QUESTION: My husband, who has suffered through radiation and chemo asked me to write and ask this question: When a person has lived a good Christian life and has tried to be understanding loving and kind, and then gets very sick, what is God’s purpose in this? He said he’s not blaming God and wants it to be made clear he loves Him, and is grateful for all the blessings he has received. He just doesn’t understand the suffering part. Please help us to clear our hearts and minds about this.
~ Puzzled Couple
Dear Puzzled Couple,
It is very unfortunate that you two are experiencing this suffering in your life. I am sorry that you are going through this. As you know the pain, distress, fear and disappointed is challenging to your mind, emotion, body and faith. Your commitment to your faith is evident and you probably know God wants you to have your hearts and minds cleared about this. Your desire to know God’s purpose is appropriate according to His word. There are hundreds of examples of people suffering and reasons given as to why the suffering occurred. Sometimes there is a clear answer that is specific other times there is a vague answer that is not so specific. There are foundation truths that both types of answers can rely upon. Here are just three of them. First, a purpose can be for you to provide comfort to others from your own experience. You now have this experience in which to come along side of others that will be or are going through the same as you. You can relate to them and provide real relatable support. Second, a purpose can be to simply remind us that the imperfect bodies our spirit inhabits is temporary and will eventually expire. God wants us to draw on His strength and focus on His promised provision of a new body one day that will not expire. Third, a purpose can be that your suffering is allowed to increase our faith and reliance on God. Reaching out and calling upon Him to heal and deliver you through your suffering. That you now have a testimony of Him being there for you to lean on, draw from and seek in clearing your heart and mind. God word says as you ask for Him to understand the purpose for your suffering He will answer. Your answer comes in and through your faith in Him. If you are a reader I encourage you to read “When God Weeps: Why Our Sufferings Matter to the Almighty” by Joni Eareckson Tada.
Pastor Mark Yeager
Dear Puzzled Couple,
This is such an important question and one that has been asked by human beings for thousands of years. In our Christian faith the oldest story in the Hebrew Bible wrestles with this very complex theological question, The Book of Job and one that is treated with such care and compassion by Rabbi Harold S. Kushner in “When Bad Things Happen To Good People,” which I highly recommend.
This is what I have come to understand in the years I have studied scripture, gone to therapy, found healing in my 12 Step recovery program and trudged the road of my spiritual journey: life is difficult, we struggle, we suffer, we grieve. It is amplified in the story of Job, and Job did not go down without a fight. Job wants to argue his case, he wants an answer from God, “Why God, are all these terrible things happening to me when I have lived such a righteous life?” And God says, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth (Job 38:4).” God is saying, look Job, this whole creation thing is so complex, I’m not sure you have any idea what it takes to keep this whole universe and all it’s magnificent creation going. I love you, I’m with you, I’m on your side, I can offer you strength, hope, grace, when life is difficult, and life is difficult. Kushner says the author of Job offers up two choices, choosing a God who is good but not all powerful, or a powerful God who is not all good. Eventually, as we mature in our faith, lived enough of life to know that it is painful, difficult, and unfair we have the opportunity to grow in our understanding of who God is. I choose to believe in God’s goodness. Moreover, as a society we have done ourselves a disservice by asking our religions to offer us a certainty they were never designed to meet. Somewhere we learned that if we are good enough, good stuff will happen and if we are bad we will be punished. There is a deep and moving mystery to the nature of God, love, and grace that we miss when we demand certainty from our religion.
We are human, life is filled with suffering and joy. Happiness and grief. God took on flesh and blood in the life of Jesus to show us the true nature of love, acceptance, forgiveness and grace. That’s our job as Christians, to show that love to each other, and it’s in the time of our deepest grief, our most painful suffering, that God gives us the opportunity to be Christ to each other. Maybe that’s the purpose of suffering.
Holly Cardone, MDiv.
St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Postulant
QUESTION: Is there anyway to console an individual who is a constant worrier? My mother, who is a widow, lives alone. My father passed away four years ago. No matter what we do, my mother has a reason we shouldn’t do it, and she has always been this way, even before my father died. She says things like don’t drive on the 405 freeway because it’s a nightmare and it’s better to eat at home because you can’t trust restaurant food. She won’t go out to eat with us. She’ll even call me on cold days to ask if I’ve dressed our children warmly enough. I’ve asked her not to worry that we believe God is taking good care of us. And, nothing major has happened to cause her to worry. She always says it’s just because she cares. When we take a road trip out of town,she asks that we call when we get to our destination and when we return home. Just to reassure her, we call while we’re away, as well. We welcome any suggestions on what to do with my worrywart mother.
~ Worrywart’s Daughter
Dear Daughter of the Worrywart,
I’m sorry, but I don’t think there’s anything you can do. You say, “She has always been this way”, so why do you think it’s possible for her to change now? Now as a believer, I do believe that God can change people – but, like the old psychologist joke, the lightbulb has to want to change! You are already doing everything in an attempt to keep her from worrying, and yet she still worries. How about trying a new tack? It may seem mean, but your being more-than-thoughtful has not seemed to do any good. So try a little “tough love”. The next time you go on a trip, tell your Mom when and where you are going, and tell her you’ll check in with her. But don’t do it every day, and tell her that: “Mom, we’ll let you know when we get there, and we’ll call you when we leave. But we may call you only once or twice while we’re there.” And something else: it’s a pile of bull that your mother says she’s the way she is “because she cares.” Hogwash! She’s just a little bit sick in the mind, I’m guessing. I’m sure she cares, but there is some compulsion she has that she is not dealing with, and now it’s up to you to deal with it. The question is, are YOU strong enough NOT to call your Mom as much as you do now? And are YOU strong enough to deal with your Mom’s tears when she realizes that “you don’t love me anymore”? Of course you love her…..but do you love her enough to want to heal her? Good luck. To love someone enough to tell him/her the truth is really hard, and I don’t envy you.
Dear Befuddled Daughter,
Our attitudes and beliefs are mostly formed early in life. Some people are optimistic, seeing the possibilities in situations. People of faith, like yourself, believe “by trusting God, you will be unshakeable, assured, and deeply at peace when difficulties come” (John 16:33-The Message Bible). Others, like your mother, envision problems, tending towards pessimism.
Your mother probably doesn’t realize her long-standing “worry habit” is harmful in many ways. Medical science has proven that her fear, anxiety, and worry can cause physical and emotional health problems. It can also be frustrating and detrimental to family relationships.
The worry your mother sees as “caring” is actually not love. When we care for people, we believe the best for them and are expectant that things will be better. When we worry about them, we’re afraid things won’t. “Worry weighs us down, but an encouraging word cheers a person up” (Prov. 12:25). Her encouragement and loving support will bolster both of you.
Recognizing and changing a long-held, negative, belief system is a process. One practical suggestion, that may help impede your mother’s tendency to worry, is to “postpone” worry, which helps break the habit of dwelling on fears at the present moment. Whenever your mother feels plagued by a worrying thought, she writes it down on an accessible “worry sheet”. Once written down she says, like Scarlett O’Hara, “I’ll worry about that later.” and puts it aside, forgetting it. She can review her worry sheet if she wants, later.
If she is a spiritual person, she can take an additional step of “submitting her worries to God, with thanksgiving, so that the peace of God will fill her.” (Phil 4:6). Recognizing, enumerating, and being thankful for her blessings, can change her mindset. She might even write them down to remind herself.
If she slips back into worry and negativity, you may want to ask God whether you are to acknowledge her fears and reassure her, ignore them, or graciously confront them at the time. Your forgiveness is also a key to a harmonious relationship. I applaud your loving attitude and efforts to console your mother.