The Question that Never Goes Away, by Philip Yancy
Genre: Christian Living
Reason for Reading: A galley copy of this book was provided by Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. I wanted to read this book because I’m interested in theodicy, and I’ve been pretty impressed with the bits of Yancy’s writing that I’ve seen.
Synopsis: After over a decade of traveling the world giving lectures on Where is God When it Hurts, Philip Yancy has decided to revisit this subject in his most recent book The Question That Never Goes Away. I have not read his earlier book, so I can’t compare the messages of each, but I assume the newer book has a similar message to the older, with recent examples and insights that he has gathered since writing the first book.
He starts by describing two different types of disaster: the devastating 2011 tsunami in Japan and the horrifying 4-year seige of Sarajevo in 1992. The first example is a natural disaster, but the second is man-made. Such disasters beg the question “Why?” Why would a God who loves us allow such destruction?
Yancy points out that atheists have a field day with such calamity – using it as evidence that God doesn’t exist. For, clearly, a loving God wouldn’t allow such things to happen; therefore it is erroneous to believe in God. But Yancy counters: if, indeed, this is an impersonal universe of random indifference, why are the atheists so shocked and upset about someone else’s tragedy? Clearly, their morals are shaped by the philosophical framework of Christianity.
My thoughts: I don’t really think this is an adequate counter to the claim that God doesn’t exist. First of all, Christianity is not the only religion which is founded on the power of love. Second, there is no evidence that God created our revulsion to other peoples’ tragedy. Such revulsion can be explained by evolution of social behavior. Humans might simply have an instinct to protect our neighbors because we are better able to survive in a group than alone. On the other hand, I don’t think asking the age-old question “Why?” proves God doesn’t exist, either. To think so is a bit naive.
Yancy continues by explaining that there’s nothing wrong with asking the question “Why?” In fact, it is a question asked over and over again in the Bible. God expects such questions, and he understands our grief and frustration at getting no answer. BUT, He still doesn’t provide an answer. Not in the Bible. And not in the world.
Ours is not to reason why. Ours is but to do and die.
Yancy suggests that we shift our focus from cause to response. When disaster strikes, we should appreciate the outpouring of humanitarian aide that comes from individuals, communities, and countries. Yes – some of this humanitarian aide can be poorly planned, but notice what lies at the heart: love. We, as human beings, want to reach out and help those who are suffering. So where is God when it hurts? He is in those friends, neighbors, and complete strangers who reach out to help the suffering. God hates our suffering as much as we do – but he loves us so much that he sent his own son to suffer among us. Because we can relate to a suffering God.
Finally, Yancy criticizes the claim that God sends suffering in order to build character. He points out that Jesus healed the afflicted. He never once said to them “But think of how character-building this experience is!” Yancy points out that God has promised to redeem our suffering. This does not mean that God sends suffering, but that when tragedy occurs, He inspires and directs good to result from the evil. Thus, we do gain character from suffering.
My thoughts: Well, I know for a fact that good often comes out of bad situations in my life. I don’t know if that is only because I like to be optimistic and think of how I’ve learned from an experience, or become stronger, or had a good experience that otherwise never would have happened. I could just as easily dwell on the tragedy and what good that might have happened if tragedy hadn’t occurred. If I did so, I would certainly live a more miserable life. But would I be any more right or wrong? Regardless, it makes me happy to think that God redeems my suffering. I’d rather not be miserable, thanks.
My thoughts: This is a very difficult book to read because Yancy dwells on quite a few tragic events in detail. However, the book has a strong message and is written with a very humble and personal air. Yancy impresses me with his intelligent observations and powerful examples. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the question of why God allows suffering. I am eager to read more of Yancy’s work.
2 thoughts on “The Question that Never Goes Away, by Philip Yancy”
Very interesting commentary on what sounds like a very interesting book.
One personal observation on the “suffering in the world proves that there is no God” argument. I find it untenable. I often do however cite it when I contend that if there is a God, we have no idea as to his nature. We have no idea if he loves all of humankind, if he is indifferent, or if he hates humankind.
Just one final point, it sounds as if Yancy is critical of Atheists being hypocritical, by supporting a system of morals that is Christian. Aside from the fact that I believe that sometimes Christianity is credited with certain moral innovations that are actually universal, on the whole I share, and am frankly in near awe, of the moral system espoused in the Gospels. One can question the existence of God, yet share many Christian values.
I seem to be endlessly fascinated by logical arguments about whether or not God exists, although I firmly believe that there is absolutely no way to logically prove or disprove the point. So, in a way, I agree with your argument somewhat: if there is a God, we can't logically work out what his nature is. On the other hand, I have a reasonable feeling “in my heart” of who God is, and it feels right to me. And I am willing to accept that sometimes intuition can tell us things that logic can't. 🙂
I completely agree with you that the moral system of the Gospels is awe-inspiring. Regardless of whether you think he was God or man, Jesus was a very wise man, and so were the writers of the Gospels and letters of the New Testament.
But I think it's a shame that so many people seem to think that this moral structure is uniquely Christian. You can see the same types of wisdom in Eastern religions and Islam (I'm not familiar enough with Judaism to comment on it – a weakness I should address some day.)
Of course, Jesus' teachings influenced Islam quite a bit, since Jesus is revered as a prophet by Muslims – and the prophet Mohammed was certainly quite familiar with Jesus' teachings.
I also imagine there was a lot of ideological trade between the Near East of Jesus' time and the Far East. Ideas, after all, can move a lot more swiftly than goods. I imagine part of the “universal” morals is human nature, and part of it is trade of ideological memes.