You've been writing books that offer comfort lately.
I hadn't thought of them as comfort books. This one comes out of where I am. I have one particular unanswered prayer--several actually, but this one I've been praying for months and years--and I believe I am praying rightly, but God hasn't answered. So, why? Not blaming Him, just "God, why?" That opened my mind to other whys: Why do bad things happen? Why does evil sometimes seem to triumph over good and hate seem to triumph over love?
Where do you look for the answers?
I have always turned to the Scripture. God brought to mind chapter 11 of John [the raising of Lazarus]. The fact that He loved Lazarus wasn't in question. I think sometimes when God doesn't answer our prayers, we question, "God, do you really love me?" So right there, that settled that. His sisters, Mary and Martha, knew He loved Lazarus. But He didn't answer their plea. When they sent for him He stayed where He was two more days and Lazarus died. When He came into Bethany, Martha said, "Lord if you had been here my brother wouldn't have died."
All of us have gone through that. "If only I had acted more quickly, if only I had placed that phone call, if only I hadn't spent that money. If only, God, you had answered my prayer, this wouldn't have happened." That's what Martha said when Jesus showed up. There are two sweet things about that. One, He showed up. He came into her place of grief. All through scripture, He promises His presence in the midst of our suffering: Psalm 23, when you pass through the valley of the shadow of death, I'll be with you. Isaiah 43, when you walk through the fire, I'll be with you. And He picked up her faith. He took that tender little thing and began to develop it.
I think his delays in my life are often there to develop my faith. It's like going to the gym I guess. The hard things are just exercising just our faith and our trust so that it grows and it's strengthened.
What about the suffering of those who don't have Martha's faith?
When Martha runs to get Mary, Mary just collapses. She has no faith at all. But Jesus didn't blame her. He didn't say, "Mary, if you had more faith I could work with you like I worked with Martha, He just wept. He never answered her prayer the way she prayed it. He never made Lazarus well. He let Him die. He raised Lazarus from the dead. Through that situation He revealed who He is. He was preparing the disciples for a week later, when they would be standing at the foot of the cross and watching as the one that they had thought was the Messiah, the son of God, was crucified. You know they were asking why. I know Jesus' mother was saying, "God, what in the world is going on? Why? I don't understand." Yet three days later on Sunday morning, Jesus accomplished the redemption of mankind, the forgiveness of our sin, He gives us eternal life and that's a great big purpose that God had in mind.
If God can bring blessing from the broken body of Jesus and glory from something that's obscene as the cross, He can bring blessing from my problems and my pain and my unanswered prayer. I just have to trust Him.
Maybe He does and we don't have ears to hear. I think there's some understanding we're not going to get until we get to heaven. Some people who suffer run away from God, and I know the tendency, but instead I just run to him. It's like I throw my arms around and faith around his neck and say, "God, I know you love me. I don't doubt it because I look at the cross. But I feel abandoned. I don't feel your presence in my life". Hebrews tells me that you will never leave me, never forsake me. I know I'm not abandoned.
A book came across my desk recently about God and alcoholism. The writer says, "Your alcoholism is your spirituality," meaning that without our brokenness we could not be spiritual. Do you agree?
I wouldn't put it quite that way, but that touches on something very true. It's in that part of brokenness that God meets us in a special way where He can come if we'll just allow it. If there's never been ever any brokenness or burden or pain in your life, you're very superficial, very shallow. It's the brokenness that somehow God uses to expand our capacity to know him, and to care about other people.
Is there a right way to suffer?
In the midst of his pain, when Jesus was hanging on the cross, He asked John to look after his mother. One of the hows is to stop focusing on our pain and see if there's somebody else out there who needs help. It may not be in the same way we need help. It's amazing how doing something for somebody else comes back to help you. It gets our focus off how bad we feel. So that's one "how" I've learned from Jesus' own example.
Are there any other practical, daily responses you'd suggest?
The first thing to do is pray. Sometimes when you're suffering really intensely, you can't pray for yourself. It's like, "I don't know how to pray anymore." So have a friend act as a prayer partner--it could be a spouse or your pastor or priest, or a sibling, or just a friend.
I read God's word when I am not suffering. And then I don't have to all of a sudden establish this habit when I am hurting. And because you're not going to do a heavy-duty Bible study, find a book like mine, a devotional book.
Sometimes when you're hurting you tend to withdraw in depression. We need to reach out and let people know we're hurting and let other people come close and help carry us through.
You know, it's such an American question. That's a big difference between us and the rest of the world. Our prosperity has anesthetized us to pain and suffering. We feel very self-sufficient and very independent of God. Maybe one reason God allows suffering is that when we're suffering we tend to turn to God. A prime example is 9/11. Our immediate response is to turn to Him, which is one reason I think He lets bad things happen, to get our attention and to let us know we need Him.
Do you think God sends bad things as retribution?
I know evil does not come from God. In America, we keep telling God to get out. I mean it scares me now. The very week Mel Gibson's movie comes out, with God right there on the big screen saying, "I love you. I died for you," that very week, we're shaking our fist in his face, wanting to pull God out of the pledge of allegiance, to marry homosexuals in defiance of God's moral law. When we tell God to get out--"We don't want you in our relationships, we don't want you in our government, we don't want you in our schools, our business"--God begins to back out. As He backs out of our national life, He removes His blessing, He removes His hand of protection and I think that's what 9/11 was. Not that He caused it, but He's protected us from bad things. I'm not saying to turn this nation into a Christian nation, I'm just saying we should acknowledge Him for who He is.
Does that apply to me? If I become sick tomorrow is that because I've given up God's protection?
There is some sin that creates suffering just in itself. If someone is born blind or with Down Syndrome, that's not because the parents sinned. But yes, if you back off from God, one of the first things is you suffer and you're not going to have peace in your heart, or the assurance your sins are forgiven. Maybe you won't even know how much you're suffering because you've never been spiritually healthy. But there is a suffering on the inside when we back off from God because the Bible says we are created by Him and for Him and until we're in a right relationship with Him we're going to suffer a smaller, more restricted existence.
You mentioned "The Passion" which focused on Jesus' physical suffering. But as you point out, His suffering was also spiritual.
Adam and Eve when they sinned, the first thing they did was try to cover up with fig leaves and hide in a bush. Here is Jesus, not just with their sin, but every sin that's ever been committed, past, present, and future, laid on Him. He was spiritually naked before His father, and it came between them. He said, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" He was abandoned by God and God poured out his wrath. When everything went dark when He was on the cross, that was a symbol of God's judgment being poured out on Jesus. The judgment that should have been mine, He took.
Does it make sense to ask, "Why me"? Do we assume too much when we think God is doing this specifically to us?