The Question That Never Goes Away

The Question That Never Goes Away

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by Philip Yancey

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Where is God? Whether it’s a tsunami in Japan, a siege in Bosnia, a gunman attacking school children in Connecticut, or the Boston Marathon bombers, Philip Yancey’s question from Where Is God When It Hurts never loses its relevancy. Now in The Question That Never Goes Away he again leads us to find faith when it is most severely put to the test.See more details below


Where is God? Whether it’s a tsunami in Japan, a siege in Bosnia, a gunman attacking school children in Connecticut, or the Boston Marathon bombers, Philip Yancey’s question from Where Is God When It Hurts never loses its relevancy. Now in The Question That Never Goes Away he again leads us to find faith when it is most severely put to the test.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The question of why God allows suffering remains unanswered for many, so the bestselling author of Where is God When it Hurts? revisits it. He shares experiences meeting with those dealing with loss after the tsunami in Japan, the war in Sarajevo, and the school massacre in Newtown, Conn. Yancey still can’t provide a definitive answer that will satisfy everyone about how God allows these kind of tragedies while conceivably able to prevent them, but the lessons learned by those who have made it through the land of suffering can be passed on to help those still on the journey, the author says. We might not be able to make sense of why, but we can control how we respond. Yancey includes advice about how to offer comfort to those suffering, as well as encouragement from people whose faith has been renewed and strengthened in a God who shares pain and hard times. Jesus was no stranger to suffering, after all, and his followers, reaching out in love, are evidence of God’s presence in the midst of the worst tragedies, Yancey says. Agent: Kathryn Helmers, Creative Trust. (Jan. 7)

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The Question That Never Goes Away

what is God up to or not in a world of such tragedy and pain?

By Philip Yancey


Copyright © 2013 Philip Yancey and SCCT
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-310-33982-3


Where Is God?

My father contracted polio just before my first birthday. Paralyzed from the neck down, he lay immobile in a noisy iron lung machine that helped him breathe. My mother would bring my three-year-old brother and me to the hospital and hold us up to the window of the isolation ward so that by looking in a mirror her husband could catch a glimpse of the sons he could not hold or even touch.

My father had been preparing to go to Africa as a missionary, and when he fell ill several thousand people in a prayer chain resolved to pray for his healing. They could not believe that God would "take" someone so young and vibrant with such a bright ministry future ahead of him. In fact, those closest to him became so convinced he would be healed that they decided, with his consent, to take a step of faith and remove him from the iron lung. Within two weeks, he died. I grew up fatherless, under that cloud of unanswered prayer.

Later, as a young journalist about the same age as my father when he died, I began writing "Drama in Real Life" articles for Reader's Digest magazine, profiling people who had survived tragedy. Again and again I heard from my interview subjects that "Christians made it worse" by offering contradictory and confusing counsel.

God is punishing you.

No, it's Satan!

Neither: God has afflicted you out of love, not punishment, for you've been specially selected to demonstrate faith.

No, God wants you healed!

I had no idea how to respond to these people, and in truth I needed answers for myself too. When I face a bedeviling question, I tend to write about it because the writing process affords me the opportunity to go to experts and libraries and the Bible in search of answers. As a result I wrote my first real book at the age of twenty-seven: Where Is God When It Hurts?

Although I have written on many other topics, this question that clouded my childhood and dominated my early writing career has never gone away. I still get a steady stream of responses from people devastated by pain and suffering. Recently I pulled out all the letters I've received from others who struggle with the same question—more than a thousand letters in all. Reading through them again reminded me that pain plays as a kind of background static to many lives. Some people live with illness, chronic physical pain, or the lonely curse of clinical depression. Others feel constant heartache out of concern for loved ones: a spouse battling addictions, children on a path to self-destruction, an Alzheimer's-afflicted parent. In some parts of the world ordinary citizens face daily, profound suffering from poverty and injustice.

