In the summer of 2003, I served as a summer missionary at a church plant in Manhattan. While the distance of time has caused many details from that summer to diminish in my memory, one experience stands out to me after all of these years. It was a hot July day, and we were doing an outreach event in a park on the Upper Westside. As the event was in progress, I stood on the outskirts observing our group interact with others when I noticed a man up on a hill that overlooked the park. Dressed in biker’s gear, he stood straddling his bike as he watched our event with curiosity.
Something about the way he looked compelled me to walk over and strike up a conversation. After introducing myself, the man asked what was going on below us, so I explained about the church and how we were trying to serve the community. I’ll never forget the way he laughed with irony when he realized we were a group of Christians. It wasn’t a bitter or mocking laugh; it was more of a laugh that was filled with sadness and longing. He reminded me of the proverb, “Even in laugher the heart may ache, and the end of joy may be grief” (14:13).
As our conversation continued, this man shared some of his story with me. He was a captain at one of the fire stations that responded on September 11th; he had lost many of his men to the falling towers that day. Now, almost two years later, he was losing more of his men to suicide as a direct result of the terrorist attacks. I saw before me a man who desperately wanted to understand. He searched my eyes for the answer to his questions as we talked. But why? his eyes begged of mine. Unfortunately, I did not have the answers he sought on that day; I could not tell him why and didn’t even attempt to do so.
We stood there that day, wondering at the horror and heartlessness of it all, and we were just the same: two human beings facing head on the problem of pain in this life. There is nothing like tragedy and grief to draw two complete strangers together in an unmistakeable bond of humanity. We couldn’t comprehend how something like this could happen, how even one person could inflict such atrocious acts of evil upon another. “Where was God on September 11th?” the captain wondered aloud. I knew where He was, but the captain didn’t really want me to answer his question. He just needed to speak it out loud.
We were just the same that day, the captain and I, but we were also completely different. The captain stood there, broken and hopeless, not comprehending the why but desperately wanting to see truth. I stood there, broken but hopeful, not comprehending the why but desperately clinging to Truth.
Pain, tragedy, heartache, sorrow…these words are woven throughout the lives of every person who walks this earth. The circumstances are always different, for we each come to life experiences with our own narratives. You can’t quantify the suffering of one person over the other. The mother who feels the pains of childbirth as her 13-week gestation baby slips from her body grieves for the death of her child. The husband who comes home to an empty house night after night because his wife left him for another man grieves for the death of his marriage. Whose suffering is worse? We couldn’t possibly begin to say.
As we've already explored, there are some things in life that we will just never understand. Why does one father abuse the children he loves, while another takes great pains to provide everything for his children? Why does one child survive leukemia, while another dies quickly after the diagnosis is given? Three baby girls were born to three different mothers within five weeks of each other at my church. Why was one born with Down syndrome, while the other two were not? If we remain in the mysterious and answerless questions, we will find ourselves bitter, angry, and stuck.
There is a question, though, that we all must decide how we will answer. This question has a definite answer, and our individual beliefs will not alter the truth of this answer. They will, however, determine how we cope in life. That question is this:
Do we believe God is who He says He is?
Job is a man most think of when the topics of suffering and the Bible come together. None of us wants to imagine experiencing the magnitude of loss that Job did. In the span of one day, all of his earthly possessions, as well as all of his children, were taken from him (ch. 1). As if that was not enough, on a later day Job became inflicted with “loathsome sores” that covered his entire body (ch. 2). In the crisis of the moment on those two different days, Job’s immediate responses reveal his answer to this crucial question. On the day of his first great tragedy, words of worship fell from the lips of Job:
“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” Job 1:19
On the day of his second great tragedy, words of surrender fell from the lips of Job:
“Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” Job 2:10
In it all, Job believed God is who He says He is.
This does not mean that Job did not wrestle with questions. It does not mean that Job did not suffer greatly in his grief and loss. Keep reading and you will find Job scraping his flesh in anguish, cursing the day of his birth, and questioning why God would doesn't just allow him to die. Even as he trusted the Sovereign God, Job broke in his humanity. Job grieved. Job asked why.
An event eventually transpires in the book of Job that I think speaks to all of us today. "But why?" Job utters throughout this book. Eventually, God answers the question, but it is not the question of why that He answers. Instead, in a stunning display of His power, sovereignty, and meticulous attention to detail, God reveals Who He is (Job 38-41). Job 38:1 says: “Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind….” And then God asks:
“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” God asks (38:4).
“Or who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb…and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stayed’?” (38:8-11)
“Have you commanded the morning since your days began, and caused the dawn to know its place…?” (38:12)
“Have you entered the storehouses of the snow, or have you seen the storehouses of the hail….?” (38:22)
“Who has cleft a channel for the torrents of rain and a way for the thunderbolt, to bring rain on a land where no man is...?” (38:22-27)
“Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades of loose the cords of Orion…Do you know the ordinances of the heavens?” (38:31; 33)
“Who can number the clouds by wisdom?” (38:37)
His answer continues into the next few chapters, and I encourage you to read God's answer in full to realize the magnificent power and wisdom that He exercises over all of creation. The question, we realize as we read God's words and imagine His glory, is no longer why; the question is Who. Who do I trust when bad things happen? Who I did turn to when all else fails? Who do I praise when all is good?
As I think over the many different trials and tragedies I personally have experienced in life, I must confess that I’m not sure any answer to the “whys” would ever satisfy. Perhaps God in His sovereignty knows this to be true of all of us. I don’t think the captain I met that hot July day would have been satisfied with any answer of "why" to his tremendous suffering and loss. Perhaps, too, there are many interwoven and interdependent variables that all come together in formulating a complex answer to our many questions - that maybe the sovereignty of God, the effects of sin on this broken world, and the ability of each person to makes choices, all interact in ways that are beyond our human comprehension. Perhaps. But I go back to that challenge given to me a while back when God said no to answering a desperate prayer as I had requested. Is the God I serve ineffectual? No, He is not. He is sovereign, though, and He is also intimately involved in our lives. On that truth I will rest.
As genuine followers of Christ, we are not immune to heartache and suffering in this life. The difference for us, though, is that we know the One who will sustain us through the good days and the bad, should we trust Him. Even when it hurts, and even when it does not make sense, we can know Who God is. Among many other traits, scripture reveals that He is good (Psalm 100;136), He is loving (1 Jn. 4), and He is kind (Eph. 2:1-10).
This is the choice we all must make: when it seems that the worst has come, will you believe He is who He says He is? Everything else hinges on your answer to that question.