When life knocks us off our feet, we are usually left shocked and breathless, looking for the heavenly Father who was supposed to keep us safe from this kind of pain.
In 1947, a young New Yorker named Glenn Chambers decided to recognize his lifelong dream to work with the Voice of the Andes ministry in Ecuador.
The day of departure, he arrived at the Miami airport and realized he’d forgotten to buy a card to send to his mother. There was no time to select and purchase one before he had to rush onto his flight. Spotting a piece of paper on the terminal floor, he scooped it up.
The paper was part of an advertisement with ‘Why?’ featured prominently.
Glenn scribbled his note around the single word then stuffed it in an envelope and dropped it in a post box. Minutes later, he boarded a DC-4 bound for Ecuador’s capital, Quito.
The giant prop plane rumbled through the growing gloom as night fell and clouds began to thicken over Colombia’s humid jungles. The pilot squinted as a sudden darkness filled his view, then the plane smashed into the side of the 14,000 foot peak El Tablazo with a deafening scream of warping metal.
Everyone aboard died instantly.
Glenn’s mother received his note some days later, emblazoned with the haunting question, “Why?”
The Fury: Our Hearts’ True Colors
Charles R. Swindoll, chancellor of Dallas Theological Seminary and author of The Finishing Touch: Becoming God’s Masterpiece, reflected on the universality of this question “Why?” when tragedy strikes.
“Of all questions, this is the most searching, the most tormenting. It accompanies every tragedy. It falls from the lips of the mother who delivers a stillborn…the wife who learns of her husband’s tragic death…the child who is told, ‘Daddy won’t be coming home any more’…the struggling father of five who loses his job…the close friend of one who commits suicide.
“Why? Why me? Why now? Why this? Nothing can fully prepare us for such moments. Few thoughts can steady us afterward…”
Matt Chandler, lead pastor of the Village Church and president of the Acts 29 Network, certainly had good cause to ask these questions when he suddenly collapsed during Thanksgiving in 2009.
Doctors examined him and then explained that he had a malignant brain tumor that would kill him in two to three years.
Matt and his wife, Lauren, were thunderstruck. He was only 35 years old. How could this be happening to them? What would being a single parent of three children look like for Lauren? If he could survive surgery, what would his mental and physical capacities look like afterward?
A few weeks later, Matt and Lauren returned after the most recent round of radiation. He collapsed onto the couch and caught sight of a Christmas card one of the families from their church had sent.
However, Matt happened to know that the husband of this family was a serial adulterer and particularly harsh to his daughters. “And I mean, out of nowhere, out of nowhere I was thinking, ‘Really, God? Me? Like, this guy right now, he’s about to enjoy Christmas…and I’m wondering if this is my last one….’ I mean, it was a kind of rage that I didn’t know was in me and a kind of self-righteousness I didn’t know was in me.”
Suffering for Purposes We May Never See
In his interview with The Gospel Coalition Editorial Director, Matt Chandler explained how this moment of what many would consider excusable fury transformed into a solemn realization about areas of anger and self-righteousness hiding in the “nooks and crannies” of his life.
“We know as believers in Christ, because of the word, that we as Christians are not under wrath, but we’re under mercy….
“So, under mercy and not under wrath, suffering then is used—according to the Bible— as a purifier, as something that draws us near to the Lord and has us understand that he is drawing near to us. It is used to mature and build, but it is not punishment for the Christian.”
In the moments of our worst pain, though, it’s hard not to see suffering as punishment.
It’s hard not to think, “Why, God? I would’ve stayed faithful without this. I would’ve trusted you even if I didn’t lose [fill in the blank]. What are you trying to prove by testing my devotion?”
This is when, as difficult as it may be, we have to acknowledge that our sovereign God has a purpose for our suffering. He may be using pain to uncover some part of our lives that we wouldn’t have delved into otherwise, or he may use the difficulties we’re facing as a testimony to others.
Job in the Bible must’ve wondered why on earth God was allowing so much tragedy in his life, yet his story has encouraged suffering believers for centuries.
David’s years spent homeless and running from enemies probably didn’t feel very sanctifying or cosmically important in the moment, but they produced psalms that God’s people have turned to repeatedly over the ages.
What God’s building with our pain may be so great we’ll never see the full scope of it in this life.
Where Do We Go From Here?
In his podcast on prayer, Gary Wilkerson and Carter Conlon discussed the power of wrestling with hard circumstances through talking it out with God.
Gary explains the greatest danger that believers face in moments of intense pain or uncertainty, “The enemy really aligns himself to get us derailed from having the faith and confidence that God ultimately is out for our good.
“God's not against you; he's for you.”
When we can’t see the purpose behind our suffering or have a tangible sense of our Lord’s presence, we have to rely on what we know of God’s nature and what he has promised us.
Perhaps we ought to see tragedy as God’s question to us: “Do you trust me?”