In Pat Conroy's episodic work South of Broad, the novel's protagonist, Leo King, endures a wretched evening at a dinner party and comments at the very end of one chapter that "I realize that you can walk away from anything but a wounded soul." Abrasions of the body are one thing; wounds of the heart are another, and they come in all shapes and sizes.
The issue of pain and the question of evil (although I suspect people focus more on evil that befalls them and not evil in general) is sure to come up this week. In what is already going to be a draining week, I've been asked to serve on a panel discussion during our chapel time this coming Wednesday, one in which students will be able to ask questions about things they doubt about, issues they have with Christianity, things they're wrestling with, etc. I've been in enough open conversations with people to know that the question of "If God is in charge, then why doesn't he fix all our problems and hardships?" is going to come up.
For all what we've gone through as a family, we have brushed around that question. Sometimes it doesn't seem to me that God has his hands on the wheel; in fact, there can be long stretches where that seems to be the case. And keep in mind, I do my best to limit my queries of the Almighty to moments of intense suffering. Right now, I'm keeping tabs on the Eastern Division championship in the Canadian Football League and hoping my Hamilton Tiger-Cats can hold on to their slim lead and go to the Grey Cup. If they don't, I'll be awfully perturbed. But it's an inconvenience; it's not suffering. If ABC Family ever cancels Pretty Little Liars, teenage girls across America might be devastated (although 99% of rational thinkers might be breathing prayers of thanks)...but again, that's not true suffering. If you're going to ask the question "Who is in charge of all this mess?", then it had better be in response to something truly meaningful.
But there is something else worth sharing in the midst of pain. Now, skeptics and atheists can tune me out here if they wish, but I'm talking primarily to theists/Christians here. What exactly drives our questions of God? When we wonder what God is up to, that's legitimate in principle. We have a very limited perspective and so out of curiosity (and sometimes for the sake of our sanity) we might like to know why we are enduring a present affliction. But the spirit in which we pose our question is critical. Toward the end of the Biblical book of Job, the title character--who has lost almost everything in a short period of time--has endured his loss with a fair amount of grace and perseverance. At the very least, Job has acted better than his poorly-comforting buddies. But toward the end of the book, when God--in a specially present way--comes on the scene, Job plies him with questions about his suffering, asking in effect, "Why have I gone through this? Put yourself in my shoes."
And--as Frederick Buechner aptly says--"God doesn't explain. He explodes. He asks Job who he thinks he is anyway. He says that trying to explain the kind of things Job wants to know would be like trying to explain Einstein to a little-neck clam...God doesn't reveal his grand design. He reveals himself."
In short, God says, "Job, you put yourself in my place." Philip Yancey paraphrases God's response this way in Disappointment With God: "Until you can offer lessons on how to make the sun come up each day, or where to scatter lightning bolts, or how to design a hippopotamus, don't judge how I run the world."
That seems rather brusque and jerky, but it's a point well taken. It's interesting how people often talk about God should be acting like a sovereign ruler if that's how the Bible reveals him, but the moment their world crumbles they shoot off at the hip at God and treat him as if he's a peer, an equal.
When this happens, friends, it's my opinion that--as understandable as that default mode could be--we're treading in dangerous territory. If we can't control the wind patterns in Finland or supervise the fetal development of caribou in Canada at the same time, maybe we should slow down our retorts to God.
It doesn't mean we knuckle under. Trust me, we've blown up and thrown plenty of punches at God during Joshua's post-surgical complications, our loss of Jordan, and Lindsay's struggles with her place in this milieu. But I think one thing Christy and I have learned over time is that we ask the questions from a posture of humility as submissive followers instead of demanding peers.
"I don't understand what you're doing, God. It's maddening. But I want to struggle by following you, not pulling against you."
That's not a bad place to start.