Conversatio Divina

Part 2 of 18

In a World of Pain . . .
What Good Is God?

In Conversation with Gary W. Moon

Philip Yancey & Gary W. Moon

Philip Yancey is a popular author and speaker known for careful research, keen insight and raw honesty. Not long ago, he was driving on a deserted road in New Mexico one Sunday morning when his Ford Explorer hit a patch of black ice. Yancey wrestled with the steering wheel, but his SUV went over an embankment, shattering glass, plastic, metal and bones.

He was rushed to a hospital where, after being strapped to a gurney for seven hours, a doctor broke the bad news: “Your neck is broken and a bone fragment may have nicked a major artery.” Then the doctor said, “This is a life-threatening situation. Here’s a phone. You may want to contact your loved ones and tell them goodbye.”

Yancey is still with us, still asking and answering the tough questions. But it was the questions he asked himself as he lay in pain, strapped to a board, speaking what could have been final words to loved ones that gave life to his latest book, What Good is God?

Yancey traveled to some of the pain-ridden locations on the planet and asked people who had been broken in body, spirit or both: Does belief in God really matter when life gets tough?

Their answers form the heart of his new book. The people Yancey profiles include former prostitutes trying to escape the sex trade in Thailand, leaders in the underground church in China, and members of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).

When the editors of Conversations: A Forum for Authentic Transformation, decided to do an issue on theodicy titled “The Problem of Pain,” we could think of no one we would rather hear from than Philip Yancey.



GWM: Philip, you’ve written a lot about issues of theodicy (Where is God When it Hurts, Disappointment with God, Pain: The Gift Nobody Wants, Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference, and What Good is God?). On a personal level, what has motivated you to write so much in this area?

PY: I’ve mentioned in some of my writing that my father died of polio just after my first birthday. Five thousand people in a prayer chain were praying for him, and those closest to him believed he could be healed. With his own consent he was removed from an iron lung and, a few weeks later, died. My entire childhood was lived under that cloud of unanswered prayer and the apparently meaningless death of a twenty-four-year-old missionary candidate.

Later, as a young journalist, I began writing “Drama in Real Life” articles for Reader’s Digest, and I heard from my interview subjects again and again that after a life-threatening tragedy, “the church made it worse” with confusing and contradictory counsel: God is punishing you; No, it’s Satan; No, it’s God but out of love not punishment, for you’ve been specially selected to demonstrate faith.

I didn’t know how to respond to those people, and when I don’t know something I write a book about it. That affords the opportunity to go to experts and libraries and the Bible in search of answers. I wrote Where Is God When It Hurts—my first book, really—at the age of twenty-seven, a rather audacious age to be investigating theodicy, but I needed answers for myself. In the process of writing that book I came across Dr. Paul Brand, who had a unique angle on the subject of pain, and we ended up writing three books together.


GWM: Thank you, Philip, for being so transparent. I had a similar experience with the “unfair” death of a loved one. I was older, about twenty-one instead of one, and it was my cousin, not my father. But it caused me to do some investigating of theodicy. I describe some of that experience in the front page of this issue of Conversations and I introduce three of the “classic” models of theodicy: Augustinian, Iraenean, and Kushnerian. I cannot say that I’m a fan of any one of these models. What are your thoughts?

PY: Frankly, I have problems with each of these classic formulations. Augustine’s is too simplistic and doesn’t really hold up in light of what we know through science. Creatures such as the tiger and the vulture and many others depend on death for their very existence, and always have. Also, as I’ve tried to show through my work with Dr. Brand, pain is integral to healthy life on this planet; take pain away and you have the dangers of the disease leprosy and all the resultant problems of living with painlessness.


GWM: And you call yourself a Presbyterian?

PY: Well, I do agree with the basic Augustinian approach that, in C. S. Lewis’s phrase, Earth shows characteristics of “a good thing, bent.” Creation demonstrates the brilliance of original design, yes, but one distorted by some disruption that has marred God’s intent, a stain that will only be removed through a divine act of restoration. With that macro-view, I agree. Look more closely at the specifics of creation and the Fall, however, and the position is more difficult to defend. I believe pain was present before the Fall: God told Eve her pains would increase in childbearing. And normal life on this planet needs the protective warning system of pain. Most probably death was present in creation as well, for nature depends on it, and perhaps God’s warning about eating the fruit applied to spiritual death, not physical death.


