Where is God in suffering?
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Where was God for Alexander?
The better question is: where are you? Job 2:9–13
Alexander A. was 49 years old, too old to serve under his nation’s current rules, but he was determined. He had many years’ experience running artillery batteries and anti-aircraft systems, and his country needed him, so he was not to be put off. Despite being rejected for military service twice, the military finally accepted his third application and he served the nation of Ukraine for a year, before a heart attack took his life at the front!
Our ministry leader walked into Alexander’s small village yard, filled with sober-faced soldiers from his unit. Family members were standing near his open casket as friends came by to kiss his forehead and say their goodbyes. There were more than 100 people from the town bundled up against the cold, waiting in the street for the procession, followed by a very melancholy dirge-playing military band. At the cemetery, the chaplain asked the commander to speak. The senior officer, with a chest full of medals, after a few stumbled words said, “I cannot,” and turned and walked away in tears.
For those gathered to honor the service and memory of Alexander, we shouldn’t be surprised if many wondered during their time of grief, “Where was God for Alexander?” In our years of ministering to the military, many on our team have shared that when a member of the military passes away during their service, it’s not unusual for those left behind to wrestle with figuring out God’s work and presence in the midst of such devastating circumstances. Beyond offering practical help, there are two particularly pressing questions of faith. The first is, “How could God let such horrid things happen?” The second, “How could we let such horrid things happen?”
Both of these questions deal with what is called the doctrine of theodicy: Why does God allow evil to exist? Can’t God stop both human and natural evil? If he can, why doesn’t He? We should not be surprised that these questions arise in every generation, especially those whose military service finds them operating where evil isn’t a bystander, but an active participant. This hard, but unfortunate reality, shows the enduring nature of our doubt at these times and the magnitude of the question that arises in the soul when dealing with loss. Both “natural” evil (natural disasters, disease, suffering of animals) and “human” evil (wars, genocides, injustice) mock our ability to make the reality of an omnipotent, loving God sensible in the wake of suffering. However, as Christians called to minister in this soul-hostile environment, our primary focus should not be assigning blame, but being salt and light.
Is Sin Part of God’s Design?
With human evil, the explanation comes slightly easier: As moral beings, God allows us the freedom to choose to do evil or to do good. God allows us that freedom, and in the military servicemen and women can, and will, operate on what I call “the edge of evil”: that place in conflict where man’s sinful choices are on full display and their consequences impact the just and the unjust alike. This reality reminds us as His ministers of salt and light, that only by seeking and yearning for God’s will to be done in our lives can we begin to combat the evils of the world.
When Blame Does Not Suffice
But even with the issue of human evil “settled,” the issue of “acts of God” remains. One of our ministry leaders is working with soldiers involved in recovery efforts in earthquake devastated Nepal. Who is there to blame for earthquakes, hurricanes or cancer but God? How does theodicy ultimately answer the question “Why is life unfair?”
As it was in the days of Job, it is wrong to assume that every illness or sudden misfortune must somehow be the fault of the sufferer or the direct result of “God’s hidden hand.” As ministers of Christ, we must both wrestle with and proclaim a “Good News” that lives with the tension that affliction and tragedy comes to those who don’t deserve it, like Alexander. There comes a point where the issue of blame simply must be left aside. Only then can we truly begin to serve those who are suffering. When we deal with the reality of evil and suffering in our day-to-day service to the Lord, we must be the ones who model and proclaim that trust in God must come first. Only then can we begin to learn to accept his purposes. The complex and personal nature when the human soul suffers should serve to keep us humble, on our knees seeking His wisdom and avoid pat and superficial answers to explain away the pain of others. I’m of the opinion that the question “Where is God when people suffer?” was best answered by Mother Teresa: “God is there, suffering with [them]. The question really is, where are you?”
—Dr. Daryl “Bones” Jones, Col,USAF (Ret.)
International Director, Military Ministry of cru
Reflect And Share With Us
- How does the Bible teach us to respond to suffering and the victims of tragedy?
- What are some situations in your “ministry” in which you can be in the midst of the suffering your people face?
- How are you preparing your “ministers” to serve those who serve on the “edge of evil” in conflict?