She read me my first Junie B. Jones book during one of the many lunch breaks she and Nicki spent in my office that semester. Although at 45 I might have been a little old for Junie B., Beverly’s bubbly excitement and laughter were contagious, as were the many stories she told of her 2 little boys and of the husband who would remain lovingly by her side throughout the long battle she was about to enter. That was the same semester she would learn on her 32nd birthday, more than 5 years ago, that she had acute lymphoctic leukemia. The lunch visits stopped. I drove to Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center to visit her and was able to initiate action for her college tuition to be returned. After that I kept in touch with my bubbly full-of-life student only through her on-line CarePages and through my prayers. She fought hard, and this week her struggle ended.
Salisbury has had more than its share of tragedy the past several weeks. A car accident left a family grieving the loss of a 12-year-old boy. A longboard accident took a 17-year-old. A bee sting took the life of a retired teacher. Others died on motorcycles and in cars. Statewide, nationwide, worldwide, there are other tragedies, like those who died when trees fell on their houses and cars during the sudden derecho storm, or the families of dying soldiers. A friend who lost her job, another her beloved dog, one whose mother is fading with alzheimer’s, another who weeps over a child’s drug addiction, gay students whose families have shut them out, cancer victims who are praying for their own miracles, others who are dying slowly of loneliness, wondering why no one looks into their eyes and no one cares. If we know anyone, we know someone who’s hurting, maybe outwardly, maybe silently.
Why? Where is God when we are hurting? Have you ever struggled with this question? Do the usual answers bring you no comfort? Is there anyone who has never asked: Where is the justice? Why do bad things happen to good people? Where is God when life isn’t fair? Why me, Lord?
While it is impossible with our finite human minds to understand or answer with certainty the big God questions of life and eternity, I offer here what has worked for me and brings me peace amidst the inevitable sufferings of this world. If it brings you some solace, then it is yours.
Where is God When I’m Hurting?
God is there. I believe as surely as God is, that God is omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent. God is not confined to one space or time. God is all-knowing, and all power belongs to God. It was God who created the universe from nothing, gave sight to the blind, and raised the dead to life. All power is in God’s hands.
Secondly I believe with all my being that God is a God of love, a God of purest compassion, a lover of even the most humanly invisible person.
Yet, there are tragic deaths, merciless diseases, violent crimes, innocent children who step in front of cars, child molestation, starvation, spousal abuse, natural disasters, racial injustices, sad endings to thousands of seemingly unanswered prayers. Did God not hear? Was God not listening?
The most popular Christian response to the question of suffering seems to be this: “Everything happens for a reason.” “It is God’s will.” “It’s God’s plan.” “It is for the best.” While some seem to find comfort in this philosophy, I find it only brings more and more difficult questions. Does every hangnail have a purpose? Does every mosquito bite? Are we merely chess pieces being played on a board, being moved around completely by outside forces? God created us with the ability to think, to reason, to make our own choices. Although I believe God has the power to initiate any scenario, I believe that in most cases they just happen. I do not perceive a God who says “Today I will give that person cancer, ” or “Today I will send someone to shoot people in this school, or “Today I will start the Holocaust.” While God has the ability to reach down and intervene wherever God wants, for destruction or for safety, I believe most of the time God allows the world to run naturally as it was set in motion to do, the good with the bad. I do not believe that all the natural disasters, all the starvation, all the terminal and debilitating diseases, all the child abuse, every hangnail, etc. are a part of God’s master plan.
A difficult concept to embrace, and perhaps a harsh one until it’s considered a little deeper. If God is infinite in time and space, and God knows all without being confined to time as we know it, then God sees the whole picture, the trillions of years from infinity to infinity. We, however, in our finite human state, are confined in every way, including our lack of power to comprehend God-sized plans, and our inability to see outside our tiny earthly time frame. In the span of infinite time, an earthly life of 8 years and an earthly life of 80 are really no different, both infinitesimally small in the scope of eternity. God sees the big picture and is not confined to our calendar of todays and tomorrows. To God the past, the present and the future are all one. Thus, perhaps from the larger perspective, suffering and death here are like a mirage.
