Tuesday, June 12, 2007

When death strikes: Moving beyond the "why?" questions

Yesterday Ellen and I attended a funeral for a woman who died suddenly last week, leaving behind her husband and six children. The service was very much a worship service to God and a strong testimony to her vibrant Christian faith. Heartbreaking, though, to hear the sobs of one of her children who cried throughout the service.

The message took as its starting point the various "why?" questions - Why did she go so suddenly? Why now? Why did God let this happen? And so on. The pastor pursued this line of thinking for a while and said many typical things, including Romans 8:28, which is often cited in situations like this. And all of this left me slightly uneasy.

I've been realizing over the past few years that the "why?" questions are often rabbit trails. When bad things happen, we automatically ask why, as if finding out the answers will give us comfort and peace. We assume that the problem of suffering is an intellectual one, and that finding answers to the why question will clear things up. I don't think they actually do. In some cases, a specific answer to a why question just compounds guilt and blame. Why did he die of cancer? Well, he had a bad diet and didn't exercise. Or he lived in a toxic, carcinogenic environment. Well, what then? Knowing the answers to why questions doesn't necessarily bring us any comfort or hope.

Why questions are ultimately unanswerable. Or they can be answered quite simply, even if much is left to mystery. Why this suffering? Why this death? The simple answer: It's a fallen world. The world is broken. Bad things happen. People die. If we really want answers to the why questions, that's where they take us.

I find it very instructive that the New Testament writers don't really probe the why questions. They don't pose intellectual questions regarding the origins of the problem of suffering and evil. That's because they took for granted that they were living in a fallen world where sickness and death were normative. Why questions are modern questions, not biblical ones. We have the philosophical luxury of living in a context where suffering is unusual (and avoided). But for the vast majority of human history, death and suffering are simply the default. Everybody suffers. Everybody dies. Nobody has to ask why this happens - it just does.

The far more significant question, from a Christian standpoint, is not "Why?" but "What is God doing about it?" This is N. T. Wright's line of argument in his recent excellent book Evil and the Justice of God. He says that Scripture ultimately does not answer the why questions. But far more important is God's answer to the question "What has God done about evil, death and suffering?" And the answer there is that God has decisively acted in the person of Jesus Christ. Through Jesus' death and resurrection, God has triumphed over the power of death. He has disarmed the powers and principalities. God is redeeming all of creation. He is making all things new. He is creating a new heavens and a new earth. He is wiping away every tear.

After my father's death by suicide, I wrestled with the why questions to the point of exhaustion. And as I wrote in Grieving a Suicide, I concluded that God's answer to the problems of suffering, evil and death is not some abstract philosophical response, but decisive action. Death has lost its sting. Death itself will die. That is the heart of the Christian faith - not merely that we are going to heaven when we die, but bodily resurrection that we shall be raised to new life. As a traditional Easter liturgy puts it, "By dying he destroyed our death; by rising he restored our life."

Pastorally, we certainly stand with those who grieve and ask the why questions. But let's not dwell there indefinitely. Let's focus on what God has done in Christ. As Ruth Padilla Eldrenkamp wrote after the murder of her husband: "Brokenness is not the end of the story. Our pain is deep, but it is not all-encompassing; our loss is enormous, but it is not eternal; and death is our enemy but it does not have the final word."


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post. I don't have words to say it rightly, so I'll just say thanks.

joannmski said...

I am a regular reader, but not a regular commenter - just wanted to say that these were excellent thoughts, thank you.

Al Hsu said...

Thanks for commenting, Rob and Joann. I appreciate it.

One other random thought I had was that in John 11, at Lazarus's tomb, neither Martha nor Mary ask Jesus why he didn't come sooner or why Lazarus died. Both simply say that if he had come sooner, Lazarus would not have died. I think that's interesting, and I'm still musing about it. I think we tend to assume that Mary and Martha were asking Jesus why he let Lazarus die, but I'm not sure that that's the case.

jcubsdad said...

We are so driven to add logic to everything that goes on in our life. We ask the why question so that we can try to impart logic to what our sinful selves sees as illogical, that is death itself.

God put eternity in the hearts of man so we would contemplate such things. If we are honest with ourselves contemplating these questions bring us to the answer Jesus Christ and the reaffirmation of life that he brings.

thanks for the great post.

L.L. Barkat said...

Beautifully expressed.

Anonymous said...

Al -- You have captured the essence of a generation here. We think we have the right to know "why."

In one of his books, Jerry Bridges comments that asking God "why?" involves a certain amount of pride. We assume that if he told us, we would understand. His point is that even if God answered the "why" questions, our priorities and capacity for knowledge and holiness are so unlike his that his answer probably would make no sense.


Anonymous said...

interesting post. I stumbled upon it when googling the why question.

Sometimes I know the truths of all the things you have written, but yet still I ask God the why question.

I think it's a question everyone asks and a place where eventually God gives us peace.

I am sure even the disciples asked the why question. One dark day. But God usually holds us close through all our questions. And i think He must understand. For we all feel when touched by death the great brokenness of the world around us and some part of us desires to cry out against the darkness we sense through it. A cry that maybe can only be experessed through simply saying, "why?" I think there is beauty in trusting God even through asking the why question. And sticking with God in those times when nothing makes sense.

Hm. just some thoughts.