Podcast: Asking God "Why" in the Midst of Suffering (Mark Talbot)
This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.
Is It Okay to Ask God "Why"?
In this episode, Mark Talbot discusses what the Bible has to say about suffering and the question that we all so quickly come to: Why? He shares some of what God has taught him through his own experience of profound pain, reflects on what we can learn from the story of Job in the Bible, and offers wise advice to the person currently wrestling to understand why God allows us to suffer in ways that push us to our limits and beyond.
When the Stars Disappear
In When the Stars Disappear, Mark Talbot encourages readers to digest the lessons of some of the Bible’s great saints who, when faced with similar trials, learned to continue believing and hoping as they realized that God in his steadfast love continued caring for them.
Subscribe: Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Google Podcasts | RSS
- Mark’s Story on Suffering
- Mark’s Personal Experience of Suffering
- The Impulse to Ask ‘Why’
- Breathing Lessons in the Psalms
- Impact of Culture in Suffering
- Suffering in the Scriptures
- Facing Truth in the Midst of Suffering
- Ministering through Suffering
- Waiting on the Lord
1:32 - Mark’s Story on Suffering
Mark, thank you so much for joining me today on The Crossway Podcast.
Glad to be here.
I think it's fair to say that you have experienced a fair amount of suffering and loss in your life, along a number of different angles. A number of years ago, you witnessed a really tragic situation up close and it’s something that you’ve called a calamity. What happened?
The incident that started me on writing this particular book was the fact that I lost one of my students to suicide in the early 2000s. I had been talking to his parents before he died because he was depressed, and I knew that they needed to be talking to people about it. It was the excruciating grief that they felt as Christians, especially when they knew that God was all-powerful and that he was perfectly good and that he knew everything in advance and they couldn't understand how it would be that God did not do something to keep their son from doing what he did—that was what got the book started. I was trying to address what really was a calamity—something that was rather like an earthquake in their lives, with regard to their faith, that had these ripples that were constantly heading out of it. Writing the book is my attempt to find ways to speak to them and others about how they could survive what I call profound suffering.
Can you explain how you first came in contact with him, and how did you know him?
He took my Introduction to Philosophy course at Wheaton. He was a really bright, open student, very interested in learning, and had a deep Christian commitment. He ended up going through Wheaton in less than his four years. After I had him in my class, while I had some lunches with him occasionally, I had pretty much lost contact with him. In what turned out to be the spring of his senior year, I bumped into him. He was a teacher's assistant and was teaching a class for one of my colleagues who had to go somewhere for a day. He said he really would like to get together with me and talk, and it was in that setting that he told me about the depth of his depression and about the fact that it had plagued him for years and that he had just lost hope. He said he had begged God to change things, but God had not done so and that he had lost hope that things could get better. And so we started talking pretty regularly after that for his last term at Wheaton, trying to deal with how he could handle that. That summer he went to do a program overseas, getting ready for a PhD in philosophy, and that was when he committed suicide. It was extremely poignant. It was a Sunday morning, and I heard the phone ring at about 9 a.m. I heard our answering machine pick up a call, and as we went by the answering machine to go to church I hit the button and heard him say Dr. Talbot, this is Graham. Are you there? And then there was a pause, and then he hung up. He sounded perfectly fine, and so I thought Well, maybe he's back in the United States for some reason and wants to get together for lunch. We found out afterwards that he had called me, and then he had called a close friend that he had at college who had suffered from depression, and then he had also called the head of counselling at Wheaton. Three of us, just one right after another, and people who saw him on the platform of the train station saw him make these calls and then throw his cell phone away. About an hour later, he stepped in front of a train.
5:41 - Mark’s Personal Experience of Suffering
As you look back on your own life, are there things that you’ve gone through that you think have prepared you, in a sense, to walk alongside those dealing with profound suffering?
