I recently released a book where I look at the topic of pain, joy, and Jesus. Writing Echoing Hope: How the Humanity of Jesus Redeems our Pain pushed me to reflect on the nature of suffering and how our narratives about God can sometimes create more harm than good.
I’m not writing this reflection in order to be provocative, or for the sake of being edgy. I have a strong conviction that words shape our imaginations. So, when we use a cliché to describe something complex, we easily minimize the gravity of the situation we are trying to describe.
And look, I get it: We all want “handles”—accessible ways to describe and/or understand the hard realities life brings us. I don’t fault this. At all. So we are all trying to figure this stuff out—there is always room for growth and I don’t claim to have this all figured out. And, in an article this size, I will only be able to scratch the surface on many of these topics. But hopefully it gets us into reflective mode so we can use our words with wisdom and grace.
Also, if these are slogans you’ve used recently, my words here are not aimed at judging you. Rather, I want to invite you to consider the impact of the words you use, even if the motive is pure (which I assume it usually is when matters of pain and suffering arise).
So, you have now entered a judgement free zone—so now we can have a productive conversation about certain phrases that we might want to consider purging from our lips.
#1 “Everything happens for a reason” OR “It is all part of God’s plan”
To make this claim is to basically say that God wants evil things to happen as part of some sort of “greater good.” Jesus challenges this assumption in a story found in Luke 13. Here, Jesus was told about how Pontius Pilate, a client ruler, had executed Galileans while they were sacrificing to God. I imagine those present had many questions about the nature of evil, which is likely why they wanted Jesus to comment on the situation.
In Luke 13:2, Jesus responded, “Do you think the suffering of these Galileans proves that they were more sinful than all the other Galileans?” He asked a similar question about “eighteen people who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them” (verse 4). He answered both rhetorical questions with an emphatic “No . . . but unless you change your hearts and lives, you will die just as they did” (verses 3, 5; this sort of change is translated as “repent” in most Bibles). I can imagine asking Jesus for his answers to the questions raised by 9/11, COVID-19, or drone strike victims. We have the same curiosities two thousand years later! Jesus, why?
Notice what Jesus did for us. It’s not the precise, scientific answer we might want. Instead, he said that evil happens and it isn’t because the victims did good or bad things. Pilate was a jerk, consumed by power. He was no friend to the Jewish people. He did something evil, and this wouldn’t be the last time. Later in Luke 13, Jesus healed a woman “bound by Satan for eighteen long years” (verse 16). Jesus shows us that human choices intersect with those of the spiritual powers of evil, creating the conditions for suffering—far beyond our ability to choose. There is a web of free will at work in the world—comprised of human choices, along with the choices of invisible beings such as angels and demons—which leaves humankind victim to evil every single day.
Everything doesn’t happen for a Divine reason. God wants nothing more than for the world to be free from evil and suffering. This is why Jesus came, to ultimately save us from our brokenness. We will one day experience the fullness of God’s ultimate plan, to bring heaven to earth and to rid our world of evil for eternity. Until then, things happen…but these aren’t always things God wants, causes, or wills to take place. Jesus, in his mercy, responds to evil with goodness. More on that in a bit.
#2 “God is in control”
God controls everything that happens—this is an assumption that we need to sit with a bit. From the onset, I want to be blunt: God could be in control if God wanted to be, but apparently God didn’t set up the world that way. As soon as you challenge the idea that God is in meticulous control of everything, many Christians are tempted to jump to the conclusion that the idea of God’s sovereign power is being attacked. But, as I’ll suggest, this isn’t the case. This reaction happens because the idea of God’s control is ingrained in some of us from a young age.
No matter where you fall on this theological debate, just for the sake of argument, let’s suspend the idea that God is orchestrating everything that happens. What might this mean? Our choices, then, become actual choices—not preprogramed into God’s software system for running the world. If free will is real—conditioned as it is by circumstances and cultural realities that shape us without our even knowing it—then these decisions are not controlled by God. For those who are open to it, God’s Spirit certainly is at work to influence us, but almost never to coerce us to choose a particular path.
God’s ultimate will shall come to pass. A day will come when Jesus will return to judge, purge, heal, resurrect, and renew all things. Until that day, God seems to allow free will to play out—intervening miraculously whenever it is possible without (usually) coercing circumstances (which might be key to understanding why God doesn’t always heal, etc.). (By the way: I go into more details on this point in Echoing Hope, chapter 4: “Why Suffering?”)