GWM: That is a very interesting line of thought, Philip. And what about the other two positions?

PY: The Iraenean approach has some support in the Bible, which indeed describes an ongoing spiritual warfare. Yet it offers cold comfort to parents who have just lost their two-year-old to leukemia, or to people whose town got flattened by a tornado. It seems more an abstract approach to the problem, and suffering never comes in the abstract.

Rabbi Kushner’s approach has great appeal—witness the success of his book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. But I fail to see biblical support for it. The Book of Job, the Bible’s classic investigation into theodicy, concludes at the end with the Bible’s strongest defense of God’s power, not weakness.


GWM: Do you have a preferred personal theodicy?

PY: It’s easy to critique others on this topic, I know. I don’t have an airtight “answer” to theodicy, and I’m suspicious of anyone who claims to. I have some general principles, beginning with the basic trilogy of creation/fall/redemption: the world is good (including the magnificent protective mechanism of pain and the beauties of nature); the world is bad (evil, suffering, “Nature, red in tooth and claw”From “In Memoriam A.H.H.” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.); the world can be and will be redeemed (with a part played by those who establish settlements of God’s kingdom and a larger part played by a cataclysmic act of restoration as described in the Prophets, the Epistles, and in Revelation).

Perhaps more importantly, I turn to Jesus, who avoided questions of “Why?” and emphasized a response of faithful trust, and who never lectured on pain as punishment but rather responded with compassion and healing to those who were suffering. More, Jesus voluntarily took on pain himself, dignifying it in a way and, as Hebrews mysteriously comments, learning in the process.


GWM: Yes, you mention in your book that the Jews, schooled in Old Testament prophecies, had a saying: “Where Messiah is, there is no misery.”Philip Yancey. What Good is God?: In Search of a Faith That Matters (Nashville: 2010), 27. After Jesus you could change that saying to, “Where misery is, there is the Messiah?” What does that mean to you on a personal level?

PY: In our incorrigibly ranking world, it is very easy for someone living in poverty or with a physical disability to feel inferior, and for someone in travail to feel that God has abandoned him or her. Jesus went out of his way to elevate such people: the woman with an issue of blood, leprosy victims, a widow who lost her only son, even a Roman centurion whose servant had fallen ill. Jesus gave God a face, and it was streaked with tears, literally, on at least three occasions: when Jesus lost his friend Lazarus, when he faced his own great trial of pain, when he looked out over Jerusalem and—like a grieving parent—realized the fate of those who continued to choose self-destructive behavior.

After getting to know this Jesus, when I experience pain, such as my broken neck a few years ago, I spend no energy wondering whether God is punishing me. I remember the face of Jesus and realize that, yes, where misery is, there is the Messiah offering comfort and hope.


GWM: I love that; thank you. Philip, how did the pain of your near-death experience change the way you live on any random Tuesday?

PY: For the first few weeks I walked around in what I call a “daze of grace,” staring with wonder and gratitude at simple things like trees and clouds and common birds. I had experienced a second chance at life, and I embraced it with the enthusiasm of a child. It’s impossible to sustain that kind of spirit—or, I should say, impossible for me. The gutters leak, the computer acts up, the car has a flat tire . . . life grinds me down.

As I say in the book, while lying strapped to a backboard uncertain whether I would live through the day, I came up with only three questions worthy of my attention at such a time: (1) Whom do I love? (2) What have I done with my life? and (3) Am I ready for whatever is next?

Since then, I have indeed tried to keep those questions at the forefront. I’ve been married some forty-one years, and the four years we’ve shared together since the accident have been more intentional and more rewarding than most of the others. I no longer write whatever comes to mind; I choose what I must get down on paper before my life does end. I learned the obvious lesson, yet one we often neglect—that we can’t count on anything more than the breath we just inhaled.


GWM: Thank you for that. You write a lot in What Good is God? about AA and a memorable friend, George, who’s found a lot of help there. What do churches need to learn from AA?

PY: Honesty and dependence. I wish church would reward us for honesty—yet too often it punishes us. Church can create its own ladder of superiority or “righteousness,” which fosters hypocrisy. If you’re feeling deeply guilty or deeply doubtful, church can loom as a barrier. Oddly, those were the very kind of people attracted to Jesus. And those are the kind of people who cling to AA as if to a lifeline.

