A friend of mine died recently. We have been friends for decades. He battled cancer for roughly half the time I knew him. And while he fought valiantly and (I’m sure) gained a victor’s crown in heaven, it was hard to watch him suffer and hard to say goodbye.
Another friend is currently facing a decision to continue debilitating cancer treatments or stop such brutal efforts and make the most of what time she has left on this earth.
At such times I am as prone as anyone to ask God: “Why?” “Why him? Why her? Why must they suffer so much? Why do my prayers for healing seem to go unanswered? Why would someone who has taken such good care of his body, eating well and exercising, be stricken with such a cruel disease? Why would someone who helped so many find herself so helpless when she is most needed by others?”
Those are fair questions. But asking God “why” seldom—if ever—results in an answer.
The Bible tells the story of Job, who suffered great loss and pain and repeatedly sought an answer to the question, “Why?” God eventually answered, of course, but not as Job wanted. Job wanted an explanation. God declined to explain, instead asking Job:
“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
Tell me, if you understand.
Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
Who stretched a measuring line across it?
On what were its footings set,
or who laid its cornerstone—
while the morning stars sang together
and all the angels shouted for joy?
“Who shut up the sea behind doors
when it burst forth from the womb,
when I made the clouds its garment
and wrapped it in thick darkness,
when I fixed limits for it
and set its doors and bars in place,
when I said, ‘This far you may come and no farther;
here is where your proud waves halt’?
“Have you ever given orders to the morning,
or shown the dawn its place,
that it might take the earth by the edges
and shake the wicked out of it?….
“Have you journeyed to the springs of the sea
or walked in the recesses of the deep?
Have the gates of death been shown to you?
Have you seen the gates of the deepest darkness?
Have you comprehended the vast expanses of the earth?
Tell me, if you know all this” (Job 38:1-13, 16-18, NIV).
God never answered Job’s “why” question. God repeatedly—and at length—pointed out that His wisdom and experience so far surpassed Job’s earthly perspective that a satisfactory explanation was impossible. Not because of God’s limitations (Who has none) but because of Job’s.
The story shifts, however, when Job says, “Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know. Therefore I . . . repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:3, 6, NIV).
That is, Job discovered a better question than “why.” It is a question God is far more likely to answer, which is “What now?” Not “God, you owe me an explanation,” but “God, how should I respond to this?”
When I am treated unfairly, it is natural to feel self-pity and ask, “Why, God?” But when I pray instead, “What now, God?” He shows me how to respond with self-sacrifice instead of self-pity.
When a loved one falls ill or dies, I tend to curse the darkness, asking, “Why, God?” But when I pray “What now, God?” He often helps me light a candle and find ways to ease the suffering of others.
When my plans crumble in my hands, I quickly respond with frustration and ask “Why, God?” But when I pray “What now, God?” He tenderly but firmly suggests a new plan and often calls out of me new strength, determination and resiliency.
So try it. Go ahead and ask, “Why?” (Who knows, maybe you’ll get a better answer than Job). But let that question lead to the better one: “What now?”