Reflections on Hurting and Healing

by Scott Mehl
Why do bad things happen? It’s a question my daughter has been asking in her first philosophy class. It’s a question I’ve been asking in the wake of my bike accident. In fact, it’s a question I’ve heard almost everyone around me ask at one time or another. Now, people don’t necessarily ask this question out loud. It’s too deep for polite or casual conversation. But underneath so many of our efforts to comfort one another lingers this biting question: Why does this happen?

If you’re looking for a simple answer from me, I think you’re going to be disappointed. I’m not prepared to provide a theodicy. What I want to do instead is identify one of the most common ways we incorrectly seek to answer this question: over-spiritualization. Probably the most common reaction I received to breaking my ankle was the observation that God must want me to slow down. While this accident did reveal what those around me think needs to change in my life, I’m not sure it provided much clarity on what God thinks needs to change.

In our grappling with the big question of why bad things happen we tend to look for simple solutions. We want answers that explain the complex world to us in ways we don’t have to think too hard about. And in over-spiritualizing our suffering, I’m afraid we actually undersell the incredible, glorious, complex, and mysterious spiritual work God is actually doing.

First, it’s a misconception that all suffering is an act of God’s discipline. While it’s true that God does, at times, discipline us as his children (Heb 12:5-7), this is not the way we are to interpret all (or even most) suffering. God does allow us to experience the negative consequences of our actions, and he lovingly directs us back to himself through those negative consequences. But that does not mean every instance of suffering is an act of God’s discipline. A loving father doesn’t indiscriminately discipline his child, leaving the child to wonder what the discipline is for. When the connection between suffering and sin isn’t clearly obvious, we shouldn’t interpret it as discipline.

Second, it’s a misconception that God desires that we suffer so that we might gain wisdom. God loves us. He doesn’t desire our suffering. While one of the ways God redeems our suffering is to use it for our good (Rom 8:28) and the building of our character (Rom 5:3), that’s very different from God choosing to enact suffering in our lives so that we might learn something. Again, think of a perfect loving father. Suffering is an unfortunate opportunity through which we are often transformed and gain wisdom. It’s not the tool of choice in the hands of a sadistic master.

Third, it’s a misconception that the most common insights from suffering come in the form of one simple “lesson.” When tough things happen, we all want to glean some kind of clear takeaway. If we learn a lesson, we assume that must be “the one.” If we haven’t learned anything, we try frantically to learn something, assuming the suffering isn’t going to stop until we do. And when the suffering doesn’t let up, we tend to assume we haven’t gotten the right message yet. This is not how God operates. He teaches us numerous different things at the same time. He forms us in a number of different ways. The “lessons” are myriad and some of the most profound ones will take years to comprehend.

And, in the end, God isn’t primarily after us learning “lessons” at all. He’s after us coming to know him. Which is how over-spiritualization gets in the way of what God is actually doing. When we look for one simple lesson or message God is trying to convey through our suffering or try to justify the pain by identifying a simple purpose, we miss all the different ways God is redeeming our suffering. Slowly but surely, he’s using it as an occasion to expose our selfishness, demonstrate our love, strengthen our trust, and produce the fruit of the Spirit.

Why did I break my ankle? In one sense, I don’t exactly know. But in another sense, I’ve got a pretty good idea. I’m confident it wasn’t God’s discipline for my sinful choices. I don’t think God was trying to teach me a lesson—even if I could benefit from slowing down a bit. As far as I can tell, I broke my ankle because I was going fast around a corner where there was gravel on the path. The bike slipped and my bones snapped.  God didn’t put the gravel there to get to me. My loving father didn’t “zap” me and make me go down. I hit a patch of gravel. And sometimes a patch of gravel is just a patch of gravel. But, whatever the cause of our suffering, one thing we can be sure of is that God will always use it to grow us, for our good and for his glory.
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