Tuesday, November 02, 2004

When Tragedy Hits the Innocent: Part 1

For several months now, our congregation has been praying for the infant daughter of friends of congregational members. We learned this past week that the little girl died at six months of age.

The question naturally arises: Why?

It's a searing question, whether you're a person of faith or not. For those who claim no faith, as was true of me back in my days as an atheist, the question is thrown down as a gauntlet, a rhetorical salvo meant to be the last word in any debate over, if not God's existence, His power or His compassion.

I can't be critical of atheists and agnostics who ask "Why?" in this way. Years ago, after I had come to faith in the God revealed in Jesus Christ, a woman I've known since we were in junior high school, an atheist, wondered how I could possibly believe. She pointed to all the suffering that goes on in the world and asked, if there were a compassionate and loving God, how I could claim faith in Him. It's been my experience that most agnostics and atheists are people with good hearts, offended by the pain that they see in the world and unable to see how an omniscient, loving God could stand by and seem to observe it all passively.

In fact, it strikes me that many who resist faith in God are by and large, more compassionately attuned to the agonies endured by majority of the human race over the course of human history than are many people of faith. I have greater respect for the honest resister of faith who resists because he or she cares about people than I do for the pew-sitters who mindlessly embrace church membership because their parents were church members. Whether it's a simple case of the zeal of a convert or not, I've also found that most former atheists or agnostics make more passionate, compassionate Christians than most church members who receive their "faith" by osmosis or family habit.

In coming posts, I hope to address the question of why good or innocent people suffer in some detail. I also hope to delve into some of the other issues surrounding the experiences of undeserved suffering we can go through in life. For today, I simply want to deal with why we ask the question, "Why?"

One of my seminary professors, the systematic theologian Walter Bouman, used to tell us that in spite of all the progress the human race has made through the centuries, the ratio of births to deaths is still running one-to-one. (A line I've lifted from him countless times in the twenty-plus years I've been preaching!)

Death and tragedy are and have been constant companions of the human race for most of history. Yet, we seem to view each death as a cruel, unfair encroachment on our happiness and the happiness of the one whose life is snuffed out. We see the death of young people as particularly tragic, a violation of the proper order of things.

In spite of the pattern of tragedy and sadness we see in the world (and in our newspapers) each day, illnesses, hurricanes, earthquakes, marital breakups, youthful rebellion, crime, crooked politics, job losses, mass starvation, genocide, abuse, and a whole host of other tragedies throw us off. They make us yearn for "getting back to normal," as though "normal" was a life devoid of these events, a life to which we've been usually accustomed.

In fact, sadness and tragedy seem to be the normal state of things in the world. So, it's curious that we find sadness and tragedy so offensive and hurtful. Shouldn't we be used to it?

No, I don't think that we should. I believe that deeply embedded in our collective DNA is the memory of a time when tragedy and sadness weren't part of the human experience. We weren't meant to live under their shadows. Somehow, deep within each of us, there's an awareness that life is meant to be good. And so, we're right to be offended when tragedy strikes. In an ultimate sense, it is unnatural.

The opening chapters of the Old Testament book of Genesis contain two different accounts of the creation of the universe by God. However you interpret those chapters, a few facts emerge:

1. God is good. It's in the nature of God to give. After all, God gave the gift of life to everything from the frilled lizard to human beings. Creation is a voluntary act of giving on God's part.

2. God's creation is good. God says that it is, repeatedly. And when God fashions human beings, He looks at everything He's created and declares it all, "very good!"

3. Death wasn't part of the human scene until the first human beings deliberately rebelled against God's will. That had consequences. In fact, the New Testament book of Romans says that because human beings are the pinnacle of creation, its caretakers, the whole universe groans under the burdens and consequences of human sin.

(Keep in mind that God doesn't mete out punishment every time we sin. Thank God for that! But sin is an inborn disease with which every human being is afflicted at birth. That has its results, evident in all of us.)

If we are offended by the tragedies of this world, it's understandable. Until sin entered our world, tragedy and death were foreign to our lives. No one who asks, "Why?" should feel ashamed. It offends God, too.

More tomorrow...

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