Q & A: Week Seven — The Question without Answers

I’ve been praying about this week’s question for days. It sits at the center of so many struggles, for me and for people I love — indeed, for just about everyone who takes their faith seriously. My words today are not meant to be final, but simply a reflection of my own processing around this important question over many years. I look forward to reading your words, too. Wrestling with hard questions is important work, necessary work, even when the answers do not always satisfy. And this question? There are no ‘satisfying’ answers out there, I don’t think. What there is . . . is acceptance and — here’s a hard word!  — submission.

Next week’s question: What do I do with all the hard/weird stuff in the Bible?

Painted in Waterlogue


I suppose you might call me blessed. I was well into my forties before I ever experienced the death of anyone close to me. I had lost three grandparents before that time, but somehow, their deaths seemed the normal progression of things, almost orderly. I was sad and I was sorry, but I was not cut to the quick. And I didn’t actually see any of them when they were near death; I didn’t watch them suffer.

Looking back now, I’d have to say that any blessing involved in that particular twist of the calendar was a mixed one. I didn’t know. I didn’t know what it was like to watch someone I love suffer. Suffer and then die. I wasn’t ready when it happened. And, as it does to every one of us, it happened. A lot.


My midlife foray into seminary and then pastoral ministry exposed me to a lot of death and dying. And I was given a great gift early on. A woman I knew moderately well was close to death and I went to visit her while I was still a student. I uttered a prayer under my breath as I pushed open the door to her hospital room: I had never been close to a dying person in my life and I truly did not know what to expect.

But as I stood with her, praying and talking (which are so often the same thing, aren’t they?), it seemed as if God gave me a vision. She had little hair, she was incoherent, she wore only a hospital gown and a diaper — and it hit me: she is getting ready to be born!  And I said that to her as I stroked her forehead, “Oh, my friend! God speed you on the journey.”

Painted in Waterlogueiii

In the years since that afternoon epiphany, I’ve watched my father-in-law, my best friend, my father, my son-in-law and dozens of parishioners suffer and die. And I’ve watched their families suffer and try to live, so this question is one I’ve carried around inside me for a long, long time. However, I have changed the question considerably over these years. In fact, I would have to say that the ‘why’ part of it has pretty much disappeared from my vocabulary. 

Because there is no answer to the ‘why,’ at least not one I can live with. I choose to hang onto the biggest possible picture of God — believing that God is good and God is powerful and God is loving and God is just. And holding all those things together makes the ‘why’ question unanswerable, at least for me. A big God, and the ways of a big God, are beyond my power to comprehend. Beyond. So I am increasingly at peace with leaving that huge area over to the side and focusing instead on questions like these:

What can I do to offer comfort/support/encouragement/hope to people who are struggling?

How can I pray for myself and for others when the tough times hit?

When is the best time to talk/be silent/offer practical help/sing a lament?

Where can I find more resources for those who are suffering?

Who is here? Who needs to be here? Who needs to be re-directed? Who needs more help than I am equipped to offer?

Painted in Waterlogue


Those are the questions, those are the concrete activities, those are the best-case-scenario, left-brain things that happen when I click into crisis mode, in my own life or on behalf of someone else. And they are necessary, good and helpful things to think/do/offer/plan/imagine. But there is more. There has to be more. Because sometimes the weight of it all, the fear that creeps in and around the edges of serious suffering, the uneasy, uncertain darkness of it all — well those things are not quite so amenable to left-brain thought processes. The truth of God’s goodness/power/love/justice must somehow permeate me, not just my rational, thinking self. There must be room for the mystery, and somehow that ole left-brain just isn’t big enough. 

Painted in Waterlogue


The journey of the last half of my life is a journey away from the left side of my brain, that default position I have explored so heartily for so many years. It is a journey toward wholeness, an acknowledgement that I don’t know — I can’t know — what everything ‘means.’

To get to the center, to make room for the mystery, I must carve out time to . . . shut down the noise. Most of that noise happens inside my head, but some of it comes from outside: other people, outside commitments, expectations, assignments, distractions. And when something difficult happens to me or to someone I love, finding that quiet place becomes much more difficult.

