If you’ve lived long enough in the big hard world under the big hard sun, you’ve experienced the crushing pain and unbearable weight of tragedy and loss. You’ve encountered shocking sorrow—jaw-dropping, gut-wrenching, life-changing news. The phone call that leaves you breathless on your knees feeling heartbroken, forsaken, and hopeless. And when this kind of trial comes your way, you invariably ask the same line of questions—
Why did this happen?
Why did this happen to me?
Our first instinct is to protest. We demand an explanation. We require an answer. And oftentimes, there isn’t one. I know that asking questions—even angry, accusatory questions—is a vital part of the lamenting process. And lament is, as Harold Senkbeil has written, “a cry of faith.” But these questions are unhelpful and insufficient in and of themselves. They are loaded, leading, and misleading. They are faulty from the start. They don’t always help us move forward. On one hand, we already intellectually know the general, big-picture, pat answer—that God is working all things together for good. But that’s not necessarily comforting in the immediate chaos. And, on the other hand, these questions are saturated with accusations and/or assumptions about God’s character—that he’s harsh and cruel, that he’s unwise, or that he’s punishing you. Even if you don’t really believe this, it feels like the truth.
The greatest insufficiency of these questions is that, most of the time, we’re not going to be provided with the answer—neither immediately nor specifically, and maybe never on this side of eternity. Tragedy is something that has to be processed over time and seen in light of the our whole life story and God’s redemptive story. We can’t expect to understand everything in the grueling moments and months after a grievous calamity. And we must also remember that God does not owe us an explanation. If you’ve read the book of Job, you know that he never received a reason for his suffering. God reminded him that the reasons were too wonderful for him; they were too immense for his human mind to comprehend. As Senkbeil writes, “Ultimately, you don’t solve suffering—you endure it.”
What I’m proposing here is a better question. A question that will help us endure well and process tragedy better. A question that I believe will bring us closer to the heart of who God is. A question that will help us cling tightly to the kindness of God even when the crushing pain of enduring grief makes us numb to it. As Mark Vroegop writes, “In all we feel and the questions we have, there comes a point where we must call to mind what we know to be true . . . [lament] is an opportunity to remind our hearts about God’s faithfulness in the past, especially when the immediate events of life are overwhelmingly negative.” I’m not trying to discount the real hurt or bypass the real work God is accomplishing in your heart through this trial. But I want to help you move forward in worship realizing that you can rejoice while grieving and you can heal while hurting. This is often what endurance looks like.
I believe we should start by asking, “Why does this hurt so much?”
This question helps us focus on the beautiful side of tragedy. All trials come in the form of some kind of loss or separation. You desire something you are not getting or you are are getting something you don’t want. Even in the latter case, it’s still a loss. For example, if you receive an unwanted diagnosis, you have lost your semblance of health and your illusion of control. Panic sets in and then the dominoes fall. You lose your comfort. You lose your peace of mind. You lose your emotional stability. You lose the ability to think objectively about your situation. You lose your hope. Worse than all of these, and maybe the root cause of them all, you lose sight of God’s kindness. So whether your trial is physical, emotional, financial, relational, it is always spiritual. Something dear to you is taken away and you lose your ability to see the Lord’s kindness.
I believe this better question is embedded in Job’s profound declaration after his profound calamity: “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” We are all familiar with this statement. We pray it. We sing it. We share it with others. But oftentimes, we think it means that sometimes the Lord is good and sometimes the Lord is not. We create the false dichotomy that he’s kind when he gives and harsh when he takes away. We separate and distance the two making them incompatible. And this can be shortsighted. The Lord gives AND takes away. To focus on one of these truths is to miss the bigger picture. We need to bring those two things—giving and taking—closer together. When we overemphasize the taking, we forget the gift. God takes away what he gives. And God gives great gifts!
The depth of your pain is directly proportional to the depth of your love. The greatness of the void left after tragedy is reflective of the greatness of the gift. As Colin Murray Parks has written about bereavement, “The pain of grief is just as much a part of life as the joy of love; it is perhaps, the price we pay for love.” In all the emotional turmoil after loss, we tend to emphasize the Lord’s taking and completely lose sight of the Lord’s provision. As we process, we must stop and look at our trial with a new perspective. God gives amazing gifts! That’s why it hurts so much. It is true that he didn’t have to take away the gift. But it is also true that didn’t have to give it to you in the first place either.
In the chilling fog of tragedy, when you can’t feel God’s kindness, you can change your perspective by changing your question. Instead of asking why God took something away, you should ponder why he ever gave it to you in the first place. Then your protest will turn to praise. Some clarity will shine into the foreboding thunderclouds of grief and you will feel the warmth of his kindness once again.
In the crucible of trial, there is both significant loss and significant gain. We often believe that the benefits God intends from suffering always come after loss. But maybe in some circumstances, they come before. I know that separation logically precedes adoption. But in death, the gift precedes the separation. Pain is the dark side of love. But let’s not forget that love is the bright side of pain. If you miss someone dearly, they must have been an incredible gift. God gave us laughter and love, our wonderful memories, and the good years. Let’s not forget to thank him for his kindness in those gifts. Life is tragically beautiful.
And this question better prepares you to ponder the next question which logically follows, “What is God trying to teach me?” Again, if you overemphasize the gift, you will forget the Giver. Ultimately, he wants you to see that the he is greater than the gift. That he is good. That he is kind. That he is full of grace. That he can be trusted. That you can depend on him. That he is worthy of worship. Even in the midst of crushing pain and relentless grief. Job fell to the ground and worshipped the Lord there. Giving and taking are things that God does. Notice that Job blessed God’s name. He worshipped him for who he is—his reputation.
And let’s not forget the greatest gift that God has given—his only son. Because he gave us his life; you can trust him with yours. All tragedies come in some form of loss or separation, but we know we will never be separated from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Rom 8:39). What is he trying to accomplish? He removes good gifts to strengthen and refine our faith. Only through the pain of trial can you see him with more clarity, love him with more devotion, believe him with more tenacity, and worship him with a more obstinate joy (1 Pet 1:6-9).
After my adoptive mom—one of God’s greatest gifts in my life— suddenly passed, we found this note in her handwriting reminding us of these truths.
In his book Seasons of Sorrow, Tim Challies writes, “The God with the ability to give is the God with the right to take . . . I cannot and will not begrudge the same God for taking back.” We think that the one who gave us the gift has no right to take it away. But the Giver and the Taker are one in the same, and both are his prerogative. We would have never had the gift in the first place without the one who also took it away. It’s not helpful to demand an answer for the unexplainable. But it is helpful to remember the kindness of God in the midst of tragedy. It’s okay to feel hopeless. It’s even okay to express that hopelessness. But only if it leads to faith and worship in the midst of our pain. We must pray for, fight for, and cling to a faith that believes he is kind.