Philip Yancey’s books have sold more than 15 million copies worldwide. They’ve been a source of inspiration and encouragement for many people, and his newest book is The Question that Never Goes Away, published by Zondervan Press. He was interviewed by Preaching Executive Editor Michael Duduit.
Preaching: So what is the question that never goes away?
Yancey: Thirty-five years ago I wrote a book called Where Is God When it Hurts? That question never has gone away for me because I’m asked to speak on that very often; this book came out of three times in 2012 when I spoke on that topic. The question that doesn’t go away for most people is: Why? Why do these bad things happen? Why is there so much suffering? Why does such a good God allow such things?
Preaching: Obviously that’s a topic that has been discussed on end for centuries. What are some of the ideas you try to express about that issue?
Yancey: I’ve learned through the years what to try to answer and what not to try and answer. God did not fully answer the question, “Why?” to Job. If anybody in history deserved an answer to that question, it was Job. He was the most righteous man on Earth, being punished the worst. When God appeared—it’s the longest single speech by God in the Bible—He had a perfect opportunity to answer Job’s question, but He never talked about why. Instead, He said, “Let’s talk about your role and My role. My role is to run the universe. Let me explain that a little bit,” and He gave Job a tour of what it’s like to run the universe. Then He said, “Your role is simply to trust Me, that I know what I’m doing even when it doesn’t look like it.”
So the why questions—Why did a tornado hit this town in Oklahoma and not that town? Why did a hurricane hit New Orleans, but not Baton Rouge?—those kinds of questions, or—Why does this child get leukemia or get shot at a school, but not that child? I don’t try to answer those, and I don’t believe the Bible gives us much help with those questions. So let’s focus on the questions the Bible does address. One of the big ones is, “How does God feel about what’s happening on Earth?” We have startling clues to that, and I think the church often messes up [the answers to those].
The best clues we have are in Jesus. Jesus, we believe, was God in flesh who joined us on Earth, who took on the kind of suffering we experience, and all you have to do is follow Jesus around and see how He dealt with people in pain: a widow who had lost her only son, a Roman soldier whose servant fell ill. He doesn’t philosophize. He doesn’t try to explain why. He responds with compassion, comfort and healing. So what I learned from that is God is on the side of the sufferer, not against the sufferer.
We’ve got this strange phrase in insurance: acts of God. Well the act of God is enacted through people such as us, who bring that same word of comfort and hope to those who are suffering.
Preaching: There are some powerful stories in the book about Newtown, the tsunami in Japan and a lot more. Is there any one situation that really impacted you on a personal level more than others?
Yancey: You’re right. I’m a journalist, so I’m often called in the midst of the kinds of events you hear about in the news. I was at Virginia Tech just after the shootings there. We live a short distance from Columbine. We happened to be in Mumbai, India, the night of the bombings, coincidentally. I was supposed to speak downtown, and of course that was cancelled. In 2012, when I looked back over the year, I realized I had been in three places of intense suffering: one was Japan, the first year anniversary of the tsunami; one was in Sarajevo, this besieged city where 10,000 people died and human brutality was acted out; and then the smallest but in many ways the most poignant and personally affecting was Newtown, Connecticut. Twenty-thousand people died in Japan; 27 died, including the shooter, in Newtown; but that one got to me—and got to the whole country—in a different way.
I remember when I first was called by a friend who runs a church there, who’s a pastor, Clive Calver. He had been at World Relief, and he has seen horrendous things all over the world—famines, disasters—but he said, “This is different. These are my friends. This is my parish. I am their pastor, and these people really are hurting. Could you please come and talk to them?” I knew I had to say yes, though it was a hard, tough assignment.
At the same time, I had been reading books for an article on the new atheists—people such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris—and as I struggled with that question, he asked me to speak on the question: Where is God when it hurts? I realized there is one question that’s even harder than that one: Where is no God when it hurts? Those folks, the atheists, were saying very glibly, “It’s a universe of randomness; it’s characterized by blind, pitiless indifference,” and I tell you, they’re not really asked to speak in places such as that, because it wouldn’t do much for a parent who just lost a 6- or 7-year-old to hear somebody say, “What do you expect? It’s a random universe of blind indifference. Bad things happen. So what? Your child’s life ended. You’ll never see them again. Get used to it!” That’s pretty tough.
We Christians do have some words of comfort and hope. We can say, “The rage you feel against evil is a proper rage. God feels the same rage. The feeling you have that this is not right? That’s a proper feeling, it’s not right.” However, we do have hope. I can stand before you and say, “When Jesus left, He said, ‘I’m going to prepare a place for you, and that 6- or 7-year-old, you can reunite with that child. They’re in the loving arms of God.” I don’t know a theologian, period, who wouldn’t say [a deceased child is] in the loving arms of God, and that’s a hope we can offer as Christians in a hard time that you can’t really get from other places.
Preaching: You mentioned this is not the first time you’ve written on this issue of suffering. Your very first book was written when you were 27 years old. As you look back, how audacious were you to be answering issues about suffering at the age of 27?
Yancey: Yeah, I know! Yet when I don’t know the answer to something, I write a book about it because it gives me a chance to explore it and go to some people who do have the answers.
Preaching: How have you changed since then?
