I wrote one of the last sections of the book Why Suffering? on a plane flight from London to New York.(1) As I came through security at Heathrow Airport, I had about an hour until my departure, and I had it in mind to find a quiet spot and make a start on the writing I had planned.
As I began to walk toward the departure gates, a small sign for the “Multi-Faith Prayer Room” caught my eye, and instantaneously—though I have never before had an urge to visit an airport prayer room—I felt this conviction that there was someone in that room whom I was supposed to talk with. It was as if someone had just told me, “There is someone waiting to speak with you there,” even though I had not audibly heard those words.
I did an about-face and walked a good distance away from my departure gate to the arrivals terminal where the prayer room was located. When I walked in, there was one man in the room, sitting in a corner on the floor. He appeared to be about my age. When he saw me looking around the prayer room, he asked, “Are you religious?” We began speaking about what it means to be religious, and he soon shared with me that he was going through the worst suffering of his life.
Mohammed fought back tears as he shared about what no one would ever want to go through. He expressed that he never talks about such things with anyone, but that he just needed to get it out. He told me that he used to pray five times a day, but that now the suffering is too much; he opens his mouth to pray and nothing comes out. Finally, Mohammed challenged me, “If God exists, why is there so much suffering? And where is he amidst it all?”
Now I understood why we were supposed to meet. I told Mohammed that the one person of whom he finally asked “Why suffering?” was currently writing a book by that very title, and in fact was walking in the opposite direction toward the departure gates when God turned him around and led him to this specific room to share that God does care and that he is present.
Sometimes God is most present when our suffering can make God seem most absent. Sometimes when we are in the fog and are unable to see much on our own, we need people by our side to show us where they see God in our lives. Sometimes we mistake God’s respectfulness for absence. Understandably there are times when we want God to be more obvious. But God desires to reveal himself clearly to those who desire him, without revealing himself forcibly to those who do not. God wants us to follow him not because he is overpowering, but because we trust him.
Mohammed was in a place where he couldn’t see God. But God was with him. Mohammed was in a place of tough questions. God crossed his path with someone who could appreciate those questions. Mohammed was in a place where he couldn’t pray. God provided someone to pray with him.
As we parted, Mohammed and I shared an extended hug that spoke deep understanding, deep appreciation, and deep friendship. We had spoken and prayed together at length about what it is to believe in, and to love, and to live with Jesus—the God who knows suffering himself, and who is never absent in our suffering. “He is not far from any one of us” (Acts 17:27), even if sometimes we need others to step with us in the direction that leads to relationship with him.
Vince Vitale is director of the Zacharias Institute at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) For more on this, see Why Suffering?: Finding Meaning and Comfort When Life Doesn’t Make Sense, co-authored with Ravi Zacharias.