Wednesday marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the deaths of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman. Their families are focusing less on O. J. Simpson than on their grief for those they lost.
In other news, we are learning more about the woman who was killed when a crane collapsed on her apartment building in Dallas, Texas, last Sunday. Kiersten Smith was a graduate of Southern New Hampshire University and had recently been promoted to a new position in Tenet Healthcare. She was engaged to be married this September. Her family describes her as “a selfless, thoughtful and loving daughter, sister, fiancée and friend to many.”
Further north, two men died while competing in an Ironman triathlon in Madison, Wisconsin, over the weekend. Meanwhile, the Associated Press is reporting that the Islamic State has expanded its reach in Afghanistan and is plotting attacks against the US and other Western countries.
And news that the suicide rate in the US is at an all-time high continues to trouble me. I had a good friend in high school who hung himself. I’m sure his family is still marked by his death. It’s hard to imagine the suffering so many families are facing today.
Does God have only three answers to prayer?
It’s been said that God has only three answers to prayer: “Yes,” “Not yet,” and “I have something better in mind.” If he does not meet a need as I wish him to, I can conclude that he has “something better” for me instead.
But what do we do when the “something better” seems so awful?
Every time I return to Israel, I am reminded that the Holocaust is a present-tense reality for millions of Jews who still grieve for the family members they lost.
After Jon Stewart’s impassioned testimony, the House Judiciary Committee unanimously passed a bill this week providing funds for 9/11 first responders and other victims.
My father would have been ninety-five years old yesterday. His death at the age of fifty-five was the great tragedy of my life. He never met my sons or grandchildren. He never heard me preach. His death is a reality my brother and I experience every day.
I cannot identify the “something” that was “better” than preventing the Holocaust, or 9/11, or my father’s heart attack.
Deception that drives people from God
There was a time when Western culture responded to crisis by turning to God. The greater the problem, the greater our need for his help.
But Darwinian evolution convinced multitudes of people—erroneously—that science has disproven the Bible and/or rendered it irrelevant and obsolete.
Postmodern relativism has convinced multitudes of people—erroneously—that truth is personal and subjective, rendering the Bible a diary of religious experience and religion a hobby.
Transactional religion we inherited from the ancient Greeks has convinced multitudes of people—erroneously—that if we do what God wants us to do, God will do what we want him to do. If we go to church on Sunday, God will bless us on Monday.
Then, when the crisis comes, we feel justified in rejecting the God who has not kept up his end of the bargain. If every time I go to the doctor he seems unable to help me, I’ll stop going to the doctor.
In a culture that has jettisoned biblical truth and authority for consumeristic religion, it’s not surprising that unexplained suffering drives many people further from God.
Questions that still persist
The first step in responding to innocent suffering is therefore to turn to Scripture as authoritative truth and to God as our King and Father. Otherwise, we find ourselves in the “valley of the shadow of death” without a “rod” and “staff” to comfort us (Psalm 23:4).
But even for those of us who believe the Bible to be true and relevant and our Father to be all-knowing, all-loving, and all-powerful, questions persist.
Forty years after my father’s death, I still do not understand why the Great Physician who “healed every disease and every affliction among the people” (Matthew 4:23) did not heal him. Eighteen years after 9/11, I still do not understand why the God who saved the nation of Judah from the Assyrians (Isaiah 37:36) did not save the United States from the terrorists. Seventy-eight years after the Holocaust began, I still do not understand why the God who saved the Jews from Haman (Esther 7) did not save them from Hitler.
But I do understand this: my mind is too finite and fallen to understand the God of the universe. This is only logical. If I could understand God, either I would be God or he would not be.
“I believe; help my unbelief.”
And so, I believe my response to unexplained suffering should be to do all I can to understand it. Search the Scriptures; seek to comprehend what happened and why; use my mind as fully as I can.
Then, if I still have questions I cannot answer, I can trust them to the God whose thoughts are higher than my thoughts (Isaiah 55:9) but whose love for me is unconditional.
In fact, the more I trust him, the more I can understand him. This is “faith seeking understanding,” as St. Anselm put it.
The best way to understand marriage is not to let the divorce rate keep us from being married, but to become married. The best way to understand parenting is not to let the threat of climate change keep us from having children, but to have children.
The more I trust God, the more I understand. Then, the more I understand, the more I can trust. But even when I cannot understand, I can choose to trust my Father rather than my fallen mind.
And I can pray my favorite prayer in the Bible: “I believe; help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24).
Do you need to make this prayer yours today?