O LORD, how long will you forget me? Forever?
How long will you look the other way?
How long must I struggle with anguish in my soul,
with sorrow in my heart every day?
How long will my enemy have the upper hand?
“Faith does not eliminate questions. But faith knows where to take them.”
~ Elisabeth Elliot
The preacher’s 5 year-old daughter noticed that her father always paused and bowed his head for a moment before starting his sermon. One day she asked him why. “Well, Honey,” he began, proud that his daughter was so observant of his messages, “I’m asking the Lord to help me to preach a good sermon.”
“Well then, why doesn’t He do it?” she asked. (from Angie Muncie)
Has observing God’s work in this world ever left you scratching your head wondering what He’s up to? Have you ever been discouraged because God didn’t come through the way you thought He would? When you witness senseless suffering, are you tempted to wonder if God has abdicated His throne?
I have. It’s very uncomfortable. There have been times when I felt like the little girl in Hans Christian Andersen’s story who felt compeled to say, “Umm . . . it looks to me like the Emperor isn’t actually wearing any clothes.” That sounds and feels distastefully disrespectful and downright blasphemous. But as a Bible-believing, bought-by-His-blood, redeemed Christian—I have honestly thought that a time or two. I didn’t admit that out loud, of course, but that’s where my heart and mind were battling. As I tried to reconcile my faith with my experience, the grand promises of the Bible appeared to come up short.
So when our faith gets rattled and we’ve got questions for God, what do we do about it? I tried to ignore them and carry on, but they didn’t go away. I tried to hint at them in conversation with other believers, testing the water to see if it was safe to ask my questions. I usually felt it wasn’t. I finally learned to take my questions to God. Guess what. He’s big enough to handle them.
God is not surprised or caught off guard by our questions. Since the first humans walked this planet, we have had questions for God. After thousands of years and dedicated study by scholars in every field, there are still unanswered questions. Yet, even in the face of impossible questions and unsatisfying answers, there have always been people who chose to believe God anyway.
God knows we have these questions and He permits us to ask them. In fact, He encourages us to. Proverbs 4:7 says, “The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding.” He tells us to seek understanding. James 1:5 says, “If you need wisdom, ask our generous God, and he will give it to you. He will not rebuke you for asking.”
Other people may try to hush us up because our questions make them squirm, but God is never uncomfortable with our questions. People who are insecure about themselves don’t like to be questioned. They are afraid their inadequacies will be revealed. God is neither insecure nor inadequate. He is big enough to handle our questions without getting ruffled.
So let’s look at four of these questions.
#1 How do we suffer?
#2 Why does God allow suffering?
#3 What is our enemy’s purpose?
#4 How should we respond?
I am neither a scholar nor a theologian. I’m just a person who has asked the same questions that people have always been asking. This is a huge, ginormous, colossal topic and I cannot do it justice in a single post—or even a hundred posts. There are so many books by great thinkers, theologians, and scholars. I’m just going to barely scratch the surface to whet your appetite to go and dig deeper on your own.
It is so common to wonder about these things. And there are not many places among Christian circles where people feel “safe” asking the big questions about God. I don’t want to ignore this important topic and I want you to know that this is a safe place. It is far better to ask your questions and wrestle with possible answers than to walk away from God altogether in disappointment, confusion, and bitterness.
Question #1: How do we suffer?
The way I see it, the vast majority of human suffering falls into 1 of 4 categories.
Our own sin: Sometimes we suffer as a result of our own sin. Just as there are physical laws that govern our existence, there are spiritual laws as well. If I were to attempt to live my life as if there is no gravity, I would be a fool—a very injured fool. One spiritual law is the Law of Sowing and Reaping. You reap what you sow. In the physical world, if I plant watermelon seeds and expect to harvest tomatoes, I am a fool. Similarly, if I sow behaviors in my life that are inconsistent with how God calls me to live and yet I still expect to reap the rewards of a life well-lived, I am a fool. I can’t smoke a pack of cigarettes every day for 20 years and then be surprised, hurt, and angry at God when I get lung cancer. If I sow unforgiveness, I will reap bitterness. If I sow trust, I will reap peace. If I sow repentance, I will reap grace.
