Saturday, October 16, 2010

The “Why” Question ... and why I don’t ask it. 

My family just passed the six-month mark. Do you ever get used to mom and wife gone permanently? Perhaps not, but most certainly not in six months. For the believer, such an untimely death always raises questions about the purposes and intentions of God. We are prompted to ask "Why, God?"

Often, as they envision a loving God, a provider of good gifts, a healer, and a keeper of promises, believers will ask why he allows such things as cancer, and untimely death. Why doesn’t he answer our pleas for healing? Why didn’t he? Some will respond glibly that he did answer, but that his answer was “no”. Somehow, I never understood how this helps. If I were struggling to trust a God who fails to answer my prayer, I’d sooner believe that he didn’t hear me than to believe my request earned his intentional and unequivocal refusal. Then again, of course he answers “no”. And that is precisely the problem. Why not, God?

The “why” question, of course, presumes that God could heal, that healing is always on the table, always an option for him; and that when he fails to heal, he must surely have good reason. After all, he knows what is best for us. But what if it's not like that at all? Oh yes, in the simplest of Sunday School formulas, the doctrine of divine omnipotence rightly informs us that God can do anything. But what if his failure to heal is not the result of his choice at all? What if he does not heal because he cannot heal?

If yours is a theology similar to mine, then you will understand that we are caught up in a battle of all the ages, a conflict of cosmic proportions between good and evil. The cosmic version of this battle is not unlike the skirmishes in which we find ourselves in this life, skirmishes for which we are given specific instruction. Jesus both taught us, and demonstrated for us, how the battle is engaged, and how the victory is won: Evil is overcome by good, which involves the strange and counterintuitive battlefield tactic of turning the other cheek, going the extra mile, offering blessing for cursing, and praying for — even loving our enemy. Evil is never overcome by the display of greater force. It is subdued, disarmed, and overwhelmed by the consistent application of nonresistant love. And this tactic often involves a very high price, for it often involves suffering. For Jesus, the cost was his very life. Paul teaches us that all of creation has been thrown into a state of suffering in this conflict; and he constantly calls us to enter into the sufferings of Jesus. And so, Peter admonishes us not to think it strange when we suffer. It is part of the plan. Always was.

Such a tactic often appears to be a losing one. Love and nonresistance strike scant fear into the hearts of an opposing army. But the long story of history will prove this immutable truth: there is no force anywhere that can withstand the mighty arm of love. Love will win.

Thus this battle has rules of engagement, set by God himself: self-imposed rules which severely limit his freedom to intervene at will. But Jesus gave us deep insight into the heart of the Father when his own heart was overwhelmed with grief over the untimely death of his friend, Lazarus. Jesus wept. Rather than envisioning a wiser than I grandfather God who sometimes must say “no” lest we be spoiled by his doting, I envision a God whose heart was broken, moved to tears, profoundly saddened over Ginger’s death, and that he grieves with me and with each member of my family to this day, and will continue to do so until that promised coming day, the day of the restitution of all things.


Irenicum said...

Cliff, very well put. I went through a similar loss 12 years ago with the love of my life Gwenn, though we weren't married. After her death I spent the better part of the following year asking "why" only to hear silence. Eventually I had to rest in God's goodness, a goodness I still don't really understand. But like you, I've learned that how God acts is seen most exquisitely in the life of Christ, and it makes a strange sense that can only be seen as an after-sight. I still groan with the ground under me awaiting our redemption.

Like a Child said...

I don't really have much to add, other than to say I enjoyed reading your perspective, which makes so much more sense to me! I think it can be depressing to think that if you pray enough, God will suddenly heal you, of all people in the world. Maybe I'm just too compassionate, but when someone tells a story of a healing, I feel bad for the countless others that weren't healed rather than rejoicing for the one that said they were healed.

Cliff Martin said...


Great comment: "... and it makes a strange sense that can only be seen as an after-sight."


I know exactly what you mean. Like the person who woke up sick on Sept 11 and couldn't go into his job at the World Trade Center ... and has the audacity to claim that God arranged that. Or the person who was delayed 5 minutes, and just escaped being involved in a multi-car crash on the Interstate. God plays favorites? I prefer to think such things are more often than not governed by chance.

That is not to say God never intervenes, never heals, never shields us from trouble. But in my experience, he declines to do these thing with much greater regularity.

Marty said...

I don't understand the rationalization between an all powerful god and one that can't bend or change the rules that said god made. So, we have this god who created evil. Is that so we would have something to fight this righteous battle against? Why do we need evil? Is that so we can be saved from something? Why does our god need us to worship and sacrifice for him? Because of sin? Why do we have sin and how do you define it? Do we create these doctrines to cope with the knowledge of our own mortality? We are the only animals who are aware of this, right? I know that some day I will lose someone close to me and I can't see myself hanging my hat on the faith hook. All of that being said, I have not been through this pain yet and don't really know how I will respond. Thanks for the post.

Cliff Martin said...


"So, we have this god who created evil."

Did I say that? If I believed that God created evil, to set up this pretend battle, I would agree with the rest of your contentions whole-heartedly!

Marty said...

No, you didn't say God created evil. I did, but it's the logical conclusion of a god that is ALL powerful and All knowing. Anyway, the bottom line is... Why does there have to be a battle between good and evil?

Rich G. said...


I was getting ready to respond to this last week when you first posted it. But every time I start a post, my thoughts start spinning down too many threads to follow. I, too, am struggling with the "Why..." questions, altho the causes are different. I have developed an early-onset Parkinson's and am struggling with the emotional drain that comes with it. I know that God has an ultimate purpose in his allowing suffering, but at times that just sounds like an answer of "No."

Cliff Martin said...


I'm so sorry to hear this! You and I need to get together some time soon for coffee. I'd like to visit.

I agree; having a clear theology of suffering does not eliminate the faith struggle attending personal calamity, but for me it goes a long way toward alleviating it. And while we never stop resisting evil nor resign ourselves to its effects, understanding that higher purposes may be served through suffering can bring peace, and steel our resolve to remain constant. At least, it does that for me.

Dianelos Georgoudis said...

Perhaps the answer to the “why” question is that the best possible world for all of us is one where random evil sometimes happens. By "best possible world" I mean the type of world which will produce the greatest personal good, and by "all of us" I mean literally every one of us, both those who have been lucky and those who have been unlucky.

As for prayer I’d say that it is not an avenue for expecting favors to be realized, but a path of personal acquaintance with God, by which one realizes that all shall be well in the end, and that nothing that is good can ever be lost.

Your story made me think how truly terrible it must be for an atheist to lose a loved person. Perhaps an atheist does need a lot of courage after all.

Cliff Martin said...


Interesting thoughts ... thank you for sharing them. It is certainly true that a world completely free of calamity might not be as desirable a place as we imagine. I think that is part of the answer. The threads that form the tapestry of our lives must be a many and varied hues to create the most beauty.

I agree with your take on prayer, totally.