In one of the letters I received, a sixteen-year-old girl who had been studying Criminal Forensic Profiling articulated one of the most urgent questions:

I've been studying murders. I've learned about the victims, their families, and the inconceivable torture that they endured. I'm not talking about martyrs or missionaries who have willingly put their lives on the line for their faith, but rather unsuspecting victims of demented crimes. I believe in a heavenly father who loves his children and wishes good for us all and while I do not believe God caused these things to happen to these people, my struggle in my faith is why he could have helped but did not intervene. So my question is this ... If God did not protect those people and innocent children who were tortured (while some even cried out to God to save them) how do I have faith that God will protect me? I want to believe, but I feel like the man in the Bible who said to Jesus, "I believe ... but help me with my unbelief."

The Question Returns

I have had some personal experience with pain—broken bones, minor surgeries, a life-threatening auto accident—though I've learned far more by listening to others' stories. When my wife worked as a hospice chaplain, often over dinner she would recount conversations with families who were coming to terms with death. We ate food spiced with tears. And as a journalist I heard heartbreaking stories from many others: parents grieving over their gay son's suicide, a pastor enduring the steady onslaught of the disease ALS, Chinese Christians reliving the brutality of the Cultural Revolution.

Because I keep revisiting the theme of suffering, I am sometimes asked to speak on the question of my first book: "Where is God when it hurts?" I will never forget the day I toured the makeshift memorials that had sprung up like wildflowers on the campus of Virginia Tech and then stood before a thousand students, oh so young, their faces raw with grief over the loss of thirty-three classmates and faculty. Or an eerily similar scene the following year when I planned to speak on an unrelated topic in Mumbai, India, until the terrorist attack on the Taj Mahal Hotel and other sites forced a change in venue and a change in topic—back to the question that never goes away.

In 2012 I spoke to groups on that question three times, in the most daunting circumstances. One event followed a catastrophic natural disaster; one took place in a city ravaged by war; the third was closest to home and, for me, the most poignant.

In March I stood before congregations in the Tohoku region of Japan on the first anniversary of the tsunami that slammed into land with the velocity of a passenger jet, snapping railroad tracks like chopsticks and scattering ships, buses, houses, and even airplanes across the ravaged landscape. In its wake, with 19,000 dead and whole villages swept out to sea, a busy secular nation that normally has no time for theological questions thought of little else.

In October I spoke on the question in Sarajevo, a city that had no heat, fuel, or electricity and little food or water for four years while sustaining the longest siege in modern warfare. Eleven thousand residents died from the daily barrage of sniper fire and from the shells and mortars that fell from the sky like hail. One survivor told me, "The worst thing is, you get used to evil. If we knew in advance how long it would last, we would probably have killed ourselves. Over time, you stop caring. You just try to keep living."

As 2012 drew to a close I accepted perhaps the hardest assignment of all, not in terms of quantity of suffering—can it ever be quantified?—but in the sheer intensity of horror and intimate grief. The weekend after Christmas I addressed the community of Newtown, Connecticut, a town reeling from the senseless slaughter of twenty first-graders and six of their teachers and staff.

A first responder captured the mood. "All of us are volunteers," he said. "I've seen some awful things, but we don't train for something like this—nobody does. And my wife is a teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary School. She knew all twenty children by name, as well as the staff. She was three steps behind the principal, Dawn Hochpsrung, when Dawn yelled, 'Go back, it's a shooter!' After hiding out during the shootings she had to walk past the bodies ..."

He paused a moment to control his voice, then continued. "Everyone experiences grief at some point—in the worst case, the terrible grief of losing a child. I see its impact in my role as first responder, especially after suicides. You live with the grief as if in a bubble, and only gradually reenter the world. You go to the grocery store. You go back to work. Eventually that outer world takes over more and more of you and the grief begins to shrink. Here in Newtown, we're a small community. Everywhere we go reminds us of what happened. We go to the store and see memorials to the victims. We walk down the street and see markers on the porches of those who lost a child. We can't get away. It's like a bell jar has been placed over the town, with all the oxygen pumped out. We can't breathe for the grief."

My invitation to Newtown came from a longtime friend from England named Clive Calver. He headed British Youth for Christ back in the 1970s when I edited the YFC magazine Campus Life. We went separate ways, he to international relief work and I to pursue a career as a freelance writer. Clive now pastors a thriving church of 3,500 situated just outside Newtown. "It's as if I've been training all my life for this role," he said when he called me the week before Christmas. "At World Relief I headed a disaster response team with 20,000 resource people around the world. Now, though, it's my neighborhood and my church members who are directly affected. They're all asking the one question you wrote about years ago, 'Where is God when it hurts?' Could you possibly come and speak to us?"

Christmas, Subdued

For me, Christmas of 2012 was like no other. My own father's death on December 15 had always dampened the Christmas spirit in my childhood home, and now the shootings on December 14 darkened the holiday for an entire nation. It felt like a kick in the gut. What has gone wrong with us and with our country? No one could fathom a young man from a privileged background forcing his way into a school and methodically killing a score of terrified first-graders.

I watched news reports and studied the minute-by-minute timeline of what transpired at the elementary school that day. I read online profiles of each child who died and in the process got to know them by name as well as by face: Catherine with the shocking red hair, Daniel's gap-toothed smile, Emilie's luminous blue eyes, Jesse's mischievous grin. I read about the children's pets, their hobbies, the practical jokes they played on their siblings, their food allergies and favorite sports figures. Lives cut short after a scant six or seven years had still left a mark.

What I heard in Newtown that weekend—the stories, the questions, the cries of confusion and protest—stirred up memories of other responses to suffering I've encountered over the years. Why do bad things happen? Why does God allow evil to take its awful course? What possible good can come from such events? I haven't stopped wrestling with these questions since my first book, and I had to face these questions again while speaking to the Newtown community.

As I headed to Connecticut, the publisher of Where Is God When It Hurts? made it temporarily available as a free download. I posted the link on Facebook, and the publisher issued a press release but did not advertise the offer. We expected a few hundred responses, maybe a thousand. Instead, as we later learned, more than a hundred thousand people downloaded the book in a few days. Clearly, others have the same question. And so it was that I decided to set aside other writing projects and revisit the question I first explored more than three decades ago.

Winter lingered in Colorado's high country as I wrote. Even in April 2013 I could see out my window a scene of startling beauty: evergreen trees coated in fresh-fallen snow tinted gold by the morning sun, set against a Colorado sky the color of a tropical ocean. And then I would summon up the faces of anguish I saw in Japan and Sarajevo and Newtown.

Suddenly a new set of faces joined them. On April 15 two immigrants spoiled a day of joy and triumph in Boston by planting bombs near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. A race that had begun somberly, with twenty-six seconds of silence to honor Newtown's victims, ended in unspeakable tragedy. The nation's fifth largest city went under lockdown as police searched for the terrorists who had killed three and wounded hundreds. Two days later a fertilizer plant blew up in the town of West, Texas, killing ten firefighters and five others—a disaster that got short shrift on the news due to the massive manhunt taking place in Boston. Later that same week an earthquake shook Sichuan Province, China, killing almost two hundred and injuring nearly twelve thousand. Clearly, the questions raised about suffering in 2012 did not go away in 2013.

I could write about the question in any given year, in fact, for we live on a fragile planet, marred by disease, floods and droughts, earthquakes, fires, wars, acts of violence, and terrorism. Whether catastrophic or commonplace, suffering always lurks nearby. Every day I get another report from the Caring Bridge website on some friend on life support in a hospital or one recovering from a stroke or battling cancer. What is God up to in such a world?

I am well aware that no book can "solve" the problem of pain. Yet I feel compelled to pass along what I have learned from the land of suffering. If Christians have good news to share, some message of hope or comfort for a wounded world, it must begin here.


Excerpted from The Question That Never Goes Away by Philip Yancey. Copyright © 2013 Philip Yancey and SCCT. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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