Where is God when bad stuff happens?

Where is God when bad things happen?  Across the ages, this question has perplexed and frustrated those afflicted with suffering, grief, and pain.  Theologians and philosophers have wrestled with scriptural texts and rational thought striving to make sense of the enigma. Pastors and counselors continually search for explanations that provide encouragement and hope for those scarred by raw human experience.

Chaos comes in a variety of shapes and sizes. Changing weather patterns generate dangerous storms that often wreak havoc on population centers by taking lives and destroying property.  Is this an act of nature or an act of God?  A fault line in the earth shifts and suddenly the earth trembles, causing structures to collapse and lives to be lost. Where is God in calamity?  Cells in the body begin rapidly and abnormally growing and multiplying, eventually becoming a mass or tumor. Is this some sort of divine test of one’s faith and spirituality?  A drunk driver gets behind the wheel and later strikes a teenager on her way home from a ballgame. The driver survives but the teenager does not. Why doesn’t God intervene to keep such an atrocity from occurring? Where is God when the bad stuff happens?

In one sense, to attempt to respond to such a challenging question can seem arrogant or presumptuous. In another sense, the question begs to be addressed but is entirely too big to have a simple singular answer.

Religious clichés and slogans may offer momentary hope or comfort, but to the person who is hurting, “canned” religious answers seem hollow, shallow, and often insulting.

For me, I can only share how I am processing the question in hopes that my small insight might provide a little light for those dealing with the question from a dark place.  So, here we go…

First, life is not fair.  I wish someone had taught me this hardcore truth when I was much younger.   My early faith was predicated on some naïve assumptions:  God is good. Life is fair. If I go to church, read my Bible, say my prayers, and try to keep the commandments, I will prosper and God will protect me.  If I misbehave, bad things will happen.

I hope my faith has grown a little deeper and more durable since then.  At this point in my life I would be inclined to say something like this: I believe that God is the source of all grace and goodness, but God never promised that life is fair. Life is tough. Be an active participant in a church community, read your Bible, say your prayers, and follow the ways of Jesus, because you are going to need all of the strength and courage that spiritual faith and community can offer.

This leads to a second observation: No one is exempt from pain or suffering.  Suffering is no respecter of persons. Disease, depression, accidents, tragedies and death do not care whether I am an atheist, agnostic, or devout believer. In a world broken and scarred by human sin, chaos persists. Accidents happen, disease invades, storms blow, and wars erupt.  When a tornado touches down, it is presumptuous to think that the storm will bypass my house because I have been more spiritual than my neighbor. Faith does not exempt us from the bad stuff. Faith equips us for the journey.

Third, God is present at all times, even in the chaos. If life is not fair and I am not exempt from the pain and suffering caused by the chaos, where is God when the bad stuff happens?  I believe that God is present with me, not as the perpetrator of the chaos, but to give courage and strength as I deal with the chaos. God does not necessarily rescue me from the chaos, but God is present helping me navigate the chaos.

Fourth, I pray regularly, perhaps even more when the bad stuff happens.  However, there is no formula or spiritual incantation to predict or mandate that God will directly intervene the way I prefer. In the Bible there are times that God seems to directly intervene in the chaos, and other times God does not.  Why did Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead, but leave others in the grave?  Why did Jesus heal a select few individuals, while others in his presence remained afflicted?  Was it because of their quantity of faith, or because Jesus deemed them to be less offensive sinners?  I don’t think prayers are answered according to popular vote.

What if Jesus chose to heal a select few to demonstrate that disease does not have the final word and will be eliminated in the eternal realm?  What if Jesus raised Lazarus as “exhibit A” in the power of resurrection, or precursor to his own unfolding story?  Interestingly, every person that Jesus healed got sick again and died at some point. And Lazarus is the only person in the Bible who had to endure the experience of death on two different occasions.  That’s right. We don’t know how long Lazarus lived after being “called forth” but he obviously died again.

I believe in prayer and yet I also believe that the healing process is enhanced by a multitude of contributing factors including hope, faith, medicine, exercise, diet, and a positive attitude.  But there are no guarantees, only a challenge to walk by faith with courage and perseverance.  And sometimes this means making the most of challenging circumstances.

A false premise of a “name it, claim it” approach to religion is that it makes a promise based on isolated scriptures taken out of context, mostly disregarding the suffering of people of faith throughout the Bible.  Job, despite his commendable faith, was not exempt from compounded tragedy. There is no evidence that Moses was healed from his speech impediment. Samson did not have his eyesight restored. And Paul was not delivered from his “thorn in the flesh” although he seems to have asked God to remove it on more than one occasion.

Finally, the Bible suggests that God is present and proactive in all of our circumstances. Although God is not usually the culprit who inflicts our suffering, Romans 8:28 reminds us that God “works in all things to bring about good for those who love him and are called according to his purpose.”

In what way is God present?  Primarily, I believe the presence and personality of God, referred to in the Bible as the Holy Spirit, resides within me, not because I merited a holy status, but as one of many gifts of God.  The Spirit convicts, comforts, and coaches me according to the conscience and character of Jesus.  It is sort of like having a spiritual mentor present within my being.  Additionally, I believe that God is present in the corporate Body of Christ.  When Jesus departed the earth, he said to his followers, you are now my body.

When we observe the Lord’s Supper in church, we partake of the bread and cup as a vivid reminder of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.  Among other things, we believe that these elements remind us that, as believers, we are now the body of Christ in the world. We are his hands, his feet, his voice, and his passion.   Therefore, God is not only at work to bring about good, but we are the human conduit through which God is at work to share love, comfort, healing, and encouragement.   As believers, when we are passive in our faith or we choose to live a self-centered life, we essentially contribute to a neuropathy in the corporate body of Christ. But when we unite our gifts and resources with others who are motivated by a similar faith, ministry occurs, especially in the face of chaos.

As I wrestle with the question, “Where is God when the bad stuff happens?,” I readily admit that “now I see through a glass darkly,” but to affirm that God is present in my suffering, grief, or pain, even when I cannot fully explain the chaos, brings a little light to the dark places in my life.  And this little bit of light keeps nudging me to respond to others with generosity, love, and compassion.

Barry Howard

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Barry Howard serves as senior minister of the First Baptist Church of Pensacola.

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  • Aaron L.

    I really appreciated these thoughts, they have inspired me. Just as Barry says he doesn’t know everything, neither do I. I would like to add my thoughts in hopes that they will add to Barry Howard’s article:

    My family received some shocking news while I was in high school about my father’s financial situation. Our friend from church had been running a ponsi scheme for decades. And all of our money was gone, right in the middle of the national financial crisis in 2008. The fincancial stress and other factors led to my parents’ eventual divorce. I can tell you all the times he could have “intervened”, and I can also tell you about all the prayers that were said to make things better. Why did that happen?

    I don’t think that God sent us here to earth to experience unobstructed happiness. If that was the case, why couldn’t He just take us home now? I believe that a significant answer to why God allows suffering is found in the purpose of life. God’s primary objective is to help His children grow into greater beings than they are now.

    We are here to gain experience, to grow, to overcome, to become strong as we face opposition from everything. God gave us mortality to become something better than we were when we came into this life. My family did suffer. But the person that walked away from that is a better man than what I would be without it and that’s the truth. That strength is Glory to God because He helped me find it. If He intervened, He would rob me and my family of the beautiful lessons we’ve learned, and close moments with the power of Christ’s healing.

    Hope that I made sense! I’d love to talk about this a little more!