Making Sense of What We Don’t Understand
I was feeding my daughter fish sticks at the dinner table this past Friday night, the 13th of November, when I happened to do a check of Twitter (something I don’t typically do – I try to keep cell phones away from the dinner table) because I knew U2 was in Paris gearing up for their upcoming concerts and HBO special. I suspected they’d be doing some fun, special stuff to promote and prepare for the big shows and, as is typical of my behavior when it comes to the Irish band, I wanted to see what they were up to as it happened.
So it came as a startling surprise that something terrible was happening in that city. More than 100 people had been gunned down or otherwise murdered in what appeared to be a coordinated terrorist attack, perpetrated (as has been reported at the time of this writing) by members of ISIS. As the night went on and France went on lock down after reportedly finding and killing all the assailants, I remained glued to the TV and to Twitter to see how the responses to the tragedy were developing. I saw borderline racist comments; suggestions of prayer for the victims and their loved ones; vocalizations of solidarity with our French brothers and wonderful acts of humanity (the trend of #PorteOuverte being one such example).
And, of course, I saw what I always see after tragedies like this: “How could God let something like this happen?” “How could you believe in a God so cruel?” and so on and so forth.
I understand this kind of reaction. I struggle with it myself, even though I consider myself a believer and a person of faith. It’s perfectly normal to ask questions like this. But at a certain point – maybe after the dust has settled and the initial shock has subsided – we need to step back and really consider what we’re asking. It’s so easy to ask these questions without any intent of expecting an answer – you want someone to blame, so you blame God; you blame people who believe in God; you blame the belief in God itself (how stupid are those people?) – anything that makes a tragedy like this easier to deal with in a “big picture” sense. In a theological (or antitheological) sense. Because in reality, what we’re doing here is trying to get an understanding of the larger purpose for something so horrific. An explanation for the loss of so much life.
After all, how could there even be a God when this kind of shit’s going down?
But what we’re doing in those questions above is not really asking questions – we’re placing blame. Those questions answer themselves – they’re rhetorical. They’re not meant to be answered. We may say we’re desperate for answers as to why, but we never step beyond the questions themselves to really, truly look for those answers. In fact, most of the time, we’re launching vitriol at everyone but those who are to blame (the ones who committed the acts of terror), which is understandable because usually those to blame in these circumstances are not often readily available to explain their actions.
So how could I believe in a God that lets so many horrible things happen in the world?
Short answer: I don’t.
Long answer: God doesn’t let these things happen. God doesn’t cause these things to happen. We do. God didn’t send human beings out to murder innocent people – human beings did that. When innocent people are killed, it hurts God in ways I’m sure we can’t even fathom, because His love for us is infinite.
Whoa whoa wait! If God loves us so darn much then why isn’t he stopping this kind of thing? If He loves us like you say He does, how could He just watch people suffer like this? Why doesn’t He step in?
Ah, now you’re getting to the real heart of the matter.
Because the truth is, God can’t step in. Not if he truly loves us. If God stepped in, He would undo the very fabric of the concept of Free Will – the very thing that makes us all thinking, feeling individuals and not mindless God-drones. Love – like faith – is a choice that can only be made of Free Will.
And, you guessed it, so can Hate. So can Evil. Because Free Will allows for both good and bad to exist. Because we are free to choose either.
And if Hate and Evil can exist, then tragedies such as what occurred in Paris on the night of Friday the 13th can happen.
And when those tragedies do occur, we are reminded of the choice we’ve already made.
That choice is Love.
And I don’t mean just love for a friend or a family member. I’m talking about the kind of love that you feel for someone you’ve never met before, the kind of love that causes you to reach out to help, shelter, comfort a person or even save his or her life, sometimes at great risk to your own.
I’m talking about the kind of Love that God always wanted us to attain – the Love of our neighbors, as if they were ourselves. The kind of Love that we only seem able to learn in the face of fear, suffering, horror, terror, and tragedy.
The truth is that your life, my life, or anyone’s life for that matter, can end at any time, for any reason. I could be the cause of my own death; cancer could find me; I could be hit by a drunk driver or gunned down while sipping a coffee with friends in a French cafe. I believe we were built to eventually die not because that’s cruel or nonsensical but because we were meant to learn that every life has value. The time you are here means something because it’s not infinite. It can disappear at any point; it can be broken so easily and so quickly without much thought.
In essence, life is fragile. Every life. Yours. Mine. They are no different from each other in that way.
When someone ships something easily breakable they write “fragile”, “handle with care”, or “this end up” on it. Only a complete fool would risk job termination or the loss of paying customers by refusing to pay attention and seriously consider what he or she is reading on the box. Only a buffoon would break that fragile thing inside. In order to get from point A to point B that package has to be cared for and valued.
It has to be Loved.
When tragedies like this happen, they remind us not that we don’t love or value other human beings – they remind us that, ultimately, we do. No, not all of us, obviously, for it’s those who do not value life who so readily take it. But most of us, when pressed – when put in a situation where Love is ultimately needed – we don’t fail.
We already have what God always wanted us to have within us. He doesn’t need to remind us. So He isn’t causing this pain and suffering.
It’s us who constantly have to remind ourselves. And, ironically, it’s within these reminders that we find we don’t actually need them after all. We don’t actually need a tragedy to remind us how to treat and love each other. Clearly, we’re more than capable.
God has faith in us. And we’ve shown him, constantly, that He’s not wrong.
And in those moments, we’ve shown each other.
So it’s time we stopped waiting for these kinds of tragedies and episodes of pain and suffering to show us the faith and love we already know we have in and for each other. Only then will these terrible things stop.
Only then will those reminders no longer be needed.