I had a near death experience a couple of days ago. Better said, a brush with death.
And it’s made me think about the goodness of God, human suffering, and whether or not the two can co-exist.
Dedee and I are vacationing in Maui with ten lifelong friends. Two days ago, my friend Tad and I were walking back to the beach after purchasing a hat in a shop inside the resort. We walked through an open-air courtyard with nine stories of guest rooms on all sides. A 30 year old guy with a short beard walked behind us.
We heard a loud crash, something metallic hitting stone.
We spun around to see a piece of heavy gauge pipe on the ground. It was about 2 feet long and 2 1/2 inches in diameter. It must’ve weighed 5 pounds. Maybe more.
The bearded guy was looking up.
“What happened?” I asked.
“That pipe fell from up there,” he said, pointing to the top floor. He winced.
“Did it hit you?!” I asked.
“Are you OK?”
“I’m still trying to figure that out.”
“Where did it hit you?” Tad asked.
“There.” The bearded man pointed to his right shoulder. “And then there.” He pointed to his wrist, a large raspberry appearing where the skin had been scraped off.
A construction worker on the roof had picked up a stack of materials and when he turned, the pipe rolled off the top of the stack and fell 9 stories below to the courtyard.
Employees from the resort spilled out of offices to investigate. The bearded man appeared to be OK but the resort staff didn’t leave his side.
Tad and I looked at each other. The severity of the situation crawled over us.
The pipe weighed 5-7 pounds. It fell from 9 stories above us. According to an online physics calculator, I learned that the pipe was likely traveling at 28 meters per second — or 62 mph — upon impact.
Thankfully, the pipe struck the bearded man with a glancing blow. Had it struck his shoulder square, it would’ve shattered his collarbone.
If he had been walking just 4 inches to his right, the pipe would’ve hit dead-center on his skull, surely killing him.
The What-Ifs Come Easily
When the pipe fell, I was walking just two feet ahead of the bearded man. A mere twenty-four inches.
Twenty-four inches ahead of certain death.
What if we had paused during our walk to check our phones? What if we had walked just a smidgeon slower or had taken smaller strides? A fraction of an inch less per step on our walk from the shop was all that separated us from personal tragedy and painful phone calls to family back home.
None of those things happened, of course. We’re safe. Nevertheless, Tad and I were shaken.
And as is often the case for me, my thoughts have turned toward God.
Is God Really Good?
When we experience a close call it’s common for us to say, “God is good.”
Maybe the cancer went into remission or the preemie came home from the hospital or the tornado spared us by turning north at the last minute.
“God is good.”
I’m bothered by that phrase. Not the words themselves but the context in which they’re most often used.
Using the phrase in a moment of averted tragedy reveals an underlying belief that God is good only when things turn out the way we want them to.
If God is good when the sick child gets better, is he still good when the parents leave the hospital with empty arms?
A friend of mine was raised as a Christian but has since rejected the faith. One of the main reasons he walked away is that he can no longer believe in an all-powerful yet simultaneously good God.
When I asked him to share his rationale, this is what he wrote:
“Say a man abducts a child, ties the child up, sexually assaults the child, tortures the child, burns the child with cigarettes, doesn’t feed the child or give it water. I am watching the entire thing, I have a gun, the molester does not. I could stop the suffering of the child at any time. I choose not to. The child dies after a few days of this. I watch the child’s slow death and take in every detail of the ordeal. I would have to be a special kind of evil to have the ability and power to stop the suffering of that child but elect not to. Yet God purportedly allows such things; worse, it happens thousands of times a day and He is called good and benevolent. I don’t understand it.”
Who among us can’t resonate with that? It’s a clear and vivid analogy.
I have a visceral reaction to his words because they’re very similar to the stories of abuse and torture that Dedee and I hear from survivors of child sex-trafficking through our non-profit, The Covering House.
Where was God when these young girls suffered? Why did God prevent the pipe from striking me, yet didn’t stop the horrific exploitation these girls experienced?
I can’t make sense of it.
Philosophers and theologians have wrestled with this issue for centuries. I’ve read much of their writing. Some of their arguments are compelling but most feel wholly inadequate when the suffering hits home.
Yet Christianity provides immense comfort to those who suffer, and in a way that no other religion can. Because at the center of Christianity is Jesus, a man who claimed to be God.
And he suffered terribly.
The magnitude of this to provide real comfort to the wounded cannot be overstated.
In his book, The Reason for God, Tim Keller wrote:
“If we again ask the question: ‘Why does God allow evil and suffering to continue?’ and we look at the cross of Jesus, we still do not know what the answer is. However, we now know what the answer isn’t. It can’t be that he doesn’t love us. It can’t be that he is indifferent or detached from our condition. God takes our misery and suffering so seriously that he was willing to take it on himself.”
Some of the girls who we serve at The Covering House were betrayed by a family member who sold them to a trafficker. Jesus, too, was betrayed by one of his closest friends.
Many of the girls were tortured, sometimes forced to service 20 men per day. Jesus was tortured as well, not sexually, but beaten, stripped, and hung naked on cross beams on the town garbage heap.
Most of the trafficking survivors suffered alone, far from those who loved them. Jesus, too, faced his pain alone, separated from the Father and Holy Spirit, two persons with whom he had loved and experienced infinite intimacy for all eternity.
These are not trivial similarities. As French philosopher Albert Camus — himself an atheist — wrote, “The night on Golgotha is so important in the history of man only because, in its shadows, the divinity ostensibly abandoned its traditional privilege, and lived through to the end, despair included, the agony of death.”
Does “a suffering God” eliminate the spiritual crisis we feel when we suffer? Not completely. But it gives us someone to turn to. Someone who knows our pain because he has experienced it first-hand.
A Final Thought
This post is a departure from what I normally write about, but I trust you can appreciate how this incident has given me pause to reflect.
I suspect that any comfort that Christianity provides is dependent on whether or not you believe Jesus is God and was raised from the dead.
That, I suppose, is the larger question that each of us must answer for ourselves.
As for me, I am grateful the pipe fell twenty-four inches behind me (and that the bearded man escaped with only minor injuries).
But even if it hadn’t — even if the pipe had struck me square and had killed me or given me a life-altering injury — God would still be good.
And I hope that in that moment I’d have the faith to say so.
Questions: Have you ever experienced a brush with death? What did it teach you? What did you learn from the experience. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.