Someone else’s sin: There are numerous times throughout our lives when we are hurt, directly or indirectly, by the sin of another person. God doesn’t violate anybody’s free will to do as they chose. The option to follow or disregard His commands is up to each individual. Some people claim the only person affected by their bad habits and disobedience is themselves. This is never true. Disobeying God always has rippling effects that radiate out with all sorts of unintended consequences. This is true whether we can readily identify those effects or not. You only have to catch a tiny glimpse of today’s news to see horrific examples of this type of suffering all over the place.
Now, just because another person has sinned against us, does not make us totally innocent. Very often, we suffer for both of the above reasons at the same time. This is especially true in our relationships with others. Rarely is one party totally innocent and the other totally guilty. Still, the other people in our most difficult relationships are not our true enemies. We will talk about this more in a couple of days.
Living in a Fallen World: The world we live in now is not the paradise it was created to be nor the glory it will be. Sin has distorted our physical world as much as it has our spiritual world. There are natural consequences that come with living in a fallen world. We grow old. Our bodies fail. Viruses that are too small for us to even see attack us. Hurricanes, flood, earthquakes, droughts, and fires claim innocent lives.
The incredibly Good News is that one day, God will make everything right again—both in creation and in our frail earthly bodies (Romans 8:18-25).
Because We Obey: Most perplexing of all is the fact that sometimes we suffer because we obey.
- Job was singled out by God and harassed by Satan because he was a righteous man (Job 1:8-12).
- Jesus’ disciples met a terrifying storm on the sea because they got in the boat like He told them to (Mark 4:35-41).
- Paul was imprisoned, flogged, beaten, stoned, shipwrecked and more (2 Cor 11: 25-27) because he was doing exactly what God wanted him to do by telling the Jews, Gentiles, and kings about the resurrection (Acts 9:15-16).
- One of the hardest parts about losing my son, Timothy, was the fact that I was only pregnant to begin with because I had obeyed. I had to release my own will to allow this child to grow in my womb in the first place. Then, I had to release everything all over again to give him back to God.
- And we must always look to Jesus Himself. No one on earth ever was or ever will be more sinless, more pure than Jesus. And yet, no one ever has or ever will suffer to the extent that He did. No one else will ever carry the sins of all of humanity. Jesus asked for another way, but He still submitted to God’s plan (Luke 22:42).
We can only see our pain and the mess we’re in. God can see all the beauty that will grow out of those ashes. Sometimes our life feels like a compost heap—dead, rotting, and stinky. But it’s that very season of death that nurtures the new life that is to come. Just as dead organic material produces good compost which enriches the soil and nourishes the plants which become our food, our suffering can produce within us the richness of God that nourishes our soul and one day enables us to comfort others (2 Cor 1:3-4).
In the end, . . .
- Job and his companions had a whole new appreciation for who God really is. God stretched their understanding of Him as they wrestled with His reasons for allowing Job to suffer. Then God restored to Job everything that he had lost and more (Job 42:10-13).
- Jesus’ disciples got a front row seat to an unbelievable miracle that left them asking, “Who is this? Even the wind and waves obey Him!” (Mark 4:41)
- Paul carried the Good News of God’s redemption of man to most of the known world and wrote roughly one-third of the New Testament. Included in those writings, Paul said this:
But he [God] said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.
2 Corinthians 12:9
- I have learned that God’s mysterious ways are far better than I can imagine and that everything I have is a precious gift from Him.
- And Jesus bought our very lives with His own blood. (Gal 3:13-14, Rev 5:9)
Clearly, God has His purposes in even the most perplexing pain He allows.
Question #2: Why does God allow suffering?
Human suffering and tragedy would be easier to swallow if God did not claim to be all-powerful. Maybe He would like to help us, but is just not strong enough to hold back evil and disaster. Or perhaps if God were not all-good, we could make sense of it. If He behaved more like an immature human (such as the Greco-Roman gods were wont to do), then our random pain might make sense.
The trouble comes when we try to reconcile an all-powerful, all-loving God and the vastness of human hurt we experience and witness. This is especially true when innocents, children, and people who have made good choices suffer seemingly arbitrarily. Why does God allow this?
