When my grandma passed away, I promised myself that I would do everything within my power to go to any funeral service that I was invited to. When you've lost a loved one, it's not that you necessarily want to converse with everyone who attends, but you do notice who's there and who isn't. The mere presence of others brought about a certain peace for me—a peace that I want to be a part of for others. When I recently went to the funeral of another family member—my aunt Diana—I ended up needing to offer far more than just my presence.
"The minister is late, Matt. I hope you have something prepared," my mom said tongue-in-cheek.
"Don't," I responded. "Don't even joke about that," I said, nervous that her light-hearted jesting might actually manifest itself.
One by one, brothers, cousins, and acquaintances piggy-backed off of my mom's sarcasm. If it had simply been levity to help raise spirits, I'd have played along. But, the minister really was exceedingly late, and the growing pit in my stomach told me there was something more here, whether the people joking knew it or not. I then noticed Diana's father, my grandfather, approaching. Sure enough—
"Matt, the minister is stuck in traffic, and we need to begin. If it's agreeable to you, would you mind saying a few words?" he inquired.
And, suddenly, the pit was gone. At that moment, I wanted nothing more than to "say a few words," not because I had any clue what I was going to say (I didn't) but because I remember what it's like to mourn the loss of someone so dear. I remember anything brought life to the situation was helpful. So, if that meant making a fool of myself as I totally winged a graveside speech, then so be it. I'd love nothing more.
It's one thing to "say a few words" when burying someone that lived a healthy life into his nineties and passed away peacefully in his sleep. It's another thing entirely when cancer painfully takes someone well before that. Platitudes have no place there. It's confusing, and it hurts.
I was not particularly close with this relative (she was my stepdad's stepsister), meaning I knew that I wouldn't be equipped to regale the gathered family and friends with stories and memories. I racked my brain for something, anything, to say. I was taken back to when I lost my grandma—still the most difficult and tragic time in my life. What did I want to hear then? What was I feeling? Hurt, sure. Confusion, no doubt. But also, and perhaps most poignantly, anger. I was angry that something like this "could happen." And I played my grandpa's immortal words on repeat in my head: "Matt, in all of your studies, try to find out why bad things happen to good people."
That's the question. When tragedy strikes, we can't help but insist that it shouldn't have happened. And somehow, God is to blame. It makes sense, right? God is sovereign. He's in control. Why, then, would he allow this (whatever "this" is) to happen? Surely, he should have stopped it. We might even be so bold as to say, "If I had God's power, I would have stopped it."
I'd been there, and as I stood looking at the people gathered at the graveside, I knew that's where they were. And so, I answered their unspoken questions the best way I knew how—by plagiarizing Tim Keller. I kid (kind of).
In the process of grieving my grandma's death, I picked up Keller's The Reason for God, in which he addresses common objections that people raise that prevent their belief in God. Of course, the issue of evil and suffering is thoroughly discussed. Specifically, how can a good God allow bad things? Keller's handling of the issue is masterful, to say the least. And there are far more important and meaningful aspects of his answer than I spoke of that day. But, one part of his explanation stood out. And, honestly, it's hardly an "explanation" for why things happen the way that they do. Instead, he explains how it makes no sense that we would need an "explanation." At face value, it seems anything but satisfactory. But his rationale is sound. Why would we need an "explanation" from an all-powerful Creator, given our obvious limitations as mortal, created beings? And so, that's what I shared. In what I'm sure was noticeably unpolished rhetoric, I shared with them what I had personally found to be a great source of peace in handling sudden tragedy:
If we blame God for allowing something to happen, we are acknowledging that he, in fact, could have stopped it. By acknowledging God's power to supernaturally intervene into the matters of this world—into illness, car accidents, etc.—we are acknowledging that God is far more powerful that we. In other words, by expecting God to stop something that we cannot, we are implying that he is more capable that we are. If we believe, then, that God is more powerful than we are, we must, at the same time, acknowledge that he knows more—that he has a far larger scope of reality than we do. If he does have far more wisdom, knowledge, and a larger scope of the events of history, then he is, quite obviously, capable of having a reason for allowing such things that are beyond our understanding. If his grasp of the Universe is infinitely larger than ours ever could be, then what grounds do we have to demand a reason from him? How can we blame someone we know could have a reason for allowing things that we could never know?
In sum: if God is "big" enough to blame for not intervening, he's "big" enough to have a good and pure reason behind not intervening.
A child wants explanations from his parents for everything, but the parents can't always explain everything in a way the child can understand. The child cannot grasp the implications and consequences of certain things without the acquired wisdom and understanding that life experience brings. The child's quest for a satisfactory answer as to why he has a "bedtime" or needs to "eat his vegetables" is futile. Why? Because he doesn't have the mental capacity to appreciate the importance of health and cannot wrap his brain around long-term, healthy habits. We certainly wouldn't expect a parent to need to rationalize every decision to the child. Again, why? Because, we trust the parent is more capable than the child, and we trust that the parent genuinely has the child's best interest at heart. If this dynamic holds true between a parent and child, how much more should it hold true between a mortal, finite creature and an almighty, infinite Creator?
If we allow this truth to take root in our hearts, it brings much peace. If we remember this, we can be certain that God always has a better reason behind things than we ever could, and it frees us from hopelessly searching for explanations. We can take comfort—we can rest—in the fact that he does have a better grasp on things than we do, and whether we can know the reasons behind something or not, we can know that they are better reasons than we could ever imagine.
Does this take away the hurt of the tragedy? Of course not. Nor does it dismiss all confusion and anger. What it does do, though, is give hope. Amidst the hurt, confusion, and anger, we can find hope—hope that somehow, some way, according to God's infinite wisdom and power, this heartache (and whatever caused it) is merely temporary. And not only is it temporary, but it is securing for us an eternal joy. Paul writes of this truth to the church at Corinth:
For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen.
At the time, the affliction certainly doesn't seem "light" and "momentary." We're not sure it will ever end. But, we have a promise that it will. And, not only will it end, but we will look back and see that it was, in fact, light. At the moment, it feels heavier than anything we could imagine, but the true weight that we will one day feel is not the weight of the affliction but the "weight of glory" and a joy that is "beyond all comparison." When we look back on the pain that we endured, when we consider the tragedies, we will know that not one moment of our lives escaped God's control and his redemptive power.
Like a child who grows up and understands the reason, the care, and the love behind what used to seem meaningless, we will understand that our good and gracious Father is, like Paul says in his letter to Rome, "working all things for our good." Right now, we're unable to know exactly how that is, and with finite minds, we won't fully grasp God's infinite wisdom. But, one day, we can stand, embraced by our God, and look back and see just how good and loving he is—and just how good and loving he always was.