An Answer to "Why" Isn't a Pain-Reliever

This post is part of an ongoing series on ministering to people in pain. Click here to see all the posts in this series.

noun   A defense of God's goodness and omnipotence in view of the existence of evil.

Why does an all-loving, all-powerful God allow suffering? It's an age-old question. Your answer to it is your "theodicy."

Our theodicy addresses the hallmark question of pain: Why? Why is this happening to me? Why isn’t God answering my prayers? Why hasn’t He healed me? Why did He allow my child to die? Why didn’t He break through to my loved one before they committed suicide? The echoes of these questions reverberate through the deepest levels of heartache and brokenness. Why doesn’t God intervene? Why doesn’t He answer? 

When we are in the role of comforter, we must exercise extreme caution with these questions. Too many of us try to answer them. Much of our cold comfort (please refer to Things Not to Say to People in Pain), is an attempt to explain away pain. They say, "I don't understand why this is happening," and we use their vulnerability as an opportunity to give them a theology lesson. 

I think we do this because we think right beliefs (a good theodicy) will make everything better. We feel a driving impulse to correct what we feel is theologically questionable. We have an irresistible urge to explain what is largely mysterious. So, when they most need calm and patient compassion, as they struggle under the weight of pain and these aching questions, we pour a dump truck of "good theology" on their front lawn.  

This was the grievous error of Job's friends - they tried to give theological answers to his troubles. At the end of the story, we know God is extremely displeased with them. But when God finally speaks, it isn't to give the correct theological justification for why He has allowed Job's pain. He doesn't explain "why" at all. I'll let Frederick Buechner take it from here...

"Maybe the reason God doesn't explain to Job why terrible things happen is that he knows what Job needs isn't an explanation. Suppose that God did explain. Suppose that God were to say to Job that the reason the cattle were stolen, the crops ruined, and the children killed was thus and so, spelling everything out right down to and including the case of boils. Job would have his explanation.

And then what?

Understanding in terms of the divine economy why his children had to die, Job would still have to face their empty chairs at breakfast every morning. Carrying in his pocket straight from the horse's mouth a complete theological justification of his boils, he would still have to scratch and burn.

God doesn't reveal his grand design. He reveals himself. He doesn't show why things are as they are. He shows his face. And Job says, "I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eyes see thee" (Job 42:5). Even covered with sores and ashes, he looks oddly like a man who has asked for a crust and been given the whole loaf."

What do we do with this?

  1. Recognize answering the "why" questions won't make the pain go away.
  2. Remember that what people need more than answers is the presence of our all-loving, all-powerful God. Point them to who He is - the one familiar with suffering, the one who is close to the brokenhearted, the one who is able to redeem pain. And, as His child, remember you have the calling to manifest who He is by your love for other people.
  3. Listen for people's theodicy as you minister to them. A bad theodicy mixed with pain will make pain worse and can be a threat to faith. (For example: God has so much to take care of, why would He concern Himself with my problems; God is probably punishing me; If I just had enough faith, this would all go away.) The answer to this is not to beat a different explanation into them. This is not a time for theology class. However, these statements are opportunities to gently point them back to the truth of who God is.
  4. If you're an explainer, reflect on why you do this. Are you trying to defend your view of God? Are you trying to avoid your discomfort with pain through explanations?
  5. Develop your own theodicy. How do you reconcile God's goodness and sovereignty with the evil we see in our world? For an example, pick up a copy of C.S. Lewis’ book The Problem of Pain.  Just because a theodicy is not best hammered into someone while they're in the midst of crisis-level pain does not mean it isn't worthwhile. It's better thought through before pain hits.

This post is part of an ongoing series on ministering to people in pain. If you've missed the first posts, start here