There is a woman in our church whom I’ve known for more than twenty years. When I first met her she was barely in her twenties and suffering for the second time in her young life with a recurrence of leukemia. The people in our church spent a lot of time praying—and taking turns transporting her and her family to and from the hospital. Ultimately, thanks to chemo and radiation and a marrow transplant from her brother, her leukemia went into remission. Nevertheless, her health problems have not ended and she has been battling skin and other cancers off and on for many, many years. Her hair is mostly gone; she is unable to ever have children. At prayer meeting on Wednesday she expressed how tired she is of fighting these battles for her health. She said that she knows that God could heal her. But she doesn’t understand why God won’t, or why God insists on only giving her the ability to endure it instead.
Another woman in our church has a daughter who has been paraplegic since birth. The daughter never complains, but she has endured multiple surgeries, and now at twenty-five is recently recovered from an operation that fused her spine so that she sits more upright in her wheelchair. But now she is experiencing nausea, phantom pain in her legs (legs she cannot otherwise feel), and suffers from panic attacks. Her mother feels the same as the other woman: why can’t God just make it all better? Why must she endure this without end?
In ISIS controlled parts of the Middle East, Christians are being tortured, enslaved, and killed in gruesome ways. So are Yazidis, Muslims, and Jews. Refugees are fleeing. Around the world, every day, people endure horrors without end, even while others live in peace and in comfort. Why do some people get to eat crap, while others get custard?
The author of Ecclesiastes wrote,
In this meaningless life of mine I have seen both of these:
a righteous man perishing in his righteousness,
and a wicked man living long in his wickedness. (Ecclesiastes 7:15)
While chapter 9 continues with:
I have seen something else under the sun:
The race is not to the swift
or the battle to the strong,
nor does food come to the wise
or wealth to the brilliant
or favor to the learned;
but time and chance happen to them all. (Ecclesiastes 9:11)
The author of Ecclesiastes saw the same horrors and pleasures randomly distributed among the human race that we see today and he concluded that life, as a result, was meaningless. He was unable to determine any cause and effect, rhyme or reason, to anything that happened. God, he decided, was arbitrary in the granting or withholding of favors. Worse, the end result of your life was always the same, whether you were good or bad, wise or foolish, prosperous or miserable, you wound up dead sooner or later. He concluded that if you can have fun in life, then do so: just know it means nothing and the fun won’t last.
We spend our lives trying to ignore the darkness, running about with our fingers in our ears shouting “la-la-la,” unwilling to face the bleakness of an existence that, as the author of Ecclesiastes commented regarding the stillborn:
It comes without meaning, it departs in darkness, and in darkness its name is shrouded. (Ecclesiastes 6:3)
The starkness of the problem of finding any purpose in the face of the horrors and absurdities of our lives is sometimes very hard. Like the author of Ecclesiastes, we tend to run from it and busy ourselves with eating, drinking, parties, work and all the other things that can occupy our time from the moment we awaken until we blissfully return to unconsciousness in slumber. If we are left alone too long without distraction, we might fall into the lacunae that engulfed the author of Ecclesiastes.
Is there a way out of the emptiness? Will God rescue us from such bleak despair, or should we embrace the coldness? Should we just accept the absurdity and face the fact that such horrors as exist in our world demonstrate that there is no overarching Controller who loves us or even gives a damn? Should we give up and decide that our religions are simply there because most people refuse to accept bleak reality? Should we conclude that our weekly worship consists only of lullabies we croon to ourselves in a desperate bid to bring comfort to our fundamental meaninglessness?
The universe is big. The more we learn, the less big any individual human seems; we are infinitesimal, just tiny specks that cannot wrap our puny minds around the immensity of even our tiny solar system, let alone the vastness beyond it. We exist in a cosmos so vacant that a life raft lost in a becalmed Pacific seems surrounded by neighbors. In the vast timeframe of the universe past and future, even the billions of years granted a star’s life are a mere eye blink. The Bible does not exaggerate when it refers to our lives as a vapor, a fading flower, a withered blade of grass blown away by the wind.
The skeptic believes the absurdity and random distribution of happiness and pain, the mayfly length of any individual’s existence, demonstrations the meaningless and empty nature of life and proves a universe devoid of God or gods. But in the face of that bleakness, a bleakness recognized by the biblical authors and by theologians throughout history, those authors and theologians have rejected the conclusion of the atheist. Even the author of Ecclesiastes, lost in his gloom, never questioned the existence of God; he wondered only at his inability to make sense of Him. The women in our church suffering a life time of cancer and paralysis have not rejected God; those having their heads cut off on a beach because they were Christians did not deny their faith or embrace nihilism. Instead, they continued holding on to their God.
When Daniel’s friends, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego faced the wrath of the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar and were within moments of being tossed into a fiery furnace they told him that they would not abandon God:
“If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” (Daniel 3:17-18)
Those believers who endure the most suffering most frequently recognize that God is able to save them. But they accept that God may not—even probably won’t—and choose to continue serving and loving Him anyway.
Perhaps the more profound question in all of this is what we find Satan asking God near the beginning of the book of Job: why serve God? He demands “Does Job fear God for nothing?” (Job 1:9) Satan was convinced that Job worshipped God merely because Job’s life was happy and easy. He was convinced that suffering would drive Job away from God. But God knew otherwise, and despite Satan’s best efforts, God was vindicated in his faith in Job.
All the answers to all our questions are not at hand. I do not understand why God doesn’t just “fix things.” I get mad at God sometimes.
Job never understood why he was suffering, but in the final chapters of that book, when God shows up, God doesn’t offer him an answer. Instead, he just peppers him with questions. He asks about nature, about birds, about beasts. He gives him questions that Job has no answers for.
God’s implication was obvious: “You don’t understand your suffering? There’s a lot of stuff about life you don’t get. So what? Just because you can’t come up with an answer, does that mean there isn’t one?” God knows what he’s doing even if we don’t. Do we trust him or not?
I can’t make sense of quantum physics or find a way to reconcile it with relativistic physics. I don’t understand why my friend can’t be cured of her cancer once and for all, or why another friend’s daughter can’t just get out of her wheel chair. I’m just going to continue assuming God knows what’s going on. Faith is a choice in the dilemma of existence. I’m going to decide to trust God, like the ancient Hebrew prophet who wrote:
Though the fig tree does not bud
and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
and no cattle in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
I will be joyful in God my Savior.
The Sovereign Lord is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
he enables me to tread on the heights. (Habakkuk 3:17-19)