It’s the question we all ask at some point, isn’t it. Maybe it’s the question we ask every day, because every day is full of pain.
We just have to switch on the news to see all the bad stuff. Evil permeates our world, and snakes its way into our lives and the lives of those we love. Senseless stuff happens and we just don’t get it.
We’re not alone. The Bible is full of this question, from Job to Lamentations, from the Prophets to the Psalms. ‘Why have you forgotten me? Why must I go about mourning, oppressed by the enemy?’ Words that are full of scars, that cut deep into our own experience, that utter the cries of our spirits when life goes wrong. Why?
Words that are full of scars, that cut deep into our own experience, that utter the cries of our spirits when life goes wrong. Why?
I’m not going to try and give a nice pat answer, a cliche which can be dragged out and used whenever someone is in pain. An ‘everything happens for a reason,’ an ‘it’s just a test,’ a ‘God won’t give you anything you can’t handle.’
These well-worn phrases don’t cut it. In fact, they often exacerbate the situation, perpetuating the pain further. If there’s a reason, that means we have to find it and accept it, and that somehow makes God lesser. If it’s a test, then we have to stand up to it, and that means God isn’t quite as loving as we’ve been told. If God won’t give us stuff we can’t handle, then why can’t we handle this?
The question of why God permits evil – or Theodicy – is the oldest question in the world. There are a few philosophical approaches and very complicated theological hypotheses, but far-flung philosophy doesn’t always help us in the here and now. It can make for interesting thought-experiments and the subject of long essays and even debates, but perhaps it’s not always what we need when the pain is too stark.
So what does help?
I’d like to offer a few thoughts, with the caveat that these are neither easy answers or a definitive collection of observations. Just a few, somewhat messy, offerings from my own experience of long-term pain.
Firstly, we experience pain for a purpose. If we didn’t have pain receptors, we wouldn’t know something was wrong, and we wouldn’t be able to respond to the pain and seek healing from it. My daughter is dyspraxic and hypo-sensitive to pain, which means she often doesn’t realise she’s injured herself – memorably relevant when she came home with a ripped-apart knee, blood pouring down her leg. ‘What have you done?’ I said. ‘What do you mean?’ she replied. She’d not even noticed. Obviously, if left to herself, this would have meant infection might have taken hold when the wound was left untreated. Pain has a purpose – it is not simply an annoyance. It does something.
Pain is stark because it points us to something. It points us to the fact that it shouldn’t be this way, that something has gone askew. Pain tells us that there is a better way; a way of good, of perfection, of beauty, of hope. But would we understand this better way without the darkness of pain? Would we live on the highs where there were no lows? Would we respond to beauty if there were no ugliness? People sometimes ask me why God didn’t just make us to be happy the whole time, why God didn’t create a world without pain. The simple answer is that God’s ultimate intention is a world without pain – where there is no more mourning, no more tears, no more death; and the nuanced answer is that we would not have the chance to respond to God in a beige world. A world without dark corners would contain none of the mysteries of God, none of the treasures to be found only in those dark places. In the end, of course, it will be astonishingly beautiful, but that’s only because we’ve lived through the murk to get to the light.
But that still doesn’t help. Not in the moment. Not when sickness strikes, when we are bereaved, when relationships get broken. The one thing that has spoken to me in the brokenness is the stark picture of Jesus on the cross. It’s a picture that breaks down barriers and casts blazing light in shadowy corners; a picture that says more about human suffering than anything else and yet launches the great narrative of a God who gets it into the midst of us.
Sometimes people ask why Jesus had to die. Why couldn’t God just forgive us and accept us, if he is really God and really all-powerful? Why the sacrifice?
I think the answer lies partly back in the question of suffering. Instead of God being removed from our pain we have a God who gets into it, who covers himself in it, who dies in it. We have a God who is intimately involved in the worst of what we go through. If Jesus hadn’t died we would be alone in our suffering. We would cry out to the heavens and be left unheard, we would scream out our hurting and there would be nothing to catch our words. But because Jesus went through the worst of suffering – physically, mentally, spiritually – he catches ours full-on. Without a God who suffers we have a god who detaches, and that god would bring nothing to us in our deepest agony. Instead, our God blazed into humanity in outrageous passion, sharing our tears and calming our fears.
Our God blazed into humanity in outrageous passion, sharing our tears and calming our fears.
I love the way the NLT renders Psalm 56:8: ‘ You keep track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears in your bottle. You have recorded each one in your book.’ This is the depths we are able to call to in our depths – not a god who doesn’t care, but a God who weeps with us, who understands our hurting because Jesus has experienced every last drop of it already. And because of this, our God collects up every tear, keeps record of every single one. No tear, no cry is forgotten, each one is seen, each one is held tight, each one is recorded.
I know this doesn’t really answer that why. We could talk about free will, we could talk about the groaning of creation to be restored, we could talk about the enemy. But nothing, for me, comes so close to the comfort I experience in the knowledge that the incarnational Christ also cried out, also asked why, also asked for this suffering to be taken away – but then walked the darkest path anyway, out of pure love. And that’s where it ends, where it always has to end, in a love so great he didn’t hold back, didn’t cling to his rights, didn’t abandon us even when he felt abandoned.
We were never left alone.
And there’s a hope beyond the cross, of course, which streams through the darkness and carries us forward, even when things are broken. Even when we are broken. It’s a hope that is dependable, a hope sparked first in a confused group of grieving women on a Sunday morning full of lament. Because of that hope we know there is more. We know pain will end. We know death will be beaten.
Today, if you are asking the why question, if you are battered and bruised, may you dig deep into the eternal story of the cross, the story that gathers you and holds you, that fires you and inspires you, that collects your tears and holds them close to the heart of the one who loves you more than any other.It's the question we all ask: why does God let the bad stuff happen? When pat answers aren't enough… Click To Tweet