When life seems to frustrate our longing for answers to the question why.
One of the hardest tasks a pastor can face is providing care to a person or family that endures unexpected tragedy. The tragedies can be many: a diagnosis of a terminal disease, an accidental death of a child killed by a drunk driver, an sudden, impoverishing financial loss, or the death of a soldier son.
When such tragedies happen, one of the first questions people will ask the pastor will be: Why? Why did this happen? We all ask it because we want life to have meaning. It’s just too threatening to our sanity to think that life is ultimately chaotic, with no underlying purpose.
But a pastor, I’ve learned, is seldom wise to attempt an answer. In a very few cases that may be because the family is not emotionally ready to hear the answer. But in most cases it’s because there is no discernible answer. Meaning eludes us.
So a wise pastor does something more important: provide a compassionate presence as everyone moves through the tragedy. The pastor joins the grieving in their weeping, listens to their lament, and maybe offers an embracing hug.
Job’s Desperate Search for an Answer to Why
I find warrant for this approach from a thoughtful reflection on the Book of Job. Job experiences catastrophic losses: his property, all his children, and finally debilitating illness. Three friends visit him to provide comfort in his pain and sorrow.
A major question that occupies their conversation is the question why Job is suffering all these losses. There has got to be a reason. The three friends are convinced that Job has sinned. God is punishing him. That is a standard answer pious people like to offer.
Job denies that explanation. He is innocent of any unconfessed sin. The argument goes back and forth with no resolution. Job simply appeals to God to provide him the answer to why. No one else can.
The magnificent poem ends with God speaking to Job out of a whirlwind. But God’s speech (Job 38-41) offers no answer to the why question either. Instead God asks Job if his mind truly comprehends all the wonders of God’s creation, especially the diverse array of creatures great and small that God has created.
A surface reading might suggest that God is not playing fair. God shuts off Job’s search for an answer by playing up God’s power and inscrutability. But I think something else is going in.
The poet is suggesting there is a mystery to God’s creation that will always exceed human understanding. Scientists today wait eagerly for that day when they can come up with the theory that explains everything. The poet suggests they will be forever frustrated. We humans will never fully comprehend all of the universe and its ways or the essence of God’s own self. There will always remain a cause for wonder and marvel.
The Inaccessibility of the Answer Job Seeks
This is not to suggest that there is no answer to Job’s why. There is. That is the purpose of chapters 1 and 2. They take us into the divine realm where we overhear a dialogue (described in mythological language) between God and Satan. The sufferings of Job have their cause in that dialogue. God and Satan engage in a test of Job.
The problem is that Job is never told that reason, neither during his troubles or afterwards. Even in his restored status and its blessings as detailed in chapter 42, Job is never given any inkling as to why he endured the sufferings he did. His response in the face of the mystery is silence and acceptance of his status as a creature with limited understanding. He is forced to adopt the mindset of a contemplative.
What the poet does in this poem is deny that the universe is meaningless, as many scientists today as confidently assert. But the meaning of the universe and of life lies in a divine realm which lies behind, below, and above the material world. And there too lie the answers to the many why’s human ask in the face of tragedy.
Those answers remain hidden unless God discloses them to us. In the meantime we are called upon to trust in this God. But why should we? Because of God’s character.
What is God’s Character?
But that raises another question. What is God’s character? For the Biblical writers we know something of the character of God from what has been disclosed of that character in historical events that are revelatory, meaning they pull back the veil so we can see something (not all) of who God is.
For the Old Testament that great revelatory event is God leading Israel out of Egyptian bondage in the Exodus. For the New Testament the great revelatory event is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Both events reveal God as a God of rescuing compassion and love.
Both reveal God not as one residing in a realm of static perfection who remains disengaged from the constantly changing world God has created. Rather we come to know God as one who is so intimately engaged with his creation that we can trust him to be with us in all circumstances.
Now that is a message a pastor can share with people in the depths of grief and distress. It does not answer our many why’s, but it does assure us we do not walk through the whirlwinds of our lives alone. We are ultimately in loving and trustworthy hands.