Giving real answers to the question 'where is God in suffering?'
Tips for today’s church from pastor and author Amy Orr-Ewing
The worst nightmare of most Christians is the moment you’re hit with the question: “If God is so good, then why does he allow suffering?”
Often the person asking is in the midst of personal trauma, consumed by grief and pain. So the standard “Christian responses” – that “God cares for you” or “just have faith” or “don’t ask why” – can all ring hollow.
Amy Orr-Ewing has spent the past 20 years answering questions just like this one as an evangelist, pastor, speaker and author. She has just released a new book (her eighth) titled Where is God in All the Suffering?.
But rather than coming at this topic as an “ivory-tower academic”, Orr-Ewing attempts to engage with it from the point of view of a fellow sufferer.
Growing up in a deprived London neighbourhood, Orr-Ewing was rocked by a physical attack as a teenager. In her thirties, she lived with constant threats of rape and murder for two years. In addition, along with her church leader husband “Frog” – who also suffered a traumatic childhood – she has walked beside many others through death, loss, grief and sickness.
“In one sense, I’ve sort of been working on this book for 20 years. Being in pastoral ministry, it’s something that I’ve journeyed with many, many people through,” says Orr-Ewing, who is Senior Vice President with Ravi Zacharias International Ministries and President of OCCA– The Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics.
“One of the things I try to explore in the book is a connection between the idea of God loving us, and the idea of a loving God even existing, and of that being in some way contradictory with my suffering.
“So if I suffer, I might be drawing the conclusion that maybe God doesn’t love me or it’s my fault because I don’t have enough faith. Those are two really toxic ideas, which are actually more closely related to karma than the Bible – that you get what you deserve …
“I’m trying to show how the Bible describes both in the world in which we live – where evil and suffering, violence, natural events cause us to suffer and die – and that all of these things [also] occur within the Bible, and God is good and he is loving. And that God has even entered this real world of suffering and pain and death in the person of Jesus.”
In discussing her new book with Eternity, Orr-Ewing identifies some areas where Christians can improve their response to other people’s suffering, as well as our own.
Fully acknowledge the pain
Orr-Ewing notes that the church has sometimes failed to adequately respond to people’s suffering because we haven’t fully “acknowledged the real pain that people are in”.
“Sometimes in our answers about suffering, we’ve wanted to be too quick to say ‘It’s okay. It can make sense. God can still be loving and these things happen,'” she says.
“These things are endemic and they’re deep and they’re real.” – Amy Orr-Ewing
“It’s almost like we haven’t dwelled enough on the seriousness or excruciating nature of the different kinds of pain people experience. And so then what we say about a loving God actually doesn’t connect.
“That’s really why I wanted to write this book because I wanted to deeply explore the grief of the loss of someone dying young in your life, grief of the loss of ongoing illness or sickness, the reality of mental health struggles, the trauma that caused someone to consider taking their life or to self-harm.
“These things are endemic and they’re deep and they’re real.
“And they really matter to God, because every human being has been created in the image of God. Every human being is loved by God. And so our pain matters to him.
“Our answers as Christians, or our thinking about suffering in this world, should never be trite. They should never gloss over or sweep over the actual lived experience of pain.”
“Grief and love are inextricably connected, even for the Son of God.” – Amy Orr-Ewing
She notes the biblical example of Jesus mourning the loss of his friend Lazarus.
“You see Jesus at the tomb of his friend, Lazarus, mourning him and weeping …”
“Of course, Jesus then does actually raise Lazarus from the dead, but he doesn’t shortcut that process of grief. I find that really, really fascinating – Jesus’ tears in that moment, his experience of loss. Those watching him conclude Jesus truly loved his friend. This shows that grief and love are inextricably connected, even for the Son of God.
“So we can ask ourselves why does death hurt so much? But when we look at Jesus, we see God actually entering into even that experience of loss. I think that story expresses how simply and undeniably precious a human life is, as someone made in the image of God.”
This example leads Orr-Ewing to another point where she thinks the Western church in particular has gone wrong in addressing the issue of suffering – we have bought into the lie that life should be pain-free.
“In the suffering church, you see a kind of expectation that the Christian life is going to involve suffering, and that we will all suffer as believers. Somehow I think in the Western church we’ve married theology too closely with our economic systems, where our whole society is based on a materialist outlook, which is about acquiring stuff and acquiring security through ownership,” she says.
“I think we’ve probably been infected by that and begun to see the Christian faith as this thing that can give me spiritual meaning while I also pursue material wealth.
