When You Long to Know the “Why” Behind Your Sorrow

We have a natural longing to know why. It is the question a child first asks her parents. It is the question an inquisitive toddler asks at every turn. It is the question that has spurred a world of exploration, invention, and innovation. Why?

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It is no surprise, then, that when we encounter troubles, when we experience tragedies, and when we find ourselves in situations that grieve us, we ask why. When the pain comes upon us and cannot be dulled, when the illness takes over our bodies and cannot be cured, when sorrow settles deep within us and cannot be comforted, we want to know the reasons. It is not hard to see what has happened—the evidence is stamped upon our bodies, imprinted upon our souls, and etched upon our minds. But it’s very hard to see why it has happened. Why would God allow this unremitting pain? Why would God permit this distressing sickness? Why would God take that person I love? If God cares and God loves and if God ordains and God controls, why would this be his will? How could this ever make sense?

Yet the answers are rarely forthcoming. We may know the general answers—“all things work for good” and “for my name’s sake” and find some comfort in them. But when we scour the Scriptures and devote ourselves to prayer in search of the particulars—or even go further and appeal to prophecies, coincidences, or inner feelings—we are met with silence or uncertainty.

I offer four responses to those who long to know the why to their sorrow or their suffering, their time of illness or of loss.

The first is to trust God with it. You have been graciously saved by faith—faith in the saving work of Jesus Christ. Yet faith is not a one-time reality—“express it and forget it.” You need faith for all of life. This faith calls you to not merely entrust your soul to God, but also your life, your times, your health, your loved ones, and everything else. “God, I have trusted you for salvation,” you may pray, “and now I trust you with my suffering.” If you can confidently place your soul in his hands, so too your health, your safety, your children, and all you count dear. And even if he chooses not to answer your why questions, you can know that he is eminently trustworthy and that he must have very good reasons and a very good plan.

The second is to consider what answer would actually satisfy you. You may think you want to know why, but it is worth asking if you actually do. What answer would satisfy you? And do you have a mind capable of grasping it? Because the answer may reach deep into the past and extend far into the future. God may be up to things that require knowledge far beyond your ability and capacity far beyond that of your limited, little, sin-tainted mind. And then even if you could understand, are you confident that you would judge it worth it? That you would hear God’s explanation and receive it with joy? Consider if you actually want to receive an answer and if any answer would satisfy you.

The third is to steer your mind away from what God has not revealed and to steer it instead toward what he has. Instead of searching for the reasons for your tragedy, look to the character of God—all the things he has revealed about himself. Where your temptation may be to interpret God through what you know about your tragedy, it is infinitely more important to interpret your tragedy through what you know about God. So as you endure your time of suffering, bring to mind the glorious reality of who God is and what God has done. Then consider your circumstances in light of those truths.

The fourth is to turn your focus from “what God did” to “how God is using it”—and then be careful not to conflate the two. You do not need to know God’s reasons in order to praise him for the results. Yet you need to be careful that you do not assume the results are the reasons. Is the reason Jim Elliot died so that Elisabeth could have the ministry she did? Maybe. We can’t know because God doesn’t tell us. What is one of the ways God used Jim Elliot’s death? By raising up Elisabeth and allowing her to have a long and powerful ministry. These are two very different ways of looking at the issue and you are on much firmer ground when you focus on the second. In your own life, as you set aside “why did God do this?” you free yourself to ask, “How may God wish for me to use this in a way that brings him glory and shows love to my neighbor?” You can begin to ask questions like these: How has God proven his character in this? In what ways has he been true to his promises? How have I grown in faith and love through it? How have I seen others become more like Christ? How has this hardship loosened my love for the things of this earth and lifted my eyes to heaven? You can rejoice in how God is using your sorrow and suffering even though you do not know the reasons.

Times of suffering are a tragic reality on this side of heaven. And as you endure them, I plead with you not to cheapen your tragedies by being too quick to assume you know God’s purposes in them. Rather, entrust them to the One who has proven worthy of your trust, your confidence, and your deepest devotion. Entrust it to him, look to him with faith, rejoice in every evidence of how he is using it for good, and wait for the day when he will make it all clear.