Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Tell Me Why These Things Are So

As mortals, whenever we run up against things we don't understand, we tend to start asking questions. Chief among these is the simple request for an explanation, "Why?" This inquisitiveness has led to countless scientific discoveries, as curious observers have sought to understand and explain their world.

We have the same tendency in other areas of our lives--we want life to make sense. We want events to fit into nice little boxes with the proper "Cause" and "Effect" on the labels. We want to understand our world's many complexities. Maybe then we can have more control over our lives. Maybe understanding all the reasons would help us feel less like our lives are meaningless conglomerations of random chance. Maybe we would feel less powerless in the face of history's fateful unfolding.

When a child dies or a plane crashes, when we're diagnosed with a debilitating illness or suffer a devastating blow, our anguished cries to the heavens often begin with, "Why?"

Why? Why me? Why this? Why now? Why, God, why?

I've noticed that God doesn't seem particularly interested in answering my "Why?" questions. A quick poll of some close friends indicates it's not just me. And when I turned to the scriptures, I realized that it's a long-standing habit of God's.

When God showed Moses a vision of the world, Moses' question was also, "Why?", and it went unanswered. "And it came to pass that Moses called upon God, saying: Tell me, I pray thee, why these things are so?...And the Lord God said unto Moses: For mine own purpose have I made these things. Here is wisdom and it remaineth in me" (Moses 1:30-31). To paraphrase, God was saying, "I created the world for my own reasons, and I'm not inclined to share them with you just yet."

Isaiah quoted the Lord, who told His people, "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways...For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts" (Isaiah 55:8-9). He doesn't think the way we think, and doesn't feel bound to explain his thought processes to us.

The book of Job records the story of a man who "was perfect and upright, and one that feared God, and eschewed evil" (Job 1:1). Cursed with the loss of all his earthly possessions, his children, his health, and finally, the loyalty of his friends, Job pleaded with God for answers, demanding an explanation for his suffering. Certain of his righteousness, and sure that his punishment was undeserved, Job used legal language in his fierce insistence on an explanation, wishing "that we might confront each other in court. If only there were someone to arbitrate between us...I will say to God: Do not condemn me, but tell me what charges you have against me" (Job 9:32-33,10:2, NIV). Job noted the unfairness of his treatment, citing examples of wicked men who live in peace and wealth, undisturbed by the God they mock, while Job, who kept the law with exactness, was left with a life in shambles, rejected by his community and bereft of all his property. He pleaded for understanding, for the Lord to point out his sin, asking the Lord, when he could find no answer within himself, "Why?"

"Summon me and I will answer, or let me speak, and you reply. How many wrongs and sins have I committed? Show me my offense and my sin. Why do you hide your face and consider me your enemy?" (13:18-25) "If only I knew where to find him; if only I could go to his dwelling! I would state my case before him and fill my mouth with arguments. I would find out what he would answer me, and consider what he would say" (23:3-5). "Oh, that I had someone to hear me! I sign now my defense—let the Almighty answer me; let my accuser put his indictment in writing" (31:35).

For thirty-six chapters of the book of Job, Job's friends rebuked him for his supposed sins, and Job defended himself against their accusations and bemoaned his fate. And through it all, Job searched for an explanation, declaring each law he had kept, each commandment unbroken, repeatedly asking the Lord why he had been punished, while all around him the wicked prospered--Why, God? Why this? Why now? Why me?

I read his story again not too long ago, and found myself rooting for Job. Even though my mind knew that Job's trials were the Lord's way of testing his faithfulness, I still found myself sympathizing with his pleas--Why, God? Why do the wicked prosper while the righteous mourn? Why all the suffering in the lives of the innocent? Why have you structured the world this way? Why do my prayers go unanswered, my petitions unheeded? Why did you heal the centurion's son but not my loved one?

I found myself straining for the answer. Surely, God would answer Job, the "perfect and upright" man? And perhaps, in that answer, I could find some modicum of peace in the painful confusion of my own world.

