“Why, God, are you allowing this to happen?”
I repeated this question a lot in the eighteen months shortly after our move to New Orleans. (I shared about this season in our marriage last week, and you can read it here in case you missed it.)
These months were filled with a lot of change, surprise, and hardship largely out of our control, and I had no clear answers as to why God was allowing them.
I know several strong philosophical and biblical answers to what philosophers call “the problem of evil”–the question of how evil can persist if an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving God exists–and much ink has been spilled in great books on this topic. Sometimes, suffering is in our control, for example, because it is a direct consequence of our sin. Other times, suffering or persecution is a result of our identification with Jesus. He even told his disciples in Jn. 15:18-25 to anticipate suffering because of their choice to follow him.
There are other philosophical and biblical explanations for suffering, and these are important for us to know.
These arguments seek to answer the question, “Why is there suffering?”
But we often ask a different kind of question when we are in the midst of a season of suffering ourselves: “Why am I suffering?”
The first question is philosophical in nature, and answers to this question often provide resolve and comfort when suffering is “out there.”
The second question is existential in nature, because suffering is no longer “out there” but “in here”–in my heart, my life, my home, or my family. Philosophical answers often fall short in this case because we are no longer asking God for possible answers for our suffering but the answer for our suffering. We want straight, clear lines from the cause to the effect of our current circumstances.
The hard truth is that we rarely have the luxury of knowing with certainty the cause of our suffering.
Think about seasons when you have endured suffering largely beyond your control. At best, you could only speculate answers to the question, “Why am I suffering?”
This is because God is the only omniscient, all-knowing One.
There is a limit to what we can know, and, frankly, we sometimes hate that thought if we are willing to admit it. Jen Wilkin writes in her book None Like Him, “Our insatiable desire for information is a clear sign that we covet divine omniscience. We want all the facts, but as finite beings we are not designed to have them.”
Even when we know other people’s sin is the source of pain and suffering in our lives, our answer as to “why” they injured us is still limited. We can only know and understand so much about their motivations. In fact, we can’t fully know ourselves! Scripture says that God is the only One who fully knows us and our neighbors (Ps. 139, 1 Cor. 8:3; 13:12).
Wilkin writes about these limitations in her book, “Rather than assuming I understand their motives and their difficulties, I can assume that neither I nor they can fully diagnose the problem. But God can.”
Talk about complicated.
We might know we are limited in knowledge on some level, yet we still try to contort our suffering in all sorts of ways so that it fits in nice, neat boxes we can label. I revert to labeling my boxes “idolatry” a lot.
I shared this last week, but I decided a lot of the hardships we endured must have had something to do with idolatry lingering around in our hearts (I even wrote about it here). Abraham Maslow said, “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” I took my “idolatry hammer” to every nail of hardship that came our way.
Some of these things I wrote about–like my desire for As in school as a means of affirmation–were idols and needed to be demolished. Turning every sickness or unexpected expense or broken relationship into a revelation about idolatry, however, is stretching it.
When I started to reflect in January on the eighteen months since we moved, God began to challenge my certainty about this diagnosis. While it is true that personal sin and idolatry can result in suffering, this is not always the case. When we experience loss, we tend to grieve, and grief is not always a warning sign of misplaced love. Grief can actually be a sign of what “ought to be,” according to God, but is not.
Sharon Hodde Miller put it this way during Holy Week:
There is this interesting thing the Christians do in the face of loss. Whether it’s the loss of a job, a relationship, or a person, some of us wonder if God took it away because it had become an idol. As the logic goes, we loved the thing too much, which is why God removed it.
If you wrestle with that mindset, I want to encourage you that Holy Week is a challenge to that way of thinking. As we remember Jesus grieving the betrayal of his friends & the loss of his life, we know his loss & pain was not the result of idolatry. The world is just broken.
Sometimes I think we try to make sense of suffering in a way that depicts God as capricious. But as we prepare for Holy Week, remember that Jesus’ humility and sacrifice is about the clearest depiction we have of God’s true character, and His intention toward you.
Dare I say we might, as Wilkin wrote, be trying to play God when we assume a cause in the mind of God for the effect that is our circumstance.
God created us with limits to our knowledge, and sometimes we can only join with the psalmist and say, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it” (Ps. 139:6).
Wilkin continues in her book,
“The business of every believer is to strive to understand what God has revealed. What he has revealed is sufficient for salvation, needful for godliness, and supremely worthy of meditation. It is true, noble, right, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy. It becomes the filter through which we learn to choose wisely what additional knowledge is good for our souls.”
Surrender to our limitations is actually good for us because, when we own the limits of our knowledge, we can focus instead on what we can know and control in the middle of hardships.
Instead of expending all of our energy nailing down the exact “why” for our suffering, I want to suggest a better use of our time next week so that we gain from the ashes of our suffering “additional knowledge [that] is good for our souls.”
This is Part 2 of a blog series on suffering. Click the links below to read the rest of the series:
Part 1: The Prosperity Gospel We Don’t Talk about Much
Part 2: Can We Know the “Why” for Our Suffering
Part 3: “Will I Ever Find Joy in This Season?”