On suffering

If you believe God loves His children, and then you suffer something terrible and tragic, you have to face head-on the question: Is there God? Close on its heels comes the second query, just as hard: Why does He sit quiet as we suffer?

Now, you can avoid these questions for a time. You can put on your pious face, and receive the good wishes of your pious admirers. The wakeful hours, however, are stacked up on your life’s horizon like so many storm clouds. You will grapple with these questions, if only by retreating into safer things than God, like work, and easy friendships, and church. One way or another, though, you will answer them with the testimony that is your every day of life from this moment until your heart’s last quiver.

Raging as I was against God, my ashen daughter in an urn on my shelf, the first question answered itself. You can’t rage, after all, against a Nothing. It was the second question that nearly undid me, and that schemes sometimes to undo me still. “Where is your God?” the mockers asked the psalmist, and so escapes the thought from recesses of my mind still given over to anarchy and gloom.

In my book I work through the answer that gave me a measure of peace. I can’t fathom what purpose of God is served by my three year-old girl writhing in fear and pain for weeks on end. But I can grasp that there are things I am not equipped to understand. I can imagine there is a universe, and a Creator atop it, that are each inexplicable to this man.

This was how I let go the anger, in faith that there is a Why beyond my own, scarcely illumined why.

I recently finished G.K. Chesterton’s novel, The Man Who Was Thursday. His protagonist confronts Satan as the deceiver stands before God, denouncing man. The First Attorney is incensed that we should receive God’s favor, having paid nothing for it.

The protagonist cries that suffering persists on the earth “. . . so that the real lie of Satan may be flung back in the face of this blasphemer, so that by tears and torture we may earn the right to say to this man, ‘You lie!’ No agonies can be too great to buy the right to say to this accuser, ‘We also have suffered.'”

Now here is an interesting possibility, that a purpose in suffering might be to rebuke the very devil. Do we testify, with these scars, that we have been humbled, and yet did not make God our enemy?

This reminds me of an interview I read years ago, with the writer of the screenplay for The Exorcism of Emily Rose. In the telling, a faithful girl was seized by demons and tormented unto death, despite the ministrations of a priest. When the writer was asked what he makes of a child being slowly murdered by demons in the very sight of God, he replied that the only sense he can make of it is that some among us are appointed to suffer, to be witnesses that in spite of all man’s advances, we are still a creation crying out to God for deliverance from hell.

Still, there is this other fact, this inescapable reality of God that we cannot forget in our suffering. Chesterton’s protagonist, going too far in imagining that it is man who has paid the bill, demands of God, “Have you ever suffered?”

“‘Can ye drink,'” comes the reply, “‘of the cup that I drink of?'”

I can’t understand why this suffering, any more than you can know, perhaps, your own. But we know that God has suffered with us, out of love for us. Perhaps, if nothing else, knowing a portion of that suffering enables us to grasp, in turn, the depths of the great love for which it was undertaken — for me, for you, for those we have loved unto their graves.

It’s not an explanation. But maybe it’s something even greater than an explanation, if you can imagine such a thing.


  1. I Live in an Antbed

    For me, it has to come down to this: He is God. And in His Sovereignty, He sees all. And when all the pieces of all the puzzles are connected, then I might understand more. Until then, He must be Enough. I must be satisfied with Him. And all the questions simply fall at His feet. Because when it comes down to it, I do believe that whatever He allows to happen to me or asks me to walk through is the most loving way He can accomplish His Will. Period. That sounds simplistic. But that is all I have.

  2. Tony

    I find I can get all theological and start parsing out what I do or don’t believe about sovereignty and all the rest of it, but I suppose in the end it does come down to this, that we must choose a path: trust Him, revile Him, or pretend He isn’t there. And take refuge in this unshakeable truth — if He is there, then He is who He says He is, and while plenty of people try to define Him one way or another, He has said without qualification that He is love, and that He loves all mankind.

  3. Beth

    Thanks so much, Tony. I was a pediatric hospice nurse for years and spent a lot of hours with families like yours…I’ve never been the same. “If He is there, then He is who He says He is.” In the midst of my own existential crisis, I came to the same conclusion.

  4. Post

    Beth, I don’t know how you did that job. One of the kindest doctors our daughter had, a resident, told me he just couldn’t bear to make that his profession.

  5. Beth

    I did it for a few years before I had kids. I could never never do it now. I figured there had to be a very limited pool of people who could do it, and that I could then, so I should. It was some of the most important, difficult, rewarding work I ever did. I’ll never, ever forget the 16 year old who needed pain medicine so she could go back to her last birthday party…the illegal immigrant parents who rocked and held their dying baby for hours at a time in their bare, impoverished, spotlessly clean slum apartment…the parents who were scared in the middle of the night because their newborn with Trisomy 18 was choking on her own saliva…the teenage athlete who needed a blood transfusion on a Saturday morning so he would have the strength to get out of bed, whose mom fed me doughnuts…people facing bottomless anguish and somehow drawing another breath and another, and another as they slowly lost a precious child. I can barely breathe, myself, as I remember them. I had to immerse myself in Viktor Frankl to cope.

  6. Doug

    I agree we must choose a path. Faith, for me, is always there but I suppose it is never 100%, but it is never 0% either. I suspect 100% is not what is required or expected. I remember from your book about always praying to help your unbelief and this has since become a frequent prayer of mine. It seems we must eventually either choose to believe (and have hope) or choose to not believe (and be hopeless). There are really no other eventual options. I choose not to go through life hopeless. For me it is actually easy to believe in God. I cannot fathom how everything is here by accident or passage of time alone. It is much easier, and rational to believe in a creator to me. How God interacts with us and with tragic pain is a more difficult question. I like your answer that if he is there, he is who he says he is and that he is love. Hard to understand sometimes, but why should we think understanding every facet of an all powerful God and Creator of the universe would be easy for us?

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