Bestselling author Philip Yancey wrestles with the difficult question of God's presence in the midst of suffering. - Image credit: Randal Olsson

Bestselling author Philip Yancey on how to find God in tragedy

Bestselling author Philip Yancey wrestles with the difficult question of God's presence in the midst of suffering. - Image credit: Randal Olsson

Bestselling author Philip Yancey wrestles with the difficult question of God's presence in the midst of suffering. - Image credit: Randal Olsson

For many Christians, Philip Yancey needs no introduction. He's written thirteen Gold Medallion Award-winning books, 4 of which sold more than a million copies. From grace to prayer to the real Jesus, he's always tackling the burning spiritual questions. With his new book, "The Question that Never Goes Away," Yancey tackles how to answer a universal question: "Where is God when we suffer?" Here, I discuss with the bestselling author how he answers this question and what he's learned about finding God in tragedy.

RNS: You’ve traveled the world visiting places devastated by war and disasters, natural and manmade. What have you learned from journeying with those who suffer?

PY: I’ve learned that words don’t matter nearly as much as personal presence and practical help. We all struggle with the “Why?” questions surrounding the problem of pain and suffering, but a person going through it is usually not investigating philosophical questions; they’re just trying to survive and heal.

The calming effect of community and personal presence is scientifically verifiable. I have a friend who participated with a medical student in a pain experiment. They found that a person with feet in a bucket of ice can stand the pain much longer if a friend is with them holding their hand. Every study shows that people recovering from surgery heal faster if they’re engaged with a supportive community.  It makes sense: a caring community can help relieve stress, fear, anxiety, the very things that keep us from healing well.

RNS: As you’ve moved among those whose lives have been ripped apart by conflict, how have you seen light penetrate the deepest darknesses people endure?

PY: I like to quote Fred Rogers of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.  When he heard about tragedies as a boy, he felt scared. His mother would tell him, “Fred, look for the helpers.”  In this book, I tell of three very different suffering situations: a natural disaster, the tsunami in Japan, human brutality in war-torn Sarajevo, and the smaller-in-scale but horrific shooting tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut.  In each of these places the church was there: building houses in Japan, working for peace in Sarajevo, bringing comfort and hope to Sandy Hook. As a journalist I’ve seen those shafts of light again and again.

Image courtesy of Zondervan

Image courtesy of Zondervan

RNS: You spoke to those suffering in the wake of the school violence in Newtown, Connecticut. What was that like?

PY: I was terrified. But the more I thought and prayed about it, I realized that Christians have words of comfort and hope to offer at such times. I had been reading some of the New Atheists at the time—Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris—and it occurred to me that they really would not have words of comfort or hope. If you believe this is a random universe of “blind, pitiless indifference,” with no transcendent meaning and nothing ahead but extinction, well, that doesn’t do much for parents who just lost their 6-year-old.

As a Christian, I begin with strong assertion that God is on the side of the sufferer, not against the sufferer. Christians believe that God joined us in our suffering, which is a major theme of the Incarnation. And God has promised to remake the world into a painless and deathless one. Yes, it takes faith to believe all that, but for those who do, comfort and hope are real.

RNS: Thirty years ago you wrote Where Is God When it Hurts?, and now a string of recent tragedies have reopened this question for many. Do traumatic events more often harden or soften people’s hearts to God?

PY: Both. I remember reading a study of Holocaust survivors. About 10 percent lost all faith and about 10 percent emerged with stronger faith in God. When questioned, one of the latter group said, “Where else could we turn?” What embitters some softens others and opens them to investigate spiritual reality. [tweetable]Suffering “turns up the volume” of what matters most in life.[/tweetable]

RNS: Can you offer a glimpse into the ways you’ve wrestled, personally, with the question of God's presence amidst suffering?

PY: In the book I tell the story of my father, paralyzed from polio, removed from an iron lung when Christians became convinced he would be healed. Instead, he died. I lived under that shadow, and learned that what we believe about pain and suffering matters. Later I wrote articles about tragedy and so many people I interviewed told me, “the church made it worse.” I knew it shouldn’t be that way.

I keep coming back to this topic because it is such a stumbling block to faith and also because I’ve learned that suffering actually gives us the opportunity to focus on what matters most. A few years back I had a life-threatening auto accident. Doctors knew my neck was broken and were afraid one of the bone fragments had pierced a major artery. I might have mere minutes more to live, they said. As it happened, I lay strapped to a backboard for 7 hours until they determined my life was not in danger. During those hours I could only think of three questions worth contemplating:

- Who do I love?
- What have I done with my life?
- Am I ready for whatever is next?

I should have been living in light of those ultimate questions all along, of course.  It took that concentration of pain to bring them into focus. Pain is inevitable, yet it can be useful and even redemptive.



