she was untouched.

But, what about the young couple whose Chevy Malibu I clipped? What about me? Well, we had to deal with law enforcement, insurance adjusters, rental car agencies, and body shops. Why didn’t Jesus save us from all this?

Suffering: Is it fair?

My suffering, though minor, brought to mind a more profound question—one that has haunted the Christian faith for generations. How can a loving God allow pain and suffering to exist in this world? The distribution and degree of suffering appear to be completely random and unfair. Wasn’t I just as worthy of escape as the woman who drove away unscathed?

But my little mishap was trivial. What our times have witnessed benumb the mind. Millions perished in death camps, gulags, and killing fields. Ethnic cleansing, tribal genocide, and the horrors of September 11 lead one to wonder, Why didn’t God stop all this? Television images of earthquakes burying thousands causes one to cry out, Why doesn’t God care?

In the midst of human tragedy and suffering, how is it possible for a rational person to believe that we serve a God who loves?

At the risk of seeming unsympathetic, let me raise another question: “Is it possible that God may tolerate certain short-range evils to allow for long-range good, and that I as a finite being cannot understand this?”

Suffering: Long-range good?

Peter Kreeft, Boston College philosophy professor, provides an analogy of short-range pain resulting in long-range good: “Imagine a bear in a trap and a hunter who, out of sympathy, wants to liberate him. He tries to win the bear’s confidence but he can’t do it, so he has to shoot the bear full of drugs. The bear, however, thinks this is an attack and that the hunter is trying to kill him. He doesn’t realize that this is being done out of compassion. “Then, in order to get the bear out of the trap, the hunter has to push him further into the trap to release the tension on the spring. If the bear were semiconscious at that point, he would be even more convinced that the hunter was his enemy who was out to cause him suffering and pain. But the bear would be wrong. He reaches this incorrect conclusion because he’s not a human being.”1 Can this be an analogy between God and us?

But, the question remains, “How can an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving God tolerate such pervasive, persistent, unfathomable evil?” Consider Kreeft’s point that good can come from evil. God has specifically shown us how this works. He has demonstrated how the very worst thing that ever happened in earth’s history resulted in the very best thing that ever happened in history—Christ’s death on the cross. At the time, nobody thought that any possible good could ever come from this tragedy. And yet God knew the glorious outcome that no human had the foresight to see. If it happened there, why couldn’t it happen in our individual lives?

Paul Kreeft further illustrates this concept. “Suppose you’re the devil. You’re the enemy of God and you want to kill him, but you can’t. However, he has this ridiculous weakness of creating and loving human beings, whom you can get at. Aha! Now, you’ve got hostages! So you simply come down into the world, corrupt humankind, and drag some of them to hell. When God sends prophets to enlighten them, you kill the prophets. “Then, God does the most foolish thing of all—he sends his own Son and he plays by the rules of the world. You say to yourself, ‘I can’t believe he’s that stupid! Love has addled his brain! All I have to do is inspire some of my agents—Herod, Pilate, Caiaphas, the Roman soldiers—and get him crucified.’ And that’s what you do. “So, there he hangs on the cross—forsaken by man and seemingly by God, bleeding to death and crying, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ What do you feel now as the devil? You feel triumph and vindication! But, of course, you couldn’t be more wrong. This is his supreme triumph and your supreme defeat. He struck his heel into your mouth and you bit it and that blood destroyed you.”2 Now, if this occurrence is not unique, perhaps it points out that when we suffer and bleed, it is God’s way of defeating Satan all over again. Most of the well-known Christians in history seem to say they’ve grown closest to God when they’ve suffered the most. The Apostle Paul stated, “For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake…. So then, death is at work in us; but life is at work in you” (2 Corinthians 4: 11, 12, NIV).

Suffering: Forsaking God?

But, isn’t it possible to come away forsaking God because of His seeming ambivalence to our suffering? Elie Wie-sel describes how he lost his faith when he, imprisoned at the Buna Camp at the age of 15, witnessed the hanging death of a Dutch boy who refused to reveal information about an arms cache found in his master’s home. The light weight of the boy prolonged his agonizing death for over a half hour as he hung by his neck suspended on a twisting rope. Wiesel, along with thousands of other prisoners, was forced to march in front of the boy and observe as he struggled between life and death.3 Wiesel lost his faith, but his story contains the answer to the question we’ve been asking throughout this article. God was there at Buna with the little Dutch boy, just as He was at Calvary with Jesus, His Son, as He too hovered between life and death on the cross. So, is there an answer to the question, “Where is God?” There is no answer. But there is an Answerer.

No answer, but an Answerer

Peter Kreeft sums it up: “It’s Jesus himself. It’s not a bunch of words. It’s the Word. It’s not a tightly woven philosophical argument; it’s a person. The person. The answer to suffering is not an abstract idea, because this isn’t an abstract issue; it’s a personal issue. It requires a personal response. The answer must be someone, not just something, because the issue involved someone—God, where are you? “Jesus is there, sitting beside us in the lowest places of our lives. Are we broken? He was broken, like bread, for us. Are we despised? He was despised and rejected of men. Do we cry out that we can’t take it any more? He was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. Do people betray us? He was sold out himself. Are our tenderest relationships broken? He too loved and was rejected. Do people turn from us? They hid their faces from him as from a leper. “Does he descend into all our hells? Yes, he does.... He not only rose from the dead, he changed the meaning of death and therefore of all the little deaths.... Every tear we shed becomes his tear. He may not wipe them away yet, but he will.”4

Suffering: God is there

Is my God aloof? Does He stand over me, as a towering despot demanding my surrender to His will? Does He cloister Himself in enclaves of serenity rarely looking down upon my anguish? If this were the case, I could not believe in Him. But for the cross, my belief would flounder on myths and agnosticism. There on Calvary, my Savior, lonely, forsaken, twisted, bleeding, broken, thirsty, cried out in agony for my forgiveness. That’s the God for me!

So, when the question of how a loving God can allow pain and suffering in this world hangs accusingly in the air, I pull a rainbow from the sky, construct a symbol with two rough hewn blocks of wood, and plant the cross of Christ at its highest point.

Steve Grimsley is the director of health plans, Adventist Risk Management, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. E-mail: sgrimsley@adventistrisk.org

Notes and references

  1. In Lee Strobel, The Case for Faith (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 2000), p. 32.
  2. Ibid., pp. 39, 40.
  3. Elie Weisel, Night (New York: Avon Books, 1969), pp. 75, 76.
  4. Strobel, 51, 52.