Once, as a fairly young man and relatively new to professional ministry, I was called in to be available to a family I did not know going through a sudden horrendous tragedy. In an instant, the lives of four people were forever disordered: one dead, one paralyzed, one severely injured but likely to recover, and one without a scratch. “Why?” That was the question hurled from the mouth of the one without a scratch to the man in the clerical collar who no more had an answer than the moon has ice cream.
“Why?” was the bitter question I screamed into the wind of the winter storm after leaving the encounter and heading to my car. In the face of such pain, when through no fault of our own all goodness has been snatched, any joy suctioned off, and every hope shattered to pieces at our feet, “Why?” is no longer a question but an exclamation: “Why!”
At moments of grief or rage against the storm, we know there is no answer that could possibly meet the demand for knowing. The question grinds toward a grimace and more often than not, becomes an indictment. God is on trial, and all the evidence is against any being or entity that might have had the power to prevent the reign of chaos but didn’t. When pastors, theologians, or institutions attempt to answer this exclamation as if it were a real question, we fail and more often than not, add indignation to injury. Better, I think, to stand alongside the exclamation and demand an answer too, knowing it will not come and understanding that grief, sorrow, and powerlessness demand our presence not denial.
Those who demand an answer to the exclamation “Why!” will not get one, and those who make up answers to momentarily fill our ignorance or blunt the pain, will eventually lose faith in the answer. That is because we do not get to know, if indeed there is an answer to be had. Life in the universe does not conform to our sense of justice, nor does it promote or favor human self-interest. God as the creator of the universe does not change that basic scenario.
It is as if we are all perched on the side of a volcano, a mere surface incarnation of geological forces beneath. We can arrange our lives and villages based on whatever designs we favor, and live quite happily on the slopes of the sleeping giant. But when there is a belch in the bowels of the earth, our favored patterns and serene homes will be disrupted. The reasons for any eruption that might devastate our existence does not come from the surface, but from the dynamics that lie deep below the range of our awareness.
Of course, there are more discernable sources to ordinary chaos like murder, car, train, or plane wrecks, and plain old human negligence leading to tragedy. But when we scream “Why!” into the teeth of such awfulness, we are not really looking for an explanation that would satisfy a law court. We are looking for a moral vindication that somebody, most likely God, got it wrong and we are the victim.
Living successfully with our powerlessness, and finding warmth in the shadow that surrounds our smallness in the universe, eventually requires a profound sense of acceptance.