Christianity Today‘s editor-at-large describes his new text, The Question That Never Goes Away, in which he shares how to face challenges to faith.
Author Philip Yancey
Tavis: 37 years ago, awarding-winning author and editor-at-large of Christianity Today, Philip Yancey, explored the difficulty of hanging onto faith in the face of calamities with his bestseller, “Where is God When it Hurts?”
He’s now returned to that conundrum with his latest text appropriately titled “The Question That Never Goes Away” which tackles what is essentially the eternal question of faith, how to find God in the midst of tragedies. Philip Yancey, good to have you on this program.
Philip Yancey: Thank you, sir.
Tavis: The timing of this conversation cannot be more propitious for so many reasons, not the least of which is what I think a lot of us are wrestling with every day, which is what do you say to these families, the extended families, of the persons on that Malaysia airlines jet which, as we sit here now, bodies have not yet been recovered, still trying to figure out exactly where it is as we sit for this conversation.
But that “why” question, it doesn’t ever go away. In the context of this book and that tragedy, you say what to those families to start our conversation?
Yancey: I wrote this book, as you say, I started my first career with writing the book, “Where is God When it Hurts?” And as a result, I’ve been invited to speak on that topic in all sorts of wrenching circumstances. Virginia Tech, Columbine, Aurora Theater shootings, Mumbai, those kind of places. So I face that question so often.
And actually, one of the things that I’ve learned is that we should speak very slowly. You go back to the story of Job in the Bible. Here’s a guy who everything bad could happen to him and he didn’t deserve it at all. And his friends showed up and we kind of laugh about these friends now. We call them Job’s comforters.
They actually didn’t give him any comfort. But if you read it carefully, they were so moved by what happened. They sat down in silence for seven days and seven nights. It’s when they opened their mouths that the problems started.
And one of the things I found is that the things we want to say for well-intentioned motives often cause more harm than good. People don’t need our words. They mainly need our presence, they need our love. And if you come in too quickly with explanations, you may do more harm than good.
Tavis: That’s advice to us, the family, the friends, fellow human beings. What do you say to them with these heart questions they have? Not head questions, heart questions they have about why.
Yancey: Well, as a Christian, the best clue I have into how God looks at our situation is looking at Jesus. And one of the things I think the church often does wrong and has done wrong in my case is they make God look like the bad guy, the enemy who’s kind of pulling strings, sticking pins, hurting us.
And if you really want to know how God feels, what I’ve learned is God is always on the side of the one suffering. Not against the sufferer, on the side of the one suffering. And if you read the New Testament, you just follow Jesus around and see how he handles a widow who’s just lost her only son or even a Roman soldier whose servant fell ill.
He never lectures; he never makes them feel bad. He responds with comfort and hope and healing. And that’s what we should be doing, no matter what your faith situation is. Our job is to bring that kind of comfort and hope and healing, to be alongside and to let people know God is not against you.
The world is not against you, but the world is a place where bad things happen. It’s just true. Airlines crash, people do evil things. A lot of bad things happen and it causes pain.
Tavis: But for those who would make a mockery of the God that we serve and say if he’s all-knowing and all-powerful, if he’s all that and then some, why couldn’t he stop this from happening in the first place? Why does he have to be on the side of the sufferer if he could have stopped the suffering on the front side?
Yancey: We could talk about that all night and maybe we will [laugh].
Tavis: I ain’t got all night, but I got some time. Go ahead, yeah [laugh].
Yancey: I’d say the first thing to say is that, if we’re upset about the situation of this world, God is far more upset. Whatever anger, whatever grief we feel about the bad things happening, God feels even more. So God is not defending this world as the ideal world that God created and had in mind. In fact, he plans to do something about it.
As a Christian, I believe that. But it’s important if you feel that kind of anger, if you feel that kind of grief, to get it out. There’s a lot of that in the Bible, the Book of Job, Psalms, a lot of that. It’s okay to feel that grief.
You know, Jesus in the Lord’s Prayer that some people every day, he taught us to pray that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Clearly, that’s not happening. When I went to Newtown, Connecticut, I was called to speak there after the tragedy at Sandy Hook, I happened to be reading a lot of these – they call the New Atheists, you know, people like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens.
And it occurred to me that when a tragedy like that happens, 9/11, Newtown, look at the New York Times. They don’t ask the Christopher Hitchens’ and the Richard Dawkins’ to write the editorial. They turn to rabbis, they turn to priests, they turn to pastors because we’re desperate for a word of hope, for a word of comfort.
And Dawkins was very clear as I was reading him. He said we live in a world of a blind, pitiless universe. It’s just a random accident that we’re here and, when we’re gone, we’re just going to disappear. Standing before the parents in Newtown, Connecticut who just lost their six and seven-year-old…
Tavis: That ain’t the message they want to hear.
Yancey: It is not. They need a word of comfort and hope. And as a Christian, I was able with integrity to stand up and say I believe that there is a future. When Jesus was here, he said I’m going away to prepare a place for you.
So your little girl, your little son who you miss so dearly, they didn’t just disappear. They didn’t just vanish. You may be reunited with them someday. They’re in the safe hands of a loving God.
Tavis: Why does the why question never disappear?
Yancey: [Chuckles] I guess because the bad things keep happening. And whether it’s human cause, you know, Hitler, things going on in Syria right now, or in the book I talked about being in Japan with the tsunami there. 20,000 people died. These are people just, you know, driving along, having coffee, going to work, and then suddenly this wave comes and, boom, everything changes.
It’s just such an abrupt end to normal life. We want to know – there must be a message there. Why did it happen? It’s inevitable. You just can’t not ask that question, I think.
Tavis: What do you say to people who are looking for a hope in a world where, to my mind, at least, hopelessness is on the rise? How do you find hope in a world where hopelessness seems to be the order of the day?
Yancey: I remember hearing a line from Fred Rogers, “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood?” Remember him?
Tavis: PBS [laughs].
Yancey: Good old Presbyterian pastor. And when he was a little boy, he said, something bad would happen. He’d hear about it in the news or at school and he’d be scared. And his mother would say, “Freddie, bad things will happen. But whenever something bad happens, look for the helpers, look for the helpers.”
And that’s one thing that has helped me. I had a conversation one time with Bono of U2, you know, the rock star. And he’d been in Ethiopia. He was working with AIDS orphans. He went home. He was so upset because he heard there may be 10 or 15 million AIDS orphans in Africa one day.
And he’s a praying man. He said I was praying. My prayers changed. I was angry. I kept saying, God, why don’t you do something about this? And then gradually, he heard, he says, that God said, yeah, well, who gave you the idea of going to Ethiopia? I’d like you to do something about it, Bono.
And he didn’t like that answer. He said, hey, you know, I’m not a social worker. I’m a rock star. Yeah, but, Bono, you got connections. So he started getting on the phone with Tony Blair and Kofi Annan and George Bush and almost singlehandedly ended up raising $15 billion dollars for AIDS work in Africa.
And Bono said to me, so many of the questions that we throw at God, they come back like a boomerang to us. What are you gonna do about it? The only way the world is going to know that I care is if you go out and show that I care.
And I think God isn’t interested in intervening every time some little bad thing happens. God is interested in getting the message of good news and love and comfort and hope across through people like us, ordinary people, or extraordinary people like Bono.
Tavis: I was raised in a spiritual environment, church environment, and I know others who were raised the same way who were taught, to your point now, to not question God, that God is not to be questioned. He is the Supreme Being who is not to be questioned.
I wrestled with that for a long time in my life until I read a passage that I’d read more times than I could count. And finally, as I came in to adulthood, it hit me in a different way.
For those of us who are believers, when Jesus is in the garden, he questions God. Why has thou forsaken me? He says, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me, as we approach the Easter season. So that’s when I finally saw that even Jesus questioned God, I figured it might be okay for me [laugh].
Yancey: You’re in good company, huh [laugh].
Tavis: Yeah. But to ask God a few questions about my own life and about all the turmoil and trouble and discomfort that comes into my life. I thought I’d raise that to ask you to say a word about this notion that God is not to be questioned in the minds of some people.
Yancey: Yeah. I grew up in a church environment too and I tried my best to get out of it. So I felt like a rebel and I thought God doesn’t like rebels. Then I started reading the Bible and actually God seems to have a soft spot for the ornery people, the questioners, the doubters.
And you go through the Psalms; about two-thirds of the Psalms go like this. God, you’re not doing a very good job of running this world, especially my world. Get to the Book of Job, there are these three very pious friends who have these great theories about why things happened. At the end of the book, Job is whining and complaining and yelling and arguing.
And at the end of the book, God says I don’t even want to hear from those friends unless, Job, you pray on their behalf. You’re my hero because you were honest. You told me exactly how you felt and yet, in the midst of it, you still hung on. You didn’t give up.
And so I truly believe God honors us by being as honest as we possibly can. And we all have doubts, we all have struggles, and it would be wrong to try to pretend that we don’t. As you say, even the Son of God himself voiced those questions.
Tavis: So how do you – in closing, how do you suggest that we best approach this question? How do we navigate best this question that, in our lives as long as we’re human and not divine, this question, you’re right, will never go away?
What’s your best advice for how we approach? How do we step to this question of why that we’re going to have over and over and over again?
Yancey: Yeah. I would say, if you start looking backwards, what are the causes, what happened, you’ll go crazy. You’re not going to find an answer that way. I try to look forwards. Now that it’s happened, can anything good come out of it?
I talk about God is the great recycler. He takes the bad stuff and somehow turns it into good. And I think that’s true of any bad thing that someone goes through. God can use it for good.
Tavis: The book is called “The Question That Never Goes Away” by Philip Yancey. Philip, good to have you on the program. Congrats on the book.
Yancey: Thank you very much, Tavis.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for joining and, as always, keep the faith.
Marlee Matlin: Tavis, congratulations on getting a star on the Walk of Fame. I’m so proud of you. So well-deserved. By the way, maybe I can go and polish your star every once in a while. You rock.
Barry Manilow: Tavis, my friend, I can attest that it’s fun to be walked on in Hollywood. Congratulations on your star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Anjelica Huston: Tavis, what a wonderful honor. Congratulations on getting your star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
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