A Feature Review of
The Question that Never Goes Away
Reviewed by Julie Lane-Gay.
It only takes a glance at the New York Times to remind us that tragedies happen frequently. Even on days without plane crashes and bus station bombings, we see accounts of children killed in war and actor’s suicides. Some of us find ourselves asking God almost daily, “Why did you let this happen?”
Philip Yancey’s slim new volume, The Question that Never Goes Away, is his answer, written after spending countless hours alongside those directly affected by Japan’s 2011 earthquake, the Civil war in the Balkans and Connecticut’s Sandy Hook School Massacre. If ever there were people to speak credibly about the “Why?” questions, and a scrupulously truthful writer to record their answers, these are they.
For those bedeviled by “Why would God let this happen?” questions, Philip Yancey is a kindred spirit. With a near-addictive pull, Yancey has been tormented by theodicy – reconciling God’s goodness and omnipotence, and the existence of evil – for most of his life. As a Christian, and as a writer, he’s wrestled with theodicy since his father’s death when he was a small boy. Two of Yancey’s best-selling books are Where is God When it Hurts? and What Good is God?
With more than 10, 000 killed by Japan’s earthquake (and subsequent tsunami) and the nearly 11,000 murdered in the former Yugoslavia, Yancey’s visits to these areas in 2012 render heart-wrenching information and stories. In Japan, hundreds of school children died standing in precise straight lines, awaiting instructions. Six months after the earthquake and tsunami, the count of buried cars and trucks reached 410,000, some of which still had victims inside. Months later, Yancey had an extended visit to Sarajevo, where he met mothers’ whose toddlers were decapitated right before their eyes. He spoke with fathers whose sons were murdered by Serbian soldiers who “rounded up every male over the age of fifteen – eight thousand in all – tied their hands behind their backs and shot them.” Less than a year later, Yancey was asked by a group of pastors from Newtown, CT to meet with that community only weeks after twenty children and six adults were murdered in their Sandy Hook elementary school. With these experiences and facts as his framework, Yancey wrote The Question that Never Goes Away.
The direct response Yancey offers is the premise that evil happens because it’s what occurs when humans have the freedom to choose. As Desmond Tutu wrote following his time on South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation commission, “this universe has been constructed in such a way that unless we live in accordance with its moral laws, we will pay the price for it” (122). Interestingly, while this a philosophically plausible answer, Yancey detects that survivors, with or without a Christian faith, don’t always find it entirely satisfying.
When faced with the worst, Yancey reports, what survivors actually want to know, (and what they find gets them through the pain), is that people care, if their loved one and their loss matters, and for many, if God cares about those who’ve died, and those still here. It is the media that keeps the spotlight on sources of blame and “Why?” far more than the survivors actually do. Yancey sees God’s passionate care through the Good Samaritan, and Jesus’ care of the sick and paralyzed and through his care of pagan Romans, and Yancey sees it now amidst the people of Japan, Sarajevo and Newtown. Through individuals and communities, and through normal and unusual circumstances, Yancey notices God giving care. He writes, “I can say with confidence that God is on the side of the sufferer”(148). And it this perspective that Yancey found enables survivors to begin to sleep at night.
Yancey notices that the changes that occur in survivors’ perspectives and their relationships, which are actually catalyzed by the horrible, become exceptionally meaningful. Similarly, he observes that people who have suffered prefer who they have become. Yancey quotes actor Michael J. Fox, insisting that the ten years since his Parkinson’s diagnosis have been the best of his life. “I would never go back to that life – a sheltered, narrow existence fueled by fear and made livable by insulation, isolation, and self-indulgence” (95).
Amidst these findings and reflections, Yancey delineates a number of practical suggestions for caring for people coping with trauma – suggestions worth the price of the book. Yancey shares his “Two-part test” that he submits himself to before proffering support to the suffering: 1) How would my words sound to a mother who “kissed her daughter goodbye as she put her on the school bus and then later that day was called to identify her bloody body?” and 2) what would Jesus have said to that mother?
Theodicy is often approached as either a theological treatment or through a memoir. Yancey’s is a combination of memoir, theology, and Scriptural investigation, mixed with journalistic reporting. It’s short, easy to read, honest and surprisingly uplifting. It is also an excellent corrective and guide to churches and Christian communities.
Less than two months after the Newtown massacre, The Question that Never Goes Away was completed, and Yancey asked his publisher, Zondervan, if they would allow the Newtown families to download it, free-of-charge. In a generous gesture, Zondervan decided to make it available to the general public as a free EBook for two weeks. Predicting 3000 people might take advantage of the offer, Yancey and Zondervan were stunned when 100,000 people downloaded it. Philip Yancey’s The Question that Never Goes Away is indeed just that, and his reflections are a well-informed nudge toward reorienting our perspective, and our response.