When people are enduring painful disease, where is God? Is He pleased with intense pain and suffering? Isn't it time we understood the reason for these tragic experiences? My aunt Helen recently died of cancer. While she was lying on her death bed in a California hospital suffering from this most dreaded disease, I wrote her a letter from England. It helped to encourage her during what was probably the severest trial of her life.
Since it may also help readers now in similar circumstances, or who may have to experience suffering in the future, I publish this letter for all to read and benefit:
"Dear Aunt Helen,
"I meant to write before now, but various distractions kept cropping up. I have been concerned about your health and well-being and have been thinking about you during these past few weeks.
"I have also been thinking about the subject of pain and suffering since it is a subject on the minds of many people. In my job here in Britain of answering letters from readers of The Plain Truth, I have had to help people understand why there is so much suffering in this world. The Bible, of course, tells us much about it. I recently came across a very good book entitled Where is God When It Hurts? by Philip Yancey. I think it would be helpful to you to read.
"When we see people suffering from various afflictions, we must realize that this is not a perfect world. Mankind often has to suffer from horrible diseases. Many millions have died in warfare, which isn't pleasant either. Others die of starvation. Why do some have a pleasant death and others a tragic one? It's a matter of time, chance and circumstances.
"As Philip Yancey says, suffering involves two main issues: 1) who or what caused the discomfort, sickness or accident, and 2) the person's response to it.
"To the extent individuals concentrate on the cause, they may well end up embittered against God. The book of Job poses the question, 'Who causes pain?' But God chose, in His deliberation with Job, to sidestep the issue. All the way through, the Bible steers from the issue of pain to the issue of response. Think of what a world it would be if we injured ourselves, yet felt no pain? When pain and suffering have happened, each individual must decide what he will do. He should ask himself: 'How should I react now that this terrible thing has happened?'
"Paul wrote concerning the psychological pain that developed after he sent a strongly worded letter to the Christians in Corinth: 'Even if I did wound you by the letter I sent, I do not now regret it. I may have been sorry for it when I saw that the letter had caused you pain, even if only for a time; but now I am happy, not that your feelings were wounded but that the wound led to a change of heart. You bore the smart as God would have you bear it, and so you are no losers by what we did. For the wound which is borne in God's way brings a change of heart too salutary to regret; but the hurt which is borne in the world's way brings death. You bore your hurt in God's way, and see what its results have been! It made you take the matter seriously and vindicate yourselves. How angered you were, how apprehensive! How your longing for me awoke, yes, and your devotion and your eagerness to see justice done. At every point you have cleared yourselves of blame in this trouble' (II Corinthians 7:8-11, New English Bible).
"Pain and suffering can turn people to God. Many people have been converted as the result of going through a crisis in their lives. Suffering produces something. It is of value in changing us. It produces faith, perseverance, patience, righteous character (I Peter 1:5-7; James 1:24; John 9:1-3; Romans 8:28, 29; 5:5). We can become better persons because of suffering if our response is right.
"The experience of suffering from agony or seeing others suffer is indeed not pleasant. Perhaps God allows it to happen to encourage us to think more seriously about life and the future. We need to see what good God can accomplish as the result of the tragic experience.
"Where is God when it hurts? Philip Yancey gives this conclusion in his book:
"'He has been there from the beginning, designing a pain system that still in the midst of a... rebellious world, bears the stamp of His genius and equips us for life on this planet.
"'He has watched us reflect His image, carving out great works of art, launching mighty adventures, living out this earth in a mixture of pain and pleasure when the two so closely coalesce they sometimes become almost indistinguishable.
"'He has let us cry out and echo Job with louder and harsher fits of anger against Him, blaming Him for a world we spoiled...
"'He has promised supernatural strength to nourish our spirit, even if our physical suffering goes unrelieved.
"'He has joined us. He has hurt and bled and cried and suffered. He has dignified for all time those who suffer by sharing their pain.
"'He is with us now, ministering to us through His Spirit and through members of His Body who are commissioned to bear us up and relieve our suffering for the sake of the head.
"'He is waiting, gathering the armies of good. One day He will unleash them. The world will see one last explosion of pain before the full victory is ushered in. Then, He will create for us a new, incredible world. And pain shall be no more.'
"I hope those words will be of some comfort and encouragement to you, Helen... My prayers are with you during this time of trial."