by Barry Howard
How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
2 How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?
Psalm 13:1-2 NIV
Where is God when bad things happen? Across the ages, this question has perplexed and frustrated those afflicted with suffering, grief, and pain. Theologians and philosophers have wrestled with scriptural texts and rational thought striving to make sense of the enigma. Pastors and counselors continually search for explanations that provide encouragement and hope for those scarred by raw human experience.
Chaos comes in a variety of shapes and sizes. Changing weather patterns generate dangerous storms that often wreak havoc on population centers by taking lives and destroying property. Is this an act of nature or an act of God? A fault line in the earth shifts and suddenly the earth trembles, causing structures to collapse and lives to be lost. Where is God in calamity? Cells in the body begin rapidly and abnormally growing and multiplying and gradually a mass or tumor appears. Is this some sort of divine test of one’s faith and spirituality? A drunk driver gets behind the wheel and later strikes a teenager on her way home from a ballgame. The driver survives but the teenager does not. Why doesn’t God intervene to keep such an atrocity from occurring? Where is God when bad things happen?
In one sense, the question is too big to have a simple singular answer. Religious clichés and slogans give momentary comfort to a novice, but to the person who is hurting, such trite answers seem hollow, shallow, and often insulting. In another sense, to attempt to respond to such a challenging question can seem arrogant or presumptuous.
For me, I can only share how I am processing the question in hopes that my small insight might provide a little light for those dealing with the question from a dark place. So, here we go…
First, life is not fair. I wish someone had taught me this hardcore truth when I was much younger. My early faith was predicated on some naïve assumptions: God is good. Life is fair. If I go to church, read my Bible, say my prayers, and try to keep the commandments, I will prosper and God will protect me. If I don’t, bad things will happen.
At this point in my life I would be inclined to say something like this: God really is good. But God never promised that life is fair. Life is tough. Go to church, read your Bible, say your prayers, and follow the ways of Jesus, because you are going to need all of the strength and courage that spiritual faith and spiritual community can offer. You are not exempt from pain, from suffering, or from a tragedy.
Second, I understand that no one is exempt from pain or suffering. Suffering is no respecter of persons. Disease, depression, accidents, tragedies and death do not care whether I am an atheist, agnostic, or devout believer. In a world broken and scarred by human sin, chaos persists. Accidents happen, disease invades, storms blow, and wars erupt. When a tornado touches down, it is presumptuous to think that the storm will bypass my house because I have been more spiritual than my neighbor. Faith does not exempt us from the bad stuff. Faith equips us for the journey.
Third, God is present with me at all times. If life is not fair and I am not exempt from the pain and suffering caused by the chaos, where is God when bad things happen? I believe that God is present with me, not as the perpetrator of the chaos, but as my redeemer in the chaos. God does not necessarily rescue me from the chaos, but God is present helping me navigate the chaos.
Fourth, there is no formula or spiritual incantation to predict or mandate that God will directly intervene the way I prefer. In the Bible there are times that God seems to directly intervene in the chaos, and other times God does not. Why did Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead, but leave others in the grave? Why did Jesus heal a select few, while others in his presence remained afflicted? Was it because of their quantity of faith, or because Jesus deemed them to be less offensive sinners?
What if Jesus chose a select few to demonstrate that disease does not have the final word and will be eliminated in the eternal realm? What if Jesus raised Lazarus as “exhibit A” in the power of resurrection, or precursor to his own unfolding story? Interestingly, every person that Jesus healed got sick again and died. How do we know this? They are not still around, are they? And Lazarus is the only person in the Bible who had to endure death twice. That’s right. Lazarus died again.
I believe in prayer and I believe that the healing process is enhanced by a multitude of contributing factors including hope, faith, medicine, exercise, diet, and a positive attitude. But there are no guarantees, only a challenge to walk by faith with courage and perseverance. A false premise of a “name it, claim it” approach to religion is that it makes a promise based on isolated scriptures taken out of context, mostly disregarding the suffering of people of faith throughout the Bible. Job, despite his remarkable faith, was not exempt from compounded tragedy. There is no evidence that Moses was healed from his speech impediment. Samson did not have his eyesight restored. And Paul was not delivered from his “thorn in the flesh.”
Finally, the Bible suggests that God is present and proactive in all of our circumstances. Although God is not the perpetrator who initiates our suffering, Romans 8:28 reminds us that God “works in all things to bring about good for those who love him and are called according to his purpose.”
In what way is God present? First, I believe the presence and personality of God, referred to in the Bible as the Holy Spirit, resides within me, not because I merited a holy status, but as one of many gifts of God. The Spirit convicts, comforts and coaches me according to the conscience and character of Jesus. It is sort of like having a spiritual mentor living inside of me. Second, I believe that God is present in the corporate Body of Christ. When Jesus departed the earth, he said to his followers, you are now my body.
Last week, we observed the Lord’s Supper in our church. We partook of the bread and cup as a vivid reminder of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. Among other things, we believe that these elements remind us that, as believers, we are now the body of Christ in the world. We are his hands, his feet, his voice, and his passion. Therefore, God is not only at work to bring about good, but we are the human conduit through which God is at work to share love, comfort, healing, and encouragement. And if we are distracted by other things, we have essentially tied the hands and feet of God. But if we are on task, ministry occurs, especially in the face of chaos.
As I wrestle with the question, “Where is God when bad things happen?,” I readily admit that “now I see through a glass darkly,” but to affirm that God is present in my suffering, grief, or pain, even when I cannot fully explain the chaos, brings a little light to the dark places in my life. And this little bit of light causes me to long for more.
(Barry Howard serves as senior minister at the First Baptist Church of Pensacola, Florida.)