If we are indeed honest with ourselves, we must admit we need help from others and from God. The Twelve Steps spell that out so clearly, and I wish more churches would present themselves as refuges for thirsty beggars coming to a place where grace flows on tap.

GWM: I have a friend who laments that the best work done in most churches is in the basement (where the AA groups often meet) instead of in the sanctuary. He may be quoting you. (We even ran an article on that subject in our “How We Change” issue.)

Along these same lines—surprising statements— you reference someone from Moldova who says, “Now that we are free [ from communism], though, the church has lost its passion. Some of us are voting for the Communist Party to return to power in order to help purify the church.”Yancey, 186.

Philip, this makes me reflect on whether the signing of the Edict of Milan, in which Christianity was embraced as the official religion of the Roman Empire, was among the best or worst days in Church history.

Do you believe a willingness to embrace death to self and death to ego is actually Christianity 101?

PY: I’ve heard similar comments from Christians in Romania, Bulgaria, and East Germany. Looking over church history, I see two great dangers to the church as an institution. The first, which you mention, comes into play when the church takes on the power structure of the world around it. Visit Europe today and you will see the ultimate result of the Edict of Milan: state churches are going extinct, and in many countries less than five percent of the population ever attends church. Ask why and they’ll give you a history lesson on corrupt bishops and wars of religion, among other reasons.

Prosperity represents the second great danger. The United States never had a state church, and so we’ve avoided that particular pitfall. Our modern culture, though, is based on gossip, celebrity, materialism, and entertainment—qualities that tend to develop in prosperous societies. We have so much freedom, and so many appeals to base instinct, that religious faith of any kind may lose its appeal. I think that’s what the Moldovan Christian fears, that the church will lose its intensity and identity as a counter-culture and become just like the surrounding culture. Certainly the US church faces that danger.


GWM: Why do you think Jesus seems so indifferent to politics?

PY: For one thing, Jesus didn’t live in a democracy; he lived under an occupying power, the most powerful empire of its time. In such circumstances, you can either accommodate the ruling power, as the Sadducees did, or violently oppose it, as did the Zealots. Jesus mostly ignored it. He said nothing about the brutality of the Romans or some of their nefarious practices, such as gladiator games, pederasty, and the abandonment of infants. His guiding principle, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s,” is wonderfully ambiguous (Luke 20:25, NIVScripture quotations marked (NIV) are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™ ).

The Jews in Jesus’s day looked back wistfully on theocracy, the days of David and Solomon when church and state were one. I believe Jesus was setting in motion something quite different—a kingdom that could spread like yeast, like salt, affecting everything around it, and whose preservative effect could work in any system, not just a theocracy. To spend much time and energy critiquing the particular political system of his own time would undermine that shift. Pentecost ushers in the real birth of the church, the work of the Spirit in sending people back to their own diverse cultures and languages. The first foreign missionary, after all, was a castrated African, the Ethiopian eunuch evangelized by Philip in Acts 8.

Jesus made it clear that “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). Yet he presented it in such a way that it could exist, even thrive, in any soil. The book we’re discussing, What Good Is God?, includes vignettes of the kingdom at work in a secular British university and in India, China, and South Africa, as well as in the Christian-majority United States and militantly non-Christian countries of the Arabian Gulf.


GWM: And very well-told vignettes, I might add. So, if you could write a one or two-sentence prescription for the church in the United States and you were sure it would be followed, what would you prescribe?

PY: Spend less time and energy trying to clean up the culture around you—a task Jesus and Paul did not seem concerned about—and more time and energy creating a counter-culture that presents a compelling alternative while exposing the shallowness of its surroundings.


GWM: Philip, one of the thing I’ve admired about you through the years is your journalistic attention to research and details—and when you do journalism it never seems like literature in a hurry. So, as a highly trained writer, what do you make of the Bible being so honest about its fallen heroes?

PY: As I’ve studied and pondered great writing over the years, it occurs to me that great writing simply underscores our humanity. We are creatures of time—A happens, then B happens—and so story appeals to us. We are captivated by suspense, by what happens next. In addition, we are creatures of sense—we smell, taste, see, touch, hear—and great writing captures that sensory detail, evoking a feeling of resonance in the reader.

