Question(s) on Suffering *

So much hate, violence, and overall uncertainty have been going on in the world around us this year. Our culture seems to wake up to nightmares daily instead of floating on a midsummer night’s dream. As a priest just finishing my first year of parish ministry, I have buried twelve persons, and counseled countless souls who are lost in grief, anxiety, and despair.

While I’m not an expert on suffering in the world, I have noticed a few things in my first year that gives me hope. Even though life can feel like the experience of a sparrow in a hurricane, those persons who approach the twister at the right angle seem to be the ones who are forever wounded, but also forever changed – forever changed (and wounded) for the better. It is a deep change full of humbleness, grace, and faith that start with the same question, but then upon realizing the madness in it, they administer an about-face, and proceed to march with a much nobler question in mind.

The problem that drives persons crazy is the question of “why”:

“Why is their suffering in the world?”

“Why do bad things happen to good people?”

“Why isn’t God listening to me?”

“Why aren’t things getting better?”

These are the “go-to” questions when it comes to suffering. They are the default position in the human psyche, but the default question seems to me to be the wrong one, or better, the question of “why” should follow at a later time – once the dust has settled, once the air has been cleared a bit, after everybody has gone home. “Why” is a great and profound question, but it is the starting point for the scientist, not the existentialist. I don’t know anybody who comes into my office asking, “why their mother died,” expecting me to say, “because she had cancer.” It would be cruel and ridiculous of me to answer in that way because the grieving person in front of me asking that question does not expect an answer in return. They simply want someone to ask it to – a personal sounding board, a lending of an ear.

The question of “why” might be humanity’s default pathway into the forest of our lives, but the road less traveled is a question of “what”:

“There is suffering in the world. What (if anything) am I going to do about it?”

“Bad things happen to good and evil people. What do I do when bad things happen to me?” “What are my patterns?” “What is my mindset?”

“God doesn’t seem to be listening to me. What can I do to reframe the question, the prayer, or even my life to get the sense that God is still here?”

“Things are not getting better. What do I need to refocus on in order to see life at another angle?”

Asking the question, “What” instead of “Why” takes away some of the sting from thorns found within the flesh. Asking the question “What” instead of “Why” brings us back to the present moment, to the here and now, to where we need to be. Instead of asking the initial question of “why” – “Why did Aunt Sally die?” what if we started with, “what?” “What am I going to do now that Aunt Sally has died?” Well, for starters you can cry. For starters, you can grieve. For starters, you can ask for a hug. You don’t have to take life ‘day-to-day.’ By asking the question of “what” you can take life ‘moment-to-moment’, a position much closer to our hearts than some future point within the day.

As a Christian, I believe we get closer to God by asking the question, “What” instead of “Why.” Starting with “Why” makes God seem so distant and isolated that we get the sense of our own distance and isolation from God. The question of “What” brings God closer because we can open our Bibles and tangibly see what Jesus was like. Then our eyes are more open to tangibly see the breadth and length and height and depth of Christ’s love in our world today when we see ourselves and others acting like him. In other words, we are reminded of God’s love for us every time we get to experience love ourselves. I don’t have the answers to why there is suffering in the world, but what I do have are the questions. Lord, help me to ask the right ones.

*The following was an excerpt from my sermon preached Sunday, July 26, 2015. To read the full sermon, click here.