#3 “God’s ways aren’t our ways”
I’ve heard this phase many times. It’s based on this passage of Scripture:
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. Isaiah 55:8-9
Here’s the problem: it isn’t that the Bible gets this wrong, but that we apply the Bible wrongly. Of course God’s wisdom, influence, and power are high above anything we humans could come up with. And of course, we need to think about these sorts of secondary issues with humility and the understanding that God is mysterious. But, that isn’t what most people mean when they use this slogan at a funeral or when reflecting on the poor condition of our world.
For many, it means: Suffering is part of God’s will. Now, it could be said that there are times when God enacts suffering in the Bible (I get it). But those seem to be exceptions to the rule. God’s default is always love. Always healing. Always hope. Always restorative.
Some Christians believe that suffering is part of God’s will and plan for the world. I’ve heard this explained by the idea that God’s ultimate goal is to have God’s glory revealed. Sometimes, in this mode of thought, suffering points to God’s glory (even if mysteriously), so God causes it for that aim. Others disagree that suffering is part of God’s actual will but believe that in a world of free choices, it is inevitable.
But, what if these choices are neither predestined by God to reveal glory and a greater good (Calvinism) nor the regrettable outcome of God’s limited control (Arminianism)? Rather, these choices are real choices made by agents other than God. In fact, when we look at Jesus through a divine lens, we see that Jesus is the God who weeps over evils like the premature death of his friend Lazarus (John 11:1–37) and the impending destruction of Jerusalem (Luke 19:41–44). God grieves, authentically feels the pain of the world, and is actively working to bring about good wherever possible.
#4 “This bad thing happened so that God could __________.”
Let’s fill in the blank. “This thing happened so that God could…”
- get so and so’s attention
- use it to bring salvation to so and so
- bring about a greater good at some point in the future
- _______ (I’m sure you have some interesting experiences with this phrase.)
Now, I want to be clear: Jesus says something that sounds like this common phrase. Here it is:
As Jesus walked along, he saw a man who was blind from birth. Jesus’ disciples asked, “Rabbi, who sinned so that he was born blind, this man or his parents?” Jesus answered, “Neither he nor his parents. This happened so that God’s mighty works might be displayed in him. John 9:1-3 CEB
While this might seem to say that God “caused” this man to be blind, if we investigate further, we actually find that this isn’t likely the case. Blindness (or other forms of suffering) aren’t punishment for sins caused by the parents. Suffering happens in a world of free will. But … and here’s the mindblowing truth of it all … God will use our hurts, whenever possible, to bring about something good … something that points to the true character of God: God is love.
God’s glory is put on display whenever something redemptive can be recycled from circumstances that stand contrary to God’s ultimate will for our lives. Bad things don’t have a direct connection to God’s will, but can be tilted toward a redemptive good, after the fact, at times.
Rethinking our Words about Suffering
My hope is that this brief reflection helps stimulate new thoughts and good conversation. We really don’t get as clear of an answer as we might want on why suffering happens. Our “why” questions about pain aren’t tied up with a neat bow in the Bible. But, our narrative about God can suffer when we attribute things that are evil to God’s ultimate will. So, “why” matters in a deep way for many, even if we won’t ever be able to fully answer it.
Sure, Scripture offers us helpful clues. But ultimately, “why” questions get sidelined for “what” and “how”—what is true in the world and how we are to respond. What is true is that suffering is inevitable. How we are invited to respond to suffering isn’t primarily by seeking theo- logical answers but rather the biblical practice of lament. This is the practice of calling upon God, as we see in Psalm 35:17, where David wrote, “How long, O Lord, will you look on?” (NRSV). The Scriptures teach us that when we suffer, we should push harder into God by naming evil and suffering and calling upon God’s justice, mercy, and kindness.
So, let’s try to be wise with our words. Let’s not use clichés as sources of comfort. Rather, let’s be present to those in pain. Let’s weep, like Jesus wept. And let’s offer our laments and trust to a God who offers us profound empathy rather than meticulous control.
This blog/newsletter contains excerpts from, Echoing Hope: How the Humanity of Jesus Redeems our Pain (WaterBrook, an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2021).
Author: Kurt Willems
Kurt Willems is a pastor, author, and spiritual director. His first book, Echoing Hope: How the Humanity of Jesus Redeems our Pain, releases in March 2021. Kurt is also the host of the Theology Curator podcast. He has a master of divinity degree from Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary and a master of arts in comparative religion from the University of Washington.
[More About Kurt]