Physicians who treat chronically or terminally ill patients often hear them ask, “Why did this happen to me?” This is an impossible question to answer because it begins with a “why” and not a “how.” “How” is answered by science, while “why” seems to be seeking a religious explanation.
Am I being targeted by forces I cannot control? Am I being punished by God for something I did? Well-meaning comforters may offer their own replies: “God is teaching you something,” or “Be grateful for what you are facing since this is God’s method of purifying you in the refiner’s fire.” Such empathy is more bruising than helpful. It also reincarnates the heresy that Jesus combated in His ministry:
“As [Jesus] walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him’” (John 9:1-3).* Jesus is clear: No one here is being “taught a lesson.”
At a young father’s funeral a prominent pastor suggested to his widow that she “needed to learn what God was trying to teach her” through this tragedy. Weeks later, when she and I sat down to chat, this well-
educated teacher fumed, “Am I so dumb that God has to kill my husband to teach me something?”
Our desire to think that God is behind all that happens has a clear lineage: We need to believe that God is “in control,” that nothing can transpire that God does not will, whether by deliberately causing or allowing our misfortune to strike us. We assume that what we do causes what happens to us. If we are “good,” our crops will grow and our families will be protected. If we are “bad,” all bets are off, as we say. This approach offers some believers a measure of comfort. If by our faithfulness or lack of it we can please or displease God, we have a degree of control over what happens to us, some reason. God’s protection is reserved for those who deserve it. More pagan than Chris-tian, this view is nonetheless appealing. The thought that events can occur that God does not control or that flawed human behavior may cause tragedy is very troubling to many.
Fueling such attitudes, in my view, are some misinterpretations of selected biblical promises of protection. For example: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, . . . though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult” (Ps. 46:1-3); and “A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you” (Ps. 91:7).
“It will not come near you” is thought to be a quasi-guarantee that believers will be spared the crumbling buildings from Haiti’s earthquake or the winds and floods of Katrina. If we think such promises apply in every case, what can we say to the mother who moans, “I prayed every day for the safety of my child, yet she was killed by a drunk driver.” Such tragedies can tempt us to question God’s providence and the power of prayer.
We must accept the fact that life is full of unhappy surprises. We plan on a happy marriage, yet end up in a bitter divorce. We pray and plan for healthy children, yet every year thousands of parents give birth to babies whose disabilities create a lifelong burden. If those who suffer cling to the belief that God controls everything that happens to them, that things always go according to God’s plan because God plans all things, they are bound to feel that God is targeting them for some inscrutable divine purpose. One of my students declared in class that “if God sends me a debilitating illness, He must have a reason and I must try to learn what it is.”
The Bible does not teach that God sends damaged or disabled babies to specific parents to refine them through suffering or punish them for their misdeeds. While running errands one day, I heard a radio preacher tell his congregation that there would be times when God would put them in the “refining fire.” They would cry for divine help but none might come. God would let them sit in the fire for a while until His purposes for them were accomplished. He then quoted the following passage to support his view:
“‘My child, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, or lose heart when you are punished by him; for the Lord disciplines those whom he loves, and chastises every child whom he accepts.’ Endure trials for the sake of discipline. God is treating you as children; for what child is there whom a parent does not discipline? If you do not have that discipline in which all children share, then you are illegitimate and not his children. Moreover, we had human parents to discipline us, and we respected them. Should we not be even more willing to be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share his holiness. Now, discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Heb. 12:5-11).
Are we to conclude from these verses and the declarations of preachers that all painful experiences are part of God’s discipline for us, either personally or collectively? The primary metaphor in the passage from Hebrews is parenting and the disciplining of children. A central principle of such discipline is that it be connected specifically to the behavior or character defect that concerns the parent. Furthermore, the context of the passage refers to resisting sin as Jesus did. The writer is exhorting us to be faithful witnesses to God’s redemptive work in Christ, even when faced with persecution. Suffering for the sake of the gospel strengthens us in service and disciplines us for challenges not yet faced. We are hardened, in the good sense of the term, against crippling fear as we proclaim God’s salvation to the world. This is quite different from arguing that my child’s brain tumor or my liver cancer is a discipline from God that I should welcome.
