I still remember seeing family members weeping, sobbing, and even wailing, but I had no idea why. My brother and I were here to visit my little sister, who had been having bouts of strep throat on and off. This time something was different. This time she had ended up in the hospital. It had been days since we had seen her or my parents. When we finally saw my dad, we heard the news: “Boys, your sister has cancer.” I was nine. She was four.
From that day on I have wrestled with the question of why God would allow a four-year-old girl to go through what my sister would have to endure for the next two and a half years. I’ve read the books, listened to the sermons, and sat through the lectures. There is some great material out there to give the philosophical and theological rationality behind the problems of evil and suffering, but I have found that they rarely do much to help amid the pain. No, my comfort came from elsewhere.
“I’ve read the books, listened to the sermons, and sat through the lectures….My comfort came from elsewhere.”
I recently began pondering this question again when preparing a sermon on a story in the book of Luke. In the story, a man named Simeon begins to speak specifically to Mary about what Jesus is going to do in the world. The whole message is astounding, most of it encouraging, some of it confusing, but the words that stuck out to me come in Luke 2:25a:
“And a sword will pierce through your own soul also.” (Luke 2:25a, ESV)
In the middle of a prophecy about the person and work of Jesus, Simeon takes the time to let Mary know that the direction of Jesus’ life will cause her suffering. This prophecy begins to become fulfilled just one story later in Luke 2:41-51 when Jesus stays behind in the temple in Jerusalem as Mary and Joseph begin to venture back to Nazareth. Mary tells Jesus, “Behold, your father and I have been searching for you in great distress” (Luke 2:48). Yet Jesus replies, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49).
Jesus reminds Mary of his mission. Reminds her of his true Father. This tension will continue throughout all of Jesus’ life until it finally reaches its total fulfillment when Mary stands in the front row to watch her son tortured and crucified.
“What stands out to me about this story is that many of the cliché answers we so often hear fall short in Mary’s situation.”
What stands out to me about this story is that many of the cliché answers we so often hear fall short in Mary’s situation. We can’t simply say that God didn’t cause her suffering, because it was Jesus’ very mission and purpose that caused the pain she would endure. It’s not enough to simply say that God saves his hardest battles for his toughest warriors. Mary is constantly confused and dismayed at the events she endures. Not to mention, who is strong enough to watch their firstborn son tortured to death for a crime he didn’t commit? No, Mary’s comfort comes from elsewhere.
In my experience, the real problem is not that we don’t understand why innocent people suffer. It’s not the lack of an answer that causes us to lie awake at night or to literally cry out to God in our anger and frustration. The real problem with suffering is not the absence of an answer but that we feel the absence of God. We believe that God has left us alone. That he has turned his back on us in our moment of need. Perhaps he is even punishing us.
“The real problem with suffering is not the absence of an answer but that we feel the absence of God.”
We feel the words of David, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?” (Ps. 22:1). We feel abandoned. This is where the hope of Mary’s story breaks through.
The hope of Mary’s story is that God has not left us. He has not abandoned us. He is working and moving amid our suffering. The very event that brought Mary the most pain caused our salvation. The punishment that brought Mary pain was the punishment that brought us peace. The hope in the story of Mary is that God is using the pain in your life for his purposes. The comfort in Mary’s story comes from seeing God working in the most unlikely of situations. Mary’s comfort would come three days later when she first laid eyes on the empty tomb.
My comfort would come when I would walk down the halls of what should be a heavy-hearted building, but instead of sadness, being greeted by joy. I would watch my little sister use an IV pole as a ride to be pushed around on. I would watch her laugh and giggle and play board games with nurses. My comfort came when I watched a four-year-old girl image the faithfulness of God.
“My comfort came when I watched a four-year-old girl image the faithfulness of God.”
When I would hear people ask her, “How can you be so happy in a place like this?” She would say, “Because I know God is good and he will take care of me.” My comfort came when I realized God was using a tragedy to turn a four-year-old girl into an evangelist of his goodness. My comfort came when I realized God had not left me in my struggle but was using me in my struggle. Indeed, he was using my struggle to draw me nearer to him.
Mary got her answer three days later. I got my answer in a hospital room. I would love to tell you that you will get your answer soon, but I can’t. The truth is, I don’t know when you will get your answer. You may never know how God was using your suffering. God doesn’t promise to answer all of our questions.
He doesn’t promise us a detailed explanation as to why each event in our life will happen, but he does promise that he is working. That he is using this to draw you and those around you into a relationship with him. That God will allow you to go through hardships in this life so that you will join him in eternal life. That God won’t let you go through suffering alone, but that he suffered first for your sake.
“He doesn’t promise us a detailed explanation as to why each event in our life will happen, but he does promise that he is working.”
What if God is trying to do something bigger through your suffering? What if God’s primary concern isn’t your prosperity in this life, but that you would prosper for eternity? This, after all, is the very message Paul wrote the church in Rome,
“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us…And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:18, 28, ESV).