My Faith: The danger of asking God ‘Why me?'
August 4th, 2012
10:00 PM ET

My Faith: The danger of asking God ‘Why me?'

Editor’s note: Timothy Keller is senior pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York and author of The New York Times best-selling book "The Reason for God." His book for church leaders, "Center Church," will be published in September.

By Timothy Keller, Special to CNN

(CNN)–When I was diagnosed with cancer, the question “Why me?” was a natural one.

Later, when I survived but others with the same kind of cancer died, I also had to ask, “Why me?”

Suffering and death seem random, senseless.

The recent Aurora, Colorado, shootings — in which some people were spared and others lost — is the latest, vivid example of this, but there are plenty of others every day: from casualties in the Syria uprising to victims of accidents on American roads. Tsunamis, tornadoes, household accidents - the list is long.

As a minister, I’ve spent countless hours with suffering people crying: “Why did God let this happen?” In general I hear four answers to this question. Each is wrong, or at least inadequate.

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The first answer is “I guess this proves there is no God.” The problem with this thinking is that the problem of senseless suffering does not go away if you abandon belief in God.

In his Letter from Birmingham Jail, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said that if there was no higher divine law, there would be no way to tell if any particular human law was unjust. Likewise, if there is no God, then why do we have a sense of outrage and horror when suffering and tragedy occur? The strong eat the weak, there is no meaning, so why not?

Friedrich Nietzsche exemplified that idea. When the atheist Nietzsche heard that a natural disaster had destroyed Java in 1883, he wrote a friend: “Two-hundred-thousand wiped out at a stroke—how magnificent!”

Because there is no God, Nietzsche said, all value judgments are arbitrary. All definitions of justice are just the results of your culture or temperament.

My Take: This is where God was in Aurora

As different as they were, King and Nietzsche agreed on this point. If there is no God or higher divine law then violence is perfectly natural.

So abandoning belief in God doesn’t help with the problem of suffering at all.

The second response to suffering is: “While there is a God, he’s not completely in control of everything. He couldn’t stop this.”

But that kind of God doesn’t really fit our definition of “God.” So that thinking hardly helps us with reconciling God and suffering.

The third answer to the worst kind of suffering – seemingly senseless death – is: “God saves some people and lets others die because he favors and rewards good people.”

But the Bible forcefully rejects the idea that people who suffer more are worse people than those who are spared suffering.

This was the self-righteous premise of Job’s friends in that great Old Testament book. They sat around Job, who was experiencing one sorrow after another, and said “The reason this is happening to you and not us is because we are living right and you are not.”

At the end of the book, God expresses his fury at Job’s ”miserable comforters.” The world is too fallen and deeply broken to fall into neat patterns of good people having good lives and bad people having bad lives.

The fourth answer to suffering in the face of an all-powerful God is that God knows what he’s doing, so be quiet and trust him.

This is partly right, but inadequate. It is inadequate because it is cold and because the Bible gives us more with which to face the terrors of life.

God did not create a world with death and evil in it. It is the result of humankind turning away from him. We were put into this world to live wholly for him, and when instead we began to live for ourselves everything in our created reality began to fall apart, physically, socially and spiritually. Everything became subject to decay.

But God did not abandon us. Only Christianity of all the world’s major religions teaches that God came to Earth in Jesus Christ and became subject to suffering and death himself, dying on the cross to take the punishment our sins deserved, so that someday he can return to Earth to end all suffering without ending us.

Do you see what this means? We don’t know the reason God allows evil and suffering to continue, or why it is so random, but now at least we know what the reason isn’t, what it can’t be.

It can’t be that he doesn’t love us. It can’t be that he doesn’t care. He is so committed to our ultimate happiness that he was willing to plunge into the greatest depths of suffering himself.

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Someone might say, “But that’s only half an answer to the question ‘Why?'” Yes, but it is the half that we need. If God actually explained all the reasons why he allows things to happen as they do, it would be too much for our finite brains.

What we truly need is what little children need. They can’t understand most of what their parents allow and disallow for them. They need to know their parents love them and can be trusted. We need to know the same thing about God.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Timothy Keller.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Christianity • God

soundoff (3,664 Responses)
  1. pinko

    Since when is mythology news? This nonsense belongs in the comic section of a paper.

    August 5, 2012 at 9:12 am |
  2. Michael

    There is no God and religion is a mental illness-another power grab.

    August 5, 2012 at 9:11 am |
  3. Alexis

    If you are a humanist, it makes complete sense for there to be suffering but no god. This does not at all mean that violence is natural. Quite the opposite.

