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. DW

    When I see Jesus I will say amen when i see the man that died for me amen it will all be over one day.. Soon everyone will get their answer which will lead some(a few) to eternal life and others(a whole lot)to damnation. Sad but true, because of the love of iniquity peoples heart wax cold...Jesus is a loving God! Rom. 3:3-4 For what if some did not believe? shall their unbelief make the faith of God without effect? God forbid: yea let God be true and every man a liar. 2 Tim. 2:11-13 It is a faithful saying For if we be dead with him we shall also live with him If we suffer we shall also reign with him if we deny him he will also deny us If we believe not yet he abideth faithful he cannot deny himself..

    August 5, 2012 at 10:06 am |
    • zometimer

      cut and paste much?

      August 5, 2012 at 10:09 am |
    • DW

      My opinion about God has not changed 🙂

      August 5, 2012 at 10:14 am |
    • Brian Macker

      According to the story he didn't even really die. It was a sham. Plus you were not even around so he couldn't have done it for you. I don't see how his truly dying could possibly have helped you now either. Why would Christ's death in the past absolve you of any crimes you committed? It couldn't and NO you are not responsible for some guy that ate an apple because of a talking snake. How moronic is that.

      August 5, 2012 at 10:57 am |
  2. Help

    Can we get some free will vs. divine plan up in here? I love how arguments are conveniently directed towards "our sin" and "the universes answers would be too much for our feeble brains" And "it's not that h doesn't love us, we bring this upon ourselves." it's never gods fault, he is completely innocent. Do you know what it boils down too? Qualify it all you want but either god is all powerful, and he willfully allows everything to happen, or, he is not, and bye bye infallible superior being. You can blame it on whatever or whomever you like, it doesn't change a single thing. It's like beating someone up bc they took a cookie out of the cookie jar, thanks god.

    August 5, 2012 at 10:05 am |
    • Mark

      Divinity vs. Free Will! I love it when this comes up!

      As you're aware, God requires a certain amount of faith to accept; no concrete evidence one way or another, suffering in the world, all that jazz. Now, through divine will or evolution (hell, I like to think both), we end up the dominant species on the planet, with enough self-awareness to question the concepts presented to us. Free will. The ability to choose. To go with the story of Genesis, the ability to pluck the apple off the tree and realize that we're utterly naked. There's that element of choice. And much of what Jesus said revolved around choice as well; choose to accept him and be welcomed into Heaven, choose to deny him and be cast out, etc. etc..

      NOW. Let's assume, for sake of argument, that God is revealed. Not necessarily through the Second Coming, but let's say that one day in the near future it is proven, beyond a shade of reasonable doubt, that God is absolutely real. The CHOICE to accept him is no longer there. The CHOICE to follow his rules and laws is no longer there. What has become ancient scripture is now definitively set in stone, and there's an insane turnover rate, which could mean for all we know that Chik-Fil-A outdoes Microsoft in terms of profit (God forbid). And the ultimate consequence of this? Faith is no longer necessary. Because God's existence has been proven, faith is rendered moot. And free will, precious a gift as it is, is rendered worthless.

      Which, to me, defeats the entire purpose. We have free will because it allows us to CHOOSE to love and follow God's teachings, rather than be forced into them.

      August 5, 2012 at 10:36 am |
  3. sybaris

    Christianity in a nutsh.ell. A deity that allegedly created the first "perfect" humans out of dirt. They "sinned" by eating fruit out of a magic tree at the behest of a talking snake. To correct this problem this same god killed every living thing on the planet with a global flood except for a family and two of everything else living. Later, when humans went on their merry way and started "sinning" again this same god ra.ped the virgin wife of this guy named Joseph in order to recreate itself (why it couldn't do the dirt thing again is anybody's guess). At the end of this offspring's life it shows up, attracts unwanted attention and commits suicide by cop in order to atone for the "original" sin that its own creation committed (why this omniscient god didn't see that coming is…… anybody's guess). But actually it didn't atone or sacrifice anything cause what good is flesh and blood to a god anyway. It just went back to its original form and fluttered off to the sky. So now we are all supposedly waiting for a battle between this god and the talking snake, bad stuff happens, you die, she dies everybody dies and those that believed in the god live for eternity in a lobotomy-like bliss.

    ......and christians think hindu's are whacko.

    August 5, 2012 at 10:05 am |
    • jas

      Wow, your comment is like ripping a bandage from a festering wound that refuses to heal. I like it!

      August 5, 2012 at 10:11 am |
  4. Dyslexic doG

    Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
    Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
    Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
    Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?

    – Epicurus [341–270 B.C.

    August 5, 2012 at 10:04 am |
    • zometimer


      August 5, 2012 at 10:07 am |
    • NoTheism

      Disproving the Christian god hundreds of years before its conception...

