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Why, God, Why?
Have you ever asked the question, "Why, God, why?" Have you ever asked, "Why did this have to happen to me?" or "Why did God allow this to happen to my friend?" Have you ever wondered if people really deserve all the bad things that come their way? If you have asked one or all of these questions, you join millions who when faced with tragic circumstances raise their cries of agony, or confusion, or protest.
When was the last time you asked, 'Why, God, why?" Was it because of a death, an illness, a hardship, a tragedy, an injustice, or an inconvenience? Or maybe when bad things happen that affect your life you don't formally challenge God; maybe you just become angry, absorbed in self-pity or cynicism. But your underlying question—sometimes even unspoken—is this: "Why did this have to happen? Surely this is not God's plan or will ... so why didn't God do something to prevent it?"
Many of us do ask this basic question as we face troubling circumstances. We may ask it when a child is seriously ill and suffering. We may ask why when someone suffers a betrayal. We may ask this most agonizing question when an innocent youth is shot and killed or when a young child dies. We may ask why when our life's savings are wiped out, when we lose our job, or when the spouse we have loved for so long dies.
We may even ask why when simple inconveniences come our way. Do you feel a bit mistreated when your air conditioner dies a premature death or when your car is in the shop more often than you attend church? Do you ever wonder if you are jinxed, if you are preordained to bad luck? Do you sometimes get the feeling that life is designed to test your patience and courage?
Sometimes it is not one tragedy that forces us to raise our question of doubt and protest. Sometimes it is the sum total of many, many things that add up to one big question mark. Maybe after experiencing many setbacks in a row we conclude that life just hasn't been that good to us.
One of the challenges of our existence is that we never really know what is in our future. If we count on job security, we may find ourselves laid off or disabled. If we dream of a relaxed and secure retirement, we may discover dwindling funds, or have to assume guardianship of a grandchild, or find ourselves working again just to get by.
Most of us, even the luckiest among us, have asked this question many times—if not for us, then on behalf of some good person who suffers. We lift our appeal or our protest, "Why, God, why?" "Why did this have to happen?" "Why should this happen to her?" "Why did this come along? Everything was going so well!"
Some religious people insist that we have no right to question God or to raise our voices in protest. They contend that God is in control of everything and that God knows what to do in all circumstances. They tell us that no matter how tragic it seems to us, it is all a part of God's plan.
I do not embrace such a theology, and neither would the psalmists. I believe that God cries with us when tragedy comes. I believe that it is not a part of God's plan for an assassin's bullet to strike down a president or a civil-rights leader, or for stray bullets to kill innocent bystanders. It is not meant to be!
I don't believe that every car I have bought that has proved to be a "lemon" was produced that way to teach me patience. At least, if that was the plan, it has not worked! Instead, I believe that God empathizes with all our trials and tribulations. When tragedy strikes, God suffers with us. Maybe in the midst of tragedy we should delay asking our question and first hear God's prior question: "Indeed, humanity, why did this happen?"
But as important as this basic question is, in the midst of hardship, suffering, or tragedy, there is another issue worth exploring. In a sense it is the same question, but the perspective is inverted, the tone is different, the motivation is reversed. Surprisingly, the question becomes not one of protest, but of praise; not one of bewilderment, but of wonder; not one of cynicism, but of promise.
I purposely began my reflections where probably 90 percent of us start when we ask, "Why, God, why?" I started with the bad things. And isn't that what comes to mind when you hear the question "Why, God why?" If you read the title "Why, God, Why?" before reading the sermon, did you expect me to focus on blessings or hardships, windfalls or downfalls, sickness or good health? I suspect most of you gravitated toward the negative.
My assumption is this: most of us ask, "Why, God, why?" in the midst of misfortune. But when good things come our way we rarely ask, "Why did this have to happen to me?" When we experience good fortune we rarely protest: "I just don't deserve this!" When life smiles upon us we seldom ask, "Why, God, why?" We rarely ask, "Why me, Lord?"
I remember clearly when this thought first occurred to me. It came to me in the early seventies when I was riding my bike to make a pastoral call at a nursing home. The thought suddenly dawned on me, "Why do we ask, 'Why, God, why?' when bad things happen but seldom ask that same question when good fortune comes?" It then occurred to me that maybe our problem is not in asking, "Why, God, why?" too often. Maybe we ask the question too seldom!
Before preaching this sermon I shared my novel thesis with another minister. He seemed unusually intrigued with what I assumed was an original insight. But, alas, the next day he handed me a sheet of paper with several quotes. One was circled. To my shock there was my "unique" idea in print.
