Journalist and author Philip Yancey speaks to Diana Aydin about why we suffer, why God is sometimes silent, and how to emerge from the depths of despair stronger than before
- Posted on Mar 17, 2017
Philip Yancey is a journalist and bestselling author of books like Where Is God When It Hurts?, Disappointment with God, and The Question That Never Goes Away. He’s been writing about the mystery of suffering for more than 30 years, a topic he discussed in the April/May 2017 issue of Mysterious Ways magazine. Editor Diana Aydin spoke to Yancey about what he's learned in his explorations of human suffering.
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Your father died of polio when you were a baby. Did that spark your interest in the mystery of suffering?
Looking back, I’m sure that played a role. But the quest for answers really came when I was a young journalist. Again and again, people who’d suffered would tell me, “The worst part of all was when people would visit me in the hospital and come up with these contradictory explanations for suffering: ‘God’s punishing you.’ ‘No, no, no, it’s not God, it’s the Devil.’ ‘No, it’s God, but he’s not punishing you, he’s chosen you to be an example.’”
I didn’t know what to say to them in response! That’s really what started me on the intellectual question. To make sense of this thing we all experience at some point.
Why is suffering a part of life?
The writers of the Bible really did not perceive this world as God’s ideal. They perceived it as a very good world that had been spoiled. We have been given good, strong wood that can build a house. But a bad person or a tornado can take that same wood and turn it into a weapon. We live on that kind of planet.
Take humanity. There are beautiful examples of altruism, but there’s also the presence of evil. So we live in kind of that mixed world.
Where is God when we suffer? Is he ignoring us?
It’s really easy to think when something bad happens, “Well, God is punishing me.” But we have a really clear picture of how God feels about those who are going through hard times. All you have to do is follow Jesus around to see how he handles people going through suffering—a widow who lost her only son, a person with leprosy, a woman with a very shameful condition, a blind person.
He was always on the side of the one who suffers and responded with compassion and healing. That is the brightest clue we have to how God feels about us when we go through pain. God is on our side. I wish sometimes God would be more overt, more direct. But for whatever reason—and Jesus suffered this too—God lets the rules of this world play out.
There’s that lovely and mysterious passage in Hebrews that says Jesus learned obedience through the things he suffered. Because he went through that, we now have an advocate, a representative, who knows what it’s like down here.
Why is God sometimes silent when we suffer?
C.S. Lewis wrote about that when his wife died. That it was like God had slammed the door shut and double bolted the door. I think part of it is just the isolation and loneliness of grief and pain itself. Part of it is what we’re experiencing ourselves and it’s easy to project that onto God.
Another important part of it is that God often makes his presence known through a community of people around us—God uses people to show love when he seems not to.
Some people seem to suffer more than others. Why?
Why does a tornado hit this house but not the house right next to it? The Bible doesn’t give an answer. It turns the attention from the “why” question to “Now what? What are you going to do?” That was the message of Job. Are you going to trust God even though you don’t have any reason to? Or are you going to turn bitter and turn away from God?
There are some things going on that we just don’t know. But we do have that promise that God is a loving and compassionate God, the God of all comfort. We have a strong sign of what that looks like in Jesus. And hopefully we have people around us who show that same comforting love.
What’s the best way to comfort someone who’s suffering?
In the Book of Job, when Job’s friends saw his suffering at first, they tore their clothes, sat down in anguish and, for seven days and seven nights, didn’t say a word. That’s what really helped him. It’s when they opened their mouths that the problems started!
I think we should do what Jesus did. He didn’t give platitudes. He just said, “I’m really sorry, how can I help?” and kind of let the person suffering decide where the conversation would go. It’s one time we should hold our tongue, unless we’re asked for really specific advice and, even then, be really, really careful.
Is it true that God won’t give you more than you can handle?
I would never tell someone that God won’t put on you more than you can bear. Some people break. It’s important to create a safe place to get it out, to express your needs, to get out your feelings about God. About two thirds of the Psalms are of lament or complaint. Again and again they say, “God, I’m upset with this world. I’m upset that good people are punished, bad people prosper. It’s not right.”
I think it’s really significant that God included many prayers in the Psalms that express complaints against God. So I say if you have those feelings, get them out.
How can we trust God to bring us through the other side of our pain?
One example I like to give involves my wife, Janet. She’s pretty prompt. If she’s supposed to pick me up at 5 o’clock and still doesn’t show by 5:30, I don’t think, “Oh there goes my irresponsible wife again! I can’t count on her for anything.” Instead I think, “There’s something going on that’s causing Janet to be delayed.” I know who she is, I know her character.
If we get to know God and believe God, then when something bad happens, my first response isn’t, “God let me down again.” There are things going on that I have no idea about. If we learn to trust God, it doesn’t mean that bad things aren’t going to happen to us. But they won’t pull the rug completely out from under us.
We know this isn’t God sticking pins in us. God is on our side. My job is to trust, appeal for help to those around me and ask God to show me how something good can come out of it.
What good can come out of suffering?
There’s an opportunity that pain gives us. It forces us to concentrate on what matters most. I would say pain is like a hearing aid. When it happens, it’s up to us to tune in and use our suffering as an opportunity for growth, for helping others, for any way to redeem it. That doesn’t take it away, but it can help redeem it.
Paul’s life was full of suffering: prison, a shipwreck, a snake bite, torture. And yet he said, “I look back on all these things God worked for good in my life.” He goes on to say that nothing can separate us from the truth of God’s love, not space or time or even death. He doesn’t pretend that this is an ideal world, but he does give hope.
What do you say to those of us who ask, “Why me?”
I say, ‘I don’t know, but here’s what I do know: God is on your side.’ I’m not sure it would really help us if we did have an answer. In a sense, you can figure out a lot of the whys behind a tragedy, like an airplane that crashes—the landing gear collapsed. But does it help the people who lost a loved one? Do they feel better if it was a mechanical failure rather than a human failure? I don’t think so.
Suffering isn’t a mathematical puzzle that will be solved. It’s messy, and it’s important to think it through, but when it hits you, you just can’t be prepared. Rational answers aren’t going to do it for you. I don’t think that answering the question of why will give the satisfaction we think it might. The real issue is, ‘What can be somehow redeemed from it?’ That’s the question we should be asking.
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