Where is God when bad things happen?
This question has perplexed and frustrated those afflicted with suffering, grief and pain.
Theologians and philosophers have wrestled with scriptural texts and rational thought striving to make sense of the enigma.
Pastors and counselors continually search for explanations that provide encouragement and hope for those scarred by raw human experience.
In one sense, to attempt to respond to such a challenging question can seem arrogant or presumptuous.
In another sense, the question begs to be addressed but is entirely too big to have a simple, singular answer.
Religious clichés and slogans may offer momentary hope or comfort, but to the person who is hurting, “canned” religious answers seem hollow, shallow and often insulting.
For me, I can only share how I am processing the question in hope that my small insight might provide a little light for those dealing with the question from a dark place.
First, life is not fair.
I wish someone had taught me this when I was much younger. My early faith was predicated on naïve assumptions: God is good and life is fair. If I go to church, read my Bible, pray and try to keep the commandments, I will prosper and God will protect me. If I misbehave, bad things will happen.
Now I would be inclined to say: God is good, but life is tough.
Second, no one is exempt from pain or suffering.
Suffering is no respecter of persons. Tragedies do not distinguish between atheists, agnostics or devout believers.
Accidents happen, disease invades, storms blow and wars erupt, and it is presumptuous to think we will not be affected because we have been more spiritual than our neighbors.
Faith does not exempt us from the bad stuff. Faith equips us for the journey.
Third, God is present at all times, even in the chaos.
I believe that God is present with me, not as the perpetrator of the chaos, but as the giver of courage and strength as I deal with the chaos.
God does not necessarily rescue me from the chaos, but God is present in the midst of it, helping me navigate the chaos.
Fourth, pray regularly, perhaps even more when the bad stuff happens.
Nevertheless, there is no formula or spiritual incantation to predict or mandate that God will directly intervene the way I prefer.
In the Bible there are times that God seems to directly intervene in the chaos, and other times God does not. I don’t think prayers are answered according to popular vote.
There are no guarantees, only a challenge to walk by faith with courage and perseverance.
And sometimes this means making the most of challenging circumstances. A false premise of a “name it and claim it” approach to religion is that it makes a promise based on isolated Scriptures taken out of context, mostly disregarding the suffering of people of faith throughout the Bible.
Finally, the Bible suggests that God is present and proactive in all of our circumstances, as Romans 8:28 reminds us.
I believe the presence and personality of God, referred to in the Bible as the Holy Spirit, resides within me, not because I merited a holy status, but as one of many gifts of God.
The Spirit convicts, comforts and coaches me according to the conscience and character of Jesus. It is sort of like having a spiritual mentor present within my being.
Additionally, I believe that God is present in the corporate body of Christ – the church.
When we observe the Lord’s Supper, we partake of the bread and cup as a vivid reminder of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus.
Among other things, I believe that these elements remind us that we are now the body of Christ in the world. We are his hands, his feet, his voice and his passion.
Therefore, we are the human conduit through which God is at work to share love, comfort, healing and encouragement.
When we are passive in our faith or we choose to live a self-centered life, we essentially contribute to a neuropathy in the corporate body of Christ.
When we unite our gifts and resources with others who are motivated by a similar faith, life-giving ministry occurs, especially in the face of chaos.
As I wrestle with the question, “Where is God when the bad stuff happens?” I readily admit that “now I see through a glass darkly” (see 1 Corinthians 13:12).
Yet, by affirming that God is present in my suffering, grief or pain through the words and work of others, brings a little light to the dark places in my life.
And this little bit of light keeps nudging me to respond to others with generosity, love and compassion.
Barry Howard serves as senior minister at the First Baptist Church of Pensacola, Fla.
Pastor at the Wieuca Road Baptist Church in Atlanta. He also serves as a leadership coach and columnist for the Center for Healthy Churches. He and his wife, Amanda, live in Brookhaven, Georgia.