One of the persisting questions I get as a pastor is the problem of pain and suffering. Heartbreak. Estrangement. Accidents. Natural disasters. Disease. Death. Why does God allow it? Does He not love us… love me? Is this suffering somehow my fault?
One frequent answer is that God will use this pain somehow soon for your prosperity. “You lost the job now but something better is out there for you!” “Your relationship fell apart… that’s because there is someone better out there for you!”
Indeed, God works all things for the good of those who love him (Rom. 8:28) but we may not always have the same definition of good as God and we rarely have the same time horizon as He does. God often does have powerful relief in this life for some of our pain.
But not always.
My father has cancer… and he died from it.
My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer… and she recovered.
My brother suffered a massive heart attack… and died almost instantly.
And many of you have similar if not more heartbreaking tales of suffering that remain unresolved. What are we to make of this pain? What are we to think f the people we have lost along the way? Was God’s power not sufficient to save them? He was he just not willing? Or maybe it’s because my own faith was defective.
No. The reason these things happen is not because your faith is defective (though God may use suffering to refine your faith and trust). God has his own and distinct purpose for each of us. He weaves our stories together in a way that pushes us along in the tale but never in a way where one story trumps another or thwarts God’s purpose for that individual. Our failings does not mean that someone else suffers something they didn’t have to… and our own sufferings present us with the opportunity for great trust in… and assurance of… God’s mercy.
One of my favorite sequences in the Chronicles of Narnia is from The Horse and His Boy. Aslan, the great Lion and Lord of Narnia (the Jesus figure) meets the boy, Shasta, after a terrible chase and the seeming loss of his friend, Aravis, to a lion attack. He is in great distress. The passage is a bit long, but worth the read:
What put a stop to all of this was a sudden fright. Shasta discovered that someone or somebody was walking beside him. It was pitch dark and he could see nothing. And the Thing (or Person) was going so quietly that he could hardly hear any footfalls. What he could hear was breathing. His invisible companion seemed to breathe on a very large scale, and Shasta got the impression that it was a very large creature. And he had come to notice this breathing so gradually that he had really no idea how long it had been there. It was a horrible shock.
It darted into his mind that he had heard long ago that there were giants in these Northern countries. He bit his lip in terror. But now that he really had something to cry about, he stopped crying.
The Thing (unless it was a person) went on beside him so very quietly that Shasta began to hope that he had only imagined it. But just as he was becoming quite sure of it, there suddenly came a deep, rich sigh out of the darkness beside him. That couldn’t be imagination! Anyway, he has felt the hot breath of that sigh on his chilly left hand.
If the horse had been any good – or if he had known how to get any good out of the horse – he would have risked everything on a break away and a wild gallop. But he knew he couldn’t make that horse gallop. So he went on at a walking pace and the unseen companion walked and breathed beside him. At last he could bear it no longer.
“Who are you?” he said, barely above a whisper.
“One who has waited long for you to speak,” said the Thing. Its voice was not loud, but very large and deep.
“Are you – are you a giant?” asked Shasta.
“You might call me a giant,” said the Large Voice. “But I am not like the creatures you call giants.”
“I can’t see you at all,” said Shasta, after staring very hard. Then (for an even more terrible idea had come into his head) he said, almost in a scream, “You’re not – not something dead, are you? Oh please – please do go away. What harm have I ever done you? Oh, I am the unluckiest person in the whole world.”
Once more he felt the warm breath of the Thing on his hand and face. “There,” it said, “that is not the breath of a ghost. Tell me your sorrows.”
Shasta was a little reassured by the breath: so he told how he had never known his real father or mother and had been brought up sternly by the fisherman. and then he told the story of his escape and how they were chased by lions and forced to swim for their lives; and of all their dangers in Tashbaan and about his night among the Tombs and how the beasts howled at him out of the desert. And he told about the heat and thirst of their desert journey and how they were almost at their goal when another lion chased them and wounded Aravis. And also, how very long it was since had had anything to eat.
“I do not call you unfortunate,” said the Large Voice.
“Don’t you think it was bad luck to meet so many lions?” said Shasta.
“There was only one lion.” said the Voice.
“What on earth do you mean? I’ve just told you there were at least two lions the first night, and -”
“There was only one, but he was swift of foot.”
“How do you know?”
“I was the lion.”
And as Shasta gaped with open mouth and said nothing, the Voice continued. “I was the lion who forced you to join with Aravis. I was the cat who comforted you among the houses of the dead. I was the lion who drove the jackals from you as you slept. I was the lion who gave the Horses the new strength of fear for the last mile so that you should reach King Lune in time. And I was the lion you do not remember who pushed the baot in which you lay, a child near death, so that it came to shore where a man sat, wakeful at midnight, to receive you.”
“Then it was you who wounded Aravis?”
“It was I.”
“But what for?”
“Child,” said the Voice, “I am telling you your story, not hers. I tell no one any story but his own.”
OK… if you are still reading…
Aslan tells Shasta that while our stories interweave, God has a distinct purpose in them all… and he only tells us our own. God is working something unique in in the story of your suffering. What happened had its own purpose for you or the person to which it happened. I think of my brother, taken from his children when they were so young. But God has had the gentle conversation with him about the events of his life just as Aslan had with Shasta. And he will have his private conversations with each of us. We rarely get to know what story someone else has, but we can trust the one who is telling the story. He… means… good… for his children. If the resurrection is real, no matter what our stories, they all have their happy ending there.
Whoever you are… whatever your circumstance, know that you are loved, sweet child of God.