When I was seventeen, I took a drop of about fifty feet off a rope—a Tarzan-like rope swing—when another guy jumped on, missed the rope and was hanging on to me, and I broke my back. And so I went to college walking with either one or two canes most of the time. My walking was really, really awkward, and it more or less drew students to me who were hurting as flies to honey. People just spent a great deal of time coming to me and asking me to help them out. I had three wonderful mentors in college—David McKenna, who was the new president of Seattle Pacific College; a year later Frank Kline came as the Dean of Religion; and then a year after that, Cliff McCrath came as the Dean of Students—and they worked with me. They gave me hundreds of hours to understand how to talk to these students. And so what's happened ever since then is that I find myself regularly in situations where I do a kind of informal counselling. Professional counselling, of course, is tremendously important, but there's a kind of informal counselling that takes place over long lengths of time that is at least as important. I've had students at Calvin when I was there, and at Wheaton, who were suicidal, and a couple who took their lives. So when this happened with Graham, it wasn't as if it was my first experience with something like this happening. I didn't have any doubt, Matt, that he was a Christian. It seems to me that even Christians can commit suicide, and yet God can cover that awful sin—because it is a sin to take charge of one's life in that way and to end it—God can cover that with Christ's blood. I don't think I ever really doubted that was true in Graham's case.
7:59 - The Impulse to Ask ‘Why’
I think this—suicide in particular, but there are other examples of profound suffering—can stretch us to the breaking point in terms of not understanding why this is happening. It seems like that's one of the first things that we often ask is something like Why? What's behind that impulse towards asking that?
I think what it comes to is this: it seems to me that if we try to answer questions like why without understanding what Scripture has to say about suffering, we will always end up going off the rails. And so what you have to do is you have to go to Scripture and see what Scripture says about suffering. Here's our natural inclination with regard to suffering: we believe in a perfectly good and all-powerful God, but some really awful sort of suffering comes upon us—maybe it's chronic suffering, maybe it's something that goes on year after year after year, which can also be profound; or it may be a calamity—whatever happens, it comes upon us and we find ourselves trying to cook up for ourselves the answer to that question why. We will virtually always get it wrong. The business instead is to go comb through the Scriptures and note all the incidents of suffering in Scripture, and find out by those how we should posture ourselves to suffering. And part of the posture is that we don't always know what the answer is going to be with regard to why. All we can know is that the God that we believe in is one whom we can trust. So it's only if you go to Scripture that you're not going to make a mistake in trying to answer the why question by the wrong answer to the who question, which is more or less Well, either God's not perfectly good, or is not all-powerful.
10:03 - Breathing Lessons in the Psalms
Have you personally, in your own life, ever struggled with the question why to such an extent that you did maybe question God's goodness or sovereignty?
Yes. I'm not going to give you the details, but I went through something that was really, really tough a number of years ago. I found myself thinking that God had set me up for a tremendous amount of suffering. It seemed as if he had been treacherous to me. I found I would work all day—I work lots of hours other than Sunday—and would go to bed trying to sleep, but couldn't sleep. I was even trying to repeat to myself the Psalms, but it didn't seem to be helping. I was getting only three or four hours of sleep a night, and I found myself just thinking You know, it seems to me in this situation that God has not been good to me. But then, as I say in the book, I think our business is to understand the breathing lessons that are in the Psalms, which is that we exhale—breathing out to God our laments—and then we inhale what we know from Scripture and from our own lives about how God is faithful to his people. We always do that as an I-you relationship—we never end up referring to God as “he,” and in that sense gossiping about him in the third person. We always take it directly to God. It was within that framework that I tried to work, and it was horribly hard. Well actually, what happened was that it was when my student took his life that I realized that what happened to me some years before was God preparing me to be able to respond to his parents in a way that would not have been hurtful and formulaic, but to respond to them in such a way that they would realize that I understood their pain. One of the things that I claim is that if you've suffered profoundly, you know what profound suffering is; and if other people suffer profoundly—it doesn't matter what causes it—you can still understand their profound suffering in general and in such a way that you can be helpful to them. I think that what I went through was meant to prepare me for that. And as that happened, I found myself finally saying Thank you, Lord. I see why I went through that. I see what you were teaching me then that would allow me to be helpful to others now.
