In Disappointment with God, Philip Yancey asks what my sixteen-year-old self grappled with during excruciating years of drug use, sexual violence, and addiction: “if God has the ability to act fairly, speak audibly, and appear visibly, why, then, does he seem so reluctant to intervene today?”[i] If God is so good, then why is the world aching? Why am I in so much pain? How do I reconcile a loving God with a hurting world?
I discovered Philip Yancey in a small Western Michigan library a couple years into my addiction recovery. I was surprised as I read about his vocal struggle. He showed me that doubting faith, asking questions, and even wrestling with God, is all a part of the process. For someone like me, longing for real connection, but angry with God because of the trauma I’d experienced, Yancey’s honesty was like sweet, mountain air.
The Man Behind the Ideas
Phillip Yancey grew up in the turbulent 1960s, plagued by his own questions and struggles to make sense of the world. His family, with all of its dysfunction, along with spiritual trauma and other struggles, rocked his sense of stability. He shares in his recent memoir, Where the Light Fell, that he longed to transcend a “toxic faith” and experience something true: an authentic relationship with God.
When Yancey was writing his best-selling book, Where is God When it Hurts?, and addressing his own stumbling blocks to faith, he discovered a doctor who helped him uncover some life and faith-changing things about pain. Dr. Paul Brand was a child of missionary parents and later moved back to India after medical school to teach in the late 1940s. He was challenged by a colleague to use his orthopedic skills to help address some of the horrific results of leprosy like deformed hands and feet. At that time, little was known about this mysterious disease that had such biblical and stigmatizing roots. According to the International Leprosy Association, “it was generally believed that the hands and feet of infected people simply disintegrated or rotted away as a direct result of the disease.”[ii]
Dr. Brand was one of the leading voices (if not the only voice) championing research for people, including children, with leprosy. Not surprisingly, he faced much resistance to his work as people with leprosy were often shunned by their families and society. Dr. Brand, using what he learned working with veterans and polio patients, came up with a new theory. He discovered that the deformities weren’t caused by the disease itself but by infections. Leprosy is disease of the nervous system. Injuries and disability happened because his patients didn’t feel pain.
Yancey writes of Brand:
He invited me to consider an alternative world without pain. He insisted on pain’s great value, holding up as proof the terrible results of leprosy—damaged faces, blindness, and loss of fingers, toes, and limbs—all of which occur as side-effects of painlessness.[iii]
In many of his books, Yancey talks in depth about Dr. Brand and what he learned from him. They even co-wrote a few books together like Fearfully and Wonderfully Made. Dr. Brand and his research had a profound impact on Yancey and in an unexpected way opened up a new door of understanding (or perhaps an old door in a new way, theologically speaking) to the world.
The purpose of pain, it’s like a language. It’s your bodies most effective language to get you to pay attention to a wound. [iv]
Even through the pain, or perhaps because of it, redemption and healing is possible.
The Transformation of Pain into Purpose
While pain and trauma can have detrimental and deadly effects in our lives, God can and does transform our experience. Dr. Brand learned this. Philip Yancey learned this. And I, a woman in addiction and trauma recovery, am learning this, too.
After his own beatings, imprisonments, persecutions, and other sufferings, the Apostle Paul wrote:
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.[v]
A verse like this might give you the heart-tingles, but for other folks, for me at different points in my life, it has churned me into an angry psalmist, shaking cold fists into the air. Philip Yancy shares in a Bright Story Interview: “A lot of people think it says if you love God only good things will happen to you. It doesn’t say that at all. It says that God can use even the worst things you experience. You can never be separated from God’s Love. God will find a way.”[vi] He can recycle or redeem or make beautiful even the most tragic experiences.
Over time because of guides like Philip Yancey, other addiction recovery supports, and God himself, I have been able to look back at tough events in my life: trauma, sexual violence, and addiction, with grace—even acceptance. Struggle might be a part of my story, of all of our stories, but it’s not the only chapter. In his writings, Philip Yancey shows me that with doubt, can come a new faithful beginning. With pain and hurt, redemption. God’s world can become, regardless of our experiences, “a gift to enjoy with grace-healed eyes.”[vii]
Listen to my conversation with Philip Yancey on Bright Story Interviews here!
Get Philip's Latest Book, his memoir Where the Light Fell.
[i] Yancey, Philip. Disappointment with God (HarperCollins: New York, NY) 1988, p. 49. [ii] International Leprosy Association. Retrieved from: https://leprosyhistory.org/database/person31. [iii] Yancey, Philip. Soul Survivor: How My Faith Survived the Church (Image: Los Angeles, CA) 2002. [iv] Bright Story Shine Interview with Philip Yancey (2021). Retrieved from: https://www.brightstoryshine.com/listen. [v] Romans 8:28 [vi] Bright Story Shine Interview with Philip Yancey (2021). Retrieved from: https://www.brightstoryshine.com/listen. [vii] Yancey, Philip. Where the Light Fell (Convergent Books: New York, NY) 2021, p. 299.