The “why” question

We think that if we pray enough, God will spare us many of life's painful inequities. Photo by Bine
We think that if we pray enough, God will spare us many of life's painful inequities. Photo by Bine
Published March 8, 2013

As a priest, I have had to minister to parishioners in deep personal crisis, experiencing grief, loss, heartbreak and tragedy. Numbed and benumbed by their circumstances, the first question they usually ask is, “Why?”

We all have our share of tragedies-of young lives cut short, of good people suffering more than anyone should have to bear, of loved ones dying all too unexpectedly.

In one way or another, we all have been there, asking the same question, “Why?” Perhaps the most basic answer to the question “why?” is the least intellectually satisfying, just as it is the most truthful: we don’t know why things happen the way they do. We don’t have all the answers. We never do. And we never will.

There are many things in life that even the best and the brightest theologians, philosophers and scientists just don’t know. The truth is: we don’t always get what we deserve, and life is not always fair. And when we push ourselves for an answer to the “why?” question, inevitably we discover the wrong answer. We may even begin to tacitly accept the popular but erroneous theology that if you are a good person, good things will happen to you.

If you are a bad person, bad things will happen to you. It’s tempting to believe this, isn’t it? If we’re really living in God’s will, we’ll never be poor, sick or unhappy. Our every prayer will be answered just the way we want it to be. God will bless us materially and physically as well as spiritually. Then along comes something that shakes us. It may not be as dramatic as an earthquake. Maybe it’s a call from the police to come down and post bail for your child. Maybe it’s when the doctor says, “I’m sorry, but it’s terminal.” Maybe it’s when your spouse says, “I’ve found somebody else.” All of a sudden, your world is out of balance, and from the very depths of your being you want to cry out, “Why me? I’m a good person. What did I do to deserve this?”

We think that if we pray enough, or practise the right spiritual disciplines, that somehow, because of our virtue, God will spare us many of life’s painful inequities. It just isn’t so.

A novel I return to again and again is Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey, about a little village in South America. Each day, the villagers make their way across a bridge to go to the fields. One day, without warning, the bridge snaps. Six persons fall to their deaths. A priest in the village says, “I will do research into these people’s lives and show why those six people were on the bridge when it fell. I will prove beyond a doubt that if you do bad things, bad will happen to you, and if you do good things, good will happen to you.” The priest studies every aspect of their lives and comes to this conclusion: “Those six people were no worse or better than anyone in the village. God allows the sun and the rain to fall upon the good and the bad.”

There are some things we cannot understand and there are tragedies in our lives for which we are not responsible. But there is one more thing we need to say: when tragedy strikes, God understands. God knows why things are like they are, and we can trust God in the face of the mysteries of life.

Benjamin Hirsh, a survivor of the Holocaust, tells a story about the ancient rabbi Baal Shem-Tov. One day, the rabbi and his students were standing on a hill when they noticed foreign troops invading their town. From their vantage point on the hill, they were able to see all the horror and violence of the attack. The rabbi looked up to heaven and cried out, “Oh, if only I were God.” A student asked, “But, Master, if you were God, what would you do differently?” The rabbi answered him, “If I were God, I would do nothing differently. If I were God, I would understand.”

Yes, God understands the joy and pain of being human. God understands the heartbreak of our losses, the sighs of our desperation, the agony of our pain and the loneliness of so many. God understands because, in this world, suffering is part of the human condition, and no amount of believing will remove it or explain it away.

There are no answers as to why we suffer, but there is faith. And faith tells us that even in the worst circumstances of our lives, God does not abandon us. We are never alone. So, when tragedy strikes, pray not for the ability to understand-you never will. Pray, instead for the ability to trust. Do not let anyone tell you that God is punishing you or anyone else when bad things happen. God sends rain on the just and the unjust. God understands. And God’s love lasts forever.

The Rev. Dr. Gary Nicolosi is the rector at St. James Westminster Anglican Church in London, Ont.



















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