Updated: Feb 9, 2019
Throughout 2017 our country has experienced a series of horrific events that have at times revealed the terrible darkness within fallen man while at other times exposing the frail nature of human life. Along with these tragedies we have also witnessed the great love and dedication that many in our country have to those in need. The losses can feel insurmountable, the future bleak and far in the distance before those impacted will experience anything like a normal life, but through it all we as believers in Jesus Christ continue to proclaim our God is good.
Is this credible? Can it be true? Do not the shootings, hurricanes and wildfires lead us in moments of honest reflection to the conclusion that either God does not care or God does not exist? Can we even have those kinds of thoughts as good Christians? What words do we have for those going through the valley of darkness? What do we say to a world that questions the existence of God in face of such evil? What do we say to ourselves to bring comfort and continue on in belief? How do we handle these times being honest to what we feel and think as well as faithful to our beliefs? Is that even possible to do?
I believe there are three ways to push through these times. One way we address these times of tragedy, confusion and loss is through falling back upon a theological system of belief that seeks to explain the existence of evil coinciding with the existence of a good and all powerful God. In taking this approach, we endeavor to offer a valid and reassuring account that might sound something like this: “Because God has given man freewill, these awful things have happened. Even the natural disasters go back to the entrance of sin into the world by the disobedience of humans. God does love us, and God is working towards getting rid of sin, but right now this is all part of a sinful world and God can even uses these times to test us and make us more holy.”
Now, on the surface, I actually do believe what is in that paragraph. I think it represents to a degree what the Bible teaches. The problem is not the information. The problem is that explanation rings hollow when set against the devastating results of a mass shooting. I get it. God gave us freewill, but why didn’t God let the shooter shoot in exercising his freewill and still save those he shot at? He can do that, and those being shot at are “willing” themselves to escape. That is what they want. That is their freewill. Some of them are even praying to God for help during the attack. When you have to sit with a family who has lost a child or a father, this explanation of freewill and fallen humanity just feels weak, like making excuses for God.
That leads to a second approach: mourning with those who are hurting. Instead of trying to give answers, instead of offering an explanation or a defense of God, we are present with those who hurt. We come alongside, and we weep with those who have suffered and lost so much. Like the friends of Job when they first arrived and sat with Job for seven days feeling his pain, empathizing and quietly being present to their friend in his terrible emotional, spiritual and physical pain. This approach recognizes the deficiency in the first. When we are caught up in the pain, the darkness, the evil and when this experience is personal, we are not primarily looking for a rational justification for how God could allow this to happen. We are not principally longing for an intellectual and theological answer. We just hurt. We feel lost. We feel like the pain may never end. We know we have no answers, and we know that nothing anyone says will really make it all better. We often don’t need reasons why this is all ok, because it’s not all ok.
This second approach also helps avoid a potentially damaging interaction with those in pain. Sometimes in our right intention to help someone feel better through offering our best defense of God (way #1), we end up conveying to those who are hurting that they are wrong to feel what they are feeling. It is like we say, “No, God is not mean or uncaring. God is perfectly good and faithful and loving even though your wife was just shot and killed. You have no right to feel like you do towards God, and here is the (cold) theological reason why.” Guess what? In those moments, no one needs that. They need us to hurt with them and to let them feel what they are feeling.
A second reason we sometimes we offer our defense for God is not out of our desire to first bring comfort to the hurting, but rather because the situation has challenged our own beliefs, and we are uncomfortable with what it might mean. This dreadful situation calls into question our own faith. Therefore, we must come up with a reason for why this is happening that allows us to continue holding onto the goodness of God while our friend or our world is suffering unspeakable pain, darkness and evil. Again, we take the first approach, but we take it for selfish reasons, and unlike the second where we just weep with those who are mourning, we try to control the situation even at the expense of letting others weep.
As good as the second approach appears, it too has a deep flaw most evident at times when we ourselves are being present to those who are hurting. When I say evident, I must explain because the impact of this weakness in the second approach is not obvious at first. In fact, it took two decades of ministry for me to even see it in myself and begin to understand how it reverberates through my pastoral ministry. My own primary means of trying to bring comfort to the hurting has been to hurt with them. I have tried to be “with” people, be present and listen. I have tried to be a shoulder for them to lean on. I have prayed with them. I have not tried to give a simplistic explanation that would make everything alright, and I have tried to let them feel what they feel without defending God, defending Christianity or feeling personally attacked.