But that is exactly when it is most needed. And slowly, with much trial and error, I am learning to find the quiet right smack dab in the middle of the noise. Sometimes it’s three minutes of deep breathing, eyes closed. Sometimes it’s the Jesus prayer, said over and over just before I drift off to sleep. Sometimes it’s taking a familiar phrase of scripture and looking at it, without dissecting it. Sometimes it’s a quiet 30 minutes in my car, perched on the bluffs, overlooking the ocean. Sometimes, it’s a poem or a song that winds its way around my soul, reminding me of Beauty and Grace and Peace. Sometimes, it’s falling asleep in the sunshine of my backyard. 

All of that helps me to find center, to make space for the Spirit, to transfer the swirling anxieties within to the strong, double yoke of Jesus, who has so graciously offered to carry those burdens with me. All of that helps me to come to peace with the unanswered ‘whys’ of my life. 

Quiet. Stillness. Contemplation. Meditation. Wordless prayer. These are the gifts, these are the invitations.

Painted in Waterlogue


Discipline is the other side of discipleship. Discipleship without discipline is like waiting to run in the marathon without ever practicing. Discipline without discipleship is like always practicing for the marathon but never participating. It is important, however, to realize that discipline in the spiritual life is not the same as discipline in sports. Discipline in sports is the concentrated effort to master the body so that it can obey the mind better. Discipline in the spiritual life is the concentrated effort to create the space and time where God can become our master and where we can respond freely to God’s guidance.

Thus, discipline is the creation of boundaries that keep time and space open for God. Solitude requires discipline, worship requires discipline, caring for others requires discipline. They all ask us to set apart a time and a place where God’s gracious presence can be acknowledged and responded to.
– Henri Nouwen


The only way for me to hold the tension of ‘bad things’ happening to ‘good people’ is to remember that I do not and cannot know the reasons why these hard, horrible things happen. I can, however, resolve to enter into the suffering — my own and others’ — and look for God there, because everything I read in scripture and everything I know about Jesus tell me that right there, in the middle of the mess, is where God is sure to show up. And all the topics that we’ve been exploring together in this series come together in that central truth.

We worship a God who knows what it is to suffer and who walks with us through whatever terrible things unfold in front of us. More than that, we worship a God who promises to somehow, some way, redeem that suffering in ways we cannot now imagine. 


“This resurrection life you received from God is not a timid, grave-tending life. It’s adventurously expectant, greeting God with a childlike “What’s next, Papa?” God’s Spirit touches our spirits and confirms who we really are. We know who he is, and we know who we are: Father and children. And we know we are going to get what’s coming to us—an unbelievable inheritance! We go through exactly what Christ goes through. If we go through the hard times with him, then we’re certainly going to go through the good times with him!

That’s why I don’t think there’s any comparison between the present hard times and the coming good times. The created world itself can hardly wait for what’s coming next. Everything in creation is being more or less held back. God reins it in until both creation and all the creatures are ready and can be released at the same moment into the glorious times ahead. Meanwhile, the joyful anticipation deepens.

All around us we observe a pregnant creation. The difficult times of pain throughout the world are simply birth pangs. But it’s not only around us; it’s within us. The Spirit of God is arousing us within. We’re also feeling the birth pangs. These sterile and barren bodies of ours are yearning for full deliverance. That is why waiting does not diminish us, any more than waiting diminishes a pregnant mother. We are enlarged in the waiting. We, of course, don’t see what is enlarging us. But the longer we wait, the larger we become, and the more joyful our expectancy.

Meanwhile, the moment we get tired in the waiting, God’s Spirit is right alongside helping us along. If we don’t know how or what to pray, it doesn’t matter. He does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans. He knows us far better than we know ourselves, knows our pregnant condition, and keeps us present before God. That’s why we can be so sure that every detail in our lives of love for God is worked into something good.”
           – Romans 8:15-28, The Message


Next week’s question (LAST week of this series for now): What do I do with all the hard/weird stuff in the Bible?

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  1. No answers, but I don’t really question anymore either. If I’m ever in the mood for answers though, I like C.S. Lewis’s “The Horse and His Boy” for those. Shasta asks Aslan the “why” question and learns that Aslan was in each of the bad things, sometimes in disguise.

