Or someone tells you about their tragic circumstances and you feel helpless? You feel you should as a Christian encourage and offer hope, but it feels awkward and uncomfortable.
I have been surprised at how God used this discomfort of encountering the sins and pain of others to lead me to a clearer understanding of my heart and a deeper experience of God’s goodness.
A Pastor’s Sexual Fall
In my mid-twenties, I taught English conversation classes as the first (and only) teacher at a church in Tokyo. About a year on, the very well-liked and trusted pastor admitted to periodic ‘sexual harassment’ of the intern. The pastor resigned— or was made to — and I never saw him or his wife again after that day. This incident shook me. Why would God allow this to happen? I remember later having to sit in class while a church leader explained the pastor’s sudden disappearance to the students. I felt I was expected to defend God and Christianity and explain the situation, but I could not. Why would God allow the pastor to keep sinning instead of somehow stopping him much earlier on, before all this could snowball to cause such damage to the intern, the church, the larger community?
A Friend’s Anguish
I suppressed these questions about God but they returned sometime later when a friend called me drunk, confiding that he was in love with his guy friend. Over the ensuing months, my friend told me about the bullying he experienced in school from male peers, his desperate praying that God would take away his same-sex attractions, his attempts to seek help from church elders that didn’t know what to do with him, his loneliness and suicidal thoughts. I felt helpless. How can I reassure him of God’s love when I was myself wondering why God would let him suffer so much pain and difficulties when all he seemed to want was just to obey God?
My discomfort and questions arose because of the people around me but this soon became a personal crisis of faith.
I came to realize that underneath the discomfort was a real fear that God just wasn’t really Good. I had never quite experienced for myself His goodness— I had simply been taught that this was what to believe and learnt not to question this from my days in Children Sunday School. The very real sins and pain of others exposed this. What was also exposed were my very definite ideas that God was only good if He answered prayers, took away pain and stopped us from sinning.
I did come to encounter God’s goodness in a very personal way. It wasn’t a dramatic Damascus Road experience but a quietly growing sense that He was with me as a compassionate Father even when I had doubts about Him, when I thought I was more righteous than He was and I was an emotional mess. He did not answer many of my questions about Tokyo or about my friend. He did not miraculously fix my loneliness or depression. But I was amazed at how satisfying it is to experience God’s loving presence right here and now, just as I am.
The funny thing is because I have now experienced God’s goodness, the discomfort about encountering others’ sins and pain has abated. I am confident that God who is good to me is similarly good to my friend and others in difficult situations. While I may never understand or be able to explain why God allows x or y to happen in our lives, I have experienced that He is nevertheless, still always Good. And this is the hope and soul-restedness that I can stand in and hold out for those around me.
Not knowing what to do when someone tells you about their struggle with same-sex attraction? Confused or discouraged as you see people around you overwhelmed with sexual addiction? Don’t let the discomfort of encountering others’ pain or sins keep you from a possible deeper encounter with God for yourself and in turn, for those around through you.