We have all been shocked and horrified by the images coming out of Japan over this past week following the earthquake and tsunami that devastated that country and which has led to an on-going nuclear crisis, as well. Certainly no heart could be untouched by the magnitude of this tragedy, one that will affect countless lives for years to come.
Inevitably, it seems, in the face of such a horrific tragedy caused by a natural event, many people are led to ask “Why did such a thing happen?” I think this question is tied to a very natural human need for the things that happen in our lives to have meaning. Many theologians and philosophers from a number of different traditions have written about human beings as creatures of meaning. And, indeed, I think it is this desire for meaning, this need for meaning that often gives rise to the human spiritual quest.
But while the search for meaning is very close to the heart of spirituality, all of our spiritual traditions, including the Christian tradition, acknowledge that there are things in life that confound our desire to make meaning, and that ultimately leave the question of “Why?” unanswered.
Within the Judeo-Christian tradition, the biblical Book of Job seeks to remind us of this. You are probably familiar with the story: Job is said to be a “righteous man” in whom God finds no fault. He is beset by a series of terrible tragedies, which ultimately leave him demanding an explanation from God. All of Job’s friends come to him and give him what were the standard theological explanations of the time: you must have sinned, they tell Job, or someone in your family sinned. Yet we, as readers, know that none of these explanations is true, and that Job appropriately rejects them all. At the end of the story, Job experiences a vision of God as a whirlwind, in which God says to Job, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? ” It is the first in a long series of questions designed to remind Job that he cannot penetrate completely the mystery of life and creation. At the end of this long series of questions, Job acknowledges, “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.”
The spiritual lesson of Job is that sometimes we cannot make things be meaningful, no matter how hard we try. Sometimes, we are reduced to silence, to acknowledging that our search for meaning sometimes leads us to a humble acknowledgement that life happens in ways that defy explanation. In such moments, the most spiritually beneficial question to ask is not “Why?” but “How do I respond?” Indeed, I have come to believe over my years of pastoral practice that “Why?” is seldom a spiritually useful question when people are confronted by suffering in whatever form it comes. To pursue the “Why?” question leads us into all kinds of strange territory that very often ends up with some version of “God did this to me (or to “us” or to “them”) because…..” And what comes after the “because” ranges anywhere from “it’s a mystery I cannot understand” to “God is angry” or “I/we/they have been unfaithful”. Most of the time, pursuing the “Why?” question leads to an image of God that is somewhere between a spoiled child throwing a temper tantrum because he didn’t get his way and a vindictive terrorist thug.
The “How do we respond?” question, however, leads us into much more fertile spiritual territory. The “How?” question is a heart question rather than a head question, and puts us in touch with our own sense of compassion, rooted in God’s compassion. And as we touch compassion, we find our way into love — the kind of love the New Testament talks about: love in action, love in service, love reaching out to help those who are in need. The “How?” question leads us into an understanding of God as one who suffers with the world rather than one who inflicts suffering on the world. It leads us to a God of deep love and compassion.
And is not this the God we see in Jesus? Is not Jesus the one who suffers with us on the cross? God is not the crucifier in the Gospel but is the one who, in Jesus, is crucified. God is the Good Samaritan who has compassion on the one laying by the side of the road. God is NOT the one who beat up and robbed the man before leaving him by the side of the road.
It saddens me when I hear Christian leaders suggesting that the earthquake and tsunami are somehow a deliberate act of God because of some moral fault on the part of the Japanese. Even the governor of the region which includes Tokyo, who is not a Christian, suggested that these disasters were heaven’s punishment for Japanese greed. Such statements are stunning examples of how our need to create meaning can lead us into rather dark places.
It is true that human suffering can lead to new insights and transformed lives given enough time. But God does not inflict suffering on us in order to teach us anything. It is crystal clear to me that such a God is not the God of Jesus.
So let us abandon the “Why?” question as we hold the people of Japan in our hearts. Let us rather be about the “How?” question, discerning how we can respond with the heart of Jesus, to extend compassion to those whose lives have been so completely and suddenly altered by the natural systems and processes of this fragile earth, our island home, not by the willful act of some vindictive divine force.