    • I need to re-read that series – it’s been years. I’m always so glad to see that sweet face of yours in this line-up, Megan. Even when there are no answers.

  2. Yeah, I did take time to ask “why” once and it was something i needed to do, but all the while I knew the answer – there is none – but he is present with us. My friend always said ” God will not waste suffering if we cooperate with him.” And I can see the things he has done because of suffering. – so for my link up i published a piecee i wrote about 5 years after my brother died.

    And I guess I also think if God spared all Christians from suffering, I suspect there would be a lot of people who make easy decisions to follow God!

    • Of course, we ask ‘why?’ It’s important and necessary. But it’s not enough. I think a primary goal in this life is to live THROUGH the why and learn to be at peace with the answer: I DON’T KNOW. And then to trust that God does know. I hate knowing this sometimes, but here it is: suffering is a necessary teacher and life-transformer. I will never understand why it is so horrific for some. Never. But I am learning to live with the hardness, the immovability of that truth. To be human is to suffer. BUT it is also to rejoice, to appreciate, to inhabit, to learn, to grow. And walking through the hard stuff, if we slow down enough to acknowledge that God walks through it with us, well. . . that is so often the place where we do our deepest soul work. Now I am not one to make a ‘gratitude list’ of the hard stuff. I will ask for the grace to thank God IN the suffering, but I don’t make the leap to thanking God FOR it. To me, that’s a great big cosmic difference. I will be thankful for whatever good is redeemed from that suffering, but the pain itself? No. Can’t get there.

      • Diana, I share your dilemma. My theology pauses at praising God IN the storm but not FOR the storm. And I think that’s really the best we can do and still be true to ourselves and our feelings. I have been pondering your words in this post and they are as rich, deep and satisfying to me as dark chocolate ~ yes, that soothing and comforting! I love the idea of turning the questions round and asking what can be done to help others with their suffering instead.
        I find myself in a place of wondering and pondering but also resting secure in what I DO know and trust about God’s character and how He has taken care of me thus far.
        This is where I’m at too:”Quiet. Stillness. Contemplation. Meditation. Wordless prayer. These are the gifts, these are the invitations.” My soul leans into resting as I contemplate the mystery of it all. Thank you for wading into deep waters so that we can become refreshed by the reflections which emerge. We’re not sinking, but reaching out arms to hold, support, and encourage one other to stay afloat. Blessed so much by this community here!

        • Gwen Acres says

          Love your comment Joy ! It seems that as we get older we reflect more, praise more, accept more and rest more…. Your statement that ” We are not sinking, but reaching out arms to hold, support and encourage one another to stay afloat.” Yes!! I am so grateful for this company on the journey!!

          • Thank you, Gwen! It does seem as if we are stronger together, or at least able to hold one another up and give space to be authentic and questioning without feeling quite so vulnerable as we might be without a supportive community in which to release our thoughts. They’re not vanishing into the ether, but are taken seriously, shared and validated. It’s such a freeing thing. 🙂

  3. Wow, Diana. I’m SO glad to read your wrap up; the wisdom of your years and walk sounds similar to the path I’ve been on in this Jesus journey, too. I’m doing much more listening and waiting and contemplating these days. And on the other side of 60 I can say without a doubt, yep, there are some hard times we walk through with Him, but He is there in the middle of it all.

    When I began my walk in the 70’s, the ‘discipleship’ word usually meant ‘discipline’ as well, but not in a good way. The focus was always on my flesh and what I could do–how LONG did you pray? How MUCH did you read? Again, all the wrong questions.
    The Nouwen quote absolutely captures the tension required–the discipline or form of making room for God to speak–without my Bible open, but my heart and ears and soul at rest and ready. It doesn’t happen every day but it is a time I treasure, like breathing for my soul, an emptying/filling time–less of me and more of Him.
    That filling station time made all the difference in the world when we walked through my daughter’s recent pregnancy complications and miscarriage. I have never felt such peace and assurance in the middle of heart wrenching times. Jesus was THERE.

