Wisdom from the Whirlwind

When life seems to frustrate our longing for answers to the question why.

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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.

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The Mysterious Grounds for Faith

When reality seems to deny any confidence we have in God, how can faith persist?

We do not get very far into reading the Gospel of Mark before Mark starts to recount stories of Jesus’ miracles. We have three accounts already in chapter 1, with allusions to several others. These three accounts report healing miracles. They are short and largely unembellished.

Chapter 2 begins with another, more colorful, account (Mark 2:1-12). Jesus is in the Galilean town of Capernaum. He is teaching in a house. A large crowd has gathered to hear him.

While he is teaching, several men bring a paralyzed man to him to heal. The crowd is so dense around Jesus that they cannot get close to him in the house. So the men climb onto the house roof, open a hole in the roof, and lower their friend to Jesus on a pallet.

Presented with this disabled man, Jesus first forgives his sins (an action that scandalizes the religious scholars in the audience) and then commands the man to rise and walk. The paralyzed man does just that, carrying his pallet out of the house.

The Centrality of Faith to the Healing

What I find fascinating about this story is the reason Mark gives for Jesus performing this healing. Mark says that Jesus does this when he sees the faith of the friends who bring this paralyzed man to him. It is not the man’s own faith that leads to his healing. It is the faith of his companions.

I found myself dwelling on that detail. Just exactly what was the faith these companions were expressing? It was not a recitation of beliefs. Jesus does not ask them to recite a creed before he heals. They do not acknowledge his Messiahship or his divinity. So what did constitute their act of faith?

When the companions bring their friend to Jesus and open up the roof to let him down into Jesus’ presence, they do so out of a confidence that Jesus will indeed heal their friend. They have a confidence in Jesus’ desire and power to do the healing.

It is that trust in Jesus’ good will and power that constitute their faith. They trust that Jesus will not turn them away when they approach him and that he will in fact have the power to heal their friend.

The Most Potent Existential Challenge to Faith

What I find curious about this story is how it reflects a more universal reality about a life of faith.

I am convinced that the most deadly existential objection (as opposed to an intellectual objection) to Judeo-Christian monotheism is the existence of evil in the world, especially as evil affects the lives of innocent people. The greatest example of that challenge is the Holocaust of World War II. But it is far from the only one. The deadly cancer that kills a toddler is just as much a challenge in its own way.

Judeo-Christian monotheism has traditionally taught that God is morally good, loving, and all powerful. The reality of persistent evil seems to challenge fatally this assertion. It suggests that 1) God is not good, or 2) God is not loving, or 3) God is not all powerful, or 4) all three.

Many have abandoned trust in God because of the experience of evil and its challenge to traditional theology. How do we defend the character of God in the face of evil? This is the issue traditional theology calls theodicy. It is the fundamental problem that the characters in the Book of Job are struggling with.

If I read the Bible right, the Old Testament grounds its confidence in God fundamentally on the experience of the Exodus. The New Testament grounds it confidence in God fundamentally on the experience of the passion and resurrection of Jesus. If God has proved faithful in the past, especially in response to injustice, God will prove faithful in the future, too.

The full confirmation of faith, however, will come only in the future, at the time that theologians call the Eschaton, that time when history comes to an end and God’s creative and redemptive plan will be fulfilled in all its depth and glory.

In the meantime, we can offer no ultimately convincing rational answer to the challenge. It persists as an intellectual challenge to the fundamental assumptions of the Bible and any religious faith based upon the Bible.

The Answer from the Whirlwind

 Interesting to me, the answer given in the Book of Job is not in the end a rational answer. It is simply an experience of the transcendental presence of God. God never explains to Job why Job has suffered the horrors he has. Instead God addresses Job out of a whirlwind. God simply presents himself to Job in his transcendental power and presence. It proves enough for Job. He repents of his obsession with finding an answer.

Now the men who bring their paralyzed friend to Jesus do so out of a trust in Jesus’ good will and power. This is their faith, and it is their existential response to the problem of theodicy in their friend’s concrete situation. Their faith in the good will and power of Jesus is confirmed by the reality of the healing that follows.

Mark says that when the paralyzed man stood up and walked out of the house, the crowd was astounded. I find myself, on the other hand, astounded at the faith of the friends. Where did such faith come from?

In the end, where does the faith of any of us come from, if not from some inner intuitive experience of the reality of God, an experience that conveys in itself a confidence in the character of the God we trust? Our faith is neither grounded in reason nor in emotion, but in an ineffable experience that is beyond understanding.

This will never be satisfying to a rationalist, but it does acknowledge that there is a mystery about this thing we call life, a mystery that ultimately cannot be comprehended, but it can be trusted.

If you, my readers, have any thoughts on this issue, I welcome your responses.