The tranquil blue waters of the Indian Ocean off the western shore of Sri Lanka belied the devastation of just a few months earlier. In 2004 an earthquake in the Indian Ocean caused a tsunami that decimated the region. The losses were catastrophic. The impact of the ocean’s surge bordered on incomprehensible: over 200,000 lives were lost in 14 different countries. But it was the tiny island of Sri Lanka that absorbed the brunt of nature’s force. When the water finally receded, over 35,000 were dead, 21,000 more were injured, and half a million people had lost their homes and their lives were completely disrupted. The tsunami impacted Sri Lanka on a national, community, family, and personal level.
In May 2011, half a world away from Sri Lanka’s catastrophe, an immense tornado swept through Joplin, Missouri. With winds reaching 250 miles per hour, the tornado cut a swath of destruction through the city that took the lives of 158 people, injuring another 1,150, and leaving behind $2.8 billion in damages.
In between those events, a scene of personal suffering took place at the Grand Rapids, Michigan, airport. Across the tarmac a casket was being removed from a plane, and a grieving family was trying to make sense of it all. As we boarded the plane, the pilot came over the speakers and asked everyone on the right-hand side of the plane to lower their window shades. “One of our soldiers has just returned home and we would like to give his family some privacy.”
Whether the shadows of pain creeping across my own life or the shared agony in the lives of those I care about—the unexpected death of a child or spouse; a child who has become a prodigal; the loss of marriages, jobs, homes, friendships—life seems punctuated by pain, loss, and grief.
The mosaic of life is pieced together from all kinds of events. At a distance, the whole image can appear beautiful. But the beauty of the whole is not always visible in each event. Some events add a splash of beauty and color. Other times darken the image. They are ugly and black. Those are times of suffering. Clouds of fear, pain, heartache, and loss often overshadow our happy moments of joy and celebration. Our pain is not limited to the moment of the events. The jagged edges of our pain scratch deep lines of fear and doubt into our minds.
While our experiences are unique to us, they are not unusual to the human race. Pain and suffering are the common bonds that shackle us together. And though we know we are not alone, that knowledge offers no comfort. We wonder: Why is there so much suffering and pain?
In a world fractured by both natural and manmade disasters—human trafficking, addiction, disease, poverty, hunger, genocide, war, storms (literal and metaphorical)—fears and doubts seem as natural as the disasters that give rise to them. And those fears and doubts are often directed at a God we expect to be good and powerful, yet who sometimes seems unwilling, or perhaps unable, to stop the heartaches and losses of a broken world.
Why does suffering happen? Where is God when suffering happens? And can we trust His goodness even when we suffer? While we may not be able to uncover complete answers to these questions, some digging may reveal responses to what Philip Yancey says is “the question that won’t go away.” In our search we can unearth fresh reasons for turning to God, because as Sri Lankan Ajith Fernando says, He is the “God who groans with us.” The Bible describes His love for us as trustworthy even when our circumstances seem unbearable.
The wisdom of the Bible can help us sift through important questions as we clear away the debris in our search to understand pain and suffering.