12:55 - Impact of Culture in Suffering
It's almost cliché at this point to emphasize how easy Western Christians have it when it comes to our lives, whether that's not worrying about what we're going to eat, or how we have extremely good health care compared to most of the world, or being safe from violence for the most part. We also live in a culture that places a high premium on comfort and leisure and entertainment. And so I wonder, how impactful is that cultural setting that most of us listening right now live in when it comes to how we think about suffering?
I think it makes a tremendous impact on how we think about suffering. Think about the fact that we have lived in societies now, for about 1,500 years or so, that are at least not explicitly opposed to Christian faith. In the Western world, from the time of Augustine on, Christian faith was, to some degree, accepted even if it didn't go really, really deep with a lot of people. And you realize that therefore, there hasn't been much opposition of the sort that the early Christians faced in Rome. And then you think also about modern science, which is, of course, a gift from God. It's part of the creation mandate that we are supposed to work to understand the creation in such a way that we can exercise dominion over it and subdue things like this coronavirus. If you think of all those things, then you realize that our situation, particularly in the last one hundred years, has been a real anomaly. In 1900, if I remember rightly, there were about 165 infant deaths for every 1,000 births—165 infants who died within the first year. In 1997, I think it was, there were seven. You think of the childhood diseases that have been quenched by means of vaccines and so on and so forth, and you see that the life expectancy in 1900 was 47 years, now it's over 75. We are living in a period of anomaly, and as a result, when suffering comes upon us we're startled and we think This just isn't normal! If we read our Scriptures regularly and carefully, working particularly through the Old Testament—because it's got a longer period of time to it, you get more of the details of suffering—we would realize that this is an anomaly; and we would realize that it may not last; and we would realize that suffering quite often is, in fact, something that the Old Testament saints thanked God for—and the New Testament saints too. For example, in Psalm 119 the psalmist just says to God “You are good and do good” (Ps. 119:68); “Before I was afflicted, I went astray,” (Ps. 119:67); and “I know that in faithfulness you have afflicted me” (Ps. 119:75). I think that still is the answer that most of us have when we suffer now, that once we're through the really, really hard part of it—and this is, by the way, true even of non-Christians, that non-Christians will say My suffering helped me to figure out what was important and what was not. Robert Bellah's book, Habits of the Heart, brings that out with regard to some non-Christians and their suffering. I think that suffering makes the worthless things drop away. That was what happened to me with my accident. I fell about fifty feet, and all the worthless things I was chasing after, even though I was a Christian, just fell away. So suffering, in that sense, is ultimately a blessing.
18:09 - Suffering in the Scriptures
As you think about the Bible—and I'm going to ask you to not use Jesus's death, which is, in some sense, the most profound, unjust suffering anyone has ever experienced—what would you say is the most intense story of suffering in the Bible, in your opinion?
Wow. I think this is really hard to answer, Matt, because there is a lot of profound suffering, and as I've suggested, profound suffering is such that when you go through that, you can't imagine worse. Jeremiah certainly suffered more than Job because he suffered his entire lifetime under a great deal of social hostility and even physical abuse in chapter 20—perhaps torture, depending on how you interpret the Hebrew word for stocks. And Jeremiah's story reads as if he is a Holocaust survivor. It just breaks off, doesn't even tell you of his death. It loses its chronological coherence, at least after chapter 20 where we get incidents from different times in his life. Jeremiah would be pretty important; but of course, Lamentations, with regard to mothers eating their babies is, again, excruciatingly painful. I think in the New Testament, Paul. And it's because our Lord, in fact, warned him in Acts 9 that he would suffer much for the name. And Paul gets goaded into explaining some of the suffering he went through in 2 Corinthians in order to answer the so-called super-apostles who said If you're suffering so much, God can't be your God.
I think sometimes there's a certain way that we even approach Scripture that makes it easy to not realize that the suffering that we're reading about is real and profound. It feels so distant and removed from us, or we already know the ending. With Job, for example, He's going to suffer all this, but then God's going to give it all back to him and more, so it probably wasn't so bad. And we don't have that ending clearly laid out for ourselves in our own lives. How have you wrestled through that when it comes to reading Scripture?
