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What Not to Say to Hurting People

What Not to Say to Hurting People

There’s a very strange, and often-overlooked, element to the classic story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. Yes, Jesus cries at the tomb and then brings Lazarus back to life and yes, that’s amazing! But both Mary and Martha have asked Jesus, in their own way, why He let this happen.

And Jesus never answers. The question just … hangs there.

In the same way, our question hangs there, too: Why would a loving God have let ____ happen?” Why did God let me get fired, or that person die? Why did my spouse/fiance/boyfriend/girlfriend cheat on me? Why am I so depressed? Why can’t I be better?

God, why?

The problem is there is no answer to that question. Not really. One of the earliest books written in the Bible is about a good man named Job who loses everything—his children, his business, his possessions—to the sort of tragedies insurance companies call “acts of God.”

The entire book is a giant philosophical debate over why bad things happen to good people. Most of Job’s friends are convinced Job did something wrong he won’t admit to. When Job continually protests his innocence they accuse him of insulting the character of God who, because He is powerful and good, would only let bad things happen to bad people.

This is the bumper sticker theology from Chapter 1, and Job’s friends represent every well-meaning person who believes the most complicated mysteries of human existence can be encapsulated in a pithy—preferably rhythmic—slogan.

Finally, after a couple dozen chapters of back and forth between Job and his friends, God shows up to give account for His actions … kind of (Job 38:4-14):

“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth? Tell me, if you know so much. Who determined its dimensions and stretched out the surveying line? What supports its foundations, and who laid its cornerstone as the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy? Who kept the sea inside its boundaries as it burst from the womb, and as I clothed it with clouds and wrapped it in thick darkness?

For I locked it behind barred gates, limiting its shores. I said, ‘This far and no farther will you come. Here your proud waves must stop!’ Have you ever commanded the morning to appear and caused the dawn to rise in the east? Have you made daylight spread to the ends of the Earth, to bring an end to the night’s wickedness? As the light approaches, the Earth takes shape like clay pressed beneath a seal; it is robed in brilliant colors.”

This goes on for four chapters in scathing, stunning, sarcastic prose. It seems mean and callous and uncaring of God to respond this way, but that’s not how Job takes it.

When God finally stops speaking, Job says, “I know that you can do anything, and no one can stop you. You asked, ‘Who is this that questions my wisdom with such ignorance?’ It is I—and I was talking about things I knew nothing about, things far too wonderful for me. You said, ‘Listen and I will speak! I have some questions for you, and you must answer them.’ I had only heard about you before, but now I have seen you with my own eyes. I take back everything I said, and I sit in dust and ashes to show my repentance.” (Job 38:2-6)

It’s important to understand what happened here. This isn’t a “great and powerful Oz” moment where God bullies Job into subservience through fear. God isn’t hiding behind a shock-and-awe power trip hoping Job doesn’t peek behind the curtain. It’s also not saying that asking God for answers is wrong. The writer of Job goes out of his way to repeatedly say that in his questioning, “Job did not sin.”

Job’s mistake was thinking he’d ever understand the answer of pain. God isn’t telling Job his suffering is insignificant. If anything, God’s four-chapter response shows Him giving rapt, joyful attention to every facet of creation. As we saw in Jesus’ weeping at the tomb, God feels the pain of this world at a level we can’t comprehend. And that’s the point: We can’t comprehend it.

We want to know why things happen the way they do, but what we’re really asking is, “God, explain to me how you simultaneously see all of human history at once, are guiding it to a redemptive conclusion, while at the same time loving each person individually, yet allowing them legitimate control over their day-to-day decisions.” Let’s say God told us how all that works — could we possibly understand it?

Humanity’s greatest minds have been studying the complexity of the universe for centuries only to discover a seemingly infinite bigness and smallness. A few years ago a documentary movie about quantum physics summed up the totality of our knowledge in its title: What the Bleep Do We Know?

In dealing with God, we are like ants who demand Albert Einstein explain to us the theory of relativity, then when we can’t understand the answer, we choose to believe Einstein doesn’t exist.

We live in a world rightly fascinated by the mysteries of the universe and of science, and what we learn over and over again is how small and fragile we really are. Yet there is something deep inside us that rejects God being so much bigger that not only does He not owe us an answer, but we couldn’t understand it if He told us!

For some this simply isn’t enough. Until God shows up and explains away the pain, we refuse to believe in Him or trust Him. He has to give a quantifiable accounting for tragedy. But we’ve set up the rules so He never possibly could, because what answer would make the pain OK?

If one person died so five other people could live, would that make that death not a tragedy? If someone treated you unfairly, but then God smote them with leprosy or really bad halitosis, would that take away your pain? If you grew up with abusive parents, would your fear and insecurity disappear by learning it was all part of some master plan?

No, because pain isn’t some algebraic equation to be balanced. There’s no corresponding equal for a loved one’s death or a broken heart or a shattered dream. There’s no monetary value that can make it better. This is why the phrase “everything happens for a reason” is horrible. It implies that pain can be quantified and reimbursed, and in my experience that’s not how pain works.

Maybe God doesn’t go out of His way to explain “why evil happens” because He takes our pain too seriously to minimize it with some logical moral algorithm. Maybe what we’re asking Him for would cheapen the reality of how awful evil truly is and how painful our battle with it has been.

And I wonder if on some level we know that. We know that there can’t be an explanation that makes us go, “Oh, that’s why!” and then it’ll all be OK. But still we hold on to the question, accusing Him of dodging it. This way we never lose the argument, Delaware never exists and we avoid our true problem: We don’t believe God is good, and we’re afraid He’s going to hurt us. If this is the case, then the answer God gives is really the only one that makes sense.

We want a philosophical treatise. God offers a relationship.

We demand intellectual answers. God gives us Jesus.

This article has been excerpted from Josh Pease’s book The God Who Wasn’t There. Used with permission.

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