When we’re angry with God, there may be no question we ask more than, “Why?” and nothing we like less than people’s attempt to answer that question. The disorientation of painful experiences naturally takes the form of questions: Why did my child/sibling die? Why did my spouse leave? Why was that ministry leader so duplicitous? Why did my business partner betray me? Why [you fill in the blank]?
It is as natural to ask “Why?!?!” after painful experiences as it is for us to pull our hand back from a searing hot pan. But putting our pain in the form of a question tempts those around us to put the remedy (if that’s actually what we’re looking for) in the form of an answer. Answers are both unsatisfying and offensive. Life is never as simple as the theological formulas we’re given to reconcile the goodness of God, the power of God, and the presence of evil. Even if our Christian friends are right, their “answers” aren’t helpful.
That’s why we’re saying, “pain is not a riddle.” Riddles have answers. Riddles start with a puzzling question that seems unanswerable. With a little deduction or catching the play on words, the answer becomes clear. Once we see the answer, we can’t unsee the answer. Once we know the answer, the riddle loses all its drama and angst. It’s solved.
For example, take this riddle that Gollum asks Bilbo in The Lord of the Rings.
“This thing all things devours;
Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;
Gnaws iron, bites steel;
Grinds hard stones to meal;
Slays king, ruins town,
And beats mountain down.”
Initially, it seems complex. What is capable of doing all of these things? You are perplexed. Then you hear the answer, “Time,” and you can unhear the answer. The riddle is solved. It is powerless to create a sense of unrest again.
When we approach pain like a riddle, we keep waiting for the answer that will disempower our pain. Usually, we expect the answer to come in one of two forms: (a) what have we done that is so bad to deserve this pain, or (b) what God is doing that is so good that justifies this pain. Most of our friends’ responses are speculations in one of these two directions.
We can get locked into a discussion of, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” The gotcha retort might be, “It only happened once [Jesus on the cross as the only fully innocent person to suffer], and he volunteered.” That may be a great line in a sermon and full of rich theology, but it doesn’t “answer” the experience of suffering in a way that creates relief like an answer does for a riddle.
There is a clear reason it doesn’t satisfy. Pain isn’t a riddle. Pain is an experience to be processed and assimilated. Pain isn’t a question to be answered. Pain is a journey to be traversed and endured. Trying to resolve pain with an answer is like trying to resolve abdomen pain by explaining how an appendectomy works. The explanation may be accurate, but it’s not helpful.Pain isn’t a riddle. Pain is an experience to be processed and assimilated. Pain isn’t a question to be answered. Pain is a journey to be traversed and endured. Click To Tweet
In this series, we will approach pain and the questions that emerge from it as an experience and a journey. We will grapple with biblical and theological truths along the way. There is no way to face intense pain and not grapple with a litany of God-questions. But I won’t purport to give answers that result in an “aha moment” that makes things all better.
On a journey, answers can give you guidance on how to navigate an obstacle. We’ll name and explore how to navigate many obstacles that emerge when we’re facing disorientingly painful events. On a journey, answers can give us a boost of motivation to persevere when we feel like giving up. We will be honest about how easily despair emerges when we suffer.
After a profound experience, answers can help us assimilate events that we wish were untrue into our story. Often the grief-turned-anger we experience is the only way we’ve found to process the painful experiences. Our anger rebels against reality as a way of refusing to accept that these things happened. Whatever resolution comes will come with these experiences assimilated into how we tell our life story.
Admittedly, that may all seem a bit theoretical at this point. Don’t let that be a reason to give up. At this point, what you need to understand is:
- I am not going to try to resolve your pain with an answer, as if it were a riddle, and explain your pain away.
- We are going to approach your pain as a life-shaping experience and a difficult journey.
If that sounds better than what you were afraid I would do with your experience, this has been an effective opening reflection. My goal in this first reflection was to earn a bit of trust that allows you to permit me to be a companion with you on the journey of processing these painful experiences.
Questions for Reflection
- What have been the most frustrating or hurtful examples of people treating your pain like a riddle?
- How does approaching your pain as a life-shaping experience or journey better fit and honor what you’ve gone through?
* * * This article is part of a series entitled Anger with God: Grappling with God Amidst Life’s Greatest Pains and Betrayals.