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Should pastors cry?

29 March 2021 By John G. Stackhouse

Our answers show how we think of God

A student of mine, let’s call her Charlie, recently floored me with an email:

When something bad happens too many Christians respond with, "This is part of God’s plan" or "This is the will of God" or "God will bring good from this." I won’t lie – for me this has bred more hostility towards God than it has trust or love.

Maybe some people find it reassuring to think of God as a detached, ultraorganized event planner, so that when everything goes wrong they can just trust God and say, "This is the worst thing that has ever happened to me, but at least it’s all part of the plan (however cruel that plan might be)."

I have not been able to operate that way. I don’t want a God who meticulously plans and executes my suffering, or even a God who looks at my suffering and says, "Alright, now how can we take this horrible thing and make a few good things come out of it?"

I want a God who weeps.

Why do Christian people say things like this so often that it has become a cultural cliché? Stephen King depicts a bystander to a horrible car accident snapping a picture of it on her phone. "The woman will show it to her friends later. Then they will have drinks and a meal, and talk about the grace of God and how everything happens for a reason. God’s grace is a pretty cool concept. It stays intact every time it’s not you."

Why do Christians say such things? We say them because they’re true.

We do believe in a sovereign God who is not surprised by evil but is instead co-ordinating life on earth such that the divine plan of salvation is moving forward. We know Scripture reminds us constantly God is in control and He is good.

When I confide my pain to a friend, however, I don’t want him going right away into practical mode. I want comfort.

We say them also, however, because we are afraid.

We are afraid of the night, afraid of evil, afraid more than anything else of chaos. This bad thing that happened – it’s bad, and it hurts, but to believe it’s also random, that it doesn’t amount to anything but suffering, adds a whole second pain to the initial one.

Alas, like a lot of clumsy-but-well-meaning caregivers (of which I am chief), too many Christians are so afraid of the second problem, of the problem of meaninglessness, that we neglect those suffering immediately with the first problem.

We expect our pastors, likewise, to maintain a preternatural poise when conducting funerals and consoling the bereaved. Why? Because the pastor symbolizes God holding back the forces of evil and promising all will be well. The one thing we can’t have happen is for him or her to break down.

When I confide my pain to a friend, however, I don’t want him going right away into practical mode. I want comfort.

Good theologians can’t explain why certain terrible things happen on God’s watch. The best theologians don’t try. They’ve learned from the bad example of Job’s theological friends who, when faced with a conundrum – Job has always seemed good, but God pun-ishes the wicked, so since Job is clearly being punished, ergo Job must be wicked – make the classic mistake of … theologizing.

They, along with Job, eventually learn that the governance of the universe is way above their paygrade. Silent trust is the right response, not theological argument.

Credit where it’s due, however – Job’s friends do sit with him for a week before they try to solve his problem. And we would do well to emulate them in that, in the sitting quietly part.

Yes, theology can help most people with some issues. I’m a theologian and I’ve written my own book on the problem of evil. But whatever issues theologians might debate – especially about God’s so-called impassibility (inability to suffer) – in the immediate presence of our suffering, Charlie and most other normal people need immediately a God who weeps in sympathy with our pain.

So we turn to Jesus, who came to Lazarus’s tomb explicitly to make a public display of divine power over death, to bring glory to God.

But first, Jesus wept.

John Stackhouse is professor of religious studies at Crandall University. Find more of these columns at

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