Where is God when it hurts?
by Derek Johnston
Does God care? Many people may be asking such questions in the light of recent world events:
~**over 250,000 people tragically killed in the Asian tsunami in 2004*~~*terrorist bombings in London in 2005*~~*continuing violence in Israel and Lebanon in 2006*~~*volcanoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, famines and epidemics*~~*the murder of police officers and rising crime rates *~~*suicide rates on the increase*~~*many people’s personal stories of hurt**~
Pain, suffering and evil have caused much anguish and raised many questions down through the centuries (see Job, Lamentations and many of the Psalms). The New Testament has much to say about healing and restoration. Jesus restored people’s bodies, minds, spirits and relationships. He welcomed sinners and forgave them. He performed miracles which benefited not only those who believed in him but also many who didn’t. Yet, at the same time, he condemned sin, and called sinners to repent. Wherever Jesus went he healed people, yet not every sick person in Israel was healed. It is reckoned that approximately a fifth of the written material in the Gospels and a third of the ministry of Jesus was taken up with healing. To the disciples he gave the commission not only to proclaim the message, but also to heal, and the apostles carried on this ministry with miraculous healings accompanying their message. Yet not even all the Early Church leaders enjoyed good health. The Apostle Paul suffered from a ‘thorn in the flesh’, and had the added bonus of being accompanied on some of his missionary journeys by the good doctor Luke; Epaphroditus fell ill and almost died (Phil 2:27); Timothy had stomach problems and frequent illnesses (1 Tim. 5:23); and Trophimus was sick in Miletus (2 Tim 4:20 ).
Throughout scripture, many different perspectives are given about sin, suffering and hurt. Look up such passages as Genesis 3, Genesis 38:7, Job 2:4-7, Psalm 6, Psalm 103, Proverbs 26:27, Luke 13:1-5, Luke 13:10-16, John 9:1-5, Romans 8:18-22, Romans 8:28-39, 1 Corinthians 12:7-11, 2 Corinthians 12:7-10, Philippians 3:10-11, James 5:13-16, Revelation 21:1-4 …and many more.
It is clear there is no one full and perfect answer that can be applied to every situation of suffering or hurt. God’s people are not promised exemption from such things.
For five years I served as minister of a Methodist congregation in Belfast and part-time as a hospital chaplain at the Royal Hospitals Trust. In July 2004 I was given permission to take up a post as whole-time chaplain at the Royal. My responsibilities include being chaplain for Methodists, for Other Denominations/Religions, and coordinating chaplain. The Royal includes acute hospital, maternity hospital, children’s hospital and care for the elderly. Whilst I had faced situations of hurt and suffering in circuit ministry, my role now confronts me more personally and intensely than ever before. I live and work with the tension of what God has done/can do against the everyday reality of hurt and suffering. Yet I know God is at work here too! Please pray for Christians working in healthcare, and for chaplains too.
We probably all know or have heard stories of miraculous healings. Thank God for them, and pray for more! We probably all know or have heard stories of wonderful deliverance from a life of sin and degradation. Thank God for them, and pray for more! These, however, are not generally our regular experience. So what can we do?
There are times in ministry to suffering and hurting people when we can also feel vulnerable and helpless in the face of uncertainty, pain and grief. We can’t answer all their questions or relieve their pain or perform a miracle on request (though we must not limit what God can do).
Sometimes we need to go to a quiet place to rest or reflect or cry. Sometimes we may be angry. At other times we may have to acknowledge our own limitations and draw in other help. But, at all times, we can show people, whether they are Christians or not, that someone cares - and especially that God cares.
Perhaps we need to reflect a while on three important truths:
~nnThe Christmas story is not just about a special baby being born in Bethlehem: it is about God becoming human – that’s what incarnation means. Jesus is Immanuel, ‘God with us!’ … not just ‘up there’ but also ‘down here!’ He is the God who identifies with and comes alongside us, even when it hurts.n~~nThe Easter message takes this even further. The Christian gospel says that Jesus, God-incarnate, died for us and because of us (see John 3:16 and Romans 5:6-8). And just when all hope seemed to have gone – resurrection (see Matthew 28:1-10 and 1 Corinthians 15:3-8). One of the great themes of Hebrews is that Jesus has taken his glorified human body into heaven where he is our mediator and High Priest (Heb 2:14-18; 4:14-16).n~~nIn verses such as 2 Cor 12:9 and Heb. 4:14-16 we find the promise of grace for now, grace for the journey, grace for the duration, grace to endure.nn~
Some helpful books I have found include:
~**Blessed be your Name (Matt & Beth Redman)*~~*Where is God when it hurts? (Philip Yancey)*~~*When Heaven is silent (Ron Dunn)*~~*The Wounded Healer (Henri Nouwen)**~
Yes, there are many mysteries and unanswered questions when we think about pain and suffering, healing and restoration. For now, perhaps, we may have to leave those things with God. In answer to the question ‘Does God care?’ my resounding answer is ‘Yes!’ The further challenge to all of us is ‘Do we care?’
The Revd Derek Johnston is in his 17th year in Methodist ministry. Since July 2004 he has served as a whole time chaplain at the Royal Hospitals, Belfast. He is also treasurer of headway Ireland.
METConnexion, Autumn 2006 pp8-9.