Suffering, miracles, and asking God questions

It was one of the worst episodes I’ve had in recent years. Two years ago, I was severely depressed; I couldn’t write, I couldn’t exercise, I couldn’t do anything besides sit at home, listening to the silence, and occasionally breaking it with an outburst of tears.

In part, it was my fault: I’d wanted to go off one of my medicines, and had gotten permission from my doctor to do so. Now I was paying the price for going off my mood stabilizer too abruptly, and at a time of year when I’m most likely to become unstable. I finally knew that I needed to see my psychiatrist and get help. But getting an emergency, last minute type of appointment with a doctor isn’t always easy.

So I sat at the edge of my bed, crying, begging God, please, please, please, let the doctor be able to see me by the next day. I figured it would take a miracle.

I got it. The doctor saw me the next day.

Around this time, the news featured a tragic story about a young girl who was missing. Jessica was her name. She left for school one morning and never made it there. For days, searchers combed the area, searching for clues. It didn’t look good. People prayed for Jessica’s safe return. I prayed for a miracle.

We didn’t get it. Several days after she went missing, her body was found.

I remember reading the news, several days after I had gotten started on yet another medicine, and wondering why didn’t God answer the prayers for Jessica.

Why had I gotten my piddly little miracle and they hadn’t gotten theirs? I remembering telling God, “I would’ve given up my miracle for Jessica’s parents to have their daughter returned to them.” But that wasn’t how it worked out.

And this morning, for some reason, I started thinking about these two events again, and again wondering why God answers some prayers one way, and others in a very different way. Why, for example, was I given another child after several years of secondary infertility, when others pray for a child and never have one? Why is one person cured of cancer and another dies? I don’t know.

The workings of God bewilder me more than I care to admit. It’s uncomfortable, for one thing—it’s unsettling to know that I don’t understand God, even after years of walking with him. Just when I think I understand, that I grasp one fragment of him, something happens and my knowledge is crushed by the circumstances.

I can chalk it all up to the mysterious will of God, quote the myriad of verses to prove the point, and pretend that satisfies me, but it really doesn’t. (Really? It was the will of God for a ten-year-old to be murdered? Why?)

I could decide that it’s all just fate, but I don’t believe that; it doesn’t jive with my personal experiences and beliefs.

I could decide that God doesn’t give a rip, or can’t do anything about the big stuff, or that he doesn’t exist at all, but none of those options work with what I know to be true.

So I’m left with questions.

It’s at this point that most Christians drag in the Book of Job. At the beginning of the book, Satan dares God to give him, Satan, the power to afflict the godly Job, taunting the Almighty that Job will eventually lose his faith in God if the afflictions are bad enough.

One catastrophe after another happens, the losses crashing down on him until all that’s left are him and God. His personal riches, his children, his health: all are gone.

His wife bitterly tells him, “Curse God and die.” (Remember, this woman lost all of her children, too, and she’s facing a devastating future, possibly without her husband. He might die, too. Without a husband or son, how will she survive in a patriarchal society?)

His well-intentioned friends come to comfort him, but their answers to his questions are empty. This, too, is a loss and an added burden.

Job questions God, demands an answer. God answers, but does not give the answer that Job desperately wants. Job is humbled. Eventually, God restores Job’s fortunes, gives him another set of children, and gives us, the readers, a happy ending. Or does he?

Over the years, I’ve heard many discussions of this book. What’s almost always missing is this: Job still must deal with a horrible loss. Forget the money. Forget the livestock. Forget all that.

Think about this:

The man and his wife have lost all their children.

-and-

Having more children does not take away that loss. Having more children is bittersweet for such a couple. The joy of a newborn child is tempered by the sorrow that this child has siblings he’ll never know, the pain of mourning other children, and the knowledge that life is fragile: this child, too, could be snatched away in a moment’s time.

Sobering.

What’s more is that Job and his wife never have an explanation for their pain. God never gives them a reason. He gives them more of himself, yes, but they must still walk through the pain.

So is this a happy ending? Why do they still have to struggle through that grief? Why do some have miracles granted to them and others don’t? Why?

Some questions don’t have easy answers. Some questions will have answers only after this life.

But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t ask, even if we have to wrestle with the silence.

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11 thoughts on “Suffering, miracles, and asking God questions

  1. In my experience I have often thought that God answers the questions we should ask, not the questions we do ask, if that makes any sense. In His discourse with Job, God replaces Job’s self-focus with a much greater perspective. Knowing God in this vastness of care seems to release Job from the need to settle his complaint in the context of his previous very narrow, though very authentic perspective.

