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BreakPoint This Week: The Question that Never Goes Away

John Stonestreet interviews Philip Yancey, an author who's dealt head-on with the problem of pain, and how Christians should respond.

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Maybe you have a friend or relative who's experienced loss, hardship or disease. How should you best offer biblical comfort? Christians are all too aware that we live in a fallen world in which suffering and hardship are inevitable parts. How can we help those around us better understand and cope with it without resorting to cliches or grasping at straws? During this week's broadcast, John Stonestreet welcomes author Philip Yancey, whose latest book, "The Question that Never Goes Away," seeks to tackle that challenge.

Yancey, a journalist and bestselling author of a number of treasured books, including "What's So Amazing About Grace?" and "Where Is God When It Hurts?" has taken the last thirty-five years of real-world experiences and lessons with hurting people and recorded them in a humble and intimate new work, "The Question That Never Goes Away." Having personally spoken to and comforted thousands of grief-striken souls, as well as millions more through his books, Yancey says he wrote this newest title to address one of his greatest concerns with the Church: the way Christians often mishandle grief.

"I kept running into people... who were telling me, 'The Church made it worse.'" he says. "[They said] 'While I was hurting, people came to me with all these pronouncements, and I would just feel worse.'"
Philip Yancey
Often, intending the offer consolation, we rush to paint a silver lining around an otherwise unimaginable tragedy. "At least your loved one was a Christian," we might say by way of misguided good intentions. Or, "If even one person is saved because of your loved one's death, it will have been worth it." Or perhaps we might even quote Scripture: "God works all things together for good,"—a move John Stonestreet calls "lobbing Romans 8:28 grenades." But in the face of such unthinkable pain, Yancey says corny sentimentality or even valid philosophical or doctrinal observations are of little use. In fact, they typically only add to the sufferer's pain.

Yancey says he's long wanted to address this common shortcoming among well-meaning Christians, but the opportunity finally struck in 2012, when he accepted three life-changing speaking engagements.

"In 2012 I was asked to speak on that subject ("Where Is God When It Hurts?") in three separate places. The first one was the anniversary of the tsunami in Japan. 20,000 people died. We all remember pictures of these waves rolling in, tossing ships and cars and trains like toys. After the first year they had a nationwide prayer meeting where I spoke on that question. October of the same year, I was in Croatia, and my publisher just spontaneously said, 'Would you like to go to Sarajevo?' So we drove to Sarajevo, and I heard incredible stories of this brutal siege...And again, they put together a church service, and I spoke again on that topic, 'Where is God When It Hurts?'"

"This city knew a different kind of suffering," Yancey says, describing Sarajevo. "Not a natural disaster like in Japan, but this brutal human war in which 10,000 people died, in some cases cruelly. Snipers were picking off grandmothers and children."

This uniquely horrific and human tragedy—one which evoked moral and not merely natural evils, prepared Yancey to speak at yet a third memorial service, this time for one of the most vivid and vicious atrocities to strike the United States in years.

"...almost at the end of the year, in December, of course, Newtown, Connecticut happened," he says. "The Sandy Hook elementary school shootings—Much smaller in scale, in one sense. Only 27 people died. But also much more horrible in a way—these six and seven-year-old children. You kiss your daughter or son goodbye, you put them on the school bus, and the next thing you hear is this thing that no parent ever wants to hear. And I went there and spoke to this...dazed community, this grieving community, again, on 'Where Is God When It Hurts?'"

The words which Yancey offered these broken souls, however, proffered no cheap comfort or theological formuli. They were simple words of shared sorrow, and a reminder that Jesus Christ is on the side of the suffering—because He became one of then.

"I decided I've learned a few things in 35 years," Yancey says, "mainly from the people who go through something like that. And I wanted to write about it. And even as I was writing, new events would happen—the Boston Marathon bombing, the tornadoes in the Midwest, and later a typhoon in the Philippines. And indeed, it was 'The Question That Never Goes Away.'"

Instead of trying to make the question go away, Yancey believes we must answer the way Jesus did—with hands, feet, and a heart ready to share the pain. That was God's solution to evil and tragedy—and it was what defeated both on the cross and in the empty tomb.

We hope this week's interview has better equipped you to engage with the grief in your own family, church, and community, and that you'll check out Philip Yancey's spectacular books, which we've linked below.


"BreakPoint This Week" is hosted by John Stonestreet, co-host of the BreakPoint daily radio commentary as well as The Point.


To listen to previous episodes of "BreakPoint This Week," click here. To find a broadcast partner near you, click here.

Explore this week's broadcast:

The Question That Never Goes Away
Philip Yancey | Zondervan


What's So Amazing About Grace?
Philip Yancey | The Colson Center Online Store

The Jesus I Never Knew
Philip Yancey | The Colson Center Online Store

Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference
Philip Yancey | The Colson Center Online Store

Where Is God When It Hurts?
Philip Yancey | The Colson Center Online Store

What Good Is God?
Philip Yancey | The Colson Center Online Store


things to say/not say to the bereaved
Thank you for this insightful interview with Philip Yancey regarding his book, "The question that never goes away." I too wrote a book, "Grief: A Mama's Unwanted Journey" and with hopes of waking up the church included a similar list as Yancey discussed in this interview.

No Consoling Words
from Grief: A Mama's Unwanted Journey by Shelley Ramsey)

Many people tried comforting us with words. But there are no consoling words! I really just wanted people to be quiet. I appreciated those who cried with me, hugged me, and offered a brief prayer, but words were unnecessary. I remember offering platitudes to others who were grieving before Joseph died. I no longer do. I know now that words cannot heal a broken heart. When a friend loses a child, I no longer offer the following comments. Here are my personal explanations for each:

“Time heals”—Healing takes time, but time does not heal. A mother never ceases mourning the death of her child. Grief, like addiction, is always a part of us. We work through the process but remain in grief recovery.

“At least Joseph is in a better place”—My faith and intellect knew that, but I wanted him with me. I had not finished mothering him; he had not even left home. My family puzzle was missing a piece. Reminding me of hope beyond the grave brought no comfort.

“The Lord won’t give you more than you can handle”—Intellectually, I knew that was true. But I wanted to die. I did not think I knew how to handle anything. Nothing. The death of my son challenged my faith.

“Joseph would want you to . . .” or “Joseph would not want you to . . .”—I didn’t live my life to please Joseph before he died. I wasn’t going to do so after he died.

“Be strong”—Those of us mourning are real people, and we need to acknowledge the magnitude of our loss. We are not rocks or robots. Ignoring our grief is not strength.

“I know how you feel”—No, you don’t. No one will fully understand my loss. Burying a favorite aunt or pet, while heartbreaking, does not qualify you to know how a mama feels after burying a child. As difficult as it is, we know to expect to one day bury our grandparents, parents, and spouse. But we do not expect a child to die before us. Furthermore, each person’s grief is unique.

“Let me know if I can do anything for you”—Creating things for people to do was exhausting. The many that noticed a need and met it were helpful. Grieving parents are not going to call and tell you what they need.

“At least you have the other two”—My boys are not interchangeable. I’m a mama of three. Having the other two does not make up for the absence of Joseph. All four of us miss Joseph, a wonderful young man who had a God-given personality, strengths, weaknesses, and a specific role in our family.

“He is a flower in God’s garden”—Oh, my goodness. The dead do not become flowers, butterflies, raindrops, or even angels.
April 29, 2013 our family lost a beloved brother...Scott...only 50 years old. He died unexpectedly. Thank you for this Breakpoint with Philip Yancey!

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