Another really good question, and I think what it comes to is this: until we are suffering pretty significantly, we don't even notice most of the suffering in Scripture. Such as my getting to the place that I realized that Isaac and Rebecca suffered for forty years through barrenness until they had their twins—I would have never noticed that if I wasn't looking in Scripture to see these almost silent cases of suffering. And so until we suffer pretty significantly, we could say the suffering isn't an existential issue for us. But once we've suffered that way, then we find Scripture speaking to us with regard to this. I'll give you a really interesting example with this: you remember the Sandy Hook tragedy where twenty first graders and a bunch of their teachers were shot to death by a kid in their elementary school. On the national news stations—the networks—there were pastors who were interviewed, and it was quite clear that they were doubting their own faith because of this tragedy. This struck them as so significant that they couldn't see how God could possibly have allowed that if he was perfectly good and all-powerful. If you look in Matthew chapter two, and you read about what's called the Slaughter of the Innocents where Herod went into Bethlehem and slaughtered all these kids. The interesting thing is that probably the number of children that were slaughtered was roughly the same as we find with the Sandy Hook tragedy; and yet, when Matthew mentions that, he doesn't take that in any way to challenge God's perfect goodness or his power. In fact, he takes it to be a corroboration of what God had predicted in Jeremiah that, in fact, was ultimately a sign that Jesus was the Messiah. And so it seems to me that what it comes to is it's only as we suffer and then we go back through Scripture that—and we don't do this on our own, the Holy Spirit helps us to do this—it's only then that the Scriptures start to speak to us about these things in such a way that they can comfort us and they can sustain us and they can help us endure.
22:40 - Facing Truth in the Midst of Suffering
This is kind of going back to something you said earlier, but speak to the Christian who's hearing that admonition to turn to Scripture, to search Scripture in the midst of suffering, that we might see God's purposes in it, to see God's power over it. I wonder if to some Christians that's actually a pretty scary encouragement because they're afraid of a vision of God that they don't quite have right now and that they're afraid they might see in Scripture because they might not like what they see, and they might be afraid of what they see. So I guess I wonder, what would you say to the Christian who's feeling like that, and isn't sure they want that view of God from the Bible?
These are all just really excellent questions, Matt, because these are the very sorts of things that come up with people. Robert Dabney, a great theologian of the 1800s, lost three sons to diphtheria and lost a sister to some sort of lung disease that she got by ministering to people during the Civil War. She got to the place that she couldn't eat because it hurt so much that she more or less starved to death. The account of Dabney going through this, first of losing a five-year-old son: diphtheria tends to put this kind of film over your throat in such a way that you lose the ability to speak. His five-year-old ended up mute, and just would plead with his folks—as his father said, with his beautiful liquid eyes—couldn't say anything, and then died. A couple of weeks later, his six-year-old died. He talks about how with his first son he could maintain his hope; with his second son dying, he found that he had the same reasons to hope, but he couldn't feel it. And then years later, he lost a third son and wrote a beautiful poem with regard to how hard it was for him in those situations to grasp the gospel and believe it wholeheartedly if it included things this tough. But then what he does is he mentions 1 Peter 3 and the fact that in 1 Peter, Christians went through horrible kinds of suffering and endured. And he says And if they did, we can too. Every time that a couple of my colleagues read that story when we're going through drafts of my manuscript, one of them says to me, “You have ruined my whole week.” And it's the very sort of thing that you're talking about. He loves his children and his grandchildren dearly, and the very thought that something like this could happen—that God could allow something like this to happen—is to him the scariest of thoughts he could have. And I think that the answer in that situation is not to try to argue him into saying that even this can happen. It's instead just to leave the witness there and then to pray that if he needs to realize a truth like that in this life, that God will graciously and mercifully allow him to learn it; but not all of us need to learn that truth in this life. I sometimes have people come up to me when I'm speaking and they say I wish I had suffered more because maybe I'd be deeper like you. The second half of that comment is just wrong, although I do think that my suffering has helped me to have certain worthless things drop away, but that's not what's central to it. But what they don't understand is that this is all up to God, and we are not to be masochists and we are not to say to God Bring it on! Give me all the suffering you can. Instead, we're to understand that he charts all of our lives in such a way that we will learn individually important truths that we can share with others. The truths of suffering are not going to be the main truths that some people share or even understand.
