It seems I’ve been hearing the question, “Why?” a lot lately. Bad things have been happening to people, and they have been asking me why those bad things have been happening to them.
And I understand that question. I understand the tendency to ask that question. I have asked it myself. I still ask it myself. Often.
Lately, though, I’ve come to understand something about this question, something that makes me in turn question it. That something is somewhat summed up in the words of The Architect from The Matrix Reloaded:
Like Neo, we are irrevocably human, and thus irrelevant questions are going to be (or at least seem) pertinent to us, more pertinent than they actually are. The irrelevancy of these questions is going to be far less obvious than it actually is.
And in many ways, the question, “Why?” is irrelevant. A simple analogy will reveal this. Say you have a knife wound in your shoulder; you have literally been stabbed in the back. You might wonder why that happened. Was it an accident? Was it intentional? Did a friend mistake you for someone else and strike you in error? Or did a friend purposefully turn on you and try to take you down? Pertinent questions, to be sure. But not as pressing as the fact that you now have a knife sticking out of your back that needs to be removed, that you now have blood flow that needs to be stopped and a puncture that needs to be stitched. The “how” in that situation (the removal of the knife, the stopping of the blood, the stitching of the puncture, the saving of your life and healing of your body) is obviously far more pertinent than the why. Less emotionally pressing, maybe, but far more pertinent.
I believe it is the same in the life of faith. How, that is, how we react to bad things, how we survive them, how we heal from them, how we overcome them, is far more pertinent to the life of faith than why they happened. Perhaps no book of the Bible reveals this more than Job. The first two chapters of Job give us a behind-the-scenes look at what was happening to that man; we know why bad things happened to Job perhaps better than we know why bad things happened to anybody else. Yet when God finally appears to speak with Job about the matter, He does not give that why to Job. He does not tell Job why these bad things happened to him, even though He and we know that why very well. Instead, He just gives Job a lecture on how great He is, a lecture which is probably intended to teach Job to trust in Him. Job (who as far as we know never discovered the why of the bad thing that happened to him) indeed learned the lesson of trust from that lecture, responding to it in this way:
I wasn’t as accepting of that lesson at my first couple readings of Job. I felt rather cheated by than answer in fact. I thought it was a “no-answer”. I wanted a better answer than that. What I’ve realized in the decades since those first couple readings is that this answer is the best answer. It is the only answer we’re likely to understand. It is also the only answer we’re likely to accept.
Understanding is one thing. I know we all think we’re very smart, but the fact of the matter is that we aren’t. We aren’t able to order the universe as God has, to maintain all the parts that have to work together for life to continue. We don’t even know what all the parts are. Even if we did, we wouldn’t be able to conceive of them all in a working way. And even if we did that, we wouldn’t appreciate them all. We see a quick example of this every time we watch a science fiction/space-faring movie. If I understand the universe correctly, most of space is full of radiation that will kill humans quite quickly. I’ve never seen a space-faring show cover this aspect of space-faring, though, never seen one explain how the characters are faring through and sometimes living in lethal space. I’ve rarely seen one explain how they have earth-like gravity on their spaceships, either. The creators of these movies and shows routine miss facts like that. They are apparently oblivious to them, or, if they aren’t oblivious to them, they can’t figure out who to tell an engaging story around them. If we can’t do that, which is comparatively simple, how are we going to understand the far more complex matter of why bad things happen? Even if God told us directly, we wouldn’t get.
We also wouldn’t accept it. Understanding is one thing. Acceptance is quite another. And I don’t think we would accept most whys. I don’t think we would accept most explanations of why bad things happened, even if they came from God Himself. Imagine if God had told Job, “Hey Job, you’re about to go through several traumatic events in order to prove that people will love me even when they aren’t blessed. In the process, you’ll become an icon of faithfulness that will inspire millennia after millennia.” When you put it like that (which is an accurate way to put it), you can clearly seen that goodness came out of Job’s tremendous suffering. Great and tremendous goodness, in fact. Would Job have seen it that way, though? I wonder. He might have, but he might also have said, “God, are you sure there isn’t another way?” I know one guy who said such a thing: singer Chris Isaak. I saw Chris Isaak on The Today Show (I think) around 2001 (again, I think). During his time there, Katie Couric (yet again, I think) mentioned that he had suffered during his lifetime. He said he had indeed suffered. She then said something to the affect of, “But it made you such a great songwriter.” To this, Isaak replied, “Yeah, but sometimes I wish I was a mediocre artist and had a swinging life.” I can’t document that exchange (I have been trying for years, but it was the pre-YouTube era and if it exists out there I can’t find it). Nonetheless, I heard him say it. I understand the choice he thinks about there, and I imagine most of us would think about that choice or even make that choice ourselves. If God said to us, “This suffering will produces this good”, we would most likely answer, “Can’t we suffer less and have less good?”
That being the case, we just aren’t able to handle the answers to the question of why, and God, knowing that, doesn’t try to give that answer to us all that often. And now that I’ve been dealing with that question via the lives of various people for a couple weeks, I’ve come to the conclusion that we would be better off if we just didn’t ask. I have come to the conclusion that we would be better off trusting God no matter what we experience. I have come to the conclusion that we will do far better if we focus on the pragmatic question of how or even what (i.e., “How does God want me to respond to this? What does God want me to do here?”) rather than the philosophical question of why. I have come to the conclusion that the best response to this situations is that we find from Habakkuk who, when struggling with the question of why himself, eventually came to this answer: