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Thursday, January 16, 2014

"The Question That Never Goes Away" (Philip Yancey)

TITLE: The Question That Never Goes Away
AUTHOR: Philip Yancey
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014, (176 pages).

From September 11 to the 2013 Boston bombings; from the coasts of Japan to the tsunamis in the Philippines, from wars in foreign lands and guns in domestic places; whenever something bad or evil happens, people ask the same question: "Why?"

Ever since his dad passed away, bestselling author Philip Yancey has been grappling with this same question. The best responses available so far only seem to scratch the surface. Behind this one question, four related concerns surround it. The first is the question of "Where is God?" For when nothing is happening, people just assume life goes on as normal. The moment there is a disaster, a death, or a devastating event, or for Yancey, whenever December 15th arrives, he too ponders about why his father had to die that day. The second question, "I Want to Know Why!" pushes the envelope further. For a world that is used to things set prim and proper, just like the "orderliness and beauty" in Japan, tragedies and disasters buck the status quo to render people confused. It is interesting that Yancey uses Japan as a launchpad for this. For Japan is one that is well-prepared on the outside but like the rest of the world, ill-prepared for how the inside is going to react. For they too ask the same question: "Where is God when it hurts?" In the midst of the rubble and the devastation, Yancey was able to sense something profound. Take the cases of PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) for example. Conventional thinking would indicate that negatively as a victims' need to deal with a serious psychological setback. Instead, Yancey poses the thought that people exhibiting PTSD are actually healthy enough to even manifest it. Only dead people will not feel anything. The answer to "why" is often stoically shrugged off as "acts of God." Citing David Hently Bent, we are reminded that disasters and tragedies do not teach us anything new about the problem with this world. They only uncover the ugliness more. Underlying the suffering and pain are people who are already in pain in various ways.  It is how we respond that is the key to dealing with this question. Yancey shows how atheists like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens, urge people to freely reject any notion of God. We read of how agnostics are ambivalent about God. We also come across biblical characters who each responded in their unique ways. Yancey concludes that the Bible is often silent about the question of suffering. For it is in the suffering and disaster that we learn how much the world is fallen. Why does the Bible evade such a question? Slowly and gradually, readers are forced to reckon that with each hurting, there is also a healing component. If we learn to ask why during bad times, what about good times?

The third question poses: "Has God overslept?"  Yancey continues his whirlwind tour around the world, beginning this time at Sarajevo, recalling his time with people affected by the horrors of ethnic cleansing. Rapes, murders, injustice, with the strong bullying the weak, and the marginalized being pushed beyond their limits of misery, fill the shameful space of evil and injustice. If natural disasters ruin property, the evils inflicted by humans ruin families and people groups. There is the Nazi holocaust, the Rwandan genocide, and the religious and racial disriminations happening around the world. Yet, amid the horrors, there are cases where human warmth and care stood up strong. Like the example of a freezing Christian family being given some firewood by Muslim friends, and how a Father Markovic made friends with a woman bitter over racial discrimination. We are encouraged to protest like the Psalmist or lament like the prophets about the problems in this world. At the same time, we are urged to ponder about something more, something that comes above all of these terrible sufferings. Something that guides us toward hope in something or Someone bigger than ourselves.  The last question is about redemption and healing. A book of such a nature needs to address directly the circumstances leading to the question of why. Here, Yancey goes back to America, more specifically, Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut. Yancey shares about how he persuaded his publisher to make available for free, his earlier books, "Where is God when it hurts?" and "What good is God?"  for the community. In his journey to Newtown, he observes how the various survivors are coping. The hurts were still very raw. He notices how a community that is not known to be religious is suddenly asking religious questions about life. Rather than probing into the mysteries of God and suffering, or attempting any explanation of the complexities of pain and hurt, Yancey choose to speak on the question, "Where is God when it hurts?" Masterfully, he weaves in the reflections of Miroslav Volf, Desmond Tutu, Nicholas Wolterstorff, as well as the poet, Alfred Lord Tennyson, that it is still possible to hang on to hope and life, amid an atmosphere of despair and death. Even as "Grief is the place where love and pain converge," Yancey reminds us that even in the midst of suffering, God is there. After all, Jesus died on the cross, remember?

Yancey leaves the readers with three powerful answers to the question. In fact, this alone is worth the price of the book. If we ask where is God when it hurts, we can remember that God is on the side of the sufferer all the time, regardless whether we are aware of it or not. If we ask where is God when it hurts, Christians must ask, "Where is the church when it hurts?" It is a reminder for us not to be paralyzed by philosophical or theological confusion, but to do what the church does best: caring, sharing, and provide comfort and opportunities of healing for the hurting. Finally, Yancey reminds us that we should not lose hope for the new world that God is preparing for all of us.

The question of suffering has been asked so many times, and despite the many attempts throughout history to answer it, people are still asking the same question. It is indeed a question that never goes away. Literally. What matters is not the question, but the need to be fixed on the Eternal Hope in God. Without hope, there is no reason to carry on. Without faith, there is no guide to hang on to life. Without God, there is no reason to even ask the question, "Why?"

Yancey's mastery of this topic is evident. As he travels around the world, he is able to sense the commonness among all people groups, that we all can hurt. We can all hurt one another. For hurt people hurt people. What is more important is the way Yancey tries to guide us away from seeking answers to the questions of why, toward the responses of healing, goodness, sharing, caring, and the very Christian blessings that can be provided during times of grief and pain. It is in spite of the suffering that we continue to bless one another. It is in spite of the pain and dangers that we continue to shine forth God's hope. For the day will come, when the question of why will not only go away, it will be replaced by something else even more mysterious and beautiful. Why God do you still love us?

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Zondervan and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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