Philip Yancey: 'The problem of pain is not one we can solve'

Published 08 March 2014  |  
Photo: Christian Today

Philip Yancey is the first to admit he doesn't really like reading books about the problem pain presents to an all-powerful God. The natural question to ask then appears to be why he wrote another book focusing on suffering.

The hugely popular Where is God When It Hurts was written, remarkably, when Yancey was just 27 years old. He says he wrote it as much as to give a voice to his own questions about pain, as well as to find the answers.

A place to start the interview about his latest book then – the much shorter The Question That Never Goes Away – might be to ask why he wrote yet again about the topic of suffering.

"Trust me, I didn't want to keep writing about the problem of pain and suffering, but I hadn't addressed the problem directly for 35 years," Yancey said.

"I was three-quarters of the way through another book but after visiting Newtown, Connecticut, I felt burdened and so set that particular one aside."

When he mentions Newtown, he is of course, referring to the location of the mass shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012 when 20 children and six adults were shot dead. The 20-year-old gunman, Adam Lanza, also shot his own mother dead before later committing suicide. It was the second deadliest mass shooting by a single person in American history. Yet just days later Yancey was invited to Walnut Hill Community Church - only eight miles from Newtown - to talk about belief in a loving God in the face of pain and suffering.

Yancey talks about 2012 being a year of one sorrow after another. He visited Japan a year after the most monumental earthquake and tsunami hit the country – claiming the lives of almost 16,000 people. Then, in the same year, there was a trip to Sarajevo, scene of war in the 1990s. It seems they were experiences which affected Yancey profoundly.

"When I returned from Newtown, my soul was drenched in the whole experience. I thought back over 2012 and three places stood out – Newtown, Japan and Sarajevo.

"Even as I was writing other tragedies would happen - the Boston Marathon bombings for example.

"Where Is God When It Hurts is a book which is a personal odyssey triggered by my own doubts and questions.

"I decided I needed to do a different kind of book – not so much a personal exploration – but instead what I have learnt from the people that undergo these horrific experiences - what helps them and what doesn't."

I point out to Yancey that one of most poignant and enlightening sentences in the whole book talks about the Christian faith only seeming rational with the benefit of hindsight: "Faith means believing in advance what only makes sense in reverse."

It's a catchy sentence – but how on earth can something completely horrifying make sense when you can't see the outcome?

"I have learnt to shy away from explanations which try to make sense of this world.

"I don't try to defend bad things that happen, the kind of things I saw in Sarajevo, incredible acts of human evil. Why didn't God respond to this?"

Unlike the agnostic who might use this as evidence to cite the 'death' of God, Yancey sees it as a means with which to strengthen the somewhat confusing and complicated relationship of an omnipotent God and a suffering world.

"What I see is that God welcomes our experience of unfairness and injustice and anger against the way the world is run.

"He is aggrieved the world is not being run in a way which would please him. He is asking us to pray 'on earth as it is in heaven' – something which is not happening - and then he asks us to be part of bringing hope and justice to a badly spoiled planet.

"I have to trust that ... God is powerful enough to do what he has promised.

"We don't know what that's going to look like and we don't know how those rifts of creation will be healed. But we do have some hints. Jesus's miracles alongside his death and resurrection act as strong indicators of what God promises for the whole world.

"I wouldn't want to live in a world without that faith."

Convincing indeed, but how does one take this and speak it into a situation of unimaginable pain? To parents at Sandy Hook School, benumbed by the loss of their children in the shootings? Christians can sometimes augment the sense of pain through ill-thought out responses.

"If you're called to stand in front of the parents of children shot dead, it doesn't help to say 'bad things happen'," Yancey says.

"You have to be able to say that God feels your grief and, because of Jesus, knows personally something of this grief you feel."

Yancey's desire to help those who feel their faith is drowning amid deep suffering and pain lies in part due to his personal experiences.

He contends that suffering is a philosophical question as much as a practical one.

When Yancey was aged just one, his father, stricken by polio, died after church leaders persuaded him to come off life support in faith that God would heal him. It would be an experience which would inform his writings.

"My own pilgrimage has been a process of taking a look at things I inherited, one by one, and deciding which things I could accept.

"I see errors the Church has fallen into – for example theological errors.

"In tragic situations and suffering, again and again we find the Church made it worse."

Talking of a popular misconception that suffering is the result of sin, he adds: "I am just amazed at how much this occurs, you would think the Church is beyond that.

"There are people on television who say God wants you well and if you're not healed it's because you don't have enough faith.

"That is so damaging. When you hear that, even if you don't believe it, a little spark of doubt ignites. You think 'maybe I did do something wrong, maybe I don't have enough faith and there is something wrong with me. Those kinds of doubts start eating away."

Last month, UKIP councillor David Silvester was expelled from the party after claiming severe flooding was a consequence of the Government's approach to same-sex marriage.

Yancey said such a "word of judgement" rather than comfort would not help anyone.

"In the gospels, both the Pharisees and disciples wanted Jesus to subscribe to such a theory. His disciples asked him about a blind man in John 9, by asking whether it was the man or his parents who sinned.

"Jesus also talks about Luke 13 where the tower in Siloam fell, and he is clear the 18 who died were no worse sinners than anyone else.

"Jesus never fell for this kind of thinking. He would say the real lesson is 'would we be ready if a tower fell on us today?'"

I ask how we are to relate this to passages in the Bible which draw a strong correlation between faith and healing.

"Jesus actually commends the most irrational faith. Several times he says, 'I've not seen such faith in all of Israel'.

"We see that when faith is put into practice, Jesus responds. He never says, go back and get some more faith, then come back and I'll talk to you."

I'm keen to know whether Yancey feels the life experience gained since he wrote Where is God When It Hurts – published in 1977 - has enriched his attempts to understand and answer questions of faith as a 63-year-old.

"When I was young I wanted to answer everything," he said.

"Now I am better able to identify the questions I can answer and the questions I can't answer.

"The problem of pain is not one we can solve, what I try to answer is the question of where is God?"

He added: "A healthy body is not a body that doesn't feel pain but one which feels the pain of the missing part."

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