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Q & R: Questions that can't yet must be answered

Two heartbreaking emails I received recently follow:
Here's the first:


My heart is completely shattered and many questions are unanswered... [In 2011], [our toddler] got up from her nap and walked outside, got in our car, somehow the door locked and we didn't find her in time. My wife and I are devastated, but hopeful that he we know [our little girl] is with Jesus. All of us (we have two daughters) are seeking counseling and know that it will take years to make it to the other side of this awful sadness, grief, and missing him. The reason I'm writing you is that I simply don't understand how, or even if, God allows these things to happen?? Is God sovereign? Does he allow evil to take my child or did God take him? Or, is God simply sitting back watching this world spin out of control? Does he intervene? Why didn't he save my child? I truly am in the middle of questioning whether there is even a god at this point. How can I experience or know he is here in this with me? As CS Lewis said in “A Grief Observed”…. All I hear is silence. I am begging God for signs of hope or his presence, I simply get nothing. I would never treat my child this way. If I saw my son in agony crying and in so much pain (as we are), I would touch him in a way that he knew my presence in an “irrefutable” way. I want to “know”…. I’m tired of the “you have to walk in faith” answer. Any response to my questions would of great help.
Here's the second:
Mr. McLaren,

In years past, I have read some of your books, and I even went to hear you speak at a church in Houston once. I know that your ideas about hell are different from many traditional churches.

A week ago, my 27 year old son, K., was shot and killed outside our home. At this point, we still do not know the details behind why it happened. My son was a good man, but the last year of his life has been emotionally horrible for him. It involved a lot of drinking and maybe drug use. K was raised as a Muslim, but his father and I divorced 10 years ago. After that, I returned to following Christ, and K abandoned Islam. While K never became a professed Christian, I know that he believed in God and that he prayed to God in his heart. He never shared with me if he accepted Jesus. I feel that he did believe in Jesus in his own way, but exactly what he believed was known only to K and God.

As a mother, I know how tormented K was by things that had happened in his life. He has lived with me, off and on, for the last 3 years, so we were close. It has been so painful for me to watch him hurt in life. I feel like I have spent hundreds of hours in prayer about him. Now that he is dead, I cannot bear to live the rest of my life, feeling that K will now go on to be tortured in hell by a God that claims to love us. I am not a regular churchgoer anymore because I feel that they teach a painful message on a lot of levels, but I do believe deeply in God and the ministry of Jesus Christ. But I can't find peace and consolation in church at this time. I want to be obedient to God and believe in what He says...but I don't understand the whole heaven and hell thing, even though I was raised in church.

I recall that there is a verse in the New Testament where Jesus says something about the fact that earthly fathers will not give a stone to his child to eat, if the child has asked for bread, making the point that God is a better heavenly father than we are as earthly parents. As many times as I may have been angry with my son for something that he did, said or even believed, I could never reject him, turn him away or even do something hurtful to him....if I as his earthly mother couldn't bear to do anything bad to my son, can God, as a heavenly father, put him in Hell to be tortured for eternity? And how do I continue to worship this God, knowing that He will allow my son to be tortured and punished for eternity?

All of these questions torment me day and night....I can find no peace, no rest, no consolation. And yet, I know that the rules of the universe are not just about what I want to believe. I can't just believe what I want and expect it to be that way because I want it that way. If you can give me any insight, from a Christian viewpoint, it would help me so much. Thank you.

Thanks for these questions. When I was a pastor, I always felt torn in trying to respond to the kinds of questions you're raising, and I feel the same way now. On one level, the unanswered questions simply add to the pain you're feeling, so they need responses ... yet on another, the answers that are given often only add to the pain (i.e. "you have to walk by faith"). So the first response to questions like these must be, in my mind, to be willing to be touched by your grief. As someone who came close to losing a child (one of our sons had cancer and went through 3 years of chemo), I have imagined the loss you feel, although I haven't experienced it. I imagine many readers of this blog have gone through experiences like yours, so I hope you know that many people today are allowing themselves to be touched by your loss and are extending - not pity, but compassion.

Next, I think all your questions need to be affirmed. These questions must be asked, and you have every right to refuse an answer that doesn't ring true.

Many people's lives are held together by statements like "God is in control" or "It's God's will," but those same statements can be horrible weapons against others who have experienced the kinds of things you have. It's no wonder that when people are given two choices - a) believe in a God who makes/allows/plans/permits all things to happen, or b) don't believe in a God at all - many choose b). I know I couldn't choose a ... but I think there is an option C.

And you both have already discovered it. You said ...

I would never treat my child this way. If I saw my son in agony crying and in so much pain (as we are), I would touch him in a way that he knew my presence in an “irrefutable” way.

and ...
I recall that there is a verse in the New Testament where Jesus says something about the fact that earthly fathers will not give a stone to his child to eat, if the child has asked for bread, making the point that God is a better heavenly father than we are as earthly parents.

There is so much that could and should be said in response to your questions, but the most important thing is to say that if there is any irrefutable evidence for the reality of a loving God, it is the love you feel as parents - a love that is so great it produces great grief, beyond all words. I don't see the reality of God in the pious answers people have given you; I see the reality of God in your love and grief as parents. This isn't an image of God as cosmic chess master or cosmic engineer making everything happen: this is an image of a God of love whose presence in the universe is like your presence in the lives of your children. In all of the agony, I hope you can be sure of this: God's love is never less than yours, and all the love you feel for your child and your family is actually a sign of God's loving presence in our world. God is in you ... with you ... even in your tears.

On the issue of heaven and hell, I hope you'll find helpful a book I wrote on the subject - at the right time - The Last Word and the Word After That. And on the larger question of suffering and loss, the prequel to that book could be helpful - The Story We Find Ourselves In. All the books I've written come from the heart, but these two have a special place - because they address (however imperfectly) the agonies you are experiencing.

One other book of mine might be helpful ... the last half of Naked Spirituality tries to provide a way of processing pain with God. I trust you have some friends around you to keep walking through all this with you ... I know that many people will join me today in holding you in prayer.