    August 5, 2012 at 9:10 am |
  4. BU

    PLEASE take this religious BS and delete it all, CNN. It has no place at all in a news organization, which is supposed to be uncovering *facts*, not propagating dangerous myths.

    August 5, 2012 at 9:09 am |
    • Tim

      Wow...Your ange is quite remarkable...I would suggest that you can't rule the planet (which I assume you are aware of this fact) and decide that religion has no place in society (which I assume that you think otherwise). Bottom line, no one made you read this and you don't have to read the religion section on the CNN website...problem solved. Now wasn't that easy? Now you can peruse through the website without anxiety. Your welcome.

      August 5, 2012 at 9:22 am |
    • Tim

      Oh, and one more thing...have you been listening to the news? News agencies are not supposed to uncover "facts" they are supposed to report on them. And also, that hasn't been going so well for most news agencies these days. Just incase you are delusional about this I want to try to save you from being a lemming. Are you ready for this?......The news doesn't always tell the facts....*gasp* I know...it's hard to hear.

      And if they are supposed to uncover facts...what facts could they uncover about hard questions people are asking concerning this tragedy? Will it be comfort to anyone to just say, "The guy was a psychopath"? Oh, well in that case I feel better...thanks for that. How do you make sense of any of this? But than again this section doesn't claim to be news either...another caveat you may have missed. And one more thing....there's no possible way you could know it's a myth anyway....and you can't really say that what he said is dangerous....

      August 5, 2012 at 9:32 am |
  5. zapper45701

    People need to realize that we live in a mortal world, and we are all subject to mortal ails and disasters. Whether one believes in a higher power or not, it does not exempt him/her from the trials and tribulations of planet earth. Folks need to come to terms with the fact that none of us are getting out of here alive. WE ALL DIE–Some sooner, some later, some quietly, some violently, some young, some old–but we all die. We start "dying" from the moment we are born, it's a cycle. We are mortal.

    To question why "God" would allow anything to happen to any of us is moot. We all are destined to die. If any "God" were to intervene in so many tragedies, which side would he take? If an all-power "God" controls each one's destiny, then perhaps death is the destination for certain individuals at particular times. Don't ask me why, I deny an god-like powers or foreknowledge. In the meantime, we must all live our lives the best we can, hope for the best, prepare for the worst and know that our time here is limited. Best wishes to all.

    August 5, 2012 at 9:09 am |
  6. Pavlov The First

    Atheism: the one "religion" religious people don't have to respect.

    August 5, 2012 at 9:07 am |
    • Timmy

      Not collecting stamps: the one "hobby" hobbyests don't have to respect.

      August 5, 2012 at 9:12 am |
    • Way Out There

      Reading any of these other posts? Yes, all those "atheists" really feel obligated to respect those that do follow a faith, don't they?

      August 5, 2012 at 9:15 am |
      • Freethought Police

        No, why should they? Faith is bogus.
        A lack of faith, now that you can respect.

        August 5, 2012 at 9:18 am |
  7. Me

    Life is too short to waste it on something so miserably stupid as religion.

    August 5, 2012 at 9:05 am |
  8. Susan

    ....obvious if there is a god, he did not create logic in his representatives.

    August 5, 2012 at 9:05 am |
    • Pavlov The First

      Logic is a figment of your pride!

      August 5, 2012 at 9:08 am |
  9. Joshua

    1. You're saying that the reason bad things happen can't be that God isn't moral. In other words, God must be moral. The problem with this is that God commits or condones a huge number of immoral acts in the Bible, which means that He can be, and demonstrably is, immoral.

    2. All atheists do not necessarily prescribe to the philosophy of Nietzsche, yet you're implying that they do. This is as absurd as implying that all Christians fully support the actions of the Westboro Baptist Church, which protests military funerals.

    3. Most importantly, you've pointed out the difficulties of understanding ethics without the involvement of a third party (i.e. God), but from you've done absolutely nothing to support the existence of God. The fact that not having a God would make something difficult does not mean that a God must therefore exist. It just means that the thing is difficult.

    August 5, 2012 at 9:05 am |
  10. David

    I'm not going to pick a side in this argument. I only wish to say that I'm a father of 3. I work a ton of hours to support the family but even so I understand that I can't expect my children to love and obey an absent father. You have to be there for your children and not just in spirit. That only goes so far with a child. My children clearly show me on a daily basis how much my physical presence is needed in there lives. If I am viewed as one of God's children then if I lose my faith and get sent to hell he is going to have some serious explaining to do when I ask him where he has been for the last 2000 years. Maybe if he spent more time at home we kids would play better together.