    • Isn’t it amazing how that shift to contemplation happens? After way too many years of feeling ‘less than’ because my devotional life was so-so, or my scripture reading wasn’t up to par, or . . . . it is such a relief to lean back into grace and sit in the silence. I love that Nouwen quote and thanked God for it when it popped up on my screen yesterday morning – it summarizes so much of what the last 20 years or so have taught me. I am so grateful to read that ‘peace and assurance’ were part of this recent grief, Jody. Pure gift, those things.

  4. Asking “why” only wearies me and makes me a bit crazy. Because there are no answers I try not to go there. My prayers in times of sorrow are usually ” please let me feel your presence and walk with me”. I look at the world and no one is without their own private grief. Why should I be exempt? The rain falls on all of us. And so does the sunshine!

    • Gwen, This is expresses in a few words what I feel. Thank you. That is a beautiful prayer, and the essence of most of my prayers. I usually just say “pleas be with me, God”

      • Thank you Newell. Your comment truly blesses me as I know the path you are now walking. May you feel the presence of God. Bless you!

      • Newell< I tried to leave a comment on your website but word press hates me! i can never seem to get it to post for me. have to figure that out….anyway, here is what i tried to post on your site in the comments section: not that it was profound, but i wanted to say the following sentences really struck me – challenged me. thank you.

        "But during this time, I realized that I could still pray. I spent many quiet hours in bed, just being quiet, meditating and praying. "

    • Gwen, that is a beautiful prayer and the omly one we need in such circumstances. It comes from a heart weighed heavy with sorrow yet recognising the One who will be able to take it, bear the load and carry us at the same time. It’s so true what you say, “The rain falls on all of us. And so does the sunshine!” As believers in Christ, we are neither exempt from problems and pain nor suffer more than others do. And what a huge blessing it is to have a safe place to take our sorrows! 🙂

    • Exactly, Gwen – that is the question that comes right on top of the ‘why? – ‘why NOT?’ As the psalmist reminds us, the rain falls on the just and the unjust. Suffering is part of life. My best hope in the midst of it is to be open enough to learn from it.

      • Gwen Acres says

        Yes Diana. Learn from it and hopefully be able to share that knowledge to help lighten the load of someone else. There is credibility in having walked in the same shoes.

  5. taking the quiet of this frozen Saturday afternoon to read your post – delighted to see that you used the same Henri quote I shared in today’s Still Saturday post.

    When tempted to ask why, and often, that is
    I need to take a breath
    remember that His thoughts are higher than ours
    and rest in the truth that He knows
    and perhaps we don’t need to

    • I loved seeing Henri at your place yesterday – it’s a rich quote, worthy of as many venues as possible! I’ll be reading everyone’s posts tonight; looking forward to it.

  6. Reading this on Sunday morning, I almost feel like I’ve been to church. Especially when you add in the fellowship of the comment section.

    Finding quiet and solitude in the midst of the unanswerable questions is such a valuable lesson. Taking time to be outside in the big huge world, where I can take my smaller place and think about my Great Big God and his overarching comfort and purpose – leads to peace.

    Honestly this post is chock full of wonderful truth. I am bookmarking it for more contemplation, as right now my time is precious. We are moving house and I’m about to start again the process of finding a community over here in Europe, this time in Munich.

    Starting fresh in a new city is a wonderful opportunity to lean even closer into the Lord. And as I read this post, I thought to myself “read this again once you’ve transplanted. this is important stuff for what is ahead”.

    Thank you, Diana. Oh, and I almost forgot, thanks for the Nouwen quote. It is golden.

    • may your time of transition draw you closer and deeper to the One Who is your Source of all things!

      may roots transplant strong!

    • Thank you so much, Susan. You are always such an encouragement. Praying for you as you make this big move, that you’ll find community quickly and the time and space to explore the wonders of a new home. Keep us posted as you’re able. Remind me again where you’re from originally. . . the term ‘moving house’ sounds vaguely British, but I think I remember an east coast home at one point??

      • Hi Donna! I think I’ve been hanging around too many folk from the UK and South Africa!

