Why Ask Why?

Brian Mesimer

One of the most difficult things for a Christian worker to do is to wade into the midst of grief with a congregant. There we sit, feeling helpless and disarmed, watching the person across the table from us fall into pieces over their loss. When they gain the composure to speak, almost certainly they will ask:

"Why did God let this happen?"

If you catch a counselor in a more candid moment, we will admit that this is the kind of question we dread the most in the wake of a tragedy. It's not that the question lacks a straightforward Biblical answer (Cf. Rom. 8.28 or Gen. 50.20). Nor is it that we lack the courage to speak hard truths about God's sovereignty in a crisis. Rather, it is that the question "Why?" has a more nuanced Biblical pedigree than meets the eye, and answering without care to this can have devastating effects on the person sitting across from us.

To put it another way, there are more unhelpful answers to the "Why?" question than there are helpful ones. In fact, the question often presents a kind of Scylla and Charybdis to the Christian worker, with danger on either side. On one side, we might be tempted to think that our calling in the aftermath of heartbreak is to see it as an apologetic teaching moment. Proof texting, simplistic answers, recommending sermons or books, and waxing eloquent about the hidden counsels of God can be helpful but often run the risk of putting us in cahoots with Job's companions. On the other side, we can be shipwrecked by the much more dangerous temptation to actually answer the question. This kind of response can range from the sophomoric to the tragically comic. Either way, such a response exceeds human knowledge and numbers us among those who darken counsel without understanding.

Scripture guides our response to this question in a more Godward way. In fact, our Lord famously takes an interest in theodicy on the cross. Face to face with the judgment of God on the sin of the world, Jesus "cried out with a loud voice, saying, 'Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?' that is, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Mt. 27.46, ESV).

This of course is a quote from David in Psalm 22. Here we are offered a rare glimpse into the agony of Jesus, the cosmic weight of sin, the inter-Trinitarian dynamics of salvation, and the love of the Godhead. And if this weren't enough to captivate our minds for a millennia, we are also given insight into why we ask "Why?" in times of loss and how to biblically respond to this question. Let me suggest that these two passages teach us at least four things about why we ask "Why?"

First, and perhaps most simply, Jesus here validates this question for His people. By asking this question, He gives us permission to ask it. Perhaps it can be said that He models it for us, for if the Son of God can ask the Father why evil befalls Him, then so can we. And this reality is bolstered by other passages that reveal God's faithful servants doing just the same--consider David in Psalm 22, Jeremiah in Jer. 22, or Job in chapter 7. And while not all of these questions were uttered from a pure heart, they nonetheless suggest that God does hear them.

Second, Christ's cry from the cross teaches us that, ironically, knowing the actual reason why God allows something to occur is often not as satisfying as it seems. Aristotle famously spoke of four differing causes of events in the world--the material, the formal, the efficient, and the final. It is often the case that we can piece together some explanation regarding the first three--i.e. a low pressure system caused the hurricane. But what usually dogs us are questions regarding the final cause (ultimate purpose) of a tragedy. And so often it is impossible to specifically know this in relation to a certain event, although we always generally know this in relation to God's providence.

Yet in this case, Christ actually knew the final cause of His death. Although in the emptying of Himself into His human nature he voluntarily gave up some kinds of knowledge (Mk 13.32), He at least knew why He had to die (Jn. 18.4). In fact, He had practically been preaching this truth ad nauseam to the disciples (Lk. 18.31-34), and so it is evident that Jesus already knew the answer to His question before He asked it! And this means that being able to propositionally explain why God does something, although helpful, does not always take away our pain and hurt. The question "Why?" therefore actually yearns toward something much deeper than a straightforward answer.

Third, given this, Jesus' cry transforms our understanding of the question in the first place. For if He is not looking for answers here, what is He doing? Calvin, as always, is instructive:

Though in the cry which Christ uttered a power more than human was manifested, yet it was unquestionably drawn from him by intensity of sorrow. And certainly this was his chief conflict, and harder than all the other tortures, that in his anguish he was so far from being soothed by the assistance or favor of his Father, that he felt himself to be in some measure estranged from him....Though the perception of the flesh would have led him to dread destruction, still in his heart faith remained firm, by which he beheld the presence of God, of whose absence he complains. We have explained elsewhere how the Divine nature gave way to the weakness of the flesh, so far as was necessary for our salvation, that Christ might accomplish all that was required of the Redeemer.

Although Jesus is legitimately asking a real question of the Father, His cry also serves as a kind of guttural lament expressing the "intensity of sorrow" He faces. As such, it is perhaps the best human language can do in terms of naming horrors that the Lord faced, both physical and spiritual. Note too that Calvin highlights the strain that the cross brought upon Jesus' human nature. It is through the "perception of the flesh" and the in "weakness of the flesh" that Jesus feels the "dread" of death and therefore cries out to God. While there will be some aspects of Christ's death with which we cannot relate, we can relate to Him in his general physical and spiritual agony. Seen in this light, Christ's cry (and ours) is not just a question but a verbalized expression of the agony of suffering. It is truly a lament.

Fourth, Jesus' cry instructs our pastoral response to those who likewise ask the same question. It does so in two ways. First, if "Why?' isn't always a straightforward question, then it often does not require a straightforward answer. This is why attempts to answer such a question fall flat. When our child falls and scrapes her knee, we don't give her a lecture on physics but a kiss and a bandage. Similarly, what the faithful believer often needs from us in these moments is simply for their cry to be heard. And perhaps for us to cry with them.

Secondly, when the believer is ready--and the timing of this is crucial--we can help lead them through the logic of lament. The interesting thing about Psalm 22 is the inner struggle it reveals in the life of the believer. The first stanza (v. 1-2) comprises the cry of the believer. The second stanza (v. 3-5) marks a sudden shift to a remembrance of God's prior goodness. The third stanza (v. 6-8) sees a shift back to lament, while the fourth (v.9-11) revisits God's covenant faithfulness. The psalm continues on in this pattern for some time, and then something wonderful happens. After verse upon verse of wrestling with providence, the psalm snowballs into sustained doxology glorifying God's goodness (v. 19-31). Somewhere in the process of wrestling with the competing realities of evil and God's faithfulness, integration occurs. Through a combination of expressing and naming one's pain, crying out to God, and being gently reminded of God's covenant love, David is healed. We who are charged with the care of souls might do well to remember this pattern and all of its components--lament, prayer, and gentle instruction.

Psalm 22 can be read in three minutes; but, no one should expect that a believer will make it through the process modeled here in the same amount of time. Rather, these sorts of psalms are meant to be lived; and, it should not surprise us if our brothers or sisters take three years to get to verse 4 in real time. We must be patient when wading into suffering with others, as our God is patient with us.

Brian Mesimer lives in Columbia, SC, with his wife, where he works as a counselor at the counseling center of First Presbyterian Church (ARP).