First of all, it’s okay to ask God “why”. Some people will tell you not to ever question God, but He says differently. There are several Psalms that are raw and very transparent in their questioning. See Psalm 6, Psalm 13, and Psalm 22 for starters.
God is not flimsy. He can withstand our questions without being buffeted. Even Jesus asked, “Why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:45–47) and received only silence from God as an answer. I think sometimes we make God too small in our minds when we think bringing our questions to Him will send Him over the edge.
Entire books have been written trying to answer this question. I don’t understand it all and I can’t begin to unpack it all here. This I do know: God always has a purpose in the pain He allows. He wastes nothing. He is not capricious or cruel, arbitrary or apathetic. He is not powerless to hold back human suffering.
Everything that He allows to touch our lives happens for a reason—for our good and for His glory. Sometimes we get to see the reason later on in life. Many times, we don’t. I believe that when we get to Heaven either we will know all the reasons why or they simply won’t matter to us anymore.
Here is a partial list of a few of the purposes God has in our pain. This will help get you started in considering some of the good God produces through our suffering.
- Our personal and spiritual growth is often accelerated during times of difficulty.
- Our limitations and problems keep us aware of our dependence on Him.
- We are often more aware of the presence of God when we hurt.
- Our faith and character are refined through trials.
- Often, our trials set the stage for something better that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.
- We share in Christ’s sufferings now to share His glory later. (Romans 8:17, 1 Peter 4:13)
- We have greater compassion for others who are hurting.
- Common sorrows unite us with people we may not have ever talked to otherwise.
- It is through our struggles that learn that our true strength comes from God alone.
- God is glorified when others witness the way He sustains and strengthens us.
- God is the world’s greatest Story Teller.
This is truly a tiny and inadequate list. Please also read Joni Eareckson Tada’s list for more.
God has infinitely more purposes going on “behind the scenes”. We will not always be able to discern His purposes, but we can rest knowing that He has good purposes for us even if He chooses not to reveal them to us in this lifetime.
Question #3: What’s our enemy’s purpose?
God has good intentions toward us even in our most painful suffering. But there is another who loves to use our pain to distort our thinking about God. Our enemy is the Father of Lies and he whispers lies to us that sound like our own thoughts. Do any of these sound familiar?
- God doesn’t really love me. If He did, this wouldn’t be happening.
- God must not care about me.
- God is unable to protect me.
- God isn’t listening when I pray.
- God doesn’t see me.
- God can’t be who He claims to be.
- God has abandoned me.
- I am alone.
- I don’t deserve for God to rescue me.
- I am not worth caring about.
- I will never be happy again.
- Nobody sees me.
I’ve had thoughts like these. Healing began when I realized the origin of these thoughts. Turns, out they don’t come from me and they absolutely do not come from God. We are going to talk more about capturing our thoughts and feasting on truth later. For now, we need to be aware of the schemes of our enemy. God tells us to be alert so we don’t get taken down or taken out of the fight by the one who seeks to kill, steal, and destroy all that is good and holy in our lives (1 Peter 5:8).
There are also tons of books written on spiritual warfare. For our purposes here, I’m going to simplify it and just say that the devil’s goal is to drive a wedge between us and God. He wants to fuel our doubts until we separate ourselves from God. God has promised He will never leave us and no one can snatch us from His hands (John 10:28). Satan can’t beat us there. But if he can lie to us and convince us that God has abandoned us, he might be able to convince us to walk away from God.
This has been is scheme since the beginning. Read Genesis 3:1-5 and observe the tactic he used to persuade Eve into disobedience. He caused her to doubt that what God said was really true and for her good. He persuaded her that God did not have good intentions toward her, but was holding back His best for her. He’s still using this same lie today and if we aren’t wise to it, we will fall victim to it.
His ultimate goal is to drag us on to his side of the good vs. evil conflict. If he can’t do that (which he can’t as long as we stay under God’s protection), then he tries to at least incapacitate us for fighting on God’s side. If he can’t conquer us, at least he can keep us from possessing the victory that is already ours. He’s already defeated, and he knows it, but he still tries to convince us he’s not down yet.
