Why or where? 

Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series “How bad does it hurt?” by Rev. David Witten, pastor of Our Savior Lutheran Church in Danville. 

Vera, a woman in her late 60s, had had surgery for a brain tumor the previous day. As the pastor entered her room, she was lying on her side in a fetal position, head bandaged, and apparently sleeping.  Standing by her bedside, the pastor was surprised when she suddenly opened her eyes. She recognized him and with a slight movement of her lips she attempted to speak.

Unable to hear her, the pastor bent down to her and put his ear within inches of her lips. In a faint voice she whispered, “God has been so good to me!” Although hearing the words clearly, he was not sure he was hearing correctly.

This damaged woman, unable to speak loud enough to ask the nurse for water, unable to foresee a future to her earthly life, was making a confession of faith in telling the pastor that in the midst of all of this, God had been good to her. The pastor was overwhelmed. 

These were words he was supposed to say to her. But she was teaching this pastor what all pastors and all people should know: that God makes himself known in the mystery of suffering.

Though perhaps she did not know it but she had stumbled onto what Martin Luther had called the theology of the cross as opposed to a theology of glory.  The theology of glory thinks that we should want and expect to see the hand of God in nature’s beautiful sunsets or in successful church programs. The theology of cross insists that God chooses to reveal himself and his gracious heart to us in the cross. First, God revealed his fatherly heart precisely when Christ was dieing on the cross in terrible pain. Secondly, he reveals himself to us in our crosses.

Popular today is theodicy which is an attempt to justify the ways of God to a suffering world. Harold Kushner popularized theodicy in our time in his best seller “Why Bad Things Happen to Good People”. He suggests that there are only two answers possible: Either God can’t prevent suffering, in which case we ought not be too hard on God since he is doing the best he can; or God is cruel and enjoys making us suffer.

Kushner, attempting to defend God’s reputation, of course favors the former and gets God off the hook by claiming that God is less than almighty. Somehow this is intended to comfort suffering people.   

While theodicy attempts to justify the ways of God to a suffering person, what a person really needs in order to face suffering rightly is to stand justified before God. As a pastor I increasingly am learning that the focus of pastoral care must be on the suffering person not on attempts to justify the ways of God.  Christian attempts at theodicy are commonplace. For example, “God is just testing you to see if you will remain faithful” tries to justify God’s ways or at least explain them. Or, it is sometimes said, “God is punishing you for what you have done.” This interpretation, although most frequently rejected on the surface, is the one that hits suffering people hardest at a deepest level, because they know they could have lived a better life and that they stand under the judgment of God in this life.  

But none of these efforts at theodicy provides much real care to suffering people. For one thing, it is presumptuous for the pastor or anyone to claim to know the mind of God for any person. In fact, interpretation of suffering is better made by the sufferer than by another person, and retrospectively rather than prospectively. In the midst of suffering it is not always clear what purpose suffering serves.  

Living in an increasingly secularized society means that more people do not feel their need to be justified before God, but rather demand that God justify himself to them. Therefore, the most common question they will raise in the face of suffering is, “Why is God doing this to me?” And although there may be a trace of genuine search for God’s will in suffering, more likely the question betrays an underlying attitude that means to say, “I don’t deserve this; God needs to justify himself to me.”

Ultimately, the appropriate question is not “Why is God doing this?” but “Where is God in this? Where is God in my suffering?” The “why” of suffering, motivated by a demand that God justify himself to us, is often a fruitless question.  In the long narrative of Job, Job does not know “why” he is suffering the terrible calamity that has befallen him. Though the reader knows— he has been told —but Job is not told. When the narrative reaches its resolution 42 chapters later, Job still has not been told. He never learns the “why” of his suffering. Its resolution is in God himself. In other words, we do not need an explanation from God as much as we need God himself and a gracious God that justifies the sinner,

These thoughts will be further explored in the next essay. Suffice it to say now, a big part of pastoral work to the sick will be to visit the sick room baptizing, giving Communion, reading the Scriptures with prayer just so people can find God himself and a gracious God that absolves the sinner of his guilt. So rather than asking “why” all the time maybe we are better to ask “Where”.

“Where is God in my suffering?” When the pastor arrives with the means of grace, God answers with the reply, “Right in the middle of it!”

Learn about the Lutheran faith. Join us for 9:30 a.m. worship on Sundays at Our Savior Lutheran Church, 285 Hill n’ Dale. Contact Pastor Witten at (606) 365-8273. Or reach us through Facebook: facebook.com/oursaviordanvilleky/