    August 5, 2012 at 9:04 am |
    • sn0wb0arder

      hmm. that makes entirely too much sense.

      August 5, 2012 at 9:05 am |
    • NoTheism

      well put, but at least your kids know you exist...

      August 5, 2012 at 9:06 am |
    • Way Out There

      Your children know to look for you each day as well. Do you look for God every day in your life? If you did, you just might see Him.

      August 5, 2012 at 9:17 am |
    • NoTheism

      @Way Out There, what if the children knew how to look but he just wasn't there? That's not really an option for you, is it?

      August 5, 2012 at 9:20 am |
    • Way Out There

      @NoTheism....i just am not angry like you, and keep an open mind and heart. Never claimed faith worked for everyone, like you probably claim faith doesn't work for anyone.

      August 5, 2012 at 9:27 am |
    • NoTheism

      @Way Out There, perhaps it is you who should keep an open mind and consider the option that a god probably does not exist..
      How do you know I'm angry, anyway? That's quite an assumption.
      On the contrary, I do believe faith is very powerful, it just doesn't affect the real world outside of individuals.. Call it placebo effect.

      August 5, 2012 at 9:33 am |
    • David

      I do not look for God every day of my life. I have cried out for him before as many others have. Has he answered? Maybe, if he has it has not been by way of physical presence. He may have even saved my very life on more than a few occasions without my apparent knowledge. Believe me, I've been at Death's door many times. It is a miracle I lived past the age of 5. It is miracle I could ever have children. It is a miracle that I can comment on this post. I take nothing for granted and refuse no person their right of free will. My only point is that as a father myself I can't and won't let my children cry out for me while leaving them to ponder where I am. I'm not saying God doesn't exist. What I'm saying is that he is not a very good Dad and when I see him I'm going to tell him that.

      August 5, 2012 at 10:18 am |
  11. Mattski

    Wow. I think this article shows perfectly how we have created an image of God that we want to believe in. "So abandoning belief in God doesn’t help with the problem of suffering at all." Right. In fact, holding onto a belief in God helps with the problem of suffering, which is why we do it. But the most glaring one is the idea that it's wrong to think "He couldn’t stop this.” because "That kind of God doesn’t really fit our definition of “God.” Precisely. It's all about our definition of God. And the answer is either right or wrong depending on how well if fits into our definition. To me that says it all, right out of the mouth of a pastor.

    August 5, 2012 at 9:03 am |
    • Scott

      Mattski, I think I know what you're saying. In this country we have become obsessed with ourselves so if God does not fit our definition, we re-create Him to fit our lifestyle and morality. This of course is wrong; we need God, God does not need us. Yet, we think He needs us so we create rituals and fancy religions to justify our existence. What's ironic is that atheists do the very same thing only they say God does not exist. Funny how that works. We love to point and blame someone or something else for our troubles in this country instead of just dealing with it, blowing it off, and moving on.

      August 5, 2012 at 9:21 am |
    • mengo

      well thats the problem when you believe in something that hasnt been proven to exist. The concept of a god allows people to define it in whatever way they want precisely because there is no real definition. The bible, quran and every other religious text out there is just a human interpretation of the what a god would want us to do.
      When you leave room for interpretation by imperfect beings such as us then of course there will be issues and problems.
      Hence why i believe that, while there is a creator for the universe, there is no god or deity that governs us or gives us laws or judges us. all those laws are a creation of the human mind not a divine mind.

      August 5, 2012 at 9:36 am |
  12. Datch

    This piece is completely absurd. What a cynical, ignorant view of people to insist that, without God, we'd all be violent and immoral. Such statements exist only to continue to frighten people into continued allegiance to their church. "If God actually explained all the reasons why he allows things to happen as they do, it would be too much for our finite brains." Yeah, stupid little us. We could never understand complex subjects. The church relies on making sure that people regard themselves as too stupid to understand deep thought and critical analysis–because if they did, they wouldn't buy into this nonsense anymore.

    I am particularly perplexed by the statement "The problem with this thinking is that the problem of senseless suffering does not go away if you abandon belief in God.". And it doesn't go away if you DO believe in God, either, which proves that God is irrelevant, doesn't it? There are many ways to view suffering, but it is a part of the human condition, God or no God. The Buddhists (the most rational among "religious" people) point out that suffering comes from desire. At least that makes sense.