Yancey: When I wrote that book, I encountered Dr. Paul Brand. I wrote about him in the book, and we went on to write three other books together. He had a view of pain that was different than anywhere else I researched. He viewed pain as God’s great gift. He worked with leprosy patients who don’t feel pain, and they live lives that nobody envies. We pity them because they don’t feel (physical) pain, and so they’re damaging themselves all the time. All the abuse that we see happening among leprosy patients—losing their fingers, losing their eyesight, losing their feet—that happens because they don’t have the warning system of pain.
So I guess I started, as a 27-year-old investigating the topic, thinking, “God made a pretty good world, but He made one big mistake, and that is pain. If He hadn’t done that, it would be a pretty nice world.” I began to see the Bible presents things in a bit of a different way. The Bible doesn’t promise that we’re going to have a pain-free existence. Nowhere does it say that. I learned a new paradigm. You asked about how I’ve changed, and increasingly I’ve looked at that paradigm, that God isn’t in the pain-removal business so much as God is in the pain-recycling business, or as Christians would say, the redeeming business.
The best expression of that that I know of is in
When I was studying
Preaching: Are there some things you’ve learned about dealing with suffering that might be some helpful to pastors?
Yancey: Yes. I’ve heard from a lot of people who say that when they were going through difficult times in a hospital room, for example, the church made it worse. They mean the people come in with these various theories about why this [illness] was happening: “God’s punishing you. You must have done something wrong.” I doubt many pastors do that, but almost everybody I talk to hears that from someone in the church, saying, “Why is God doing this to you?” Other people say, “No, no, it’s not God, it’s the devil attacking you.” Then other people say, “No, it’s not the devil; it’s God, but not because He’s punishing you, but because you’re a privileged saint He’s using you as an example for others.”
I’ve found that most of the explanations we come up with don’t help. They make people feel worse. That may be the lesson we should take away from a book such as Job, because his friends had beautiful theories about why this might have happened to Job—and all those theories were wrong! The most helpful thing they did was right at the beginning when they came and for seven days and seven nights, tore their clothes, and sat with him in silence. When they opened their mouths, the problems started!
I have a collection of things well-intentioned people say. “God wanted a little flower in heaven.” Well that doesn’t make a parent who lost their baby feel better.
“God needed your daddy in heaven.” “Yeah, but I need him too,” the little boy says.
Someone wrote me just outraged: Their faith was wavering; the person’s mother was a strong Christian, and she died. At the funeral, these people came up to her and said, “If only one person accepted Jesus because of your mother’s death, it would have been worth it.” Well we know what the person’s saying, but it didn’t help her; in fact it pushed her away.
I think the most important thing we can start with is to say, “I suffer with you, and I’m sorry. In fact, God suffers with you. God knows what it’s like. God is on the side of the one who suffers.”
That’s so important because instinctively people think, “Maybe I did something wrong. Maybe God’s against me.” No, God is Immanuel, God is with us in our pain and suffering. That is such an important lesson to get across. Bite your tongue and don’t come up with theories, most of which don’t help. When you’re in pain is not a good time for theories. Just say, “We’re here. We’re a community.”
One lesson I learned from Dr. Brand is when he said, “A healthy body is not a body that doesn’t feel pain; that’s actually an unhealthy body like the leprosy patients. A healthy body is one that feels the pain of the weakest part and then responds to it.” That’s what we should do as the body of Christ.
Preaching: A lot of pastors write, if only for their weekly messages, but many pastors also are interested in extending their ministries by writing for publications. If you were talking to a pastor who was interested in that, what kind of counsel might you give him or her?
Yancey: Things are changing so much. The great advantage that exists now is that anybody can publish any day they want to online! You can blog; blogs are a great way to get your message out there. Even some of the best magazines are struggling, so that whole procedure of trying to get your article published is harder and harder these days. It’s easier and easier to get a book published because there are all sorts of self-publishing things and hybrid organizations that also will market for you and help you with the editorial process.
If a person is really serious, wants to write a book, and wants to learn how to write, there are some organizations such as the Christian Writers Guild, which has very good mentors and a training program for which you can sign up. It costs some money, but they have people who actually will work with you on the manuscript.
The whole online world has changed everything. Part of me wishes it never had happened at all, and the other part says, “Well, it’s here, let’s take advantage of it.” I’m sure that’s true of pastors, too. I’m sure a number of them wish there was no such thing as a website or a blog and all that stuff, text messaging; but on the other hand, it’s a whole new opportunity so everybody can get their thoughts across to a lot of people.
Preaching: The digital world has consumed our lives.
Yancey: Yes, consumed. I often feel devoured by it!
Preaching: One last question: If you only had one book left in you, what would it be about?
Yancey: I’ve been giving the same answer to that question for myself for a long time, and that is a memoir. I have hinted here and there about negative experiences I have had with the church through the years. I grew up in an unhealthy church (I call it a toxic church.) from which I have been in recovery—an angry, fundamentalist, racist church in the Deep South. I threw away my faith for a period of time because it just didn’t make sense. I couldn’t buy it anymore.
Then gradually I have rediscovered it bit by bit and have been able to work that out in my writing. That is my own pilgrimage, my writing. So I look back on my life and think, “I’ve tasted the worst and the best the church has to offer,” and I would like to do a memoir that expresses that: one that is honest about some things we do wrong, but yet in the midst of all that, finds that redemptive thread that for all of its foibles and mistakes the church is the body of Christ. It is the presence of God in the world.
I’ve seen it when we don’t look like it, when we probably shame Christ; and I’ve seen it when we make Christ proud. I want to do that in a very personal, intimate way; so that’s the next book on my docket.