Is All Suffering Discipline?
When Jesus called His disciples, He warned them that they would face persecution and physical suffering for proclaiming the gospel. He did not say that any and all suffering they experienced would indicate God’s “discipline” of them. Suffering for the sake of the gospel will indeed refine our characters and strengthen us in obedience. We are not being punished to be purified; we are purified because we are persecuted for Christ’s sake.
Still, many Christians feel more comfortable looking within for answers to their suffering. “God can do nothing wrong; therefore I must have done something wrong for this misfortune to strike me.”
Such thinking is akin to a pattern psychologists describe in abused children who suffer at the hands of their parents. They will almost always assume that they brought the abuse upon themselves. I suspect that in a similar way it’s easier to think that God “sends” suffering because either we deserve it or it’s part of God’s “plan” for our lives, than to think we are at the mercy of a somewhat random existence. We want to feel God is always responsible for whatever happens in our lives. If this is not true, then we cannot find meaning in our suffering, though I will argue that we can give meaning to our suffering.
A better way to understand all this, I believe, is not to say, “This tragedy is a part of God’s plan,” but rather, “Now that this has happened, God has a plan.” If by my own recklessness or some tragic accident I end up a quadriplegic, my hopes (and God’s hopes) for my life will not end, but they will be drastically altered. God will work with me and my family to help us rebuild the story of my life. Because this happened, God will help me develop a plan and give meaning to my new reality.
When struck by Parkinson’s disease, actor Michael J. Fox fought to find meaning in his misfortune. His crusade against this dread disease drew his family closer together and resulted, through his foundation, in making more funds available for Parkinson’s research than any other source in the world! He has reshaped the broken pieces of his life into something splendid. In his autobiography he insists that he would not want to go back to the person he was before Parkinson’s struck him. The suffering, he says, has changed him for the better. Should we then conclude that God sent Fox his disease in order to change his life and improve the prospects for a cure? Fox does not believe that. He believes (as I do) that he was a victim of forces that did not target him personally.
Meaning in Prayer
Does this mean that prayers for protection or healing are meaningless?
Not at all. God can and does answer such prayers, but we should not rely on them for cures or for protection from every contingency. When “cure” does not happen or protection is not available, “healing” always is. That is, we can always depend on God’s loving and comforting presence to be with us, sometimes through loved ones and fellow believers, sometimes in the quiet moments we cherish during prayer and meditation. We can be healed from meaninglessness, self-pity, loneliness, and frustration as we face a new future. Adventists have never believed we have guarantees in this life that prevent us from suffering or dying. Our guarantees are in the future when all that terrifies us now will forever be banished. “How long shall I live” or “Will I have the optimal possible life now” are not the proper questions for Christians to ask; the proper question, as University of Virginia School of Medicine professor Margaret Mohrmann so aptly puts it, is: “How will I live the life that I have?”—that is, the life God will help us live to the fullest, regardless of the obstacles we face. When we believe that, we are “healed” in the most important ways possible.
Within God’s Plan
While God does not plan everything that happens, nothing that happens is outside God’s plan. No divine script is programming our days. Liberty (and to a great extent, contingency) defines human life. God’s “plan” can be summed up as His overarching desire that each of us make choices in harmony with love and truth, and that we exercise our freedom courageously so that we can enjoy even more freedom.
God does not need to send suffering to teach us a lesson, because He knows suffering will find us no matter what we do to avoid it. No matter what happens to us, God’s ultimate plan for us cannot be frustrated. Regardless of when we suffer or die, God’s plan is to restore us to life again. When the apostle Paul says, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28, NIV),† he is not saying that everything that happens to us is good because God sent it for our edification. He is saying that because we love and are loved by God, all things—even tragedies—have the potential to weave a web of ultimate meaning and blessing for our lives. God’s wisdom and power will transform the messes in our lives in ways that will restore our confidence that everything is in His hands.
*Unless otherwise noted, all Bible texts in this article are taken from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission.
†Texts credited to NIV are from the Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright ” 1973, 1978, 1984, International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.