One of the most devastating questions that I am asked, frequently, as a pastor is, “Why?” Why did God allow [fill in the blank] to happen? Why didn’t God prevent [fill in the blank] from happening? Why does God allow evil, or suffering, or pain at all? Why?
I purposely left out any specific details in the questions above, because that is where the problem lies, in the specifics. I always have generalized answers that I could give based on my theological / Biblical training – plenty, in fact. But in the presence of someone actually suffering, none of those answers are satisfying or comforting. It is one thing to draw generalized conclusions from a passage like 1 Peter 1:6-7:
“Now, for a little while, if needful it is, you have to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith – of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire – may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.”
It is an altogether different matter to look into the eyes of a heart-torn mother who has watched her little baby writhe in agonizing pain through months of tortuous treatments, and still dies, and try to answer, “Why?” It is sinful, even, to try to explain away the overwhelming weight of darkness for someone who is sorrowful to the point of death, as was Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night before his crucifixion.
For a long time I felt inadequate as a pastor for not being able to give an answer to that question; or, at least not being able to give an answer that would lift the weight of grief, darkness and confusion from those who are suffering. But then I heard Dale Bruner teaching on the story of Jesus’ crucifixion as told in the Gospel According to Matthew. Dale Bruner is arguably the most gifted teacher of the Gospel that it has ever been my good fortune to hear. For years he taught at Whitworth College in Spokane. He also has written the most enriching, enlightening commentary on The Gospel According to Matthew, that I have ever read.
For those not entirely familiar with the storyof Jesus’ crucifixion, or Matthew’s particular version of it, I’ll recap briefly. Having already been beaten and tortured hours earlier, Jesus’ body is nailed to crossed posts and raised above the ground. After several hours of public humiliation and derision, in utter grief and exhaustion, Jesus cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” I’ll pick up Bruner’s commentary at this point:
Let us begin with the concluding question mark: ‘?’ Jesus’ last sentence before death was a question, not an affirmation. Jesus could have ended his life much more triumphantly with a sentence completed by a noble exclamation – ‘God is love!’ or ‘Love one another!’ or ‘I triumph!’…It would have seemed stronger of Jesus to die with an exclamation, true; questions seem weaker than exclamations. But Jesus has been redefining strength his whole life…This question, the why…means that in some cases we cannot honestly know why….It is not wrong to try to find out why. Often we find out why and are freed. But just as often we haven’t a clue, and so Jesus’ why is strangely liberating. Jesus’ why means that even the wisest men and women cannot always know why some things happen.”
Bruner then alludes to the story of Job. Job is a person in the Hebrew scriptures who suffers the tragic, overwhelming loss, of his family, property and reputation. However, before all this suffering occurs, as the story opens, we read that he was a good man who had lived well and done nothing “deserving” of such pain. Some “friends” show up to help him in his grief. They start off well, they just sit with him and let him grieve. Unfortunately, then they start talking. They contend that Job must have done something horrible, because – in their minds, and the conventional, religious wisdom of the time – good things happened because you did good things, bad things happened because you did something bad. A simple formula, as plain as karma. Job contends with God, essentially asking “why?”, much to the disapproval of his “friends” (you can’t question God!). God finally shows up at the end of the story and doesn’t really answer Job’s question, directly. However, God does make it quite clear that the friends should have kept their mouths shut because what they said about God wasn’t right.
So, Bruner continues:
Job’s counselors knew the why of everything in Job’s life; they were very devout, and they were very wrong. Shouldn’t our possession of the Word of God in Scripture give us access to all the main answers to all the main questions? Yes, but not to every personal question. Jesus’ why does not answer the problem of evil or the problem of pain or the problem of suffering, but it is a large step in the direction of an answer. For it tells us in no mistaken way that we cannot know some answers. If Jesus said ‘why,’ let us all be extremely cautious in saying ‘because.’
The one contention I have with Bruner is that he didn’t make his concluding statement even stronger. I would put it this way, “Since Jesus, himself, questioned ‘why?’ who are we to answer ‘because?”
I write this as we, Christians, are approaching the celebration of Easter. I will celebrate the event with great joy. But I write this aware at the same time that our joy is not yet complete. For those of us who are still crying out “why”, know that we are at least in pretty good company; even though we haven’t yet found an answer that lifts, fully, the burden of the question.