A few months ago, I enthusiastically signed myself up to teach a youth Sunday school class on the subject of why God lets bad things happen.
Three days before the class, I thought, “Whose idea was this?!”
I had had a vision of what I wanted to say to the students when I’d first volunteered to lead the class. Well, okay–maybe it was more a vision of what I didn’t want to say. I didn’t want to dismiss the complexity of the question with the usual Christian truisms:
“Bad things happen because human beings make bad choices.”
That may be true sometimes, but we don’t choose earthquakes or cancer.
“Bad things happen so that we will draw closer to God and learn to trust Him more.”
Oh, really? I’ve had more than a few bad things happen to me that drove me farther away from God and made me wonder why I ever thought trusting Him was a reasonable thing to do. I still do trust Him. Begrudgingly, anyway. I think it’s mostly because I haven’t found a better alternative.
“Bad things happen, but God brings good out of them, and one day He’ll make everything okay.”
Well, thanks. So I guess there’s something wrong with me that’s keeping me from seeing all the great things God is supposedly doing through my suffering. And I guess my suffering isn’t really that important if it’s all going to go away later on. I just have to be patient or something.
I studied the Sunday school curriculum book to see if it gave me any ideas. Nope, it felt flat to me. Do we ever really get a satisfying answer to the question “Why?”
I kept brooding on the lesson. Somehow I got to thinking about a social science experiment I’d read about a while ago. Maybe that could provide an object lesson that would resonate with the kids. I might not be able to avoid pat answers completely, but I scribbled down some notes that I hoped presented the ideas with sensitivity to people’s different experiences.
On Sunday morning, I carried a large saucepan, some water bottles, and a bag of ice cubes into a room of six middle- and high-schoolers.
“Today we’re going to talk about the question of why God lets bad things happen,” I said. “And the answer is…it’s complicated. We don’t really know.”
“OK, that’s the end of Sunday school for today. See you next week!”
The kids giggled.
“No, just kidding. What we’re going to do now is an activity. I need a few volunteers.”
J.P. was first. “OK, I’m going to fill this pot with ice water,” I said, “and we’re going to time you to see how long you can keep your hand submerged in it. Ready?”
The poor guy lasted less than a minute.
Alex and Nathan went next. “You two are going to hold hands and then put your other two hands in the ice water, and we’ll time you.” Nathan looked a little nervous when Alex started bragging about how long he could withstand the cold, but I let them take their hands out when they easily surpassed J.P.’s time.
“Why do you think Alex and Nathan lasted longer?” I asked.
“Because they were enduring the cold together,” Alyssa said.
“Yes, I think you’re right,” I said. “Scientists have done studies showing that people can handle the discomfort of ice water for a longer period of time if they’re holding another person’s hand. And I think that’s similar to what God has done for us. We don’t always get a satisfying answer about why bad things happen. But we do get the assurance that God is with us in the midst of them. He’s not off in the clouds somewhere, aloof and untouched by suffering. Although He didn’t have to, He chose to come to earth in Christ, to experience the same pain we face, to sacrifice Himself for us, and then to defeat suffering by rising from the dead.”
We read the story in the gospel of Mark when Jesus calmed the storm.
“On the Sunday after September 11, 2001,” I said, “my pastor preached a sermon on this passage. He pointed out that Jesus didn’t prevent the storm from happening in the first place, although He could have done that. But He was with the disciples, enduring the storm just like they were, and then He calmed the storm.
“Life can be stormy. But Christ will one day calm all our storms and set everything right. We can look forward to this with hope, trusting that He is with us. He holds our hands. And that can help us to hang on.”