It’s been a tumultuous couple of weeks for me and my family, which is good for you because it makes for good blog reading, but is bad for me on multiple levels. I’m going to try to squeeze one more blog entry in before the new year, and then come back in 2012.
Actually, come to think of it, it hasn’t just been a tumultuous couple of weeks for us – it has been a crazy couple of years. And throughout that time, I have found myself asking the same question over and over again, and that is: “Why?”
“God, why did you let my wife get sick with cancer, just as we were starting this church that we thought YOU had called us to plant? Aren’t people who try to do your will supposed to receive some kind of protection or blessedness of some kind?”
“Why did our church never grow the way I had hoped and prayed, the way that it should have? Isn’t starting a new church a good thing that you want to happen? So did I do something terribly wrong? Am I a terrible pastor?”
“Why did you have to close the church right as we are about to have our fourth child, and during an economic period where 1 out of 2 people are now lower income? Hadn’t we suffered enough as a church to have earned the right to continue? Am I really going to be unemployed now? Do I really have to start over yet again, in a new area, a new position, from scratch? What if Carol can’t get back on insurance because of her history?”
“Why God? Why me?”
As you can probably tell, these are not pleasant questions to have to ask yourself.
And what’s worse is that I don’t have many means to address those questions. I don’t have the luxury of mentally shutting myself down for a couple of weeks to brood on these issues – I have kids to raise, a wife to love, a job to seek. I have realized that complaint is a luxury that you can only indulge in when you have relatively little to complain about because it takes time and energy to complain, neither of which I have. Also, I tend to be very introverted, preferring to internalize my thoughts rather than talking it over with friends, like other, more socially competent people might do. But I do realize that I need to confront these questions in some way, even though I can’t do so in the self-indulgent manner in which I would like.
And so strangely, I have been finding some solace and peace in words. That sounds weird, and I suppose it is, but for me, words are really just an extension of ideas and feelings, and allow me to put a handle on things that are otherwise difficult to manipulate. That’s the power of counseling, of blogging, and of preaching, that the words that are used in those moments are so closely connected to thoughts, emotions and memories. That is why John describes Jesus himself as the Word (logos), the fullness of God incarnated into a form that we can see, touch, and better understand. And because of this relationship, certain words and phrases and questions, when used correctly, can effectively transform the way that we think or feel about our lives. I’m hoping that as I blog my thoughts on my situation, I’ll gain some small measure of equanimity moving forward.
So what I have found helpful is that in response to the difficult question of “Why me?”, to follow it up with other probing questions in turn, such as:
“Why not me?”
In some way, when I ask the question, “Why me?”, I am assuming that hardship is not supposed to affect me, that it is not appropriate or fair. The entire question that we ask of God in those moments goes like this, “God, why me?… because this kind of thing is not supposed to happen to someone like me. Other people, but not me.”
But the real question is…why not? Others have lived good lives, far better lives than I, and have still experienced tremendous difficulty. Just ask Jesus. So virtue and intelligence and hard work do not make a person immune to hardship. And God never promised me that I would never face suffering – in fact, more often than not, Jesus repeatedly calls upon the disciples to count the cost of following Christ, that they will be hated by others, they will no longer have a place to lay their heads, will have to bear crosses, will have to die to self. There is no reason why I am not supposed to suffer in some way.
It would seem then that the question “Why me?” betrays the fact that I have bought into a worldview that is more based on karma than the gospel. Part of the reason why hardship shocks me and causes me to cry out to God at the injustice of it all is because I have bought more into the American Dream, where everyone gets what they deserve, rather than the dream of grace that is through Christ, which is that everyone does not get what they deserve. In truth, I am just as susceptible to the difficulties and hardships and grief that accompany human existence as the next person, no better, no more worthy of a free pass based on virtue or intelligence or character…or even my identity as a follower of Christ.
What a hard truth that was to swallow.