      August 5, 2012 at 10:08 am |
    • Brian Macker

      NoTheism, It's hard to hold the first Christians responsible for being ignorant of the great teachers of their own past when they put such a premium on being ignorant. They certainly are not hypocrites in professing the virtues of ignorance, even if wrong. 🙂

      August 5, 2012 at 11:04 am |
  5. jp

    The real question hould be "why do we spend one minute pondering such nonsense"? There is NO god; deal with it; Next stuff happens and it IS random and it IS senseless. Don't get your shorts in a wad. Do these TWO things for a happy life:
    1.. Figure out waht you can influence and controll and get to work on it, pronto
    2. Figure out what you CANNOT influence and control and... forget about it
    and stop hoping your imaginary friend is gonna bail your sorry believing butt out; she won't

    August 5, 2012 at 10:04 am |
    • Dyslexic doG


      August 5, 2012 at 10:05 am |
    • zometimer


      August 5, 2012 at 10:08 am |
    • NoTheism

      @jp, on a level, I agree with you.. but, now you've made a claim (god does not exist); thus, you must present evidence...
      You cannot do that.
      Argument failure.

      August 5, 2012 at 10:09 am |
    • Who me?

      Amen !!

      August 5, 2012 at 10:11 am |
    • Brian Macker

      Amen and pass the bacon.

      August 5, 2012 at 11:37 am |
  6. toohip4u

    This is why religion serves the less-intelligent people so much more. You have to be naive enough to not ask these burning question, and/or have total blind faith that what ever religion and it's leaders tell you – is the (gospel) truth. How intellectually insulting of this pastor to use the age-old Christian explantion that the reason bad things happen to "good" people is that "bad" people have turned away from God and nothing happens to them, So blame the "non-believer". . the "infidels." Now doesn't this sound like the intolerant, ancient religion of Islam? Face it – religion is losing in our progressive society, that progresses intellectually, and recognizes religion can explain or fill the voids of human nature like reality and science can.

    August 5, 2012 at 10:02 am |
    • Kate

      I really like your reply. When you feel powerless, well h-ell there has gotta be some superflyguy up thar! controlling everything. This appeals to emerging societies, less educated/lower socioeconomic/less ingelligent(sorry!) people.. As a non believer in superflyguy and religion in general I feel for those I have mentioned.. but as my Irish mom always said.. Kate, God helps them who helps themselves.. sooo take out the superflyguy and you have to have help and believe in yourself and try your best to be a good guy with the time genetics, luck, and environmental gives you.

      It does get tiresome.. this my god is bettern your god.. but I hope societies in general are moving towards a belief in oneself and the working together part of life 🙂 thanks for your post, again I really liked it.

      August 5, 2012 at 10:19 am |
  7. Edwaqrd

    How can a God that is in control of everything as you claim be "furious" over injustices in this world? Is he mad at himself for allowing that to happen? Or is he not in control and is upset that bad things happen.

    To be honest, you haven't answered any questions at all. Its as if you picked a spot of comfortable ignorance in which to reside and expect us to find comfort in that spot as well.

    August 5, 2012 at 10:01 am |
  8. drbilltoth

    There are three sides to every story – His, Hers and the Truth. We cannot know hot without cold, up without down, or joy without sorrow. Everything is in balance. Live with Intention, DrBillTothCom/blog

    August 5, 2012 at 10:00 am |
    • sn0wb0arder

      i guess if we are on the religious blog and allow one form of snake oils salesman, we can have you here, too.

      August 5, 2012 at 10:04 am |
    • NoTheism

      @drbilltoth, but some things just are.. why do we need pleasure, so that we can have pain? Isn't it absurd? Couldn't it all be neutral? Instead of feeling pain, for example, when you are hurt, why not have information telling you "hey, dude, you're hurt, fix yourself"... Pain is useless.
      What about all the people that suffer constantly throughout their life and just die in the end? Where is their pleasure?

      August 5, 2012 at 10:06 am |
  9. sn0wb0arder

    "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."

    the pure self-aggrandizement of man is amazing. we can't cause global warming, but we can bring decay and death to the entire universe.

