Asking God "Why?" in the midst of suffering

As we undergo suffering, it’s natural to ask ourselves or God. “Why is this happening?” We need to wrestle with this question. But often the answers to this question remain hidden from sight till years later. And often the complete answer doesn’t become available this side of eternity. But sometimes we insist God tell us “why.” And in those cases:

Our “why” may subtly shift into a “how”

“Why is this happen to me?” may subtly shift to “How could God let this happen to me?” “How could he let this happen when I’ve faithfully followed him all these years?” “How could God love me and let this happen?” Our insistence upon knowing “why” may turn into an accusation about God’s character.   

Our “why” may quickly turn into an “if”

“Why did this happen?” morphs into, “If I was more careful, this would’ve never happened.” “If you were paying more attention, this would’ve never happened to him.”

Eventually, Satan takes these hypotheticals and turns them into accusations. “If you were more careful, this would’ve never happened,” turns into “You’re so reckless, this was bound to happen.” Or “If you were more careful this would’ve never happened” turns into, “Your incompetence caused this. It’s all your fault.” Satan will use the “what if’s” to cast blame onto us so that we shoulder the full responsibility. He wants to attack our identity in Christ and believe we embody our flaws.

Jobs quest to find out “why”

In the book of Job, Job loses everything in the first two chapters. He lost his wealth, family and eventually his health. When his three friends come to comfort him, Job attaches himself to an idea that one of them brings up.

Job gets it in his head that if he had just one chance to come before God, he would be able to convince God that he got the wrong guy. But more importantly, he would have an opportunity to ask God “Why? Why is this happening to me?” 

As the story goes, Job argues with his friends when God suddenly comes on the scene in a whirlwind. He asks Job one question after another –questions Job can’t answer. When Job finally replies to God, he says, “I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted…my ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you” (Job 42:5). And that’s the end of the story. God never gives Job a reason why he underwent this suffering. And yet, this encounter with God satisfied all of Job’s questions.

When we encounter suffering we ask questions like, “Why is this happening to me?” God’s answer is never in the form of a reason; it is always in the form of a person. To put it differently, the answer to the problem of suffering isn’t something, but someone

Several years ago, I watched a friend and member of my home church, lose his 10 year-long battle with cancer. He was 26 years old. The week before he passed; I shared this insight with him. When I got to the part about Job’s reply, I began to say, “And God never…” He interrupted and finished my sentence: “He never gave Job a reason why he went through this suffering.” Like Job, my friend wrestled through the question of “why.” But now that he’s in the Lord’s presence, the question of “why” has become irrelevant.  

God often doesn’t give us an answer because it’s beyond our comprehension to grasp the full picture.

My son Julius went through a phase where he would ask a million questions. If you’re a parent, with older kids you probably remember this phase.   

I spend weekly time with Julius. For a year, we kept the same routine. We went to McDonald’s near The Ohio State University campus, we got a $1 Parfait, and then we would walk through campus. We did this every week.

I remember the first time I took him to McDonald’s; I tried to explain what we were going to do. I wanted to get him excited about our hang out time. I said, “Julius, we’re going to McDonald’s to get a parfait.” He asked, “What’s Old McDonald’s?” I said, “No, it’s McDonald’s and it’s a fast food restaurant that’s largely responsible for obesity in America.” He asked, “What’s obesity?” I said, “It's hard to explain.”

During the car ride to McDonald's, he continued to shower me with questions. “Where’s Old McDonald’s? Are we there yet?” Finally, I told him, “Look, we’re almost there. It’s gonna be good, I promise you. I really can’t explain it, but when we get there, you’ll be happy. Promise. Do you trust me?” He said, “I trust you.” You see, it didn’t matter if my son knew where we were going. It only mattered that I knew where we were going.

In the same, God may not give us the answer to “why” we’re suffering because it’s beyond our comprehension to grasp the full picture. It doesn’t matter if we know the purpose behind our suffering, it matters that he knows purpose behind our suffering.

God can take even the worst tragedy and use it for his redemptive purposes.

God used Job’s story to bring comfort and hope to billions of people over several millennia.

Yet, God doesn’t teach us this lesson at the expense of others. He came and embodied this principle through Jesus Christ. God used the horrific execution of his son to redeem the entire human race.

Can you imagine the confusion and disappointment Jesus’ disciples felt when they saw their leader crucified on the cross? They put their hope in him. They must’ve asked themselves, “How could God let this happen to the Son of God? Why did God hand Jesus over to unjust men to die for a crime he didn’t commit?” The disciples grieved for three days thinking he was gone until the women brought word of the empty tomb.    

Although the cross is not an answer to the problem of pain and suffering, it suggests that our suffering contains a redemptive purpose far beyond what we are capable of imagining.