Seeing it there sparked two simultaneous but diverse feelings. It made me feel good that someone else had come to the same conclusion. I was flattered that my idea was already in print even though it was attributed to another person. But my ego was also somewhat deflated because my insight must have been more obvious than I first imagined. Listen to this quote from Irene Bargmann of Columbus, Nebraska: "When sorrow comes, we have no right to ask, 'Why did this happen to me?' unless we ask the same question whenever joy comes our way." So there you have it, practically my whole sermon in twenty-six words!
I would therefore suggest that we never forbid asking the question, "Why, God, why?" I would urge instead that we boldly expand its application. We should apply it generously to life and to the Scriptures.
So now we ask not simply, "Why did the prodigal son leave his father and waste his inheritance?" We ask the question of grace: "Why, God, did the father find it in his heart to forgive the prodigal and welcome him back?"
We ask not only why Peter denied his Lord but also why he was given the power to become a disciple of the risen Christ. We ask not only, "Why do we sin and 'fall short of the glory of God'?" (Rom. 3:23) but also ask, "Why does Christ die for us 'while we [are yet] sinners'?" (Rom. 5:8). The issue is whether we focus primarily on the perplexing existence of sin and suffering or upon the immeasurable riches of God's grace. The scope of our questioning may determine whether we become trapped in despair or set free by
What is our dominant question? Is it, "Why is there so much tragedy?" or "How can there be so much grace?"
Are you ready now to ask, "Why, God, why?" from a completely different perspective and with a completely different tone? Will you ask God "Why?" not only for your tragedies but also for your blessings? Will you remember to ask God how it is that you deserve the good things that have happened to you?
Identical questions may have a very different attitude behind them. I might ask, "What did I do to deserve my parents?" But I would raise that question from a different perspective than a child who suffered from parental abuse. But no matter how difficult our life situation has been, there still have been positive gifts from life and from God. What good things have come your way? What have you done to deserve them? As you think of them will you ask, "Why, God, why?"
Some ask: "What did I do to deserve loving parents?" "Why, God, was I able to find a loving spouse or a faithful friend?" "Why, God, should I have food and shelter and luxuries when so many in our world suffer with little or nothing? What did I do to deserve this?" "How could I be so lucky as to have been born in the United States?" "What did I do to deserve living in the South after air conditioning instead of before it?" "What did I do to deserve a computer that saves my rough drafts and allows me to correct my sermons in a fraction of the time that it took the founders of the church? Why, God, was I allowed to experience the nurture of people in the church? Is it fair? What have I done to deserve it?"
We all could raise not one but hundreds of "Why, God, why?" questions if we took time to reflect. And just as we do not deserve many of the bad things that happen to us, we do not deserve many of the good things that come our way.
We need to be fair in our questioning: "When sorrow comes, we have no right to ask, 'Why did this happen to me?' unless we ask the same question whenever joy comes our way."
In his letter to the church at Philippi, Paul gives several astounding instructions to these young Christians. Most amazing is his instruction to "Rejoice in the Lord always ..." (Phil. 4:4a). Doesn't Paul ever ask that most basic of questions: "Why, God, why?" Didn't Paul have reason to question life's fairness? You decide whether Paul's life made it hard for him to rejoice always, whether he had cause to ask, "Why, God, why?" He writes of some of his ordeals:
Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. (2 Cor. 11:24-27)
Aren't these grounds for asking the agonizing question, "Why, God, why?" I think so. Paul's list of hardships certainly makes my complaining about my eczema and car problems seem minor by comparison!
Paul was not obsessed with asking, "Why, God, why?" of his trying circumstances. But he must have asked why he should be so richly blessed. He must have asked why God would choose him to be an apostle, to have the special privilege of sharing the truth of the gospel with the Gentiles. He must have been grateful for God's empowering him to do the work he was assigned. He must have felt grateful that one who had persecuted the Christians could be forgiven and allowed to be a part of the Christian fellowship.
The ultimate question for Paul was not, "Why is there sin and suffering and tragedy?" A prior question for Paul was, "Why, God, should we receive all this marvelous grace?" So this man who suffered much could move from questions of why to an attitude of thanksgiving and shouts of praise. This man who suffered from the "thorn in his side" could invite the church at Philippi to join with him in praise:
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.... Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Phil. 4:4, 6-7)
Perhaps you and I do not ask, "Why, God, why?" too often. Perhaps we ask the question too seldom. Maybe we can agree to a rule for its usage: "When sorrow comes, we have no right to ask, 'Why did this happen to me?' unless we ask the same question whenever joy comes our way."CHAPTER 2
God of pain or Compassion?
