A Review of Where is God When it Hurts?
One of the biggest objections that people have to the idea of a loving God, is the reality of pain and suffering in the world. They ask, “How can a loving God allow this or that to happen?”
“Either God is all-powerful,” the argument goes, “or he is all-loving. But the state of our world is evidence that he cannot possibly be both.”
Or can he be?
If God is really all-powerful and all-loving, why does suffering exist?
Christians have – since the beginning – thought about this important question. It’s a question we can’t escape. It is all around us. Every time a loved one dies, we’re faced with it. Every terminal diagnosis we hear about reminds us of it. And when we turn on the news, there’s a near constant stream of reasons to question God’s love and power.
And not only is this question all around us – it’s incredibly personal. This isn’t a subject only for theologians in their ivory towers. The question of suffering will touch every human being on earth, given enough time.
So, where is God in the midst of all this?
Philip Yancey’s Answer: Where is God When it Hurts?
That’s what Philip Yancey attempts to answer in his classic book Where is God When it Hurts? Originally written in 1977 when Yancey was in his mid-twenties, it went through a major revision in 1990 (I can’t speak to any differences between the two versions because I’ve only read the more recent one). And though he was young when he first put pen to paper, this book is filled with wisdom. Wisdom gained by listening to others.
One of the things I learned fairly early on in my life, was that even if I didn’t have wisdom or understanding. Others did. And if I’m willing to listen to their stories, their experiences, and their failures, then I don’t have to make the same mistakes they did. I can glean from the wisdom of others. This is how Yancey was able – though young – to write a book that’s so seasoned.
As a journalist, Yancey had the opportunity to interview people from all walks of life. Their stories of suffering and persevering make up his case that God is, in fact, both all-loving and all-powerful. So, how does he make this case? Slowly and deliberately.
Part One: Why is there such a thing as pain?
The book is divided up into five parts that build on one another. He begins with the rather broad question, ‘Why is there such a thing as pain?’ This is as foundational as you can get. And I can imagine that many people who are suffering – whether from physical or psychological pain – might ask this question: “If God is good, why did he create pain to begin with?”
What follows is a rather clinical discussion – focusing on the biology of pain and how our body processes it. It makes sense to me, in a theoretical way, to begin a book like this. But as I read, I wondered about the person reading this who had just lost their spouse – or who had just received a terminal diagnosis. I almost felt like they might be turned off by this approach. And Yancey acknowledges that, even when we understand the purpose of pain, it doesn’t help those who experience it in its chronic form. Again, I get why he started this way. It makes sense because of everything he builds on this foundation. I just wonder how many suffering people started reading Where is God When it Hurts? – in hopes of finding help – but quickly put it down because of the way it began.
As Yancey continues, he tells about Dr. Paul Brand, a doctor who works with lepers in Louisiana. Lepers’ pain receptors don’t work. They can’t experience pain – at least not the physical kind. And it’s disastrous for them. They don’t know when something is too hot, so they can easily burn themselves. They can break bones, tear tendons, and cut themselves without even realizing it.
Though we might wish we could experience a pain-free life, we wouldn’t like it if that wish was granted. We’d end up like old King Midas: realizing that the thing we thought we most wanted was actually the thing that would destroy us.
Part Two: Is pain a message from God?
In part 2, Yancey asks another important question, ‘Is pain a message from God?’ He acknowledges the places in Scripture where suffering is sent by God but he makes an important distinction. When God sent judgment in the Old Testament, it was always preceded by a warning. In other words, God didn’t send plagues or war or famine without first telling people he was going to. God always warned people – in hopes that they would repent.
Unfortunately, too many Christians strip these verses of their context and make proclamations about this or that being ‘God’s will.’ But, we can’t know that. God may allow a sickness or a death but that doesn’t mean he caused it. Job’s story reminds us that we can’t know why most suffering takes place. And Yancey makes liberal use of Job’s experience to excellent effect.
At the end of this section, Yancey argues that the Christian response to suffering must be just that: a response. If we focus on the cause, we’ll never get out of the valley. If we keep asking “Why me?” or “What is God trying to tell me in this?” we’ll just dig ourselves deeper into the ground. Instead of focusing on the cause, Yancey encourages us to keep our eyes facing forward. We should reflect on our response to the suffering more than the causes. This is the best way to work through the many emotions that accompany pain.
Part Three: How people respond to suffering
Part 3 recounts the stories of several suffering people. One chapter is devoted to Brian Sternberg. Another tells about Joni Eareckson Tada. And still another focuses on several Holocaust survivors. Each of these chapters looks at how people get through suffering – even when the suffering doesn’t end. These are helpful because they bring much of what Yancey has been discussing down to an even more personal level. It’s one thing to say “Focus on your response to pain rather than the cause.” It’s a completely different thing to hear about men like Christian Reger – a Holocaust survivor who persevered in spite of witnessing the very worst of humanity.
Part Four: How can we cope with pain?
In part 4, Yancey gets practical by examining the question, ‘How can we cope with pain?’ Here, he looks at two things that will drag us into further pain (fear and helplessness) and two things that have the potential to lift us out of our pain (meaning and hope). These are important chapters though I felt like they’d probably be better for people ministering to others who are suffering rather than the suffering people themselves.
And since I’m on the subject, let me say that I believe this book would serve as a wonderful resource for pastors and for teams devoted to ministering to others. There’s a great deal of very practical advice here and Yancey steers us away from some of the common errors that Christians make when interacting with suffering people. In addition, this book includes a group discussion guide in the back that would be perfect for either a ministry team or a support group to work through. I can imagine that it would be very profitable; though I can’t speak from experience since I read it alone.
Part Five: How does faith help?
Yancey closes the book with, in my view, the most important part of all: ‘How does faith help?’ And in particular, he looks at how Christian faith helps. In this section, he notes the importance of the Church being Christ’s presence and voice to suffering people. Pain can block out the voice of God. In those moments, the Church needs desperately to step up to the plate.
The end of this book returns to the question posed in the title, Where is God When it Hurts? If we’re tempted to ask this question, we would do well to meditate on a picture of the crucifixion.
Jesus, God the Son, suffered alongside us. He entered into this world – a world he made – so that he could fully identify with us – his creatures. And when we suffer, we should remind ourselves that we don’t suffer alone. God has suffered with us. He has come into our pain and our sorrow. As John’s Gospel says, “Jesus wept” ( John 11:35).
And he weeps with us.
Suffering with Hope
Because this world doesn’t work the way he intended. Death and disease were not part of God’s good creation. They are intruders and enemies.
And Jesus’ resurrection reminds us that they won’t have the final say. On Easter, Christ defeated death, once for all. This is the hope that sustains us through all pain and all suffering.
It’s the hope that one day God will put all things right. In that day, God “will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4). Yancey points us toward that day.
May we walk to it, through both joy and suffering, with confidence.
You can pick up Where Is God When It Hurts? on Amazon.com.
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