    August 5, 2012 at 9:59 am |
  10. Softship

    You wrote “When I was diagnosed with cancer, the question “Why me?” was a natural one.” I don’t think that is natural at all.
    I was diagnosed with a very rare disease which was thought would be terminal within a few years (and it almost was on a number of occasions), and I did not ask “why me?”. When people saw me walking around with oxygen, they often asked me what was wrong. I told them that I had a 1-in-a-million disease, so the usual comment was “I bet you’re wondering “why me?”, aren’t you?” But I wasn’t asking that question. If the disease exists, somebody has got to have it, why NOT me?
    After now having managed to stay alive much longer than anyone predicted I would, I still don’t ask “why me?”. What sense does it make?
    Why should anybody believe that bad things happen only to bad people, and good things only to good people? Were all the people who died in Aurora bad, all the people who survived good? The thought is preposterous! Why would anybody be so naïve to think that life is fair and just? Because that the way we would like it to be?
    If people need a god to deal with the sorrows that life deals out – so be it – I don’t care. But I am sure I have been better off dealing with the sorrows and uncertainties in my life without a belief in a god. I do not have to fear that my illness and the loss of my loved ones have been intentionally dealt me by a cruel god, nor that these things happened to me as a kind of punishment for being a less than perfect person.
    My brain may be finite, but not so much that I don’t realize that much suffering is senseless and random. That is the price we pay for living.

    August 5, 2012 at 9:58 am |
  11. puddintane

    Indeed, the question "Why?" did arise after the cancer diagnosis, but only after a few other minor issues occurred. Imagine cruising along, living the stereotypical Dream, then receiving it right after losing health insurance thanks to your employer's bankruptcy. $30k doctor bill. Then, the job, too, goes away. Right before the wife leaves. Then, the last of life savings goes to paying the apartment lease. The car falls apart. Welfares depleted. Medication would prevent those permanent seizures, but it costs $80 per month. May as well cost $800. How many more Contributor leaflets does the world need.
    So why do some of us fail at everything, while others simply can't, and we get to watch them blow $80 on dope on the street.

    August 5, 2012 at 9:58 am |
    • sn0wb0arder

      often pure random chance.

      August 5, 2012 at 10:01 am |
  12. Sarah

    I completely understand why someone would ask the question 'Why does God allow suffering?'. In fact, people in the Bible asked this question, just as you mentioned Job. Another person who pondered this was Habakkuk. (Habakkuk 1:3)

    God gave us the answer to this question in the Bible. For us to fully understand why God allows suffering, we have to look at Genesis 3. In this chapter, a rebellious angel, Satan accused God of being a liar and questioned God's right to rule over mankind (Verse 4). When Adam and Eve chose to listen to Satan over God, they chose Satan as their ruler, saying he knew better than God.

    In order for this accusation to be proven wrong, God allowed Satan to rule the imperfect world. This is pointed out in 1 John 5:19 "We know we originate with God, but the whole world is lying in the power of the wicked one.". As you mentioned, our sinful tendencies also cause us to suffer. A third cause is 'time and unforeseen occurrence' (Ecclesiastes 9: 11).

    God has established a plan in order for us to be able to live peacefully again as perfect human beings. ( Revelation 21: 1-5 ;2 Peter 3:9,10) God has allowed for Satan to rule as long as he has in order that everyone may repent of their sins and turn to God for guidance. In this way we become wise so that God can make a reply to Satan the Devil. (Proverbs 27:11)

    August 5, 2012 at 9:57 am |
    • zometimer

      book of nonsense.

      August 5, 2012 at 10:01 am |
  13. Brett

    Great article, well thought out and true...the only real question is how do we begin to stop seeing ourselves...not just go through the motions...but truly stop.

    August 5, 2012 at 9:57 am |
    • Brett

      *serving ourselves

      August 5, 2012 at 9:58 am |
    • Brian Macker

      I disagree The article could have only been written by someone with the deep ignorance engendered by the Christian suppression of critical thinking. The lessons of Doubting Thomas and Adam's apple runs deep in this author. Make questioning a sin and no one will get answers. Teach as just punishing the ignorant foreating of the Tree of Knowledge and people will remain ignorant.

      Regardless of whether one lives forever the small things still have meaning. In fact when one only has this life a babies smile, the beauty of a flower, or that thoughtful gift have more meaning when you are not to receive an infinity of them. I will never experience my sons first steps ever again and to believe this has no meaning because it doesn't last forever is ridiculous. It has more meaning. The sacrifice of a soldier for his neighbors even more meaning when the magnitude of that sacrifice is increased by the fact that he doesn't get a second chance at living an afterlife.

      August 5, 2012 at 10:13 am |
  14. Knight

    Reblogged this on It Almost Works and commented:
    If there is a God, why do we suffer? Why do some suffer while others don't?

    August 5, 2012 at 9:57 am |
  15. Ron

    I have a theory. (everyone does I suppose) Let's say there is GOD (and I believe there is) If he is in control and has a plan...then no matter how senseless we mere mortals believe....any death is part of his plan...so that makes it not senseless. I however believe...there is GOD but he has no control or cares to have control over when we die....if he has control over us..or chose to determine when we die....that sorta would undermine that "free will" thingy huh? My opinion..we're born..and there are 2 factors which determine when we expire... 1 is fate..(wrong place wrong time) and 2, how we choose to lead our lives..you smoke dope, alcoholic, foods we eat, air we breath...can determine or perhaps speed up our undeniable faith..GOD IMO observes not interferes.

