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There was a time once when Man enjoyed a very close relationship with God. It was a time when all was perfect, and the entire creation, right along with Man himself, echoed songs of praise with every breath taken and with every flower’s bloom. But, as the story goes, Creation’s song would soon give way to an unbearable groaning (Rom 8:22). Thorns and thistles would become the new normal, and Man would soon find himself in the midst of suffering and pain.

TornadoI think of this story a lot, especially recently. As I’m sure you know by now, several tornadoes swept through Oklahoma this past week, leaving many people devastated and homeless. Living just a few miles from one of the areas hit by the first round of tornadoes, I’ve seen the carnage for myself. We locals use the term “war zone” to describe it. There simply aren’t any other words. Perhaps most heart aching was when we learned that one of the tornadoes hit two elementary schools in the city of Moore, killing several young children in one instant. Stories were reported how teachers did all they could to protect their kids from the massive mile-wide tornado. Many students survived, but several did not. When my wife and I first heard about this, our hearts sank. All we wanted to do was hold our own children a little tighter that night.

I’ve learned this past week that the problem of suffering can’t be turned into some “detached” philosophical musing or a mere theoretical quip. Suffering is far too real for us to allow it to become a “how-many-angels-can-dance-on-the-head-of-a-pin” sort of debate. Real people have lost real children. But like suffering itself, the question is just as real: “Where was God? How can evil such as this exist when God is supposed to be good and powerful?” As a minister who wants to address this question pastorally, I keep finding myself going back to Man’s first home: the Garden of Eden.  We’re obviously far from Paradise these days, but it’s evident that we all seem to want to go back. After all, behind the sorrow, grief, and tears, there is something deep within each of us that cries, This is not the way things were supposed to be! Yet the events in Oklahoma remind us that this is the way things are. So we’re full of questions.

The key to answering these questions is to look back at what went wrong in the first place.  It all started when the serpent said, “You will not surely die” (Gen 3:4). What a crazy lie. But let’s not be sidetracked by it; the lie, after all, was not an end in itself. Satan’s ultimate goal was to tempt man with a type of knowledge he didn’t need to possess—a knowledge he couldn’t handle. “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen 3:5). As the story goes, when Man ate of the fruit (v. 6), his eyes were “opened” (v.7).  It’s all sort of tragic: Man starts off with having God in very close relationship. But Man’s desire for knowledge of good and evil outweighed his desire for relationship with God. The end result was suffering and death.

Not much has changed. Man has been treading upon ground wreaked by thorns and thistles ever since, experiencing suffering every step of the way. As if things weren’t bad enough, when we run to God with our questions, it seems as though we’re left without any answers—at least satisfactory ones. C.S. Lewis once observed that when you go to God in times of pain, you often get “a door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence.”[1] So why does God seem so uninterested in giving us real answers?

Think of the story of Job. Have you ever noticed how he never got an answer as to why he was suffering? It’s all sort of odd when you think about it. Starting with chapter 38, God reminds Job that he is only a mortal. And for the next several chapters, God directly challenges Job (for his own good, mind you), showing him that he isn’t on par with the Divine. As a result, Job’s final response was a simple, yet profound, confession: “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know” (42:3).

What’s most striking to me about the story of Job is not so much that he never receives an answer, but that Job receives something far better. See, Job may not have gotten an answer, but he did get a bigger vision of God. The rest of Job’s confession is astounding: “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you” (42:5). Did you catch that? Despite all of the pain, the questions, the hurts, the despair, Job learned that what would ultimately satisfy was not gaining insight about his suffering, but in receiving the very thing that Man originally lost in Eden: God himself.

So it all begins to make sense. I mentioned above that, deep down, we all cry out for a return to Eden. So what if God is actually hearing our cries, but is tending to them in a way that we simply can’t understand? I can’t help but wonder if God seems so strangely silent in giving us “answers” to our sufferings all because he wants to give us something greater. Ask anyone who has suffered loss, and they will tell you that answers—no matter how “logical”—simply won’t suffice. Yet often enough, they will tell you that what does bring a small amount of comfort are not words per se, but the quiet presence of a friend. I suspect that God is out to relieve our suffering, not by giving us answers and knowledge, but by giving us something far better—namely, himself. This is something Job came to realize, and something Adam failed to realize.

I don’t know how God’s goodness and power are compatible with the reality of evil and suffering. Make no mistake about it, I want to know. But, despite my intense struggle with the events of the past week, I’ve decided that it’s okay if I don’t know. In fact, God himself seems content with my not knowing. In the end, it appears as though the way back to Eden is not through gaining more knowledge about good and evil; that’s what led to Man’s expulsion in the first place. Rather, I suppose that the way back—and the very thing we need the most in times like these—is the abiding presence of God.

In the days ahead, please pray that God’s peace be upon the people of Oklahoma. We’re all looking for answers this week, but I know he will be faithful and gracious to give us something much more valuable—his unshakable presence.

 


[1] C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (New York: HarperCollins, 1996), 6.