I love the fact that the Bible specializes in both of those qualities. A huge proportion of it tells stories which, as you mention, portray heroes’ flaws as well as their triumphs. Think of the great characters: David with his deeds of lust and murder, Moses with his foul temper, Paul with his soiled history, Peter with his impetuousness. This is real life, spelled out in detail. I take comfort in the fact that God can work with whatever talent pool is available.

Then, I learn from the Bible’s literary expression. How do we creatures of sense relate to an invisible God? Well, just read Psalms, which includes 150 prayers that cover the entire spectrum of emotional states and does so with physicality and sensory detail.


GWM: Thank you, Philip. There is much I’d like to follow up on there, but given our time and space constraints, I’ll move on. In your chapter on South Africa you reflect on your Bible college days—during a very turbulent time in the American South. You comment on how the president of a fundamentalist school offered an apology for that group’s participation in racism. And then you ask a thought-provoking question: “What do you think we’ll be apologizing for in one hundred years?”
Philip, what do you think the church will be apologizing for in one hundred years?

PY: Ooh, you’re asking me to prophesy!


GWM: I am a recovering Pentecostal.

PY: If the church is indeed around in one hundred years, I imagine we’ll apologize for having predicted the end of the world too soon, no?


GWM: I was hoping we would get through this interview without a reference to the most recent end-time prophecy blooper.

PY: More seriously, homelessness will likely, and should, look as outrageous from the perspective of the future as civil rights injustices do now. Homelessness in the United States is a rather recent phenomenon, caused by policy changes in the treatment of the mentally ill and by the gentrification of cities that eliminated most Single Room Occupancy dwellings. There was very little homelessness in my childhood, and it’s a disgrace that so much exists now.

I believe we’ll look back on the last fifty years as a time of incredible greed and incredible waste in the United States. Travel to Europe and you’ll see that you can live abundantly using half the energy. And the disparity between pay scales of CEOs and ordinary workers is just one symptom of our twisted values. How can we pay professional athletes ten million dollars a year and teachers thirty thousand?

I could go on, describing the decadence pumped out by culture-makers, the shallow egocentrism of modern music and video games. But I would sound like an old fogey, and you asked specifically about the church, didn’t you? Maybe the best way to answer is to say that to the degree we reflect the values of modern American culture, to that degree we may be acting in a way that will give the church reason for future apology.


GWM: I’ve always appreciated your honesty. Philip, just a few more questions. From your research in preparing What Good is God?, how does theodicy and pain help us shift from asking ourselves, “What should I like to do?” to “What would God have me do?”

PY: C. S. Lewis described pain as “the megaphone of God,” a powerful metaphor but one that makes me wince because it seems to imply God is loudly dispensing the pain. I prefer to think of pain as our hearing aid: it offers a chance to tune in and listen more attentively to what matters most. Not everyone does tune in, of course; some turn their backs on God out of bitterness. Yet research shows that the difficult times are those which most foster spiritual formation, or even human formation.

When Jesus’s disciples saw a man born blind they focused on the cause, the “Why” question. Jesus consistently turns the emphasis from looking backward to the cause to looking forward to our response: Now what? We Christians believe the answer is that the works of God may be manifest. Those works may be manifest in different ways: through supernatural healing, as happened in John 9, through a response to non-healing, such as Joni Eareckson Tada has demonstrated so well, and through the kind of fidelity shown by persecuted Christians and those who live with chronic suffering of various kinds.

Suffering forces the issue of human response, which is why I prefer the image of pain as a hearing aid rather than a megaphone. It’s up to me to stop and listen to what God would have me do.

GWM: So as a hearing aid, pain may allow us to hear God’s promises of love and presence in the midst of the suffering, and perhaps a divine whisper about how we are still unceasing spiritual beings who can never be separated from the love of God? Philip, I know we are running short of space here, but would you please give one instance of how pain has been used as a hearing aid in your life?

PY: OK. You’re in the counseling business, right?


GWM: I’m a recovering psychologist, if that’s what you mean.

PY: Well, that profession exists because some people listen to personal pain: depression, marital strife, guilt, sexual frustration or dysfunction. At certain times I have sought out wise counselors and been deeply helped by them. Going to a counselor, whether a trained professional or a pastor or even a sensitive friend, is a form of tuning in to pain. Pain is directional, after all. It exists not to make us miserable but to force us to pay attention to something that needs changing. I see physical pain as the language the body uses to communicate a matter of urgent importance—and exactly the same principle applies to psychological or spiritual pain.


