Notes from Philip Yancey's "The question that never goes away"

I recently read Yancey's book The question that never goes away: What is God up to in a world of such tragedy and pain? (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2013). I found the book helpful, and what follow are simply notes of things that struck me as I read it. I found the book helpful, and the notes are offered with the thought that others may find it (the book, not my notes) helpful too. The notes don't hang together particularly coherently (and they certainly don't form a synopsis of the book), and they offer no ultimate answer to the title question 'What is God up to in a world of such tragedy and pain?' It is, as Yancey's title has it, 'the question that never goes away'.

Numbers in parentheses are page references to the 2013 paperback edition.

Skeptics pounce on each major catastrophe as if it put the final nail in the coffin of faith: how could a good God possibly allow such a calamity? There is a touch of irony here: the question would not occur to a conscience that had not been shaped by a Christian culture, and only makes sense in the context of Christian faith. Oddly we do not hear the question that is consistent with skepticism: ‘Why are you upset? What else should we expect from an impersonal universe of random indifference?' (28)

In the US each major catastrophe is followed by Christian commentators on the radio or the Internet attributing it to God's judgement. Why do Christians continue to think that good and evil, pain and pleasure are doled out according to merit, when the book of Job teaches just the opposite? The Bible avoids the Why? question, perhaps to stop us shifting attention from the sufferer to the circumstances. (35) We never hear Jesus telling people to accept blindness or lameness as an expression of God's will. Instead he healed them. One may sympathise with those who try to explain catastrophes as an expression of God's will, but Jesus taught us to pray, 'Your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven,' and directed us to work towards this goal. When we encounter people who are grieving, they need us to embrace their grief, not provide explanations. (46-49)

Yancey says he resists those who assume God sends suffering to accomplish good. Jesus never says such a thing in the Gospels. Nonetheless the New Testament emphasises God redeems bad things for good. Paul wrote to the Romans (5:3), 'We also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.'  (81)

On the day after the Newtown shootings Miroslav Volf wrote on his blog, 'Those who observe suffering are tempted to reject God; those who experience it often cannot give up on God, their solace and their agony. . . You can protest against the evil in the world only if you believe in a good God. Otherwise the protest doesn't make sense.' (105)

Speaking to parents after the Newtown school massacre, Yancey was asked, 'Will God protect my child?' and responded, no, he couldn't promise that. 'We all die, some old, some tragically young. God provides support and solidarity, yes, but not protection – at least not the kind of protection we desperately long for. On this cursed planet, even God suffered the loss of a son.’ (120)

'The wealth of laments and protest in the old Testament makes clear that we cannot count on God to intercede directly in human history, no matter how monstrous the injustice.' (69)

Only a suffering God can say whether this planet is worth the cost. If you ask a parent who has lost a child whether the six or seven years they had with them were worth the pain they feel now, the answer is invariably yes. As Tennyson wrote about the death of a young friend, ' 'Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.' Perhaps God feels the same way about fallen creation. (109)

God is on the side of the sufferer. He entered human history as one of its characters, not omnipotent, but vulnerable. Jesus encountered suffering, and responded not with theology but by reaching out with healing and compassion, a clear example of how his followers should respond to those who suffer. 'He forgave sin, he healed the afflicted, cast out evil and even overcame death.' (74) Psalm 23 reminds us, 'I will fear no evil, for you are with me.' (70)

To appreciate what Jesus's life contributes to the questions raised by suffering we need only to look at other major religions. Buddhism admits, 'Life is suffering,' and advises believers how to embrace it. Islam counsels submission to whatever happens as the will of Allah. Hinduism teaches that we deserve the sufferings we undergo as the consequences of sins committed in a previous life. Christians, however, protest against suffering and rely on the belief that God will one day heal the planet of pain and death. We cannot reconcile our pain right world with a loving God because what we experience now is not life as God intends. (77-79)

In his book Tracks of a fellow struggler John Claypool, an Episcopal priest, writes about loss of his eight-year-old daughter from leukemia, despite anointing for healing and much prayer. Emotional relief comes only after much struggle, when he lets go of all he will miss out on because of her death  and when he accepts that her life was a gift. (110)

Bonhoeffer once wrote, 'Nothing can make up for the absence of someone we love, and it would be wrong to try to find a substitute; we must simply hold out and see it through. That sounds very hard at first, but at the same time it is a great consolation. It remains unfilled, preserves the bonds between us. It is nonsense to say that God fills the gap. God does not fill it, but on the contrary, he keeps it empty and so helps us to keep alive our former communion with each other, even at the cost of pain.' (111)

In The brothers Karamazov Dostoyevsky presents Jesus being charged, by representatives of the church, with the crime of inflicting too much freedom on people. Dostoyevsky understood that God has chosen not to overwhelm human freedom. Instead he joined us in the midst of evil and became one of its victims. 'Jesus did not eliminate evil; he revealed a God willing, at immense cost, to forgive it and to heal its damage.' (115)

It his conclusion Yancey says that the title question never goes away, yet the Bible does cast light on it in three ways.

First, God is clearly on the side of the sufferer, regardless of who this is. Jesus healed a family member of a pagan Roman and responded positively to the Samaritans, the heretics of his day. 'And because God shared our suffering in the person of Jesus, we his followers have a model for redeeming it, a way to wrest good out of what at first seems irredeemably bad (130). To the disciples who watched Roman soldiers nail Jesus to a cross, God must have seemed powerless and uncaring. Even Jesus felt abandoned. Yet when we look back at Calvary, we see that God turned apparent defeat into decisive victory.

Second, God is now in the church. Instead of asking, 'Where is God when it hurts?' perhaps we should ask, 'Where is the church when it hurts?' An unconditionally loving presence can prevail over suffering and loss of hope. Paul wrote, 'Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comforts we ourselves receive from God.' (2 Cor 1:3) 

Third, God pledges future restoration. Jesus told the disciples, 'I am going to prepare a place for you.' (John 14:2) Yancey writes, 'On good Friday Jesus absorbed the worst of what earth has to offer. The ancient enemies, evil and death, came together in an act of profound injustice. Yet Easter Sunday gave a sure and certain sign of contradiction, demonstrating that nothing can withstand the healing force of a loving God.' (133) The reality of what had happened dawned on Jesus' disciples only gradually. Two thousand years later we live out our days on Holy Saturday, the in-between day, looking back on Good Friday and its sign that no suffering is irredeemable, and forward to the promise and fulfilment of Easter Sunday. George Herbert awaited the day 'when we shall see Thy full-ey'd love! When thou shalt look us out of pain.' Shortly before his execution, Bonhoeffer wrote, 'I believe that God can and will generate good out of everything, even out of the worst evil. For that, he needs people who allow that everything that happens fits into a pattern for good.' Revelation spells this out: 'He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. . . the I am making everything new!' (Rev 21:4)