For countless centuries, people have been lifting their voices of despair or confusion: "Why, God, why?" "Why was my baby deformed?" "Why did the earthquake destroy the city?" "Why am I sick?" "Why did that accident have to happen?"
In the face of almost every tragedy, hardship, or sickness, people have asked, why. "Is there any reason for these things to happen?" In the Old Testament, one interpretation seems to dominate the others: tragedy, catastrophe, sickness, defeat are often understood as direct actions of God. These devastations are seen as a means of God's punishment for sin. According to this theological position, the root cause of suffering is sin. If one is sick, it is because of the spiritual unfaithfulness of the person.
Throughout much of the Old Testament, hardship and suffering are understood as tools of God—tools to punish, chastise, test, or temper the people of God. Suffering, tragedy, and hardship often were not understood as occurring by chance or as a result of human error; they were seen simply as God's intervention in response to the sins of the people. It is ironic that many insurance policies still refer to hurricanes, tornadoes, and earthquakes as "acts of God." I wonder: Is this the kind of God we worship?
Jesus was quite aware of the prevailing theology of his day. Sickness still was understood as a manifestation of sinfulness. Material wealth, health, large families often were seen as signs of God's approval. But many people still were not convinced of such a theology. Many who witnessed their own suffering and the suffering of others continued to raise the probing question: "Why?" "Why do people suffer? Is it really because of sin? If so, whose sin?"
The sermon texts raise these existential dilemmas. In John, we hear the question of Jesus' disciples as they observe a blind man: "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?" (John 9:2b). Jesus did not give an orthodox answer. He did not draw any connection at all between the man's sinfulness and his predicament. In fact, Jesus eliminates this theology altogether. He says, "Neither this man nor his parents sinned" (John 9:3 a).
Likewise, in the Gospel of Luke, we find Jesus taking a similar stand. This time the circumstance is not a personal affliction but a major disaster. Jesus asks the rhetorical question: "Those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?" Jesus answers his own question with an emphatic "No" (Luke 13:4, 5a). Jesus is suggesting that in the face of disaster, tragedy, or sickness, one cannot draw conclusions as to the "goodness or wickedness" of the victims. Jesus would have us reject the notion that tragedy is to be understood as a punishment for wrongdoing.
This is not to say that tragedy cannot be a direct result of our wrongdoing or poor judgment. We can smoke cigarettes for thirty years and then develop lung cancer. Such a disease is not the punishment for sin but rather the consequence of harmful habits. It is the body's reaction to abuse. At the end of our lives we may face financial ruin or poor health, all because of our behavior and lifestyle.
Sin does have consequences. Evil does entrap us in various tragedies: loss of friends, lack of meaning, backlash, resentment, and hostility. But the question raised today is not whether or not we may suffer from our own sinfulness; indeed, all sin causes suffering!
The basic question we are facing today is whether or not the suffering we experience should be understood as a punishment from God. Such a question is not one limited to biblical times. I have heard several parishioners with severe illnesses say, "I must have been a bad person to have to suffer like this." Others tearfully question, "What have I done to deserve this?"—as if to say, "God is doing this to me. Why?"
Jesus never fully answers the question of why. He does not give us an adequate reason for our suffering. What Jesus does instead is to suffer with us, for us, like us. Jesus has experienced what we now experience. Jesus knows what suffering means. He now suffers with us.
In reflecting upon suffering, Jesus is quick to rule out one theological premise. He refutes the idea that all tragedy, sickness, and hardship are punishment for sin.
Jesus would never want us to assume that if someone suffers a deep human tragedy that such is a sign of deep sinfulness.
And don't we all know of experiences in life that support this truth? Don't we all know saints who have suffered greatly? Don't we know scoundrels who seem to hardly suffer at all? If anything, I am inclined to conclude that the good people of this world seem to suffer the most. And of this I am certain: The truly good people of this earth are able to suffer and still not be defeated.
The choice before us is to decide whether we have a God of pain or a God of compassion, whether we believe in a God who inflicts pain to punish or change us, or a God who sends rain on the just and unjust and allows tragedy to fall on the good and the bad.
My hunch is that some of us make God a God of punishment because of our own guilt. Several years ago I visited with a woman who had faced one major crisis after another. I honestly did not know how she could handle all the problems, suffering, and anxiety. But I was surprised one day when she said she wondered if God was punishing her for her wrongdoing.
My first impulse was to say God does not act that way, instead I decided to ask a question. "Have you done anything in your life that you think is deserving of your present suffering?" Before she realized it, and before I was prepared for it, she confessed to a serious wrongdoing.
Excerpted from Why, God, Why? by Justin W. Tull. Copyright © 1996 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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