Our daughter Abby is now at the point where every word out of her mouth is in the form of a question. Every day, all day, we hear something like this:
“Daddy what is that?”
”What does it do?”
Sometimes I can handle it pretty well.
“Abby that’s a pencil. It writes words. It writes words so we can say things.”
That may not be the best existential answer, but at least it satisfies her for a little bit. Some of her questions are harder.
“Daddy, what is that?”
“It’s a pickle.”
“Why is that pickle?”
“Because God wanted to be” (I know that’s an easy way out – but it works).
She’s got me on that one. It’s easy to say something is the way it is because God made it that way or because God wanted that way – but it’s something else to explain why.
One Sunday after church I went to see Emma in the hospital. Emma was five and for the bulk of her short life she had spent much of it in hospitals. I had been visiting Emma in the hospital for days. Sometimes she would be sleeping and sometimes she would be wide awake. Sometimes she would laugh and smile and call me “Monkey Boy” although I’m not sure why and sometimes she just wasn’t in the mood.
But in these last few days Emma was having more bad days than good days. She was sleeping more than laughing. And the doctors had somber looks on their faces. The parents and I talked. We talked about prayer and miracles. They fasted and prayed. We all prayed. Emma slept.
The parents were convinced. They were convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that Emma would walk out of that hospital. They were convinced that she would be in school plays and get skinned up knees playing soccer. They were convinced she would graduate from high school, get married and have little five year old girls of her own. And why wouldn’t they be? What parent would not hold on to the very fiber of hope – pleading, praying, and bargaining with God in face of doctors walking around quietly with somber faces?
But on Monday, the phone call came. Emma’s fight was over. She had finished her race. When I arrived her parents were inconsolable. Who wouldn’t be? Words fail at moments like this. Explanations are insults.
And they looked at me and asked WHY, why did God let this happen? Why did God let their child die?
I don’t know. I don’t know.
It’s much easier to look at little child playing and laughing and growing and acknowledge and be thankful that God gave that child life and laughter and love – that God is responsible.
But in the face of death, in the face of prayers not answered, it’s hard.
The theological word for all of this is theodicy. Theodicy is our attempt to explain why there is evil in the world, or why if God is so good and loving, there is suffering. In other words, theodicy tries to explain why planes are hijacked and crashed into buildings, why people must endure with cancer, Alzheimer’s or ALS. Theodicy seeks to explain out why five year old girls die.
In the past I’ve said that ‘everything happens for a reason.’ Have you ever said that? On one hand, it sounds good because it says that nothing happens in vain. When someone dies or suffers or goes through any hardship – there is a reason for it. And we hope that that reason will be made clear as soon as possible.
But on the other hand, I have a problem with that. If God is responsible for the suffering and evil in the world and God allows certain things to happen for my benefit, I would rather God come up with another way to make me a better person.
I don’t want someone else to suffer or to even die so that I might benefit. But as soon as I say that sentence out loud – I realize something. As soon as I say I do not want someone else to suffer or die so that I might benefit – I realize I am summing up the whole of Christianity.
Someone did suffer and die so that I might benefit. Someone suffered and died so that we all might benefit – that benefit being life here and life everlasting, and that someone is Jesus.
St Paul tells the Church in Rome that ‘all things work together for good for those who love God.’ I don’t think that is the same thing as saying God makes certain things happen – that God causes suffering and evil. I think St Paul is saying that even in a fallen, broken, hurting world – where we have war and disease and poverty and the far too early deaths of beautiful children – even in THAT – God’s power and love is present and is working and that those who love God have the perspective to see that power and love working.
God gave us his only son, St Paul says, and he did it for us. If God gave us his son – if God gave up himself so that we might know the fullness of love and freedom – then we can have the assurance that God will never leave us – that God will never forsake us – and that even in the midst of the most abject pain and suffering and death – God is here!
As for me, I don’t know the answer to pain, suffering and death. I don’t know why the most evil, heinous people in the world can live for years and years and the most innocent, loving, life-filled people have their lives cut short. I don’t know why and I don’t think it’s fair.
I don’t know why God allows us to harm each other and harm ourselves and to be subject to disease and decay – other than to say that God lets us choose our actions and throughout the history of humanity we have tended to choose poorly.
But this I do know. I do know that in the midst of his pain and suffering – as he faced death – Jesus himself asked the Father the same question that I and billions of others have asked – WHY? Why, God? Why have you forsaken me? Why have you allowed this happen? Why have you given me this cup – this path – this task?
And I know how the Father used the Son. I know how the Father used the pain, suffering, and death of his Son to be for us the fount of life and love. I know how the Father used pain, suffering and death to not only change the course of history – but to transform the people who make it.
And I know that through our baptism we are joined with Christ and that means joining with his suffering and his questions of WHY? But it also means joining with his resurrection and his redemption and his new creation. It means joining with his role in changing the course of history and transforming the people who make it.
It means that suffering, pain, and death no longer have power. They no longer have dominion. They no longer have us.
I know that while we may be at the foot of the cross or nailed to it – even for us the tomb will be empty. Even for us, the angels will roll back the stone. Even for us – there will be shouts of Alleluia.
That one is easy.
Because God loves us.