Our enemy doesn’t want us to take our questions to God. He wants us to turn inward with them and distance ourselves from God. He also wants us to keep separated from others who wrestle with the same questions for God because it is in fellowship and community that our questions can be examined and released.
Question #4: How should we respond?
Much of this post series will be about how respond with faith to the struggles and disappointments of life. Here is a short list to get you started.
- Take your questions to God.
- Don’t be surprised. (1 Peter 4:12)
- Keep the faith. Choose to believe anyway.
- Ask, “Lord, what do you want me to learn from this?”
- Allow the pressure of your pain to push you closer to God rather than pull you further away in disappointment and bitterness.
- Trust His higher ways. (Isaiah 55:9)
- Consider it all joy. (James 1:2)
In all his unfair suffering, Job never blamed God. He voiced his questions for God, but never got answers. God gave a beautiful, inspiring, compassionate, and humbling response to Job, but He didn’t explain Himself. Job’s response was, “Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.” (Job 42:3b) In the end, God praised Job for being honest (Job 42:8). God doesn’t owe us any answers, but He doesn’t mind us bringing Him our questions.
Philip Yancey pointed out in his book, Where is God When it Hurts?, “We never know in advance exactly how suffering can be transformed into a cause for celebration. But that is what we are asked to believe. Faith means believing in advance what will only make sense in reverse.”
As for me, I have decided that if my God were small enough for me to understand, He would be unworthy of my worship. I don’t even understand why my husband and children do some of the things they do. Goodness, I can’t even understand why I do what I do sometimes. How could I possibly hope to comprehend a God of infinite wisdom and unsearchable knowledge?
If we tried to download all that God knows about our lives and the universe we live in, it would literally blow our minds. We can’t handle it. It’s like trying to explain quadratic equations to your dog. It just won’t work. God is our intellectual superior in every way. Thinking we should be able to understand everything He does only leaves us frustrated and disappointed when we can’t. Instead, let’s acknowledge our limited knowledge and mental capabilities and trust what we don’t understand to a God who is not only all-knowing but also all-loving.
Search Your Heart
What questions do you have for God?
What keeps you from asking Him?
Can you recall a time when something very painful produced something beautiful?
Can you still choose to trust God even when He doesn’t tell you all the answers?
Do you really think you could even understand all the answers if He did tell you?
What unanswered questions are you willing to let go of in order to grip tighter on God?
Call to Action
- Acknowledge your questions, even the ones you may have stuffed or avoided. Dig them out and bring them to God. Your questions may be to big for us, but nothing is too big for Him.
- Ask God respectfully, not mockingly–there is a difference. Seek understanding. Expect God to help you grow your faith.
- Read Job 38-41 and consider God’s response to Job.
- Read Job 42 and use Job’s response back to God to help you shape your own response.
- If you are interested in digging in deeper to these topics, I recommend the books Disappointment with God and Where is God When it Hurts? both by Philip Yancey.
- Give the people around you freedom to ask their questions without shame—even the big, scary, and uncomfortable ones.
- Model God’s own unconditional love and acceptance in the face of another person’s doubt and confusion. He does not silence the questioner. Why do we?
Seek His Face
Father God, it seems the more I learn and know and experience, the more unanswered questions I’m left with. Help me remember to take them all to you. Thank you for your grace and patience. You haven’t forgotten that you made us out of dirt (Psalm 103:13-18). You know our weaknesses, our inadequacies, and our frailties. You welcome us anyway. When I’m tempted to picture you with your arms across your chest looking down at me, remind me to see you as you really are—with your welcoming arms outstretched and a joyful smile upon your face. Help me learn to be more comfortable with questions—both my own and others. It’s okay that I don’t have all the answers. I know you do and that is enough. You’ve got this, God. You don’t need me to figure it all out or understand everything. You just want me to trust you. But thank you for letting me ask anyway.
In the Name of Jesus, in whom all answers are “yes” (2 Cor 1:20), Amen.
Find Strength in the Song
“Someday” by Nicole Nordeman
“I will still sleep peacefully—with answers out of reach for me.” ~ Nicole Nordeman
Be brave and share your questions in the comments below. This is a safe place.
To read other posts in this series, click the image below.