How could a loving God allow suffering? Perhaps no question has been raised more frequently throughout the ages. It is the plaintive cry of the distressed, transcending all racial, language, and cultural boundaries. A shorter, more personal version of this query is “Why me, God?" We usually ask this when we cannot reconcile our negative circumstances with the God of love alleged in Scripture. While we may never have asked “Why them?” in response to the suffering of others or let the suffering of others undermine our belief in a loving, compassionate God, most of us take it quite personally when directly afflicted. We illogically feel betrayed and singled out by God, as if He purposely orchestrated our circumstances to execute a divine vendetta. No matter how many others have suffered the same or worse fate, our situation is somehow different, especially if we operate under the presumption that we have a special, unspoken guarantee of protection from God.
Shortly after I started this chapter, a tsunami struck central Asia. It killed a quarter million people, leaving thousands of others orphans, widows and widowers, homeless, destitute, and hungry. An old woman from one devastated Indian village cried out, “Why did you do this to us, God? What did we do to upset you?”
I can well sympathize with this woman’s lament. Paul’s cancerous brain tumor had given me occasion to ask this question often. Sleeping for weeks at a time at his bedside on the pediatric cancer floor kept my nose stuck in the middle of one of the worst kinds of suffering imaginable, that of little children fighting for their lives. For the next seven months, I was immersed in an unreal world that I had never known existed. From the children’s eerie cries and chilling groans piercing the quiet, midnight stillness of the pediatric wing to the contorted wails and tortured faces of the parents whose heartaches could not be comforted, all was a walking nightmare. I’ll never forget the weeping mother who stood outside her teenaged daughter’s room to escape the horror of her last agonizing breaths. She was dying from recurrent ovarian cancer. I was sitting across the hall at Paul’s bedside. (He did not understand what was happening, and I left it that way!). Her sobbing was like an angel of death knocking on our door, forcing me to contemplate whether this would soon be Paul’s fate. His bald head and gaunt eyes coupled with her haunting cries did not leave much room for optimism. As much as I tried to put it out of my mind, there was no escaping the stark reality of the moment, a moment everyone will at some time and in some way have to confront. Why me? Yes, why her? Why any of us?
In addition to witnessing the sufferings of my son, the other children on his floor, and their families, many of whom I stayed with at the Ronald McDonald House (a big apartment house with a common kitchen and entertainment area within walking distance from the hospital), I got to mediate on the plight of the severely mentally ill and those who have to live with them, me in particular! Betty did not do well during those seven months. She felt that the hospital staff was maliciously trying to kill Paul by withholding water and medicine. She treated the hospital staff accordingly, terrorizing both doctors and nurses with her constant suspicions and accusations. Betty felt the whole thing was being staged to deceive her. She was convinced that when we went home during the break between Paul’s chemo treatments, the entire hospital—doctors, staff, patients, and all—left and did not return until just before Paul was readmitted for treatment. No amount of reasoning would convince her otherwise! (If you're wondering why Betty wasn’t committed to a mental hospital during this time, current law only permits this if the persons are physical dangers to themselves or others.) In anger, I rebuked God: “Why do I have to endure this compound suffering? Isn’t it enough that I've had to deal with a severely mentally ill woman for six years; and now You allow us, of all families, to have to deal with Paul’s brain tumor on top of it all? Wouldn’t a healthy, well-established family have been better equipped to handle a trial like this? If You must permit suffering, and I certainly can’t understand why You ‘must,’ couldn’t you at least spread it around more evenly? A little more fairly? A little more lovingly, if such a thing is possible? I thought you were not supposed to allow more than people could handle?”
This was unquestionably more than Betty could handle, marking the beginning of the end for her involvement in my family. (I later learned that nearly eighty percent of all marriages fail when a life-threatening illness befalls a child. Coupled with the statistic that approximately eighty percent of all marriages that involve one severely mentally ill partner also break up, there wasn’t much hope left for Betty and me.) I cannot truthfully say it was less than I could handle, but I guess God must have felt otherwise. Just when I believed He wouldn’t dare let things get any worse, things deteriorated further!