Yet, I believe God indeed hears us, and cries with us, and comforts us, understanding with love that we cannot fully comprehend and that our grief, while temporal, is very real. I believe with all my heart that in our times of suffering, in those times when we cry out to God to hear our prayers and reach down and touch us, that God shelters us compassionately as a mother bird shelters her young under her wing, and as we nurture as best we can the hurts and scrapes of our children, who likewise do not understand that this scraped knee is not going to matter in a few years. What if sickness and death in this life are like a scraped knee, that all that really matters is in another realm that we cannot see or reach from here? I believe that in our suffering, God is here, embracing us as we grieve, holding us as we hurt, hearing us as we cry and pray, just as we hold the crying child with the skinned knee.
So what about that painful chasm of death that separates us from those who have moved to the other side? I picture it this way: that maybe from God’s perspective, unconfined by earthly time, not separated by past, present, and future, that the chasm is not real. Perhaps we are also there, a part of the infinite eternity, but cannot yet see it until we too have escaped the earthly confines. Perhaps once we are there, we will see that we have always been there, and that “there” is the true reality, not here. If so, God knows that while we do need the comfort of a sheltering wing, our suffering here is not the big picture.
Why does God not heal all the sick, raise all the dead, stop all the earthquakes, and right all the injustices of the world? The Bible says that now we see through a glass dimly, but later we will understand fully (1 Cor. 13:12). I suspect that we have not even begun to grasp the magnificent scope of God’s plan. We can only see through the number of years we have walked on this earth, maybe 5, maybe 25, maybe 80 – all equally minuscule when compared to the eternity that God has planned for us. After a few short years on earth, years often filled with struggle and pain, I believe God’s plan is that we will spend all of eternity in that other world where neither time nor sorrow lives, and none of these earthly struggles will have any ultimate significance, except perhaps how we used them to more deeply commune with God and with each other.
I take comfort in Jesus’ words in Matt. 6, that we don’t need to worry about our physical lives, that the birds and flowers don’t worry, and yet they are cared for. Now if we think about that, birds don’t live forever, and flowers might live only hours or days, so that must not be Jesus’ message here. The message seems to be that there is a bigger picture, and that God is in control of what we cannot see. Not in the sense of causing us pain, or giving us a disability, or taking our job away, but in the sense of holding us until we can see that this life was merely a blink in the eternity that we somehow are already inside.
I take another kind of comfort from Romans 8:28, which says despite how painful life may get, God can bring something good from it if we turn it over to God. The promise doesn’t say the good will outweigh the bad, or that the purpose of the bad is so there can be good – just that good can come from all situations if our lives are given to God’s use. Who can comfort one who has lost a spouse like someone else who has lost a spouse? Who can comfort one who loses his job, like someone else who has lost his job? We don’t want to suffer just so we can help someone else, but when suffering inevitably happens, God can later use us to bring comfort to someone else.
My philosophy: As long as there is life on earth, there will be pain and suffering. As long as there is life on earth, there will be injustices. We have no promise of a fair life, unless we count that suffering will touch all of us. What we do have is a promise that God will never leave us or forsake us, that God will always be with us, even to the end of the age (Heb. 13:5; Matt. 28:20). And in our finite understanding, although we cannot fully understand why God does not step in and stop our suffering, we can see that what seems to matter in these few years we spend on earth is the relationships we develop while here, both with God and with all the travelers we meet along the way.
Sometimes in this life bad things just happen. God doesn’t bring it, and God doesn’t take it away. But God walks with us as we go through it, holding our hand and providing a strong shoulder to lean on. If there’s comfort here for you, I share it. If not, then take comfort however God might give it to you, and I wish us all grace and peace, and simple joys like Junie B. Jones laughter, amidst the pain.
Kathy Vestal is a college educator in Salisbury, NC. She has a Master’s of Divinity from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and a Master’s of Education from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. An avid writer, gifted teacher, and occasional public speaker/preacher, her passions include civil rights, social justice, church reform, and education. She has traveled to Mexico, Honduras, Argentina, Ecuador, and The Gambia, Africa, and enjoys reading, nature, and history.