I had been called to the hospital to comfort the mother of a severely burned child. When I got there, I found a two-year old feeding himself by holding a spoon between the toes on his right foot. He’d lost his arms. Also, he had no ears, eyelids, hair, or lips. Three decades later, I’m still torn emotionally when I recall that visit.
What kind of world do we live in anyway? It could be argued that a nasty adult might deserve such injuries, but what justification is there for an innocent child to suffer like that?
And this isn’t an isolated incident. Stories like it are repeated with infinite variation as the scourges of disease, criminal violence, accidents, and armed conflict batter our torn world. It seems as if the lid has popped off of hell. Where is God?
This question becomes even more pertinent when we realize who God is. The Bible pictures Him as both loving and infinite in power. Now abolish pain. And if He is all powerful, He must be able to do so.
People do what they can to heal disease and remove injustice. Doctors believe they’re duty bound to alleviate disease and suffering. If I could heal a neighbor’s cancer, I’d do so immediately. Not to do so would not only be a moral lapse but a positive evil. Why then doesn’t God prevent accidents and heal all the sick? If He can end suffering, why does He let it continue? Why doesn’t He act like the best of us? Where is He when we need Him? Is He some kind of moral iceberg in the sky, or does He truly care about the hurts and struggles of His children?
The Case of Job
These questions are among the most important that we can ask about God. One would think that answers to them would be clear and prominent in the Bible. After all, the One who made us knows what we think. If I’d written the Bible, I would’ve explained such issues to everyone’s satisfaction. My answers would’ve been rational, easy to understand, and to the point.
But I didn’t write the Bible. Neither did some philosopher of religion. God Himself inspired the content of Scripture, and He chose to answer the question in His own way.
The book of Job contains the nearest thing to a biblical explanation of God’s quiescence in times of crisis. Job not only lost his wealth and suffered painful sores, but he also witnessed the untimely deaths of his children. His friends came to comfort him and to help him confess sins they supposed he was being punished for. Job, in response, argued his innocence.
The climax of the book comes in chapters 38 and 39, when God finally enters the picture. He doesn’t side with either Job or Job’s friends. He doesn’t even talk about Job’s case or tell why Job is suffering. Nor does He seek to explain His own silence in the face of Job’s crisis.
Rather, God asks Job a series of questions. He starts by asking Job’s whereabouts when the earth was created. Then He runs through a number of complex topics concerning the natural world. The questions are a challenge to Job—and to each of us. In effect God was asking “What do you know about how to run a world?”
The implied answer is, “Not much, really.” The fact is that neither Job nor us moderns understand much about ultimate reality and the core issues of the universe. Our greatest scientists and theoreticians merely scratch the surface. We stand helpless in the face of such relatively minor disturbances as hurricanes and earthquakes. For all our advances, we really haven’t moved much beyond Job when it comes to comprehending the complexity of life.
So God’s answer to Job about where He is when it hurts—when we need Him, when He seems to be silent—is that we must trust Him to do what’s best for the human race.
Behind the Scenes
But that answer isn’t very satisfactory to people who don’t understand the dynamics of the battle between good and evil. Fortunately, the first two chapters of the book of Job pull aside the curtain that hides the supernatural from our troubled world. There we find that the problem of evil is much more complex than people think. We discover that God isn’t the author of pain and suffering; Satan (the devil) is.
There Satan accuses God of buying people’s loyalty and challenges Him by saying that if God will allow Job to suffer, Job will curse God to His face (Job 1:11). So God says He will let Satan test Job. The test will show that Job is a man of faith and doesn’t regard his Maker as some cosmic vending machine or proprietor of an eternal soup kitchen.
Job and his friends, of course, know nothing of this. They don’t know why God is silent and seemingly unconcerned in the face of the greatest calamities in Job’s life.
The book of Job tells us that there’s more to life than what we see. There’s a universe-wide battle between good and evil that affects events. That’s why God wants us to trust Him.
The Case of Jesus
Job wasn’t the only biblical character who received the “silent treatment” from God. He wasn’t the only one who wondered where the Father was when needed. Jesus’ experience is even more important for our understanding of this question. This is because He wasn’t just another person; He was God the Son, sent by God the Father to put an end to the problem of pain (John 1:1; 3:16).
Jesus not only took a human body with all of its liabilities, but He suffered as we do (Hebrews 2:17). Like us, He dreaded pain, and in the face of suffering He reacted much as we do. On the eve of His crucifixion He pled with the Father for a way out, but there was none (Matthew 26:36–46). Like it does for of us, suffering made Jesus feel the despair of abandonment. “My God, my God,” He cried “why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46).
Christ’s death is crucial for us— not only because through it He paid the penalty for our sins but because in it God gave Himself to us. On the cross, Jesus was “God with us” (Matthew 1:23). He was God come down to share our pain and suffering. The cross demonstrates that God isn’t an iceberg; it shows He is intensely concerned about us.
We’re tempted to confuse God with Hollywood’s version of the U.S. Cavalry, the good guys who rescue the wagon train just before it’s annihilated. Christ’s death puts an end to such fiction. The picture of Christ given at Calvary, writes Alister McGrath, is one of a “deserted, bruised, bleeding and dying God, who lent new meaning and dignity to human suffering by passing through its shadow himself.”1
The reality is that neither Jesus nor the apostles escaped suffering or painful deaths. They endured the results of Satan’s death-inflicting activities. Jesus made no empty promises to His followers; He told them that they would share His fate (see John 15:18, 20; 16:1, 2). But though we haven’t been offered an escape from life’s problems, God has promised to supply the courage and spiritual support we need to meet them. In fact, one of His gifts was that of the Holy Spirit that we might have comfort and guidance in times of affliction (John 14:26, 27).
The End of the Silence
The good news is that Jesus not only suffered and died like us, He also overcame death. This guarantees Satan’s defeat and that those who believe in Him will be resurrected to a world without pain when He comes again (see 1 Corinthians 15:20–23, 51–56; Revelation 21:1–4).
Jesus’ victory makes our suffering manageable. Christians still suffer and die, but since Jesus’ resurrection, it’s with the assurance that death isn’t the ultimate reality.
When we experience pain, are forsaken by our friends, and feel that God has deserted us, remember that Christ was there before us. The cross illuminates human suffering, powerlessness, abandonment, and hopelessness. It teaches us, said Martin Luther, to believe in hope when there is none.2 It also tells us where God is when we need Him; He’s with us, sharing our pain. He’ll be with us in suffering and loneliness until He comes to take those who believe to a place where “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain” (Revelation 21:4).