It’s a question we who work in the church are asked frequently.
Why did my child die?
Why is my wife sick?
Why would God let him linger like this?
Questions about suffering are always difficult to respond to. Yes, there are rare times we can easily connect the dots when someone is suffering: “The man ate bacon with every meal. You can’t do that.” -Phil Berquist,City Slickers
But there are other times, many times, most times, when it is not so neat and tidy. A woman who never smoked is diagnosed with lung cancer. A child who never had the chance to harm anyone dies, just dies.
The church has dealt with these types of questions in a number of ways, some more effective than others.
The first is one that has made us wildly unpopular, and one that I am thankful I have never personally heard anyone say. Sin. That the illness, the death, is God’s punishment against the individual or those who love that individual. While having an explanation (good qualities – bad qualities = reward/punishment) may provide some strange comfort, it’s an explanation that doesn’t hold water for one reason. If I have learned one thing reading the Bible it is this. There is a God, and it’s not me. It’s not you either. How in the world would I have enough insight into anyone’s life, much less into the mind of God to be able to say that if someone had behaved better, then this cancer would not have invaded their body? It doesn’t work. Because we don’t know.
A second does not get us much further, though it is at least more well-intentioned. People will say things like, “God just wanted that little boy home with Him,” or, “The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away.” Here’s the thing, when people are faced with trying to comfort others who are suffering, we often don’t know what to say, but saying nothing doesn’t seem like an option. So we say something that we hope will offer some clarity, some solution, some answer. But it doesn’t work, because we don’t have an answer. And yes, I know one of those quotes is from the Bible. Quoting the Bible makes us feel like our words have more credibility, but in this case it still doesn’t work, because it presumes that we have some insight into what God plans to give and plans to take away. And we don’t know.
Which brings me to what I believe is the only honest answer when confronted with unexplained suffering. When someone asks us why something has happened in their lives, I think the only thing we can honestly say is, “I don’t know.”
If we really want to be helpful, then we need to be honest. If we really want to comfort someone, then we we need to only offer what we are capable of offering, ourselves.
Why did this happen?
I don’t know, but I will stay with you as long as you need.