…But also an incomplete truth. While it is true that being a Christian does not make someone bulletproof to suffering, that does not mean that there is no blessedness or justice in following Him, just that our understanding of those concepts differs from how the world defines them. Blessedness in Christ is not gauged by wealth and health, but through community, peace, God’s constant presence, all on an eternal timeframe. Justice is not simply a concept we pursue in this world alone, but we look forward to in the next.
Another question I have asked myself this past week is this,
This might seem the same as the initial question, and it is, but backwards…”Me why?” Hmm, that’s not it either. Let me explain: when I experience hardship, I am quick to raise an anguished voice to the heavens and cry out, “God, WHY ME?? Why, out of all people, have I been chosen to suffer in this way??” That response seems natural enough. And yet, when something good happens to me, when I experience blessedness and providence and protection, I rarely do the same, raising a shout to the heavens of, “God, WHY ME?? Why, out of all people, have I been chosen to receive this blessing and this goodness in my life? Why God, WHYYYY??”
*shaking puny fist at heavens*
I find that strange, and rather revealing. When I am doing badly, I am quick to complain to God, to pin my misfortunes on him and his incomprehensible ways, but when I am doing well? Well, I suppose that’s because of God too… (but also because I deserve it and because I have worked hard and have done the right thing.) And so my blessedness is not an equal mystery, nothing worthy of exclamation. What an unfair contradiction, that God should be so commonly blamed for our hardship, and so anemically praised for our blessings! By all rights, if I am shaking my fists at the heavens, I should also be prepared to raise my hands to them as well.
But more than simply being an unbalanced dynamic, it is a harmful one because misfortune has a way of running rampant in our lives. Complaint and cynicism do not exhaust themselves, but self-propagate, getting more and more negative the more that we turn it over in our heads, even as we talk it over with friends. And one of the most effective means of putting a stop to that cycle of negativity is…thanksgiving. Simply put, it is hard to be extremely negative when you are simultaneously thankful. And so, I still ask, “Why me?”, but in both respects and in equal measure, both when I am frustrated with my life, and also when I am thankful. Both are natural and necessary, and the balance of the two provides me with both an outlet, and peace.
But by far, the most helpful question I have asked myself is the strangest one of all:
“Who are You to me? And who am I to You?”
It is important, when asking questions of any sort, to keep in mind the identity of who is doing the asking, and who is being asked, because the identity and relationships of those individuals may be a type of answer unto itself. For instance, the question “Why me?” is obviously directed to God, but what kind of God is he to us? If you are a Christian, you believe he is a God who gives good gifts, who we are told in Luke, would never give a snake or a stone to a child who asks for bread, a God who loves us enough to make a Way for us.
Similarly, we are the ones doing the asking, but who exactly are we to God? Well, we are beloved children, fearfully and wonderfully made, forgiven by the grace and love of Christ. And that context is easy to forget, but profoundly changes the dynamic of the question, “Why me?” We still ask the question, but not as victims facing a pitiless taskmaster, but beloved children of a loving God. If we forget these identities and relationships, it is so easy to descend into self-pity and anger and disappointment, self-destructive emotions that are not helpful in these situations. But if we can remember this context, there is a stable floor beneath our emotional state, buttressed not by our understanding of what God is doing necessarily, but who God is.
Now of course, the context alone does not explain exactly what God is doing when he throws very difficult circumstances our way, answers that I still desperately want to know. But that context is still terribly important because it gives us the willingness to persevere as we wait for an answer, and amplifies our ability to discern what bigger things God may want to accomplish. In other words, the context allows us to believe that God will do something good, even if we don’t necessarily see or understand it.
I know all of this is just semantic word play, different variations of that initial question, “Why me, God?” It does not externally change anything – no job offers or answers fell from heaven as I pondered these things. Unfortunately. But that is not to say that it changes nothing, because they change the way in which I view my circumstances. I may not be any closer to understanding exactly why our last two years have unfolded as they have, but I can say with more conviction that I do believe there is some reason. In other words, I do not have the answers…
…but I do have faith.