WHEN JESUS ASKED ‘WHY’

This blog disobeys a rule from my youth.

Image of a blackboard with the question of WHY by Ross Mann from Pixabay

“Don’t ask God, ‘Why,’” I was told.

“Don’t question God,” I was warned.

Maybe . . . you were told that, too.

Now as I sit amidst a world in which . . .

  • a pandemic stubbornly refuses to die
  • depression, anxiety, and loneliness are high
  • another policeman kills a person of color
  • the political divide is deepening
  • unemployment is still staggering
  • more businesses are closing . . .

I could guess that in such a milieu the mouths of many utter the word, “Why”:

Why is this happening?

God, why don’t you do something?

Why have you abandoned us, God?

In light of the many people that may be currently asking why, I recently read an article addressing church leaders who are ministering to congregants who have this question. The author asserts that Jesus did not center on the “why” but helped the hurting by healing them. Thus, for this author, the church leader was instructed to transform the congregant’s why question into “What good could God possibly bring from this?”[1]

When I reflect on the why question and the above responses both from my youth and from that article, I found neither to be satisfactory. Both left me wanting something more due to the fact that they seem to be one-size-fits-all strategies. Both appear to invalidate the why question even though human beings have been questioning why for millennia. Rather than joining with the questioner, thereby acknowledging common humanity, these strategies isolate the sincere mourner.

Unlike the aforementioned approaches, I believe why is to be treated as a valid, human question.

It is a cry of lament that rises from deep within a human heart. That is to say, it is an expression of loss and grief. Such a cry conveys disappointment. The person’s expectations and/or hopes are unmet when God’s interaction in the world falls short of one’s theological assumptions. As such, it flows from a heart of vulnerability and implicitly recognizes one’s finitude.

Consider with me Psalm 22:1-2, which gives voice to such a cry:

My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?

            I groan in prayer, but help seems far away.

My God, I cry out during the day,

            but you do not answer,

            and during the night my prayers do not let up.

This lament is not to be confused with a lack of faith as its very essence of crying out to God embodies faith. Neither does this cry reveal an absence of a relationship as the word “my” speaks of the relationship the psalmist has with God—it is personal. And it is this personal nature that creates an impassioned sense of loss. Such an expression of loss and grief needs others to bear witness to it in order that the person may be made whole. And this is precisely the ministry of Jesus Christ.

This ministry of Jesus to humanity appears when he asks a why question by quoting from this Psalm (see Mt 27:46; Mk 15:34): “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” From the cross, Jesus makes humanity’s cries his very own when he uses these words from the psalmist. Through these words, he identifies with humanity’s sense of loss and grief and normalizes humanity’s experience. Through his cry, humanity knows that their questions of why have been heard and validated. Through his verbalization of his despair, Jesus informs us that he has received our questions of why and is attentive to them. This is being present.

At the same time, a paradox exists in Jesus’ utterance of these words. Psalm 22 is a cry of lament that mourns a sense of abandonment by God. But since Jesus is fully divine and fully human (hypostatic union), the divine is also fully present to humanity’s cry of abandonment. Thus, it is a paradox that while the words express an experience of abandonment, there is also an experience of the presence of the divine in Christ. That is, God is both experiencing and bearing witness to our why question in the being of Jesus Christ.

But what is the meaning of being present?

  • I am not simply talking about being in the same room. That is to say, I am not just announcing “Here” as if someone is taking roll call.
  • Neither does it focus on the past by responding with: “You should not have done that.”
  • Nor does it center on the future with advice as to what a person should do.
  • Instead, being present is being attentive. Paying attention. Being attuned. It is being in the moment by hearing the other’s story. It is, in essence, receiving the other’s story.

Being present is not be confused with seeking a cure, which is a medical model’s response to suffering.

Consider with me a common scenario when sickness strikes.

When we fall ill, we make an appointment to see a physician. During the appointment, we inform the doctor of our symptoms, and the doctor, in turn, examines us while making inquiries, such as the level of our pain or the frequency of our symptoms. After the doctor offers a diagnosis, a regimen is set forth. A prescribed course of medical treatment is established, such as a change in diet or taking prescribed medications. This plan, if followed, is for the purpose of curing our suffering. If the cure is not forthcoming, however, the doctor may change the regimen. Notice that the focus of this model is on an outcome. Immediate results are what matters in the pursuit of a cure.

In many ways, the medical model embraces an “if-then” approach.

  • If I have these symptoms, then I will take this medicine. If I take this medicine, then I will be cured.
  •  If I am asking why, then stop it. If I am asking the question why, then focus on the question of what.

Thus, when a person utters the why question, the medical model says, “Don’t do this” or “Do this.” Rather than being present to the pain, a medical model approach to pastoral care seeks a cure—a removal of the pain. It is outcome based. It searches for the shortest route from point A to point B. It pursues the most efficient path from suffering to not suffering.

But human lives are usually messier than what the parameters of finding a cure may dictate.

Messiness needs more than outcome-based solutions. Instead, it calls for a broader approach—one of reconciled healing. And healing calls for presence. Reconciled healing refers to more than just a cure. I may move towards reconciled healing, or wholeness, without experiencing a cure of my illness. Reconciled healing is ongoing so that it involves more than a one-size-fits-all strategy or an if-then proposition. Reconciled healing is a holistic approach that refers to moving towards becoming the person God intends for me to be (See Engelbert, Who is Present in Absence?). It may be the restoration of a sense of value in a community, as Amos Yong points out.[2] In the area of grief, it may involve integrating a loss into my person.

While different situations call for different methods, or even a combination of methods, I believe a starting point for change is presence. To express it differently, being present to the other is necessary prior to announcing a cure. This idea of being present came home to me as I observed a panel discussion entitled, “I ‘Still’ Can’t Breathe: A Conversation with Millennial Voices,” which was provided by the Alliance for Black Pentecostal Scholarship. One of the panel’s participants, who was not a person of color, stated, “I am here to learn and listen.”

For me, this captures the ethos of being present. To use the words of Alan Wolfelt, “You teach me.” In other words, being present implies, “I am a student of you.” It invites others to educate me through the recounting of their stories. It is a place of sitting at the other’s feet so that I may learn about his experiences and her perspective of the world. It involves being attentive prior to telling. As such, I have a willingness to allow the other to move me.

After all, this is who God is . . . As Neil Pembroke writes:

“[God’s] willingness to engage with humankind indicates a corresponding willingness to be ‘moved’ by us.”[3]

Such movement is embodied in Jesus’s cry of why.


FOOTNOTES:

[1] Robert C. Crosby, “Leading in a Pandemic,” Influence, 29, May/June 2020, 29-30.

[2] I am following pentecostal scholar Amos Yong’s approach here by making a distinction between cure and healing. See Amos Yong, Renewing Christian Theology: Systematics for a Global Christianity (Waco: Baylor Press, 2014), Kindle Edition, loc. 3907-4937.

[3] Neil Pembroke, Renewing Pastoral Practice: Trinitarian Perspectives on Pastoral Care and Counselling (Farnham, UK: Ashgate Publishing, 2006), Kindle Edition, 22.


THE BLOG THAT SPEAKS

If you are interested in listening to a reading of When Jesus Asked ‘Why,’ an audio link is provided.


To read a similar blog, see God, Where Are You?: A Response to an Age-Old Question