        I’m originally from Anchorage, Alaska — but moved here to Zurich from Chicago 🙂

        I just read the wrap-up, and came back here again to glean more from the comments.

        God bless!

  7. There’s so much here to ponder and give thanks for. Like many others I don’t like the question, I don’t think it makes any sense though I remember when my sister died, friends of hers recommended a book called something like ‘ When bad things happen to good people’ and even then I thought that was stupid. BUT forcing myself to think through this logically I came to a place where I could not accept that suffering might happen and that is where my rather late post is coming from. (I think!)

    • Juliet,

      I never read that book..but the book most helpful and one of the few I will give to people is ” A GRACE DISGUISED, how the soul grows through loss”, written by Jerry Sitser, who lost his mother, his wife and daughter in a drunk driving accident, leaving him with 3 small children to raise alone. It’s not just about his loss, but other losses that he weaves through out the book. It is simply the best book I read on grief.

      I had read it before my brother died because one of my friends lost her grown son on 9/11 on Flight 93 and she was reading it and I wanted to “be” with her. The chapter on God’s soverignty was very helpful – basically, where I landed was God is Soverign and I dont’ understand how that works. If I did, he probably wouldnt’ be Soverign.

      By the way, when I give that book, I tell them I want them to have it so they can read it if and when they are ready and they do not need to tell me if or when they read it unless they want to. That is because someone gave me a book I was to read “right away” – it was mostly “head” knowlege and I couldn’t read it and in fact lost it. She asked 4 months later later if i read it….and when I said I hadn’t read it yet, she said “well, i thought you didn’t.”

      I wished later i had asked if she thought i hadn’t read it because if i had, I should be all better by then! but I was too broken at the time to pursue it!

    • There was a book by exactly this title written by a rabbi about 30 years ago. Many people loved it; others were uncomfortable with the way in which the author undercut the sovereignty of God. I’m with Carol – the best book, hands down, is Jerry Sittser’s. Beautifully written, wrenching, honest, unflinching. unafraid of the hard stuff. I highly recommend it and probably gave away over 30 copies of it over the years.

  8. Gwen Acres says

    I googled Jerry Sittser and found the book title you referred to Diana, “A Grace Disguised….” Just from the topic and your recommendation of it I think this is a book I want to buy that has pages to turn. I download a lot of books but the ones that touch me the most I want to be hard copy, in my hands, and on my book shelf.

    • Yes, that was the title Carol specified – I was agreeing with her that it’s a great book. And yes, it is definitely a book to mark and hold.

  9. I agree with Susan, this is church. I too have given up(mostly) asking why, cause it just makes my head spin. So many hard places in life, so many dark nights where the fear does creep in, and the only thing that keeps me afloat in the darkness is just calling on God to just hear me and help me through. I can accept not knowing why, but the hard thing is when non-believers say, if there is a God, why does he allow this suffering? Without knowing and embracing his goodness and being content, for now, in not knowing, how do I help them in the hard times? That’s where I come up short, maybe that’s a conversation for another time.

    • That may well be a conversation for a later time, Judy. It’s a tough topic to discuss with non-believers, but not impossible, I don’t think. Part of why what we believe is called ‘faith,’ is that we cannot know or discover all the answers; we have to take some things ‘on faith,’ so to speak. I have no trouble admitting that I don’t know the answer to questions like this one. I also have no trouble talking it over with folks, even folks who might scoff at my profession of faith. I will also sometimes ask if they can explain to me why there is so much goodness in this life — where does it come from, this proclivity for love, self-sacrifice, the creation of beauty? That’s a tough question, too, I think, but not one that many people ‘struggle’ over. Why not struggle over that as much as we do over bad things happening to good people?

