I am surrounded by suffering. But it’s okay. After 20 years of living this way, people expect it of me. It’s what I do. The good news is most of the suffering that enters my life is not my own, but I do invite the suffering to enter my life. Contrary to what you may think, I am not a masochist. I am a therapist. A navigator through the dark oceanic trenches of other’s pain. An amalgamation of the wisdom that comes from years of literary analysis, biblical study, professional degrees in counseling, and empathy.
THE PROBLEM WITH THERAPY
However, when a broken person is sitting in front of you, dabbing at their tears, and pleading with both their eyes and their voice, “What do I do?” … “How should I act?” … or, the Hank Aaron in the Hall of Fame of Questions, “Why me?”, you quickly discover that you do not have all the answers to all of the problems that walk through your door, and that many times the questions of “what,” “how,” and “why” are the most frustrating for both therapist and client.
For example, should I minimize the pain of the woman who is grieving the death of a child by saying that what she has to do is go through the five stages of grief? Should I even dare to suggest that the final stage, “acceptance,” is a possibility for her?
Or what about the distraught parent who has tried every tactic from tough love, to hospitalizations, to medication, to intensive outpatient therapy, but whose teenager is still spiraling out of control? What bullet-proof version of parenting advice can answer the question of “how”?
And with those who ask, “Why me?” should I hypothesize an answer? (Yeah. THAT sounds like a good idea.) Or maybe I should propose that there is nothing special about them that guarantees immunity from suffering, and then counter with the question, “So, why not you?”
WHY YOUR QUESTIONS DON’T WORK
As for clients, each of these questions (what, how, and why) keep a person stuck in their pain. They are designed to seek information, which is not a bad thing, but they each make the assumption that once they have gathered enough data, they can then move forward through their problem.
Stop for a moment.
In case you raced across it, here is that last sentence again:
They are designed to seek information, which is not a bad thing, but they each make the assumption that once they have gathered enough data, they can then move forward through their problem.
Do you hear the inherent problem that arises from asking these three questions?
If not, let me explain.
As members of the Information Age, we daily swim around in a pool of things that we have pinned, posted, or perused. It makes us feel more connected, less lost, more educated. It makes our lives feel relevant. But we must be careful. The Bible tells us that “Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.” (Ecc. 12:12) In a nutshell, that is the problem with what, how, and why. We study. We seek. We read. We talk. But it brings us only weariness, not peace. It is the modern day equivalent of the proverbial hamster wheel, a perpetual cycle of
One question begets another question begets another question begets another question until the line of information looks like a genealogical record from the book of Numbers. And when we feel we cannot consume any more data on the subject at hand, we sit down, spread it all out before ourselves (either literally or metaphorically), and we say, “Now, what do I do with all this data? How do I use it most effectively? And why, after all these months of examination, does it even matter any more?”
The pattern is so infuriating and the results are so minimal that it’s enough to make you own a nice little summer retreat in a padded room all to yourself.
Hopefully you understand that if you are a Christian in the midst in suffering, and you are wondering “what,” “how,” or “why,” you may be stuck in your pain not because you lack information, but because you are asking the wrong questions.
SO, WHAT DO I NEED TO ASK?
Whenever the subject of suffering is brought up, especially in Christian circles, someone somewhere will mention Job. For millennia Job has served as the ultimate example for suffering. His story provides an explanation for pain (spiritual testing), an example of response to follow (humility, worship, anguish, and defense of integrity), and a rationalization to embrace (just because bad things are happening to me doesn’t mean I’m a bad person). But this covers only the first 37 chapters of the book.
To understand the right question to ask in suffering, and to move towards lasting, effective change, we need to examine the end of the book of Job more closely. Here, after Job and his friends have argued wisdom, philosophy, and theology for countless pages, Job finally receives the audience with God for which he has been pleading.
But when this occurs, God does not do what Job expects. He does not tell Job what he needs to do, nor how he needs to do it, nor even why all of this happened to him in the first place. Instead, God begins with an entirely different question, which is the question we need to begin with during our suffering as well. God begins with the question of “who.”
Listen to how God addresses him in Job 38, as He speaks to Job out of the whirlwind:
Who is this that obscures my plans
with words without knowledge?
3 Brace yourself like a man;
I will question you,
and you shall answer me.
4 “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
Tell me, if you understand.
5 Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
Who stretched a measuring line across it?
6 On what were its footings set,
or who laid its cornerstone—
7 while the morning stars sang together
and all the angels[a] shouted for joy?
8 “Who shut up the sea behind doors
when it burst forth from the womb,
9 when I made the clouds its garment
and wrapped it in thick darkness,
10 when I fixed limits for it
and set its doors and bars in place,
11 when I said, ‘This far you may come and no farther;
here is where your proud waves halt’?
And on and on He goes for a full four chapters as He repeatedly reminds Job of who He is and who Job is. But throughout his soliloquy God does not give Job the answers to what, how, or why. Instead, He gives him “who.” It was not a lesson in behavior, a structured plan, or an explanation that was going to help Job. Rather, it was a grander view of who God is.
You see, Job needed what we all need during suffering: perspective. But it wasn’t until he could see the fullness of the sovereignty and power of God, it was not until he could place himself and his suffering in comparison to the greatness and the goodness of God that he began to understand his significance in relation to God. In other words, Job received a resizing of himself and a reminder that this story called “life” is not our own. It is about God, His glory, and using our short time here to promote all of who He is to the fullest extent. In other words, it was about answering “who,” specifically “Who am I?” and “Who is He?” It was not until Job answered these two essential questions that he could become unstuck in his pain. Only then could he state:
I know that you can do all things;
no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
3 You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’
Surely I spoke of things I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me to know.
4 “You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak;
I will question you,
and you shall answer me.’
5 My ears had heard of you
but now my eyes have seen you.
6 Therefore I despise myself
and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:1-6)
However, Job is not an isolated example. When Moses balked at being sent to deliver the Israelites, stating he did not know what to do if they disbelieved him, God demonstrated His power and said:
“If they do not believe you or pay attention to the first sign, they may believe the second. (Ex. 4:8)
And when Moses argued that he did not speak very well, God said:
“Who gave human beings their mouths? Who makes them deaf or mute? Who gives them sight or makes them blind? Is it not I, theLord? 12 Now go; I will help you speak and will teach you what to say.” (Ex. 4:11-12)
Each answer was about who God is, not about Moses’ ability, plan, or understanding.
The same was true with David. After David committed adultery with Bathsheba and his newborn child died after birth, he penned these words:
You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
17 My sacrifice, O God, is[b] a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart
you, God, will not despise. (Ps. 51:16-17)
In other words, it is not about what or how or why. It is about recognizing and honoring who God is (and, comparatively, who we are not).
In the New Testament, we see this same principle in action. During a vision the Lord told Ananias that he would show Paul “how much he must suffer for my name.” (Acts 9:16, emphasis mine). And later in life, the apostle himself would write, “For to me to live is Christ and to die is gain.” (Phil. 1:21) And “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” (Phil. 4:12-13) And even “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” (1 Cor. 10:31) For Paul, suffering was not about the what, how, or why. It was about the glorification and magnification of Jesus Christ living through him in the midst of his pain. It was about the “who.”
So, if you feel that you are stuck in your pain, that despair hangs over you like a shadow, take the time to see if you are asking the right questions or not. There is hope. But it is
Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty. (Zach. 4:6)