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    1. Excellent point, Rick. I just wish my questions were the ones I should ask and not the ones I do ask. I’m partially consoled with the knowledge that God a) has heard all these questions before, and b) can handle them, even when they take the form of screaming and are filled with not-so-sanctified words. (His people, though, are a different story!)

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  2. A clarification, if you will permit me is this–I think this is often the most lonely part of suffering; we ask questions and those who love us offer their best explanations–but none of these explanations satisfy. When I was involved in pastoral ministry I had some I related to with enough trust to ask and seek with them a sense of the questions that perhaps we should be asking. I have found transient rest there, but rarely lasting rest–I think it is a discipline that requries much practice. When the pain lifts or becomes bearable I tend to want to leave the search for those questions behind. Even as I write this it seems incomprehensibly muddy.

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    1. I understand. It’s when I’m in the most pain that I start asking the questions that mean the most to me, and am the closest to stumbling on the questions that I ought to ask. But it’s a hard, desperate place to be, and most people either can’t handle seeing that type of pain or can’t NOT try to explain. Sometimes the best thing to do–and the one thing Job’s friends got right, for the first few days–is to be a silent presence: there, actively listening, but not trying to offer explanations that don’t satisfy. That’s a hard thing for most people to do!

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  3. Others ask the same questions and remain faith-filled. Honestly, I do not think that God answers our pleas the way that we would like to think. His creation is not a marionette. Our joys as well as our pain and suffering is part of a greater whole, something immense and ineffable.

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    1. Very true. I can’t manipulate God and he doesn’t manipulate me, even if I sometimes feel that way. (As if my feelings have ever been a reliable source of truth!) I once heard someone say that until we wrestle with the hard questions, our faith isn’t really ours. At some point in our spiritual journey, we need to look at the hard questions and work through them, even if we don’t come to the answers.

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      1. I agree and identify with Jacob wrestling with God (or an angel on God’s behalf). I see myself as wrestling with God. I may end up with scars, just as Jacob’s hip was dislocated, but I come out with a deeper faith. It is my nature to question. God bless you. Thank you for sharing your faith.

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  4. Here by way of Kitt O’Malley. Well, obviously, I’m LDS/Mormon, as evidenced by what I say next:

    I think about what the first leader of our church, Joseph Smith wrote, when he was in jail in Liberty, Missouri, and members were taking harsh persecution: “O God, where art thou?” He wasn’t just thinking of himself, but the members that had been raped, their houses burnt to the ground, and so on: “…how long shall they suffer these wrongs and unlawful oppressions, before thine heart shall be softened toward them, and thy bowels be moved with compassion toward them?”

    The answer he claims to have received included these words: “My son, peace be unto thy soul; thine adversity and thine afflictions shall be but a small moment… thy friends do stand by thee, and they shall hail thee again with warm hearts and friendly hands. Thou art not yet as Job; thy friends do not contend against thee, neither charge thee with transgression, as they did Job.”

    So I went back and read the book of Job carefully… indeed, Job’s friends challenged him, suggesting even that he must have done something wrong to be experiencing such hardship.

    I’ve thought about the lessons of Job a lot, reflecting on my own bitter hardships. The best that I have figured out that despite the pain, where the damage still lingers, is that while God hasn’t snatched me away from the pain, when I’ve submitted to His will, I’ve had the strength to endure. I’ve felt patience, love, and understanding when it’s hurt so bad, and I just wanted to die. I was divinely helped. I’m still here. I’m still standing.

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    1. Thanks for offering your perspective as a Mormon. I think there’s a lot of truth here. God helps us in our time of need, even if we don’t recognize his hand in what happens. He gives us the strength to continue on, often through other people, as I realized yesterday when I read a friend’s blog post; his words gave me encouragement when I needed it. And, as you noted, our burdens and afflictions only last for a short while (even if it seems like that “short while” is a lifetime.)

      As a side note, I didn’t realize how horribly the early Mormons had been persecuted and treated. As a Christian, I may not agree with everything Mormons believe, but it’s morally right for me to stand against injustice and ill-treatment of people of ALL faiths. What affects one affects all of us.

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      1. Yes, I agree. I was saddened to read of someone in my hometown area protesting a local mosque, but was heartened to read how incredibly patient and long-suffering (indeed!) the imam was of the whole situation. Our local Muslim community has been here a few decades now and it’s abundantly clear they are peaceful and a positive part of our area.

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