In the last couple of weeks, I have had some big “Whys?” come my way. A teen committed suicide. A good woman died of cancer. A struggling woman was diagnosed with cancer. People I love, people I serve as pastor, called me or met with me to tell me the stories. They didn’t say it with their mouths, but their eyes and voices formed the question.
The answer I gave them is that a dear friend’s child, a little child, was diagnosed with cancer last week. Terrible, terrible, life-stealing, body-maiming cancer. This is a painful answer. It hurts me to say it. It hurts them to hear it. I saw or heard them draw in their own breaths in pain in response to my response. By saying this, I am not playing “who has the greater injustice?” or trying to cover the fact that I have no answer; I am demonstrating that I have the same questions, feel the same pain, and see the same injustice.
I don’t have a good answer. Or, rather, I have an answer that doesn’t give satisfaction to many who hear it so I seldom share it. I know they want me to say “things happen for a reason, and God is going to make this come out like you want,” but I can’t say that. Not in good conscience. Not with integrity. Not in my experience. No, not me. Instead, I share their pain and offer prayers.
One of these conversations was with a parishioner who accepts no easy answers. He is one of the greatest gifts I have ever received as a pastor. He rejects all “bumper sticker” theology, all platitudes, all simplistic explanations. He only accepts depth, and when faced with an unfair death, he wanted to know why. He wasn’t satisfied by the fact that we have the same questions and experience of injustice. He didn’t want me to say something comforting; he really, truly wanted to know why. So I told him my truth, which is basically, “I don’t know why some people get cancer or why some people lose all their hope. Bad things happen to good people. Cancer and suicide aren’t judgments, they’re tragedies. Sometimes our bodies betray us. Sometimes our minds betray us.”
He told me I was flirting with existentialism. (You see why I love this guy?) He was referring to the way I had stepped away from the Christian platitude that “everything happens for a reason” into the existentialist idea that the world is absurd and things just happen without reason. So I admitted to him that I don’t just flirt with existentialism; we go out regularly. It’s the way I wrap my mind around tragedies like cancer and suicide. Where does God show up, then, in these tragedies, if God is neither causing nor preventing them?
And that leads me to 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. Here it is in the NIV translation: Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.
Some of you will recognize this as a “rapture” passage, but rapture theology is a 19th century invention patched together from a bunch of snippets of scripture. I am beyond suspicious of it. I don’t see a description of a rapture in this passage. Instead, I see a pastor using dramatic imagery to answer a tough question. The question was: “What about those of us who have already died?” Paul had been preaching an imminent return of Jesus Christ, and, um… not so much. People were dying. Their loved ones were afraid of what that meant. So Paul gives them this beautiful image of the dead rising first to meet Christ when He returns to give them hope. Because of this beautiful answer that was meant to be a source of encouragement, we have a theology that bolsters all the end times madness. This is a cautionary tale to all pastors: be careful how you answer the hard questions.
I’ve seen a lot of tragedies happen to people I love and serve. None of them deserved what happened to them, and yet these things still happened. Their bodies and minds betrayed them. Crap happened. Yes, it’s a little existentialist. Here’s what I know as a pastor and a believer when faced with tragedies happening to people I love.
Cartoonist and author Jim Benton puts into two images what I cannot say better with paragraphs of text. My faith can’t stay viable if I blame God for these things. When you think about it, the idea and the platitude that all things are God’s will has some sad and absurd implications.
That’s all I have really when faced with the big whys. I shy away from flowery imagery (Thanks, Paul and all rapture “theologians”). I don’t remember the theological arguments about why bad things happen to good people (if I did learn those in seminary). All of the proper answers have faded over ten years of full-time ministry, ten years of watching bad things happen to good people, ten years of praying for miracles, ten years of preaching funerals for people I loved, ten years of having people ask me why.
What I am left with is a longer timeframe for my hope. What I am left with are eyes opened to watch for the good God is working through the tragedies that just happen. What I am left with is the repeated experience of God’s good actions in an absurd world.
Special thanks goes to Jim Benton for permission to include his cartoon in this piece.