GWM: Well said. You wrote a wonderful book on prayer. In writing that book what did you learn that might help someone know how to pray during a time of personal theodicy?

PY: First, I would say, don’t hold back. The Bible gives ample proof that God welcomes our honest expressions of emotion, even when they include profound disappointment and rage. We don’t have to sound nice in our prayers; if you doubt that read the Psalms, Lamentations, and especially Job—which is essentially a book of prayers.

Further, I would say that suffering should come with a warning label: Do not practice this alone. I learned a vital lesson from Dr. Paul Brand, one that I have repeated in such places as Mumbai, India, during the terrorist attacks and on the Virginia Tech campus after that massacre: A healthy body is one that feels the pain of the weakest part.

Scientific surveys give mixed answers to the question of how prayer benefits healing. Every survey, however, shows that a person who is connected with a caring community like a church heals faster and better. The “enemies of recovery”—such as stress, guilt, anger, anxiety, loneliness—are best defeated by a compassionate community. If you don’t have to worry about your medical bills or who will look after your children or even your pets when you go in for surgery, you will heal better. And if you share your concerns and needs with that community through the act of prayer and through putting actions to their prayers, that community can indeed help bear your burdens.

Second Corinthians 1 expresses the pattern beautifully. Paul prays to the “Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God” (2 Corinthians 1:4, NIV).


GWM: Philip, you point out that the “free gift of grace descends to whoever will receive it, and sometimes those who have nowhere else to turn are most eager to hold out open hands.”Yancey, 276.

Along these lines, Philip, I have often said that the only two things I’ve ever seen that motivate a person to embrace radical surrender with great intentionality are love and pain. You’ve written a great deal about both—love and pain—so I’ll ask an expert: Do you believe that love (grace) and pain are the prime movers for spiritual growth?

PY: I’ve not thought about it like that, but what you say makes sense. Some people have foxhole conversions, turning to God when they get a glimpse of death, and they start asking ultimate questions. Or perhaps when they need help battling an addiction. Others, and I am one, are drawn to God by more positive forces. I like to quote the line credited to G. K. Chesterton, that the worst moment for an atheist is when he feels a profound sense of gratitude and has no one to thank. As I encountered the beauties of the world, including love, I wanted to find the One to thank.


GWM: What is the healthiest and most hopeful response you’ve ever gotten to the question, what good is God?

PY: I’d have to go back to the statement you just read about receiving grace with open hands. In one chapter of the book I describe my meeting with 100 women who had been involved in prostitution and were ministered to and rescued by Christian agencies. I reminded them that Jesus had mentioned their profession when he said that prostitutes and tax collectors would go first in the kingdom of God ahead of religious professionals. “Why do you think he singled you out?” I asked.

One woman from Bulgaria, who had told a poignant story of degradation and abuse, said in halting English, “Everyone, she has someone to look down on. Not us. We are at the low. And sometimes when you are at the low, you cry for help.”

Sitting with those women for three hours, I had heard story after story of women who were “at the low” and who cried for help. When they first tasted of grace, they held out hands eagerly, welcoming God’s forgiveness and promise of new life. I had heard thrilling stories of personal transformation.

What good is God? As a journalist, I take delight in bringing back stories of transformation from prostitutes and addicts, from millionaires and Oxford dons. God changes us at the individual level, then works upward through communities, the Body of Christ ministering to people swept up in crises like at Virginia Tech, or New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, or Joplin, Missouri, after the tornado. Finally, as Jesus predicted, the kingdom affects all of society. It falls like a seed—the smallest seed in the garden, he said—and dies, and from there grows a great bush in which the birds of the air come and nest. What good is God? You can find the answer on all three levels: individual, community, and society.

GWM: Philip, we are out of time and space, but thanks for this very meaningful conversation.


Philip Yancey serves as editor-at-large for Christianity Today magazine. He has written thirteen Gold Medallion Award-winning books and won two ECPA Book of the Year awards for What’s So Amazing About Grace? and The Jesus I Never Knew. Four of his books have sold over one million copies. Yancey lives with his wife in Colorado. Author website:

Gary W. Moon, Executive Director of the Dallas Willard Center for Christian Spiritual Formation at Westmont College, founded (with David G. Benner and Larry Crabb) Conversations Journal, directs the Renovaré Institute for Christian Spiritual Formation and has authored several books. He still teaches at Richmont Graduate University when they let him.