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Yancey on suffering: the question that never goes away

A child is murdered, a tsunami rips a nation apart. What is God up to when tragedy strikes? Philip Yancey once more gets to grips with suffering ...

A child is murdered, a tsunami rips a nation apart. What is God up to when tragedy strikes? It’s an issue bestselling author Philip Yancey tackles in his latest book The Question That Never Goes Away. Interview by Sharon Barnard

SB: You mention that comments from Christians can sometimes make people’s suffering worse ...

PY: In most cases people are well-intentioned. We feel like we have to say something, so we fall back on clichés.

I take a cue from the Book of Job. “Job’s comforters” has become a summary phrase for words that do not help. We forget that those same three friends tore their clothes and sat in silence with Job for seven days and seven nights. The problems started when they opened their mouths.

When in pain, people mainly need compassion, love, and comfort, not theories and philosophising.

The Bible shows us that God does intervene in human history and suffering – but not always. So does praying for a situation have any effect?

Things happen on earth that definitely would not have happened apart from prayer. Prayer is one (though certainly not the only) agency that God uses to accomplish his will.

There are various studies on the effects of prayer on healing and recovery from surgery. Some show extraordinary results, some show none.

Every study, however, shows that a person closely connected with a caring community will heal better and faster.

A caring community takes away the “enemies of recovery,” things like stress, anxiety, guilt, fear. And prayer, a tangible expression of that caring community, has a calming and nurturing effect.

How has changing your response to suffering helped you to find meaning in it?

My one quarrel with CS Lewis is his suggestion that pain is the “megaphone of God”. I don’t think he intended this, but the image brings to mind a football coach on the sidelines yelling at his players. I prefer the metaphor of a hearing aid: pain gives us the opportunity to turn up the volume and pay attention to things that we might otherwise overlook.

In 2007 my car rolled off a cliff and overturned five times. I spent seven hours lying on a back board with a broken neck as doctors tried to determine whether a bone fragment had punctured a major artery; if so, I would die that day.

As I lay there, I could only think of three questions worth my time: Who do I love? What have I done with my life? And, am I ready for whatever is next?

Suffering brought into sharp focus what matters most in life. I should have been centring on those questions all along, of course. But we get distracted and forget.

I learned that my response to suffering could indeed help clarify meaning.

What can Christians cling onto in the midst of great suffering?

That God is on the side of the sufferer. Instinctively when something bad happens we think God is against us. Quite the contrary.

Just follow Jesus around in the Gospels and you see that God is always on the side of the sufferer. Jesus always responded with compassion and healing, and so should we.

More, before he left Jesus promised that “I am going to prepare a place for you” [John 14:1-3] a place we can hardly imagine, void of pain, suffering, and death.

What difference can the Christian Church make in a wounded world that waves its fists at God?

My book tells of three places of great suffering that I visited in 2012. In Japan, a year after the tsunami, I met Christians from other countries who were volunteering to build houses for strangers halfway around the world.

In Sarajevo, I stayed in a monastery staffed by Franciscan monks who stayed behind long after most Christians had fled the city, reaching out to the poor and homeless.

In Newtown, Connecticut, I spoke on behalf of a church that had brought comfort and long-term help to families devastated by the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

I’ve almost concluded that you can answer the question “Where is God when it hurts?” with another question: “Where is the Church when it hurts?”

When the Church is on the front lines of suffering, people don’t wave their fists at God. They know where God is – in God’s people.

  • The Question That Never Goes Away by Philip Yancey (Hodder and Stoughton, £9.99).

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