Strong in the broken places

Strong in the broken places: Why do the innocent suffer?

How should we respond as Christians when tragedy strikes our lives?

Caleb Rosado, PhD, serves as director of the Urban Studies Program, Warner Pacific College, Portland, Oregon, United States.

I can’t let go! I can’t let go!”

The lifeguard on the tower snapped his head to the sound of the voice. There, to his hor­ror, he saw a young man being electrocuted, hands frozen on an ungrounded turnstile leading into the swimming pool. In two leaps, he was at his side. First, he tried to pry the hands loose, but the electric jolt made him quickly let go. He then gave a hard shove and broke him loose. He began applying CPR—no response. When the paramedics arrived, they tried electroshocks to revive his heart—no response. They rushed him to the hospital, and emergency measures were taken—no response. He was dead.

So died my nephew, Josué Andrés Rosado, a freshman physics major, at the swimming pool of a Christian college on May 17, 1992. He was 18 years old.

How do we relate to God when an unexpected tragedy or catastro­phe suddenly strikes in our lives: be it a tsunami, financial collapse, unemployment, death, divorce, dis­figurement, injury, or other disaster? I would suggest that it is not primarily the events themselves in our lives that get us down but the emotions due to these events.

Looking even closer, it is not only the emotions but the energy itself powering the emotions.

So what can be done about the negative energy and overwhelming emotions that arise, even within us as Christians, when tragedy (as it inevitably does) strikes? Is there any way to get past a negative event that may seem so devastating that we do not think we will ever get over it?

Is life fair?

Why do bad things happen to good people? persists as the perennial question at the heart of human existence and the one which makes many people express anger at God.1

Is life fair? This is one area where most Christians still struggle in their faith-walk with God. Even many pastors, life counselors, and medical staff have not been able to adequately address this question. I had no acceptable answer to this question even when I led out at Josué’s funeral. Only recently, more than 20 years later, have I come to grips with the truth of what lies behind this dilemma.

The issue of the innocent suffer­ing is so important that the oldest book in the Holy Scriptures, the book of Job, deals with this human query. This is the oldest question ever raised to the face of God, and at the heart of this question lies a deeper issue, the question of the character of God.

As Christians, we believe that divinity is expressed as God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. The Godhead is omnipo­tent—all powerful; omnipresent—all places; and omniscient—all know­ing. Now, these three divine, interconnected qualities give us problems. In the face of catas­trophe, we often focus on God’s omnipotence and omnipresence: If God is omnipotent then why did He not stop it? If God is omnipresent then where was He when I needed Him? Ultimately, how can I trust such a God?

We must also examine the third quality of the character of God, the one that we tend to overlook: God’s omniscience, His all-encompassing knowledge of all the factors and forces at play in any given event or circumstance.

“For My thoughts are not your thoughts,

Nor are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD.

“For as the heavens are higher than the earth,

So are My ways higher than your ways

And My thoughts than your thoughts”

(Isa. 55:8, 9, NASB).

If God always answered the Why questions at every life detour, disaster, and doubt, what would be the need for faith? Where would free will be if God’s plan for us was so airtight that there was no room for doubt, and we only had to follow a prescripted drama? God does, though, promise this: “ ‘ “For I know the plans I have for you, . . . plans to prosper you and not to harm you” ’ ” (Jer. 29:11, NIV).

God has no intention to bring us harm. He does not take pleasure in seeing humans suffer. So, did something slip past God, which took Him by surprise? No. Can we then put our trust in a loving, sovereign, and all-knowing God, who has our best interest at heart, and accept the realization that He sees the end from the beginning? 

Consider Job, who, more than anyone else, could have cried out, “Life isn’t fair!” and done as his wife suggested, “ ‘Curse God, and die’ ” (Job 2:9, NIV). He exclaimed instead, “ ‘The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away. Blessed be the name of the LORD’ ” (1:21, NASB). Therefore, “ ‘though he slay me, yet will I hope in him’ ” (13:15, NIV). The difficulties Job experienced led him to the inner recesses of his soul, and he surren­dered at the deepest level to God’s wisdom, omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence, and love. In the end, he declared, “ ‘I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear; But now my eye sees You’ ” (42:5, NASB). Job went from knowing about God to experiencing God. People who respond to life’s hard experiences with faith often come out on the other side as nominal believers no longer, despite life’s unfairness.

Continuum of life

Also, where does the idea that life is not fair come from? It seems to be from setting up a false continuum of life, an age range from birth to 100 years. The closer people get to 100 when they die, the fairer life is; the closer to birth, the more unfair. At what point on this continuum are we willing to accept death as a normal aspect of life? At age 80? At 70? 50? 35? Or 18, the age my nephew died? For sure, anything below this makes life unfair, right?

On the other hand, if we say, “Life is fair,” what are we saying other than that evil people, including children, get what they deserve? Who believes that?

