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Explaining Tragedy (Or Not)

There have been a large number of blog posts following John Piper’s pair of tweets regarding the tornadoes in Oklahoma. Examples include Rachel Held Evans, Chaplain Mike, and Energion author Joel Watts (From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls). (Energion is my company, so that’s my commercial plug for the day/week/etc.)

I want to comment briefly (don’t laugh) on the idea of explaining suffering, and what comfort such explanations can bring. The answer is that explanations are inadequate, and very little comfort results from the explanation. Nonetheless, we seek explanations, and when we’ve found them, we often find it impossible to resist “helping” others with the profound knowledge we’ve gained.

Well, I have some knowledge gained from experience, and my knowledge suggests that all this knowledge may be less helpful than we think. Am I saying that my knowledge is better than your knowledge? Not precisely. I’m saying that I’ve come to realize that both my knowledge and your knowledge about tragedies will often not be helpful at all to others. Sometimes it’s most helpful to admit our ignorance. After all, we don’t really know the why of every event.

It took me some time to learn this. The key event was experiencing loss and living with grief together with my wife. You see, Jody and I find very different things comforting. I’ll admit to one similarity between us. We both tend to try not to bother the other with our grief. But beyond that we seek different ways of dealing with grief, we are bothered by different things and at different times, and yes, you guessed it, we explain troubling events differently.

I see God as sovereign, but in a much different way than Reformed theologians do. I believe that God in his sovereignty has decreed freedom. God had created freedom into the universe itself. There are events that cannot be explained as having some sort of specific purpose. Those events did not result from God’s specific will other than that he willed that the creation have such freedom. Tornadoes, in my view, are the result of simple physical cause and effect. I prefer this explanation. It’s as comforting to me as an explanation is going to get. I don’t have to think about angry gods hanging out waiting to swat me (or anyone) down because of our sins or other annoying behavior.

As a result, explanations that say “It’s God’s will” don’t do anything for me. Of course it’s God’s will. But God’s will was expressed through scientific laws and the freedom (randomness, perhaps?) that God has willed in the universe. Thinking of it as specifically God’s will, as in God rewarding or punishing the behavior of certain folks simply gets on my nerves. This is not because I think God couldn’t do that. Rather, it’s because of the truly ridiculous contortions people go through in order to explain how this particular person, building, or locale was more deserving of God’s wrath than any other. Explanations that suggest how we all deserve to be killed, but God simply chose to kill a certain group, sparing the rest of us, raise for me the specter of a fickle and unreliable God.

My wife, on the other hand, while not being Reformed, likes to think of the good that is brought about through a tragedy. She believes God puts limits on tragedy and then works to bring out good results from the bad things that happen. This is not the same as saying that God caused a specific tragedy to happen.

Yet for some people, the most comforting thing is to think that God is controlling everything. What this provides is the assurance that things won’t run out of control. This is why, I believe, that John Piper can think of his posts as comforting. To some people, they are comforting.

There can be a nasty side to this when someone decides that they are safe because they are one of God’s special friends, and therefore are not subject to tragedy. Life usually gives the lie to this viewpoint, which can be tragic in many ways. Sometimes friends, like Job’s friends, decide that the once “holy” person must have offended God in some way so that tragedy struck. In this case the “it was God’s will” explanation may be used not as comfort but as a means of separating oneself from the tragedy. “If it happened to you because you committed some sin, then I am safe from it because I didn’t commit that sin,” is the thought.

But I think that most people simply present an explanation that makes sense to them, and that comforts them, in the thought it will comfort others. If you’re attempting to take that approach, think carefully. Your best explanation may be totally unhelpful. Listen, be prepared to help, and let people come up with their own explanations.

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