In The Face of Tragedy

The latest heartbreaking tragedy at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT has given rise to the question that keeps coming back after every kind of tragedy, sickness, act of depravity.  It is a question that no one has answered despite their best efforts.  That question is, of course, ‘Why did God allow this to happen?’

There are some rather evil answers out there.  God allowed this because prayer has been taken out of the classroom.  God allowed this because there are gays in the military.  God allowed this because…..just fill in the blank.  But these are not answers.  They are excuses to keep close to the heart a powerful God who controls everything.  I don’t believe most of us would embrace that theology.

The fact that we are not getting answers to the question seems to me to indicate that we are asking the wrong question.  ‘Why did God allow this happen?’ is not question we should be asking but, rather, ‘Why did God choose to withdraw from the world?’  It is question that we can begin to answer.

The mystics say that when God created the world, there was no room for anything else since His light took up all space.  And so to create literal space for the universe to work, God engaged in an act of tzimtzum – contraction – and withdrew from the world so that the world could function.

There was a consequence to this, though.  For the world to function, miracles would be rare.  The world would, rather, function on laws that are universal.  These are the laws of nature.  As I see it, God can not stop bullets, change the course of hurricanes, stop planes from flying into buildings, or any of an infinite number of events that destroy lives.  God is limited.

So what purpose is there for God?  Job asked the same question.  We sometimes speak of the ‘patience of Job’ but this is very misleading.  In the 42 chapters of the Book of Job fully 35 of them have Job waving his fist to his friends and to Heaven.  He wants an answer.  But once again, God is incapable of giving Job a straight answer.  He appears in a whirlwind and begins a rumination that begins by saying, Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations? Speak if you have understanding.  5 Do you know who fixed its dimensions Or who measured it with a line?

6 Onto what were its bases sunk? Who set its cornerstone

7 When the morning stars sang together And all the divine beings shouted for joy? (Job 38:4-7)

God tells Job that he just doesn’t ‘get it.’  He wasn’t around when the world was created so how can he understand how God works?  Job accepts God presence but we don’t know whether he accepted God’s explanation.  After all, there was no explanation as to the reasons for his suffering.

And therein lies the lesson.

There is no ‘Why’ when tragedy strikes.  God is not responsible for the evil machinations and deeds of others.  In fact, God has no control over the laws of nature that allow bullets to kill children and people to get sick.  But that is not the end of the question.  After Job hears God and sees God coming through in thw whirlwind, he says something interesting.  He says, “ I had heard You with my ears, But now I see You with my eye.”  It is easy to ‘hear God’ since everyone talks about God as if they know something about Him.  But Job saw God.  He did not just hear the words of his friends but rather perceived the reality of God in the midst of tragedy and on the cusp of healing.

How did Job see God?  I think there are a number of ways.  First he waved his fist to heavens in a show of chutzpah klapei shamayim – standing up to the pain of the world and demanding an answer from God.  Second, Job did not embrace the easy answers of his friends that he was somehow responsible.  Little children are not responsible for their deaths and no one was being punished by God for anything they did.  And still, in his pain, Job wanted an answer.

He did not get the answer he was looking for.  Perhaps God is limited in giving the answers people really need.  But Job knew that God was somehow still in the equation of his life.  God was the provider of comfort and the inspirer of blessing.  And when Job demanded of God to present His case, Job and God became partners.

Elie Wiesel said that God is the most pathetic character in the Bible.  Everything God expects from us falls apart.  But God is also pathetic in that He evokes pathos from each of us.  He withdrew Himself from the world so that we could exist and we look toward God with sad eyes asking for deliverance and an end to sorrow that seems never to come.

But Job teaches us that it does come.  It comes in Job’s last friend who does not try to blame Job for his pain but rather tries to lead Job to understand that God is beyond understanding.  That last friend understood Job’s frustration and helped him to see the God he had been missing and the God that was missing.

He teaches that it is not a God who can fix the world.   That is out of God’s power.  But it is our friends, the angels who give us strength, that allow us to see God even in our deepest pain.  God will never respond to the ‘Why’ that we always ask at these terrible moments.  But God can respond to the ‘Where’ and the ‘How.’

Where is God?  In the outpouring of love and emotion by an entire nation that gives voice to real pain without cheapening it by saying that ‘God works in mysterious ways’ or some other kind of defense of the indefensible.

‘How’ is the most important question, though.  For in the ‘how’ lies the possibility for healing.  I believe that God has given us the power to affect the ‘How.’  It is the power of our hands and hearts and minds which reaches out to those who suffer with our silent acceptance of their pain and also with our questions and search for solutions about guns, our violent culture, our cheapening of life.

When God withdrew from the world to allow the world to exist, the most powerful word He gave us was ‘How?’  How do we change this world so filled with evil?  And how will each of us, you and I, bring holiness back into the world?  It is the only question we can answer and, in tragedies like this, it is the only question we ought to be asking.

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