Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Mark's thoughts: Why or Where? - Asking the right question in the face of tragedy

“Why do bad things happen to good people?”  It is a question that people often ask.  And given what the Scriptures teach us about the character of God, it could be followed up with a similar question: “Why do bad things happen at all?”  God’s Word teaches us that that God is the almighty, all powerful, all knowing Creator of the cosmos.  It also teaches us that He is loving, gracious and merciful. 

We learn this about God, and yet we see events in our world like the devastation of a town by a tornado or a killing spree that takes the lives of random bystanders. Senseless tragedies like this place a paradox before us.  God is all knowing, all powerful and loving, and yet tragedies continue to occur.  How can this be? 

Logically, we are left with one of two conclusions. Either God isn’t really all powerful and all knowing, or else He isn’t really loving.  Or worse yet, what if both of these are true?   The philosopher Gottfried Leibniz coined the term "theodicy" in the early eighteenth century.  The word was formed by the combination of the Greek words for “God” and “Justice.”  Leibniz himself coined the term in the attempt to justify the continuing existence of God in the face of rationalist skeptics who pointed to the presence of evil in the world and used it to declare that the God of the Scriptures doesn’t exist.  Leibniz gave a name to something that Christians had been partially involved in for a long time.  From the beginning of Christianity there have been various attempts to describe and explain the presence of evil and reconcile it with the character of God as He reveals Himself in the Scriptures.

God’s Word does provide an explanation for the evil we experience in this world.  It has been caused by the entrance of sin into the world in the Fall (Genesis 3; Romans 5 and 8). The Scriptures teach us that sin has warped and twisted humanity and creation itself, down to our very DNA.  When we see the tragedies of this world we are grieved… but not surprised.  After all, didn’t our Lord teach us, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander” (Matthew 15:19)?

If we ask about the ultimate source of evil in the devil and his temptation of Adam and Eve, we don’t receive any clear answers (we surmise that free will must have been involved).  Likewise, when we ask about why God allows specific things to happen, we don’t receive any answers.  And these facts frame the Lutheran response to evil. We speak where Scripture speaks.  But we don’t do theodicy – at least not in the modern sense of the term as coined by Leibniz.  Like the early and medieval Church, we provide the answers that God’s Word provides. But we aren’t in the business of trying to justify God’s existence (theodicy). God doesn’t need us to do that.

We are not surprised by the presence of evil in the world.  That is after all the very thing the Scriptures tell us about the Fall and the entrance of sin.  We do not try to "peek behind the curtain" and understand the hidden will of God.  Instead, in the face of tragedy we recognize that God has already provided his answer - his ultimate “explanation.”  He did it in the cross of Jesus Christ and in His resurrection from the dead.  As we live in the "now and not yet" we keep our eyes focused on this answer for only here do we find peace for the present and hope for our future when the Lord returns in glory.

In May 2009 our area was hit by an “inland hurricane.”  In response to that event I wrote a newsletter article that has received more comment than any other I have done.  It addresses the issues I have discussed above – issues that arise every time we see a tragedy that we can’t explain.  As we consider the Boston tragedy, I share it again for it reminds us that God has not provided an answer to the specific “Why?” questions.  Instead, He has provided the answer that really matters and has told us where He is present for us.

“Why?” or “Where?”

“While he was yet speaking, there came another and said, "Your sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their oldest brother's house, and behold, a great wind came across the wilderness and struck the four corners of the house, and it fell upon the young people, and they are dead, and I alone have escaped to tell you.”  Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped.  And he said, “Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:18-21).

As I emerged from our basement in the aftermath of the storm that took place on May 8 and surveyed the damage in my neighborhood, and then later in the area as a whole, these words of Scripture came to mind.  Thanks be to God, that the storm did not take the life of anyone in our congregation.  However it did cause varying degrees of damage and disrupted the lives of many members at Good Shepherd.

In the storm, we have received an unforgettable reminder that we live in a fallen world. We have seen first hand the destructive disorder that sin has worked in creation.  We have been reminded about why we pray “deliver us from evil” and have seen that God does just that.  We have experienced something that should prompt us to ponder what “give us this day our daily bread” really means.

Job’s words express a deep sense of trust in God – in the very fact that God is God.  As we look at the storm, we may want to ask “Why?”  We ask questions like: “Why did God permit an inland hurricane to form?  Why did God allow this storm to strike our area?  Why did he allow it to cause hardships like the death of a member at Immanuel Lutheran, Murphysboro, IL and the destruction of the school gym at Christ Lutheran School in Jacob, IL?

As Job continued through the experience of his trials, he struggled with the question of, “Why?”  However, Job never received an answer to this question.  That is the way it usually works when we begin to ponder and even question the secret will of God.  In the event of the storm we encountered what Martin Luther described as “the hidden God.”  We encounter something that makes no sense to us and for which God provides no answer.  We are forced to admit that God is God, and we are not.  We must be content to let God be God, and not attempt to probe the mysteries of His will – or worse yet, attempt to make Him answer to us.

Job never received an answer to the question of, “Why?”  However, what he did receive was the revelation of God Himself (Job 38-42).  An answer was not revealed to Job.  Instead, God revealed Himself and in that revelation Job admitted that there was nothing more he needed to know (Job 42:1-6).

In the face of events like the storm, the question we need to ask is not, “Why?”  Instead, the question that needs to be asked is, “Where? – Where does God reveal Himself for us?”  There is a very definitive answer to that question.  We heard the answer to that question on Christmas Eve: in the manger.  We heard the answer to that question on Good Friday: on the cross.  We heard the answer to that question on Easter Sunday: in the resurrected flesh of Jesus Christ.  God has revealed Himself for us in His incarnate Son, Jesus Christ.  For when we look to Jesus, we are now dealing with what Martin Luther described as “the revealed God.”  St. Paul put it this way: “For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory” (2 Corinthians 1:20).

God would have us look to His Son, for in Jesus Christ God has revealed His loving heart in a way that puts the questions in their proper place.  The “Why?” questions don’t cease to exist, but having seen the love of God for us revealed in Jesus Christ we are able to trust God and entrust those questions to Him.  We are able to find strength and peace in Christ to meet the challenges of life.  The Collect of the Day for the Fifth Sunday of Easter that was prayed in church on the Sunday right after storm spoke to this in a very striking way.  It said, “O God, You make the minds of Your faithful to be of one will.  Grant that we may love what you have commanded and desire what You promise, that among the many changes of this world our hearts may be fixed where true joys are found.”

In the face of the “Why?” questions, we focus on the “Where?” question each week.  We meet the answer to the “Where” question each Sunday as Christ comes to us through the Means of Grace in the Divine Service.  Here God gives the assurance of His love and care.  Here he strengthens us in the faith so that whatever the circumstances we are able to say with Job, “Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

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