Why Ask Why?

"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.

 

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.

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