What should Christians say about all the suffering in the world?
Philip Yancey is one of those rare Christians writers who are not afraid to ask the hard questions and is never content with pat answers.
Before becoming a famous and successful author for books like “What’s So Amazing about Grace,” he wrote those “drama in real life” articles for Reader’s Digest. And in his new book, “The Question That Never Goes Away,” Philip says that many of the people he wrote about, who had survived one tragedy or another, complained that too many Christians tried to minimize or explain away their suffering with comments such as, “God is punishing you,” or, “No, it’s Satan,” or “In time it will make sense,” or “You’ve been specially selected to demonstrate faith,” or “God needed them more than you do.”
Such well-intended comments only worsen the pain of those suffering. But Yancey is also not advocating that we run away from those hurting and suffering. I think “The Question that Never Goes Away” can make us all better at reaching out to those who are suffering.
I talked with Yancey about “The Question That Never Goes Away.”
The book is centered on Yancey’s visits to the sites of three horrific tragedies—the war in Sarajevo in the former Yugoslavia, where more than ten thousand people died; the tsunami in Japan, where nearly twenty thousand people died; and the mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, which left twenty school children and six staff members dead, plus the mother of the shooter.
It was the last incident, at Sandy Hook Elementary, that affected him most directly, Yancey said.
“You kiss your daughter or son goodbye,” Philip told me, “you put them on the school bus, and then the next thing you hear is this message that no parent ever wants to hear.” Yancey spoke to grieving people at all three places and came away convinced that Christians must do a better job answering the perennial question, “What is God up to—or not—in a world of such tragedy and pain?”
After all, it is Christians, not the so-called New Atheists such as Richard Dawkins, that have an open door to help … if we will walk through it sensitively. “If Richard Dawkins were consistent,” Yancey told me, “and if he were asked to speak to Newtown, he would say … this universe is a place of blind cosmic indifference. It’s a pitiless place. … That doesn’t do much for parents who’ve just lost their six-year-old child.”
But Christians are able to genuinely offer hurting people compassion and hope, because Jesus offered both in his words and his actions. As Yancey pointed out in the interview, God Himself joined us in this world of suffering. “The Message” paraphrase of the Bible puts it this way: “The word became flesh and blood and moved into our neighborhood.”
And don’t forget which neighborhood: Bethlehem, a neighborhood under Roman occupation, and the location of a slaughter of innocents ordered by an arrogant, tyrannical and paranoid king. The neighborhood Jesus freely moved into experienced shortly thereafter a carnage similar to Newtown. No, this doesn’t answer all of our questions in the face of a tragedy. But it does tell us a bit about who God is, that He is committed to us … and He understands.
Yancey also reminded me that you don’t need to be a theologian to offer comfort and hope to hurting friends, family, and neighbors. “When I ask people, who helped you most,” he said, “not one time have they said, oh it was this Ph.D. in philosophy, or a graduate of a seminary, or a pastor.”
No, they say, it was someone like a grandmother who would sit by the bed, do simple tasks, and simply be available. “It’s the practical acts of mercy,” said Yancey, “where we actually become the body of Christ and demonstrate that kind of care and attention, that mean the most to someone trying to recover.”
This is the kind of apologetics we all can do. We all must do.
The Question That Never Goes Away by Philip Yancey
Stonestreet is the Director of Strategic Partnerships for the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview and is heard on Breakpoint, a radio commentary (www.breakpoint.org) that is broadcast on 400 stations with an audience of eight million.