When God’s Ways
Make No Sense,
Three Stories, Three Answers
More often now than earlier in my Christian life, I find myself asking three rather weighty questions, questions that fifty years of counseling have convinced me that many others are asking as well. Perhaps not out loud. The questions might be heard as evidence of little faith, maybe as questions that really shouldn’t be asked by Christians who trust Jesus to guide them through their lives.
But these are three questions that life will at some point nudge every honest Christian to ask.
Question 1: Why Must Suffering Play Such a Big Role in the ChristianLife?
Shouldn’t a loving God protect us better than He does? Why does He disappoint us so often by doing nothing in response to some pretty important prayer requests? Life hurts, and God allows the source of our pain to remain. Why? We know suffering has its good purposes.Nothing else so effectively can expose a demanding spirit (“I’m entitled to better treatment!”) and prompt much-needed repentance. And the suffering of prolonged uncertainty over health issues and financial difficulties encourages deepened dependence on the God who is in control of tomorrow.
But can’t a serious Christian mature just as well in good times? Couldn’t whatever suffering that may be necessary for our spiritual formation be less severe and more quickly ended? Must so many go through so much? It doesn’t make sense.
Question 2: Why Must Failure Be Such an Ongoing Part of the Christian Life?
Paul saw himself as a wretched man, not before he was miraculously converted but afterward, when he was a seasoned, unusually mature follower of Jesus. In Romans 7:24, the Greek word Paul chose that we translate “wretched” (ESV) clearly implies that the great apostle continued to bear the weight of the enduring misery of human weakness. In his words, “I want to do what is right, but I can’t” (v. 18). So much for a sugarcoated understanding of a changed life. Paul was never free from sin—from sin’s penalty, yes, but not from sinning. Like all Christians today, Paul was not a slave to sin. The sin nature is no longer a master that Christians involuntarily obey. Until heaven, though, Christians struggle with sin’s appeal and too often yield. Earlier in that same chapter, Paul told us that thanks to the gospel we can now live in the “new way of living in the Spirit” (v. 6). Does that mean it is possible for a Christian to harness the Spirit’s power so that recurring sin will no longer be a problem in life? As an old man, the apostle John looked back on his life and warned everyone that “If we claim we have no sin, we are only fooling ourselves and not living in the truth” (1 John 1:8). It seems God leads us through failure toward maturity, rather than doing whatever is needed for us to move past ongoing failure. What does gospel power mean in a Christian’s life? Shouldn’t it mean that when we want to do right, we reliably can? Apparently not! But why not? It doesn’t make sense.
The two questions require a third.
Question 3: How Are We to Respond to Seemingly Random Suffering with No Obvious Purpose and to Repeated Failure That We Try Hard to Resist but Sometimes Can’t?
I might have preferred to respond to the first two questions with easy-to-follow counsel. I could have written a book suggesting how Christians can routinely experience the presence of God with an intensity that reduces suffering into a short-lived anomaly in an otherwise happily blessed life. Perhaps the faithful practice of spiritual disciplines and contemplative prayer, both important ingredients in a Christian’s journey, would deliver pain-eclipsing joy into our lives. But a Christian journey is one that follows Christ, the man of sorrows who knew joy in the middle of pain.