    August 5, 2012 at 9:57 am |
    • NoTheism

      Fate, uh... fantastic... What about cause and effect? Could that be an alternative? If so, point n.2 is the same as point n.1. However, if you really want to defend the concept of fate, have at it... but I am convinced that determinism is much more plausible, as I have somewhat brought forth initially.
      Free will–how can I put this–is absurd. But even if you did have "free will", it still wouldn't prove the existence of a god..

      August 5, 2012 at 10:01 am |
  16. geenabeana

    "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."

    So humans created death?? It's because we don't worship him enough that every living thing will die? Nice try at brainwashing, but I'm not falling for it! If we have created this big mess, then why doesn't this god destroy us and start over again, like he did with the "big flood?" Nature is nature and there is a life cycle to all living things and I don't think humans are the reason that a zebra dies in the middle of Africa, it's more likely because a lion was hungry! I am thinking that no amount of praying will save that zebra.

    "So abandoning belief in God doesn’t help with the problem of suffering at all." But how does believing in God help? We still suffer. Some very God fearing people suffer the worst at times. Why not just suffer and accept that it's part of life and that no deity is going to "fix" it for you?

    August 5, 2012 at 9:56 am |
    • Brian Macker

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

      This proven false every time a Christian Science member refuses medical help for a child.

      August 5, 2012 at 10:34 am |
  17. Leonore H. Dvorkin

    Uh, it should be pretty obvious! Bad things happen to us because there is violence in nature (storms, earthquakes, floods, etc.), people are often either careless or brutal, and because bodies are subject to disease and other defects. So instead of wasting your time asking "Why me?", or working hard to justify your continued belief in some imaginary but obviously impotent being, why not get to work trying to make the world a better place in some way? How about things like taking better care of the environment, advancing medicine, teaching children to be kind to other people and animals, and so forth? When will the progress-hindering, time-wasting idiocy that is religion ever end?

    August 5, 2012 at 9:56 am |
  18. Kate

    What a nice man. Still believes in Adam and Eve.. when a 'man' believes in Eve's tempting of Adam with the apple – you lose me. (he says god didn't create the world with evil and death in it till 'man' turned away from him, as in worship me or I'm a gonna smack you upside the head boy 😉 which god did in his world) in my world, it was created, not sure how, big bang.. (maybe a supernatural power but I know it's not some sandal footed guy who was magically created by this superfly guy who sent part of himself our way about what 2K+ years ago).. death from what I have read is in our DNA.. our cells eventually die out, now did superflyguy give us the brains to figure this out.. maybe, but superflyguy has left the house for billions of years now.. why do you people so need to believe in a book that could have been rewritten hundreds of times, different interpretations.. jeez try reading Beowulf, olde englishe is hard enough.. we live, some of us acquire cancer through DNA replication from our parents (BRCA I believe the gene is in breast cancer) and some of us have our DNA get a bit askew, some of us incur it through environmental causes (thru smoking or on the job causes) it would be nice to sit at the right hand of a superflyguy and chat about things ad foreverum.. but isn't that simplistic? I'd like to see a scientist in alongside this pablum (oldschool :). It's so nice that religion helps those who need a purpose.. rather than be some super guy at a church in the city, quit it! go to Zimbabawe and help.

    August 5, 2012 at 9:55 am |
  19. MarineMom

    We don't come into this world happy to be here, we come in pretty much angry, confused and experiencing things we have never felt before....flash forward to our mortality, we are pretty much the same EXCEPT!! if we truly believe in where we are going and that is back to our Father. " Come as children" but with our adult understanding that we don't know everything. We are both physical and spiritual, when we learn to love where it's easier (physical) we can fully accept the future living conditions of the spiritual. Jesus is our Guide on that simple truth.

    August 5, 2012 at 9:55 am |
  20. concordantmind

    "God did not create a world with death and evil in it. It is the result of humankind turning away from him. "

    What a bunch of bull. Seriously. This is the lie that keeps this nonsense going.

    August 5, 2012 at 9:54 am |
    • Mac

      When you turn away from ultimate righteousness, what are you turning toward? Therein lies the explanation of a broken world.

      August 5, 2012 at 10:13 am |
    • Brian Macker

      That cannot possibly explain natural disaster, the criminally insane, nor the horrifically disproportionate punishment of hell. Especially considering your god is supposedly all seeing,, all knowing, and all powerful. Your beliefs make no sense. Plus science more than adequately explains why some people choose to act selfishly or cruelly. It is absolutely no surprise that people do evil things. It is to be expected. So this is a non-problem from the perspective of science, not true from the perspective of Christian ignorance.

      August 5, 2012 at 10:51 am |
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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.