One of novelist John Green’s best-known essays, “Googling Strangers,” recounts a time in his early 20s when he worked for six months as a student chaplain at a children’s hospital, in preparation for a life devoted to ministry. One night, he was alerted by the Emergency Department to the arrival of a 3-year-old child who had suffered severe burns.
Despite the severity of his injury, the child was conscious, and in terrible pain. . . . The anguish was overwhelming—the smell of the burns, the piercing screams that accompanied this little boy’s every exhalation. Someone shouted, “CHAPLAIN! THE SCISSORS BEHIND YOU!” and in a daze I brought them the scissors. Someone shouted, “CHAPLAIN! THE PARENTS!” And I realized that next to me the little boy’s parents were screaming, trying to get at their kid, but the doctors and paramedics and nurses needed enough space to work, so I had to ask the parents to step back.
Next thing I knew I was in the windowless family room in the Emergency Department, the room where they put you on the worst night of your life. It was quiet except for the crying of the couple across from me. They sat on opposite sides of the couch, elbows on knees. During my training they told me that half of marriages end within a couple years of losing a child. Weakly, I asked the parents if they wanted to pray. The woman shook her head no.
The doctors expected the child to die, and later, when John went into the break room to get a cup of coffee, he saw the doctor, “her face hovering over a trash can that she’d been vomiting into. . . . She dry heaved for a while and then said, ‘That kid’s gonna die and I know his last words. I know the last thing he’ll ever say.’”
The Push Away from Faith
When John finished his chaplaincy, he chose not to go to divinity school. Over time, his belief in Christianity faded, due to his inability to cope with the suffering he witnessed that night. Still, he continued to pray for the boy and ask for mercy. “Whether I believe in God isn’t really relevant. I do believe, however tenuously, in mercy.”
It’s not uncommon for people who witness horrific suffering to feel as though their pain has pushed them away from God. When Elie Wiesel spent his first night in a Nazi death camp and saw the furnaces turning little children into “wreaths of smoke,” he described the experience as “flames which consumed my faith forever. . . . Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust.”
Suffering and sorrow bring us face to face with “the problem of evil,” a debate engaged by philosophers and theologians, but with pain that far exceeds the confines of intellectual inquiry. No argument, no matter how airtight, can compete with the visceral reaction to suffering—a response to sorrow that leaves us dazed and disoriented, and often more disconnected and distant from God.
The Pull to Faith
But strangely, the same suffering that drives some away from God can become the mechanism that pulls other people close to him. Victor Frankl described inmates in the concentration camps who regained their faith in God, who were strengthened by what they witnessed. And the same is true for the family that endured the fiery trial described so powerfully by John Green.
Decades later, John Googled the name of the burned boy, and he discovered that he was not only alive and well, but thriving, even though he’d dealt for years with the lingering effects of the fire that seared his skin that night. In a recent podcast, John connected with the boy, now grown up, for the first time since the tragedy.
The suffering of that terrible night in the ER kicked off a series of events that eventually led the family to find solace in Christianity. The young man and his family are devout Christians today, and it’s clear from the conversation that he wants John to know God, to regain his faith and connection with his Creator.
In the strange providence of God, suffering can be the mechanism that either draws people to God or pushes people away.
Some respond to injustice and evil and are forced to conclude that suffering is not part of any plan, but random and senseless. But this raises the question: why are we so disturbed by something random and natural, unless we’re wired in a way that causes us to look for significance in suffering, purpose in pain?
That’s why others, even those who have not only witnessed but endured terrible suffering firsthand, are drawn to the hope they find in a God whose sovereign power is far beyond our understanding, but whose humble self-giving love resulted in the willingness of God, in the person of Jesus Christ, to experience suffering himself, and to promise to one day wipe every tear from our eyes.
Suffering produces sorrow because we know brokenness when we see it. The tears we shed as we endure suffering may drown us in doubt or they may lead us to the Living Water, our only hope to see the broken things restored and the world made new.
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