Paulina, my ten-year-old daughter, was just ready to become a Christian when Paul was diagnosed with cancer. Between her inability to understand why God would allow Paul to be hurt and seeing her mother constantly attack her father, maligning his motives, character, and religion, her search for God was derailed. And Betty seemed anxious to keep it that way! After Paul’s release from the hospital, I soon came within the cross hairs of her bitterness towards God, taking the full brunt of her fury and wrath. She vowed, “I am going to make your life so miserable that you will have to kick me out of the house”— the only marriage vow she would wind up keeping. To make a long story short, Betty became alcoholic and immoral, eventually shacking up with a street thug (who is now in prison from what I hear). A custody battle ensued during which my older children were secretly coached to testify lies against me in court. My life was threatened, compelling me to seek police protection and tempting me to violate my nonresistant Christian convictions by taking matters into my own hands. Instead, when the opportunity presented itself, I decided to take my children and move out of town.
There I was left alone with four hurting children, one of whom was battling cancer and another, Paulina, who became bulimic, anorexic, and eventually had a mental breakdown during which she contemplated suicide (the exact same order as her mother). Steamrolled by it all, I wallowed in my self-pitying “why me’s?” for months on end, all the while looking over my shoulder for the next domino to fall.
However, the range of human suffering is such that you may be reading these words wishing your “why me” was as minor as mine. Having looked down on those who bemoaned having to endure much less trying circumstances than mine and acting like it was some big thing, I can well imagine someone looking at my situation and saying, “I wish my young daughter had come down with a brain tumor. She was abducted and killed by a sex predator. I didn’t even get the chance to say goodbye.” Undoubtedly, calamites such as these make my situation pale in comparison.
The other day someone gave me a book written by Bob Spurlin called Don’t Ever Give Up. Bob was a zealous, God-fearing preacher who was living a full and happy life when a series of disasters suddenly struck. In 1998 he received the shocking diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, which would leave him bedridden for life, totally dependent on others for daily things like feeding, bathing, and dressing. As if this wasn’t disastrous enough, just two weeks later, a reckless driver killed his sixteen-year-old daughter. How does one handle a tragedy that dwarfs the trials of Job and still maintain faith in a just and compassionate Creator?
Within a six-month period from Paul’s diagnosis, a series of bizarre catastrophes struck people I knew. They say “misery loves company,” and I found plenty of it close to home in short order. On July 11, 2000, Paul had surgery to remove the golf ball-sized tumor growing in middle of his brain. Just prior to the operation, a minister came to pray and anoint him with oil. The next day a young man from his congregation, Shannon, suddenly died from an unknown cause. Doctors could not figure out why he suddenly dropped dead. Just a short time before, I had heard him give an edifying lesson. He was in his early twenties, a picture of health and vitality, the only child of his Christian parents. Why would God allow this to happen to such a promising young Christian and his parents? Why not take away the child from a couple who has more than one?
On September 26, 2000, Matthews Kayuza died in Malawi, Africa, after a long bout with tuberculosis (TB). His wife, Beatrice, had been treated for TB and then died of malaria just four months earlier. She died in much distress and mourning of soul over the death of their son Chisomo from cerebral malaria on April 14, 2000. He also had been treated for TB. Another son, Mphatso, died of malaria in 1995. Their surviving child, Dalitso, contracted TB and was too sick to go to his father’s funeral. They were the most devoted, godly, and evangelistic contacts we had in Africa. Shouldn’t their faithfulness have insured them a better outcome than this?
On October 7, 2000, a terrible tragedy struck Richard Thayer’s family shortly after my best friend spent the night with them. Richard awoke in the night to a raging fire from a wood stove that had malfunctioned. It killed his wife and five of his children. What words of comfort should we offer Bob, Shannon’s parents, Dalisto, and Richard? Should we tell them God has a grand and noble purpose, known only to Him, for purposely “taking away” their loved ones? Or is there a more rational response in better keeping with God’s character?
Since the dawn of time, circumstances like these have led millions to plead with God for answers. But with no audible answer forthcoming, many have tragically concluded that God could not love them to let them suffer so. Some have even figured that there really couldn’t be a personal God at all. Others have grudgingly conceded His existence but have written Him off as a prodigal, deadbeat dad unworthy of their supreme devotion. So how could God allow the suffering of the very people He claims to love so much?