“But the whole story of the Bible tells us about God encountering us in our suffering world and not promising us a life free of suffering. That’s the promise of eternity, that every tear will be wiped away …
“There is a spiritual rest in this life, but it’s not a deliverance from this life. We’re still in this life – and his rest and his presence carry us through our calling in this world, but it’s not a bubble that protects us from suffering.”
Take responsibility for suffering
In order to fully engage with suffering, we must take responsibility for our own part in it, says Orr-Ewing.
“Living in a fallen world, we are all victims of harm – others using their will to harm the environment, to harm us directly, to harm us systemically, to others systemically.”
“Some will experience that in very extreme forms, whether that be through murder or rape or abuse. But we’ll all experience that in some way, [such as] bullying or gossip or by being ‘cancelled’ in cancel culture.
“We’re all going to experience suffering through the misuse of another person’s will.”
“We all need to acknowledge that we’re not just victim; we’re also perpetrator.” – Amy Orr-Ewing
She continues: “But at the same time … we all need to acknowledge we’re not just victim; we’re also perpetrator. Our choices have harmed others, whether that be systemically through the clothes we buy, or the wealth and status we enjoy at the expense of others, or whether that be directly through the use of our words or decisions or choices that have harmed others.
“Uniquely, in the gospel story, Jesus meets us as both victim and perpetrator at the cross. He offers us forgiveness and healing at the cross where others’ sins have wounded us. And I think that’s really, really profound – because an answer to suffering that only meets us as victim is never going to be enough. And an answer to suffering that only meets us as perpetrator isn’t enough.
“Uniquely in Jesus, we are met as we really are – as sinner and sinned against.”
Be quick to listen and slow to speak
Her final piece of advice to Christians about supporting those who are suffering is based on James 1:19: “Be quick to listen and slow to speak”.
“I would advise be quick to listen and empathise and be really slow to speak. Be really considered and careful in what you say because words can actually really wound a person – words that are even, on face value, true and even biblical,” says Orr-Ewing.
“When someone first discloses an extreme experience of suffering, the most important thing we can do is listen and be present with them in their pain, and not seek to rationalise or run too quickly to giving answers. Be led by the person and ask them what they would like from us in terms of a response.
“If someone is really pressing me about what do you think God might have to say in this, or what’s the framework where I can even begin to process this, at that point I might begin to share some thoughts and maybe some words of comfort from scripture.
“I find John 14 very, very powerful – the promise of Jesus to take us to be with him where he is, but even that through the process of death we are accompanied by Jesus.”
She adds: “As Christians, I hope we become safe people for others to share their pain with, because we’re not going to minimise it. We’re not going to gloss over it. And we’re not going to rush to simple explanations that actually don’t connect with the depth of their pain.”
Accept the unanswerable
Orr-Ewing acknowledges there are some questions about suffering we can never answer, such as why doesn’t God intervene? On this question, she concludes in her book – drawn from the words of a dying member of her congregation – that “a miracle is God’s to give, not ours to take.”
Noting that we live in both the now (on our fallen earth) and the not-yet (heaven) of God’s kingdom, she says: “When we long for a miracle and we pray for a miracle, there might be a temptation to connect our good works or our faith or the intensity of our prayer to the outcome, rather than recognising a miracle as a sign of the not-yet …”
“The temptation is to fall into a sort of karma-type of approach to God – that the person who gets the miracle must have a really special place in God’s heart.
“We see that the apostle Paul had the thorn in his flesh. We see that all the disciples of Jesus actually died gruesome and painful deaths preaching the gospel. They weren’t especially loved and so, therefore, especially delivered from suffering.
“So, somehow in that experience of praying for a miracle or longing for an end to illness, we have to lean into God’s promises that there will be a day when there is no more suffering and when every tear is wiped from our eyes. To lean into his love and presence for us now, and trust him that a miracle is his to give and not ours to demand.”
“Asking ‘why?’ is good – it is okay, it is biblical.” – Amy Orr-Ewing
When asked if writing this book helped Orr-Ewing come to terms with suffering in her own life, she answers honestly, “I don’t think any of us would be human if we didn’t continue to ask why. And one of the things I wanted to say in the book is asking ‘why?’ is good – it is okay, it is biblical.
“Actually, scripture continues to articulate that for us … But I think I have come to a deeper and richer peace with who God is and what the Christian story actually offers to a suffering world – not just through writing this book, but through really reflecting more deeply on it over the last 15 years.
“That’s not to say that one doesn’t continue to feel the pain and the real pain. But to see how a loving God actually relates to us in that, and to experience his love and his presence and his reality in that, has been a true meaningful journey for me.”