“Pastor, why do you think this is happening to me? Is it because I failed to show sympathy to my mother?”
No doubt you have been asked a similar question, from “why did God not let me get the job” to “why did God not heal my child.” “Why?” is the question our people want answered. My response is that I personally never ask God why. I then give them my reasons.
First, my experience is that God does not give me an answer, at least an answer I can be sure is from him. The questioner typically nods her head in response. Everyone understands that feeling.
I then point out that if we get into the why game, we will always get caught in our own traps. We try to link our particular episode of suffering with a particular sin we have committed, such as the woman above linking her present state of anxiety with the lack of sympathy that she, as a child, had shown her mentally ill mother. The trick with that kind of linking is that we have committed numerous sins and have numerous failings; so then, how are we to know which sin to link with a present suffering? The sin we may pick out might, in reality, be a sin less grievous than another that we don’t think about. Furthermore, are we to think that we have no sins to repent of when life is going well? Linking suffering to a particular sin leads us into the same legalism and self-righteousness that Jesus exposed in his day (cf. Luke 13:1–5; John 9:1–3). Asking why only turns into a frustrating guessing game and can lead to harmful, even sinful conclusions.
But there is a good question to ask: “What can I learn from what is happening?” That is the right question to be asking God. And so, I counseled the woman above that, though I could not say that her failure to be sympathetic toward her mother is the reason why she was now suffering from anxiety, I could say that what God would have her learn in the midst of her anxiety is the lesson of sympathy.
The distinction is critical. Why links the suffering with a particular sin, which may or may not be accurate. Why also leaves the expectation that once the sin is exposed and repented of, then God must end the suffering. That can lead to great frustration: “God, I learned my lesson, why do you still discipline me?” Either we grow angry with God for being unreasonable, or we grow angry with ourselves for not getting things right.
Why can also lead to improper thoughts about the ways of God. Christian counselor Larry Crabb tells the story of a woman who came up to him after the funeral of his brother who had died in a plane crash. “I know why your brother died,” she said excitedly. Someone, maybe a relative of hers, came to know the Lord at the brother’s funeral. The brother died so that someone she knew could be saved. Not surprisingly, the idea that God needed to have his brother die so that someone else could be saved did not settle well in Crabb’s mind who knows that the sovereign God can save anyone he wills without causing the suffering of someone else.
What, however, as in “God, what can I learn through my suffering,” leads to healthy, God-honoring insight. The anxiety that my questioner was going through was leading her to learn the lesson of sympathy and empathy. And I pointed that out to her. She will now be a wiser person and wiser counselor herself. That is a good result of her suffering whatever the why for the suffering might be.
What, furthermore, places no demands on God and no expectations as to what must happen, i.e. that the suffering must end and everything turn out well. Suffering happens. It can be short; it can be long. It can be mild; it can be overwhelming. It happens to those who reject God and to those who are obedient to God. Indeed, what I point out is that suffering distinguishes the Christian from the unbeliever not in frequency or intensity, but, rather, in how we respond to it. Will we mature in our faith? Will we trust God?
It is how we address the last question that reveals if we are take the why approach or the what approach. Usually a person will say to me, “Pastor, I know that God is trying to teach me to trust him more. That is why he is causing this to happen.” The problem with such an approach is that trust is the one lesson that we are always having to learn. None of us have complete trust in God to take care of everything. The result is that we get caught in the frustrating trap of feeling that we can never please God and never get things right. Christians will worry; then they will feel guilty for worrying, which makes them worry all the more, which makes them feel guilty, and on and on.
But occasionally someone will say, “Pastor, God is teaching me through this experience to trust him more,” then that person is on the right track. She is learning without concluding that she has the lesson learned. She is growing through the suffering without insisting from God that the suffering must stop. She is learning the what without having the why answered. She is learning the lesson of Job who never did learn the why for his suffering and yet learned much about the greatness of his God.
What, not why, leads to satisfying answers.