27:08 - Ministering through Suffering
I'm struck by how much you've talked about how suffering is so often given to us—certainly this is your own experience of suffering—given to us that we can then minister to others who are suffering as well. How big of a role has that ministry been in your own thinking about why God has allowed suffering in your own life?
It has been, I think, the factor that has redeemed the suffering I've been through more than anything else. In 2 Corinthians 1, Paul says that he and Timothy suffered so horribly—he doesn't even tell us what it was—that they despaired of life itself. And yet, he says, this happened so that God could comfort us so that in whatever kind of suffering you are in we can comfort you (2 Cor. 1:3–7). And so much of the way that suffering gets redeemed, that it becomes meaningful—I mentioned this in a little piece of mine called Broken Wholeness—much of the way that it becomes redeemed and becomes meaningful is by our starting to minister to others. God will bring people to us who need to hear what he has taught us. And it's in the midst of doing that that I find myself again and again, like Paul, saying I can see that what I have been through has the great good of allowing me to speak meaningfully into other people's lives.
28:42 - Waiting on the Lord
So maybe as a last question, speak to the person listening right now who is—right now—in a profound season of suffering, whether that's due to a medical condition or the loss of a loved one or maybe something else entirely that neither of us knows anything about and has ever experienced—what three practical next steps would you encourage that person to pursue in the face of what maybe feels like debilitating pain?
I don't think I'm going to give you three steps because I think quite often we end up commodifying the gospel by quantifying things. I would say that probably the most important advice is wait. If you are God's child and you are saved by Christ and the Holy Spirit dwells in you, God will not abandon you. You may not, in this lifetime, understand why you've been through something, but Paul makes it clear in 2 Corinthians 4 that these light and momentary afflictions will be vastly outweighed by what happens when we see our Lord face to face. (2 Cor. 4:17–18) So I think that would be the main lesson. I actually had something happen this morning that was interesting—a friend of mine just lost his mother, and he wrote me and said I'm not having a hard time reading Scripture, but I can't focus with regard to prayer—any advice? I told him that I wouldn't worry too much about not being able to pray effectively, to be able to pray verbally. And the reason I wouldn't worry is because his relationship with God is personal. In fact, it's tri-personal—it's a personal relationship with God the Father, a personal relationship with God the Son, and a personal relationship with the Holy Spirit. It's not merely formal or mechanical, and, in fact, it involves both Jesus and the Holy Spirit having an intimate knowledge of human nature—which, of course, our Lord got during his earthly life—and of our own individual human natures—which the Holy Spirit knows in a way that we can't ever know it. And so just as someone who knows us if we're going through really, really deep suffering, just as someone like that may not have any difficulty understanding that we can't talk right now, that we can't communicate right now, that it's really hard for us to deal with those things, we should understand that the tri-personal God understands that much more deeply and better than we do. And I told him all he needed to do was to put himself in a posture of openness to God; and that through the Holy Spirit God would hear his groans; the Holy Spirit would intercede for him; and that he didn't need to worry about having words right now; and that, indeed, it may very well be that God doesn't expect him to have words right now, if we can put it that way.
Thank you so much, Mark, for sharing from your own experiences, and from Scripture itself, this wisdom as to how we can think and process our suffering. We appreciate you taking the time.
Popular Articles in This Series
Podcast: A Christian Doctor’s Guide to Thinking about Coronavirus (Bob Cutillo, MD)
A Christian doctor discusses the current coronavirus pandemic, explaining what's currently happening in the US and around the world and offering perspective on how we should think about this virus.
Podcast: Are Christians Obligated to Give 10%? (Sam Storms)
What does the Bible teaches about tithing? Are Christians still obligated to give 10% of their income today?
Podcast: Help! I Hate My Job (Jim Hamilton)
Jim Hamilton discusses what to do when you hate your job, offering encouragement for those frustrated in their work and explaining the difference between a job and a vocation.
Podcast: Calvinism 101 (Kevin DeYoung)
What are the five points of Calvinism really about and how can we believe them, while maintaining gracious humility towards others who don't?