RNS: What do you want people in the church to know about engaging with those in crisis? 

PY: How to help someone suffering is as simple, and as difficult, as how to love. Some need to rage against the night. Some need to be coaxed out of denial. There is no easy formula. I recommend starting with physical presence and relying far more on your ears than mouth. So many people tell me of well-intentioned friends who offer platitudes that just don’t help. “God needed your Daddy” doesn’t help a child who needs Daddy too. “All things work together for good”: there’s truth there, but timing is everything and a time of suffering is not when we need to repeat that.

So, listen well, and look for practical ways to help.  When I ask people who helped them most, they almost never mention a theologian, seminary student, or even a pastor. They mention someone like a grandmother who sits in a chair knitting, bringing water, ringing for the nurse, whatever is needed.


  1. “The New Atheists….would not have words of comfort or hope [for someone who just lost a 6 year-old.”

    So we should lie to each other instead? The price of such religion is extremely high.

    I disagree COMPLETELY that Atheists have nothing to offer in terms of comfort or hope. Look at Doctors Without Borders (many of whom are Atheists) where on any given day 22,000 people are sacrificing their time to help, comfort and bring hope to thousands of people worldwide.

    The Good Samaritan – who certainly wasn’t a Christian (and for all we know may have had no beliefs at all) was fully capable of bringing comfort and hope to the needy! It is nothing more than the Golden Rule in action. It is simply humane! No God is needed.

    Furthermore, how does it bring peace of mind to a mother of a dead child that “at least he is in heaven with Jesus for Christmas” when the burden of making sense of such glib fatuousness claims now falls on her!?

    How is it a comfort to thank God for your survival in a tornado when hundreds of others perished?
    How is it a comfort to Thank God when your child survives a sunken ship when dozens of other children perished?
    This is childish nonsense.

    Thanking God for sparing you from some kind of horror…
    is like writing a thank you letter to a serial killer!

  2. Believing that there is a life awaiting you in eternity, with a being full of goodness and love, where all the people you loved in this life awaits in eternal bliss must be very comforting, especially so in times of hardship during life.

    But at what price is this comfort gained? Do we trade being honest with ourselves and not ask any questions about things that we know very well are quite impossible to explain in the world in which we live? Do we embrace blind faith and put our innate ability to reason way in the back of our minds, just so we can feel better, even though that feeling is based on something that is unreal? Do we also trade being dishonest with everyone else when we profess that we believe something that we know is not real?

    Yes, atheism has a price. It offers no warm blanket of poisonous mind fogging comfort, only sober, clear, reality. I like it that way though, honest, not only to myself, but to others.

    Religion is poisonous!!

  3. [“But the more I thought and prayed about it, I realized that Christians have words of comfort and hope to offer at such times. I had been reading some of the New Atheists at the time—Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris—and it occurred to me that they really would not have words of comfort or hope.”]

    As he himself said, “words don’t matter nearly as much as personal presence and practical help.” A quiet mind and an open heart reflect the Spirit of Christ, however the person self-identifies. This is wonderfully illustrated in this brief but excellent talk by Andy Bradley:

    Peace be unto you! 🙂

  4. Yancey is one of the only Christian writers I still respect and admire as a ‘post-Christian’ individual. But saying that, I want to comment on the issue of atheists having no words of comfort.

    It’s true, no longer can I say ‘praying for you’ or ‘he’s in heaven now’. It’s hard not having those comforting words any more. On the other hand, now I realize that those words were a cop-out. It kept me from having to DO anything to help their suffering. Without those empty words, I now see the need to ACT out my love for the suffering. Buying groceries and leaving them at the door so the family doesn’t have to get out for milk or bread, making a casserole do they don’t have to cook, babysitting so the family can grieve without the children running around. This offers more comfort than words they or I may or may not believe in or want to hear.

    Also, it takes a lot of pressure off death. Rather than worrying about the eternal soul of a deceased non-Christian, there is relief that there is no hell for them to now suffer eternally.

    I imagine this book is great for believers to answer these questions for them. But the answers fall short when you can’t or don’t believe in God. It doesn’t mean atheists are bleak and hopeless. We just find comfort in different ways.

  5. Superlori,
    So true and very well said.
    I would add that non-believers can often have a higher regard for love, friendship, personal contact with the bereaved, time spent at the bedside of a dying person, compassion, empathy and the value of practical considerations.

    Atheists do not cheapen this life by pretending there is something afterwards. What a shame the religious miss so much!

    One of the coldest, saddest, bleakest things anyone can say is “I’ll pray for you.”
    Who wouldn’t rather hear, “What can I do to help?”

  6. I find it curious that three of the first four comments are from atheists. I also find it interesting that one of them uses one of Jesus’ stories to defend his position. Another cites the Golden Rule, also taught by Jesus. I agree that religion is poisonous but Christ is not religion. To those who think Christians don’t ask the hard questions, I have read most of Yancey’s books and I can tell you, he has asked them all.

  7. For the record:
    Jesus probably did exist – if so he was a moral teacher. But The Golden Rule predates Jesus by thousands of years. If you taught the Golden Rule to your children that would not make you a “God”. It would only mean that you are teaching good traditional morality. No gods are needed to follow the Golden Rule. It predates religions.

    I used The Good Samaritan because it is Jesus’ example of someone who had no Christ beliefs and yet knew exactly how to behave morally. Thus morals don’t come from Jesus. I could have chosen Confucius or Egyptian examples which are thousands of years older than Jesus.

    As for Christ not being a religion, there are many atheists who will be relieved to hear that. You don’t mind if we tax the churches and the priests, then? Tax breaks are only for religion. If Christ isn’t a religion we should tax the Nuns too. Let me know when you want to start.

  8. It’s equally unproductive to simplify the issue from either side of “religion”. The kind of actions that Yancey talks about is precisely the kind that can be practiced by anyone, Christian, atheist, or even, as Jesus pointed out, Samaritan. So there’s nothing Christianity offers that is unique or exclusive in that sense – indeed, Jesus called everyone to such a love.

    Where this path diverges though is with naturalistic reductionism, which by definition does not allow for any metanarrative – there cannot *really* be hope, only the illusion of it. An atheist who wishes to recast suffering in any other language has to justify it some other way. On the other hand, a Christian may justifiably (given his basic presuppoision that a caring God exists) offer a metanarrative of otherwordly hope or meaning deeper, higher, and beyond suffering. And theologians have to work just as hard to convince Christians that this has very little, if anything, reference to mere psychological comfort (such as any illusion might give) or blissful hereafter. Atheists rightly reject such illusions as real hope – they really would be lies if it did not refer to any reality. But they have to explain why the comfort they give is a better blanket or a stronger crutch when the cookie crumbles.
    So if atheists (and not all atheists are naturalists or reductionists) really want to respond to Yancey’s challenge that they can offer “no real hope”, it is not enough to say Christians can only offer false hope, but to explain how it is posssible to put their response to suffering in the context of hope and comfort.
    Someone who suffers may only need the actions, whoever offers them and whatever their reasons may be, but to make sense of both the hurt and the help, you need a compelling metanarrative.

  9. Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth. ( 1John 3:18 NIV)
    What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds?… Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. ( James 2:14-16)
    That some Christians are not practising the above admonitions does not mean Christianity is bad and should be write off.

  10. I don’t know that non-believers have HIGHER regard for love, etc. I know many believers who act out their love and faith in wonderful ways. But I agree that there might be a ‘cheapening’ of this life in preference for the after life. When I was a Christian, i didn’t realize this or detect it at all in myself, but now I see this current life in such a new way. This life means so much more than I ever realized. Which means death means something more now.

    It’s not true to say atheists have no hope in death either. I am very comforted, actually, that after death there is nothing. No pain, no nothing. At first it frightened me, but now it just makes this life so much more worth living, since it’s probably all there is.

    (I say ‘probably’ unapologetically. I am not so smug as to think I know for certain what happens after death. None of us do. That’s kind of the point. We don’t know; Christians don’t know.)

  11. God only puts us through trials to test us: James 1:2 “Count it all JOY my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.” God allows us to suffer to see if we will be faithfully obedient during those trials.

  12. This sarcasm at the end if your post undercuts much of your more sincere comments. Consider leaving out the “gotcha” dialog if you wish to gain greater audience for your otherwise valid thoughts.

  13. Vanessa,
    Point taken.
    But I’m rebutting the very cheap shot that “Jesus is a relationship not a religion”. People who say this should be ready to examine what that implies.

    Like a boy who says he has an incredibly beautiful girlfriend who nobody has seen, living in a country nobody has heard of on a planet not yet discovered. How does one have a ‘relationship’ with such a person that can be anything other than delusional?

  14. Well said.

    Suffering without a metanarrative has no benefit–it is just suffering. But a story that gives meaning to suffering is powerful.

  15. Just a point of correction: the Good Samaritan did have a religious identity. he was a Samaritan. Samaritans were descendants of Abraham from the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh. They were not taken into Babylonian captivity, and hence, considered themselves to have the ‘true religion’. Their religious customs differed from the Judaic community of Jesus’s time, and they were looked upon as people to avoid — to avoid talking to, having any contact with, or entering their territory. Jesus broke all these rules. The woman at the well was a Samaritan. Jesus went into Samaritan villages and brought words of hope and comfort to the common, oppressed people. The fact that he used a Samaritan as an example of a righteous person must have galled the Jewish religious authorities who were looking to entrap him. BTW, there are about 750 Samaritans living today in Israel.

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