Instead, what they mean is that, in the larger scheme of things, beyond our limited human perspec­tive, divine forces are at play that will ultimately override the manifested evil for the highest good, even though this may not be immediately evident. Surrendering to the sover­eignty of God means accepting the truth that ultimately goodness will prevail even when there is no present evidence for such a conclusion. This is faith.

There is justice in the universe; no one gets away with anything. “Do not be deceived [do not think you can get away with it], God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap” (Gal. 6:7, NKJV). God ultimately will have the last word. That is what the death of Christ was all about—love triumph­ing over evil.

In the story of Joseph and his brothers, the brothers’ intention was evil, to kill him, but when a financial opportunity arose, they sold him as a slave instead. Years later, Joseph forgave his brothers and said, “ ‘You meant evil against me; but God meant it for good’ ” (Gen. 50:20, NKJV). Joseph’s surrender and trust in God opened the potentiality of miracles so that God was able to work through him to bring about His desired purposes. What if Joseph had become bitter over his shattered dreams and life setbacks, and had turned his back on God? However, because of his full trust in the sov­ereignty of God, Joseph recognized the larger purposes of God and told his brothers, “It was not you who sent me here, but God” (Gen. 45:8, NIV). What a powerful statement of faith and insight!2

Jesus and the death of Lazarus

Let us not propose that God does not understand—take the case of Jesus and Lazarus. Jesus knew that Lazarus was gravely ill, and He could have rushed to his side when He first received the news. Yet He chose to linger for four days until Lazarus died, and only then did He go to the side of Mary and Martha.

Why had He not intervened ear­lier? After all, they were His closest friends. God often allows events to happen for the highest good­ things of which we may have no understanding. So, Jesus delayed His coming in order to bring them, and us, to that same choice point to which He brought Job, Abraham, Joseph, Daniel, the three Hebrew worthies, and all the “faith heroes” in the faith chapter of Hebrews 11.

The choice is to put our total trust in Him for He is God, even when His purposes and plans conflict with our expectations of a loving God. God desires faith and trust, and this faith changes our experience of brokenness.

This shows why he told Martha, “ ‘Your brother will rise again,’ ” (John 11:23, NKJV). “Martha said to Him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day’ ”(v. 24, NKJV). Jesus looks directly at her and says, Martha, focus! Look at Me! I am not talking about the final resurrection; I am talking about right now! Your brother will rise again. But you need to experience a “mini” death and resurrection right now, dying to erroneous ideas about life not being fair and all those “if onlys,” and resurrect to a trust in Me. Look at Me! “ ‘I am the resurrection and the life. . . . Whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die. Do you believe this?’ She said to Him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe’ ” (v. 25–27, NKJV).

And this is the same question that God asks of us in our darkest hours. Do you still regard Me as a Friend—am I still Lord of your life? Does your faith still hold in the face of unexplainable events?

The resurrection of Jesus proves that life is fair, that God is in control, even over death. For that reason, the doctrine of the Resurrection is argu­ably the greatest in all of Christianity. If it were not for the Resurrection, Christ’s death on the cross would have been a meaningless act of martyrdom. Everything He taught about God would have been a lie. “If Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ—whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised” (1 Cor. 15:14, 15, NRSV).

The doctrine of the Resurrection confirms the veracity of the gospel and makes clear the truth that life is indeed fair. This is why Paul is able to say with confidence, “Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 57, NRSV). Victory over what? Victory over doubt that God is in charge, victory over despair for not fully trusting God, victory over death as the last enemy, and finally, victory over disbelief in the truth of God.

Conclusion

Hemingway said, “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places.”3 How? At times like this we have but two choices: “Curse God and die,” as Job’s wife recommended, or Job’s response, “Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him.” That’s it. In the moment of brokenness, we must ultimately come to our own decision on whether life is fair or not, whether God is love or not, and whether He is all powerful or not. Suddenly, our faith must be examined. We find out we can no longer rely on what we may have heard secondhand about God. We must find it for ourselves in that decisive moment, since “Truth is verifiable only by identity with it and not by knowing about it.”4

There can be no faith or surren­der unless we make the leap to put our trust in Him, who is invisible and in a situation not understandable. No one can surrender for us, and no one can have faith for us. Jesus will reveal Himself as Infinite Love just as He did to Joseph, Mary, Martha, and countless others who have turned to Him at such moments and declared, “Lord, I believe,” even when 18-year­olds are electrocuted.

Notes

1 Julie J. Exline, Crystal L. Park, Joshua M. Smyth, and Michael P. Carey, “Anger Toward God: Social-Cognitive Predictors, Prevalence, and Links With Adjustment to Bereavement and Cancer,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100, no. 1, (2011): 129–148.

2 The implications of the story of Joseph to the African American experience and slavery, as well as to the Native American experience, are mind-boggling.

3 Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1929).

4 David R. Hawkins, I: Reality and Subjectivity (West Sedona, AZ: Veritas Publishing, 2003),164


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Caleb Rosado, PhD, serves as director of the Urban Studies Program, Warner Pacific College, Portland, Oregon, United States.

July 2012

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