    Since we're quoting people, I offer the following:
    "Despite it all, I believe that people are really good at heart" (Anne Frank).
    "This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness." (The Dalai Lama)

    August 5, 2012 at 9:02 am |
    • Oj

      The religious are infinitely patronizing in their attempts to control and brainwash others. And persistent. Didn't this guy write the same article last week?

      August 5, 2012 at 9:11 am |
  13. WorkInProgress

    "We live by faith, not by sight." 2 Corinthians 5:7
    "So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal." 2 Corinthians 4:18
    "Then Jesus told him, "Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed." John 20:29

    August 5, 2012 at 9:02 am |
    • Timmy

      Psalm 137:9 – Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.

      August 5, 2012 at 9:15 am |
    • Cris

      If these words are the true word of God then yes. But what we know for fact is that man wrote these words down and we are trusting this person to be accurate. We don't know if he fudged a little on the translation or even if he really heard God. We 100% know man wrote these words and man revised these words. I believe in God and one day I will know him and the truth of what he wanted or wants. But until then; I plan on living a good life, a kind , caring, passionate and helpful to others as well as myself life. One day we will all know the truth but until then we all just need to be caring, helpful and more compassionate to others.

      August 5, 2012 at 9:45 am |
  14. yannaes

    There is a verse that applies to all mankind, this is not about the harshness of an Eternal God, this is a reality all mankind must deal with no matter ones faith or non-faith: The Rain Falls on the Just and the Unjust....God did not cause cancer! Look at what man has done to our earth and food supplies. God told man to care for the earth..and for each other, yet man in his own devices has created an atmosphere where cancer runs its fateful course. We are all going to die...So to ask why or why not is not the right question...I am not sure of the right question, for our faith in God is not predicated upon anything for as a Christian this earth is not my home, that is my belief...We are just passing through and we have failed to protect our environment therefore we have caused the scenario's and not God.

    August 5, 2012 at 9:02 am |
    • mengo

      that just means gods presence is irrelevant in our lives or that hes indifferent. Therefore while should people worship him

      August 5, 2012 at 9:40 am |
  15. Joe

    This is where most people go wrong in their understanding. God does not create disease, he does not "allow" a child to catch cancer or a tornado to destroy hundreds of homes.

    When Jesus died on the cross, he said "It is finished" and that is what it is. God's intervention in peoples lives was finish. God defeated sin and paid the price for all sin.

    Things like the Aura shooting, cancer and our weather, etc is a product of man and what we are doing to the planet and what we have done to morality. Nothing else

    Jesus gave us the choice to try and live as he did, try and do God's will and strive to be perfect. Everything else is a man made issue that we all can control the outcome.

    God's job was finished a couple of thousand years ago.

    Man has caused pollution, decline in morality and is responsable for how things eventually turn out.

    August 5, 2012 at 9:01 am |
    • Scott

      @Joe; exactly right. And to add one more point if you do not mind, what we should be focusing on is not what happens while we are alive but what happens after we die. I know that no matter what happens whether I die violently by the hands of someone like the dude in Aurora, a car accident, or by food poisoning, my faith in Christ tells me that He will accept me after I die. Now that seems arrogant to non-believers but it isn't, it is based on faith. Just because I have Christ as my Savior does not mean that I am invulnerable to pain or fear. I am scared sometimes with the world and what could happen to me such what happened in Aurora but my faith gives me strength to keep pushing on forward; I will not give up and I just smile a lot even on days when I do not want to smile.

      August 5, 2012 at 9:37 am |
    • mengo

      @ joe: what your sayying basically vindicates what atheist say, "gods job is done" well that means that he doesnt care about us anymore does it, nor our actions. if thats the case the concept of living a good and moral life so that you can be rewarded in the afterlife is just pointless. People are to worried about what happens after they die, they just need to accept that death is a natural thing and that the end of their existence whether spiritually or physically is a natural thing, therefore theres no need to work toward that reward in the afterlife because there is no afterlife.

      August 5, 2012 at 9:46 am |
  16. tarzanjungle

    Yes, we do know why GOD permits suufering because of Satans challenge to God; who has the right to rule the universe- God or Man? the answer is obvious that man cant do it. Soon all suffering will end when God destroys mans governments, business, and religion. Daniel 2;44 .

    August 5, 2012 at 9:01 am |
    • NoTheism

      are you trolling?

      August 5, 2012 at 9:04 am |
  17. jmansell

    How does one explain that "Suffering and death seem random, senseless". Because they are! There is no God. That's the explanation. We need to accept that these killings are precisely what they are - senseless. If there is a God that would allow this (and painful cancer deaths of children, or the Holocaust, or genocide, or...) I don't think much of his caring or omnipotence. And, thank you very much, I don't need this as a life lesson. The best explanation is simply - there is no god. If we want to do something constructive to reduce new senseless killings and suffering in the future - act to control guns, better identify and treat mental illness, etc. Do it in the name of those lost. Don't wait for God - that's just a cop out.