  10. Ro elliott says

    For me….to not be crushed by living in this broken world….I have to work from the foundation of this truth…God is Love… And true love never forces Itself on anyone….so much of this suffering is at the hands of other broken people…and so often people wonder ….why won’t God deal with that rebellious son….husband…but what that means most of the time is…why doesn’t God shorten my suffering and deal hard with the other person….but if we think about it…when we want God to be the ” enforcer” in someone else’s life…where are we willing to let Him be the same in our lives….where do I want my free will to be violated. When I suffered for years from a chronic illness…which was a result from years of abusing my body….I wanted God to just zap me….make me well…but He was doing much more in my life…healing my body would have been easy…healing my broken soul was a long journey…I don’t believe God punished me with the illness…I believe He let my own punishment have it’s own consequences …but what we must never forget…He is the great redeemer….He will enter into the darkest pit with us if we let Him….He walked me through 10 yrs of suffering… he redeemed and transformed the suffering…and by His grace my body and soul found healing. Sometimes we are walking with others who story is still being written…as we grow in trusting the Author of our lives….that His pen and ink flow from His heart of love…we can help others to trust and live in the page of one day…and to trust no matter what the circumstances …the end of the story….all can truly be grace!!!

    • “True love never forces itself on anyone” – what a wonderful response, Ro. And yes, so much of the world’s suffering is at the hands of broken people, either intentionally or otherwise. Read Donna’s link (the last one) for a heart-rending story of how human error played a huge role in a tragedy in New Zealand. Where do we want our free will to be violated? Excellent question! And I’m glad that you separated out the learning that happened during your years of illness from God directly punishing you through that illness. I think that’s an important line to draw. A lovely comment, Ro. Thank you so very much.

  11. When I was in college, a girlfriend of mine was involved in a serious car accident. For a week Shelley lay in a coma. Hundreds of people prayed for her, including me, and I was quite confident that God would heal her. After all, Shelley had so much to live for. She was a strong Christian, very smart, a gifted pianist, and more. But Shelley died. How could God let that happen?!

    I searched my Bible for answers, and Romans 11:33-34 spoke to me–not the specific answer to the question “why” that I wanted, but at least a bit of understanding. “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor? Who has ever given to God that God should repay him? For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen.”

    “Everything is for his glory.” That has to include the death of my young friend. It makes no sense to me, but to God, with his wisdom, knowledge, and unsearchable judgments, Shelley’s death had purpose. Perhaps his intent was to confront the dozens of teens at her funeral. Perhaps, as underlined passages were read from Shelley’s Bible, they were convinced that they had better be prepared to meet God, too, as Shelley was.

    Thank you, Diana, for tackling these tough questions, for helping us prepare for tough times that are almost guaranteed to come at some time or other. I so appreciate your honesty and insight.

    • I will admit, Nancy, that I have a hard time with the ‘everything is for his glory’ approach to this topic. I’m not sure that the untimely death of anyone glorifies God. BUT I do believe that God can bring redemption through any situation and the good things that arise through that redemption can glorify him. Maybe it’s like the story of the man, blind from birth, whom Jesus healed. When questioned about where the blindness came from – his sin or his parents’ sin – Jesus said (in The Message), “You’re asking the wrong question. You’re looking for someone to blame. There is no such cause-effect here. Look instead for what God can do.” I love that version! And it’s not exactly the same thing, at least to my reading and understanding (and apparently, not to Eugene Peterson’s understanding, either), as saying God made this man blind so that he might be glorified. Maybe I’m splitting hairs here, but for me, those hairs are important. Your answer from Romans 11, however? YES, that’s where I land, too. I cannot fathom all that there is to know about what happens and why it happens. I must choose to trust that God knows and let that be enough. Sometimes that’s a lot harder to do than others, isn’t it?

  12. Diana, reading this was much LIKE a wordless prayer, for me. I needed it. And you know what? The scripture you quoted at the end–I paraphrased it into my writing this past week. I love when God speaks to us like that. I wrote it, and then come here and read it again–all in a new way, and my eyes are opened to what He’s speaking. Thank you. xo.

    I loved this: “All around us we observe a pregnant creation. The difficult times of pain throughout the world are simply birth pangs. But it’s not only around us; it’s within us. The Spirit of God is arousing us within. We’re also feeling the birth pangs. These sterile and barren bodies of ours are yearning for full deliverance. That is why waiting does not diminish us, any more than waiting diminishes a pregnant mother. We are enlarged in the waiting. We, of course, don’t see what is enlarging us. But the longer we wait, the larger we become, and the more joyful our expectancy.”–beautiful.