Yet, I have been blind to something going on inside of me that has made me less empathetic to those hurting and less able to feel the depths of pain in my own situations.
While I listen to others without critique and without any attempt to manufacture a reasonable explanation that accounts for their situation and God’s role in it, I am only half mourning. Why? Even though I am being present, and I am not trying to explain the situation away to the hurting, I am nevertheless doing that very thing in my own mind. I silently sit and listen while my mind continues processing all the possible reasons how to rationalize what this person is going through.
Am I still trying to defend God? Am I trying to keep my own faith secure as the experiences of others challenge my view of life and God? I am just so used to needing to have an answer that I cannot stop the process from taking over even as I sit and listen to or weep with someone hurting?
Whatever my reasons are for silently thinking about how this situation could fit within my view of God, I know they are impacting me. How can I enter into someone’s pain to walk with them when behind the scenes I am not allowing myself to really accept the situation as it is? Instead of feeling the weight of the darkness or loss or pain, I am only getting into the pool waste deep while the rest of me remains above the water thinking my right thoughts about God and faith.
This is not what we read in Scripture, and it is not what our faith ultimately needs. What we read in Scripture is an honest and passionate interaction with God that does not try to explain away pain or evil or darkness or confusion or loss. It offers no perfect theological justification to defend God or make faith more palatable. Rather, in brutal and fervent prayer, the heart is lifted to God in the pain.
“Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am languishing; heal me, O LORD, for my bones are troubled. My soul also is greatly troubled. But you, O LORD—how long? … I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping” (Psalm 6:2-3, 6).
“There is a vanity that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the wicked, and there are wicked people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the righteous. I said that this also is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 8:14).
“Why do the wicked live, reach old age, and grow mighty in power? Their offspring are established in their presence, and their descendants before their eyes. Their houses are safe from fear, and no rod of God is upon them” (Job 21:7-9).
These are honest cries without any kind of justification or defense or rationalization. They see the pain. They see the injustice. They feel the hurt and darkness. And they call it for what it is. They also cry out to God. Here is the crux, and here is why this means so much. Rather than keeping their theology safe and perfectly rational, they take the evil, the darkness, the inconsistencies in life and cry out to God in faith. Their trust is not built upon a hollow explanation of how evil and God coexist, but upon a confidence and relationship in God despite the conflict raging inside their hearts and minds. Their faith is in God, not in an argument or an explanation. Their hope is in the person of God, not in a particular system of thought about God that supposedly makes everything alright.
On top of that, they are free to fully empathize with those who go through moments of tragedy and doubt and confusion. They can immerse themselves fully into the pool and more fully relate to what others are going through. Rather than feeling like they need to have an answer, they know they just need to embrace what we all feel in those moments. They know they don’t need to feel threatened that their well constructed theological house that is so comfortable to dwell in might suddenly have a wall knocked down. They know all of this because their faith rests solely in God, not in their perfect understanding of God and life. They know they cannot explain it all, but that is what allows them to be more fully present to others as well as not have their faith shaken when their systems of thought are rocked. God is still God. In that I can rest always, and I can share more fully in the struggles and doubts and pain of others.
Even Jesus knew the silence of God and the pain of this world. Consider the following:
"Then he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.” And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:38-39).
“And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46).
“In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered” (Hebrews 5:7-8).
Jesus knew sorrow. Jesus knew what it meant to cry out to God and get only silence in return. Jesus knew what it felt like to feel forsaken by God. Jesus knew what it meant to suffer and to cry out to God. Reading these accounts we can immediately look for how to explain them away: “Well, Jesus was not really asking God to work out another plan of salvation at the last moment. Jesus was not really forsaken by God on the cross. Jesus did not really learn obedience through suffering.” Our theological systems might focus too heavily on Jesus being the Son of God that we lose the humanity and minimize his experiences. Yet, his experiences show us we can fully struggle in our fears and doubts and confusion. We can and should cry out to God rather than ignore the challenges to our faith that come when evil is running rampant.
Only in our honest reflections and dark feelings of struggle where we lean into God, not into our explanations or our defenses, will we be fully trusting God and fully able to relate to others in their suffering.