    August 5, 2012 at 9:00 am |
    • Stix

      The pastor uses the tired worn out argument that you can't have morals without god. God is dead, all is permitted. Nonsense! Ask the pastor sitting on his righteous throne to explain how it is that during the holocaust it was secular people who were more likely to help the Jews than the Christians. Wake up pastor, your religion is a man-made sham!

      August 5, 2012 at 9:09 am |
  18. This is silly

    I like the "don't be an athiest" because it is not going to help anything. How does rationalizing cancer or a shooting in Colorado as result man turning away from God help anything? It doesn't. Religions main duty has always been to try to make people feel better about what can be a short and hard lives. It gives an explanation, as silly as it is. This guy is just perpetuating this chore. Being an Atheist might not "help" but refocusing our thoughts, on the problem rather a myth, will.

    August 5, 2012 at 9:00 am |
    • Oj

      Excellent. Religion is and has been a way for the weak to have something to grasp onto so they don't feel so tiny and insignificant in the universe. Well that, and for the church to have a way to control the masses.

      You don't need an imaginary god to know that things are wrong.

      August 5, 2012 at 9:05 am |
  19. bobc4d

    I grew up going to church believed in god (yes lower case) in a cult know as church of christ. When I was in my early teens, I had several tradgic things happen and I asked why god allowed these to happen. Well, when the first tragedy happened I asked \"why did god take my mom?\" the elders of this cult said \"it is gods will and not for you to question it\" Several month later when my best friend was dying of cancer, after weeks of praying and begging god to take me instead, my friend died. When I again asked why, the so-called elders \"got infurated and said it was gods plan and his will. I was NOT to question his wisdom\". That was when I said F you god, if that is they way you treat us, if you plan the death of people, if you use then as some game, then I don\'t need you. I haven\'t looked back.

    We use the afterlife as a way of believing there is something after death, that death can\'t be IT as a light bulb burn out and darkness, nothingness. We just can\'t believe when you die that is it, so we create this myth of something afterwards so we can live forever. We hang on to this belief that in the afterlife, the \"spirit\" has all the corporeal senses we had when we were alive; hearing, speach, sight, thought. What a crock.

    August 5, 2012 at 9:00 am |
  20. stillabeliever

    I have had many sad days in my life and have suffered through multiple storms – and the only person who has ever comforted me and made me feel worthy is my Lord and Savior. Each human being can choose to believe or not to believe – but for all of my friends who are indeed atheists – when I ask them the question do you ever listen to an inner speaking that you take to be your conscience/voice/guide (whichever term you prefer)speak to you – they all say resoundingly YES. Coupled with the idea that the great mysteries of the universe will never be explained by science alone, all of my atheist friends (many who are very very well educated) are still open to the idea that something (or perhaps Someone) bigger than them has a part in our daily lives. They are just questioning the existence of WHY beacuse they have yet to see proof – they as educated individuals have great doubts but as enlightened people, they readily admit that because they themseleves do not have all (or any) of the answers have not entirley ruled out the possibility of a God – and I can respect that as being honest. As for all of the randomness that my atheist friends experience in their lives, they will all also admit that there are far too many connected happenings throughout the spectrum of their lives to espouse to the sole idea that ALL action and thought and living are completely random and neutral and devoid of an (as yet for them) ultimate truthful explanation. Faith is very personal, but isn't the act of believing in ANYTHING the idea that you believe in SOMETHING anyway? Please accept Jesus as your Savior – if you do not – may God Bless you anyway!!! We are all God's children – believers and non – believers alike. We can agree to disagree. And because God is LOVE (which I will never question) Love one another and teach eachother to LOVE.!!!!! Good luck in your search for Truth – as for ME Jesus is THE WAY THE TRUTH and THE LIFE and whoever chooses to believe in Him will not die. Thanks for listening – and if you do disagree – thanks for listening anyway.

    August 5, 2012 at 9:00 am |
    • Oj

      Dude, you're going to die like everyone else. It just sounds like you're going to be extremely lonely for the period preceding that event.

      August 5, 2012 at 9:09 am |
    • dg

      My dog provides more useful and sustaining comfort than any God or gods could when I am suffering mentally or physically. My dog, also, doesn't require my soul, belief, etc. iin exchange.

      August 5, 2012 at 10:38 am |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.