Let's Ask the Hard Questions


Suffering upsets our worlds; it challenges our automatic default settings. We're forced to take stock of our own lives—our goals, our cares, our pleasures, and our beliefs.

I was there just a few months ago, but I don't remember anything about the Imperial Palace in Beijing except for the last ten minutes of my visit there.

Imagine the scene... I'm looking for an umbrella for my little sister, but I'm not willing to pay 300 yen for it. The vendor and I haggle back and forth. I walk away. He chases after me, lowering the price further. "Wo bù yào," I call back, waving and walking on. Around a corner here, there's a street vendor selling some kind of sweet-smelling meat on a stick for the swarm of hungry tourists exiting the palace. People are sweating and shuffling close to each other, and I'm holding my backpack in front of me because I'm afraid of pickpockets. Five more street vendors are loudly promoting yellow popsicles and cheap, funny trinkets for the kids.

The voice surprises me from nowhere—smooth, deep opera. It's passionate and mournful and strong, and I would have paid to attend a concert to hear a voice like this. Then I see the singer. His whole body is charred black. Red, scarred skin stretches over an empty eye socket, limbs are gone, lips twisted, the other eye is closed as his head tilts back and he sings. The trinket vendors are maybe ten feet away. I am wordless for a long time.

Some people drop a few yen into his bucket on their way out. He is only the first in a long line of disfigured men and women we must pass.

I don't know what had happened to this singer, but my Chinese friend tells me that many of these beggars are enslaved in "begging rings"—they have been blinded and disfigured to look pitiable for their slave master's benefit, who takes their money at the end of the day.

When suffering sings beauty on the corner, it is hard not to be sober. It is even harder, perhaps, not to ask "Why?"

But we do not need to travel to Beijing to see the raw pain of life. I meet it every week behind the stories of people dear to me here in the States. Divorce slices deep into friends' lives. Every week here in California I can see the scars of abuse, addictions, grief, loneliness, desperation, fear, betrayals, poverty, death, and disease among people I love. The whole world is groaning from its shatteredness (Rom. 8:19).

We try to hide from the shatteredness, don't we? And if we can't escape it, we try to mask it. A man like that would never be allowed to upset happy tourists exiting Disneyland—I can already imagine a lawsuit. ("Children shouldn't see such things.") Suffering upsets our worlds; it challenges our automatic default settings. We're forced to take stock of our own lives—our goals, our cares, our pleasures, and our beliefs.

It's harder to spend frivolously when you meet a little girl in your own city whose parents can't feed her. Our own troubles and anxieties sound petty when we meet someone whose family has been ripped apart. And if the conviction that God is good survives in our hearts when we've taken a good look around at all the shards, those little words take on far deeper shades of meaning.

If we would follow Christ and if we would learn love, we must choose to grapple. Let's ask the hard questions. Jesus suffered for us (loved us) to set us free from sin, not free from suffering. He calls us to suffer and die when He calls us to love (Matt. 16:24). I don't want to live safely cocooned in my own routines, fleeing pain and suffocating every remembrance of pain so that I can get on with my own life. Since you don't either, let's talk...

  • What suffering in your world is God calling you to see and move toward in love?
  • How do you respond to the world's shatteredness? If you try to ignore it, why?
  • Before you embark on a campaign to save the whole world, how are you showing love in the suffering in your own family? How about in your neighborhood?
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