In the last chapters of the book of Job, God spoke to Job "out of the whirlwind" (38:1), saying, "Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me. Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it? On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone... Who shut up the sea behind doors when it burst forth...when I said, 'This far you may come and no farther; here is where your proud waves halt'?

"Have you ever given orders to the morning, or shown the dawn its place... Have you journeyed to the springs of the sea or walked in the recesses of the deep?... Have you seen the gates of the shadow of death? Have you comprehended the vast expanses of the earth? Tell me, if you know all this.

"What is the way to the abode of light? And where does darkness reside? Can you take them to their places? Do you know the paths to their dwellings? Surely you know, for you were already born! You have lived so many years!" (Job 38:2-22, NIV)

The Lord went on, speaking of His omniscience, which stood in stark contrast to Job's feeble mortal understanding: "Have you entered the storehouses of the snow or seen the storehouses of the hail?...What is the way to the place where the lightning is dispersed, or the place where the east winds are scattered over the earth? Who cuts a channel for the torrents of rain, and a path for the thunderstorm?...Can you bind the beautiful Pleiades? Can you loose the cords of Orion?... Do you know the laws of the heavens? Can you set up God's dominion over the earth?... Do you send the lightning bolts on their way? Do they report to you, 'Here we are'?

"Who endowed the heart with wisdom or gave understanding to the mind?" (Job 38:23-36).

Throughout the rest of His discourse, the Lord listed many natural phenomena, asking Job if he could explain or control the forces of nature, the animals, the planets, and the stars. The Lord's demonstration of power is impressive, and in the end, Job repented of his folly, and recommitted himself to serve the Lord. The Lord chastised Job's friends, who had condemned him, and declared that Job had been righteous, an affirmation that must have been reassuring to a man condemned by his brethren. The story ends with Job living "happily ever after," when "the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before" (Job 42:10).

And yet...

And yet, most strikingly, the Lord never answered Job's question. In the end, all that Job had and more was restored to him, but Job never got to know the Lord's reasons for inflicting his punishment. The Lord never answered Job's plea for understanding, and Job and his audience are still left wondering, "Why?"

It's a singularly unsatisfying conclusion to the account of a righteous man with a profound, heartfelt, plea. And yet it's instructive for all of us, when our prayers go unanswered. It teaches us that questioning the Lord's motives is ultimately fruitless. It teaches us that because the Lord's knowledge is infinite, and His love is perfect, we can have confidence in His direction of our lives and His custody of our souls, even when we cannot understand His ways or fathom His purposes.

Christ, on the cross, marveled that His Father would leave Him alone during His time of greatest need, that the God He had served would abandon His Only Begotten Son to die a shameful death in utter loneliness. His last plea on the cross was a cry for an explanation--"My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" (Mark 15:34). Why, God, why?

But at that anguished cry, the heavens again were silent, and the Son of God, the Creator of worlds without end, died without an answer.

And yet we continue to ask. Why should we expect what our Lord went without? "The Son of Man hath descended below them all. Art thou greater than he?" (Doc. & Cov. 122:8). Do we think ourselves greater than the Master we serve?

So why doesn't the Lord answer our "why?" questions? That's a bit of a circular inquiry, to be sure, since it is also a "why?" question. But let me take a crack at it anyway.

A friend suggested to me a reason, and as I’ve thought it over, I’ve recognized the merit in his idea. He observed that if every part of life made perfect sense, if we could see the end from the beginning, if we could have a perfect understanding of the Lord's purposes in shaping us as He does, it would eliminate the need for us to exercise faith in Him. It would be too simple. We would already see the wisdom in the Lord's plan, and the only rational thing to do would be to submit willingly, with a perfect knowledge of the outcome. Faith would be lost, and spiritual growth would go with it. In the words of Alma, "there are many who do say: If thou wilt show unto us a sign from heaven, then we shall know of a surety; then we shall believe. Now I ask, is this faith? Behold, I say unto you, Nay; for if a man knoweth a thing he hath no cause to believe, for he knoweth it" (Alma 32:17-18).

The Lord denies us this knowledge so that we have the chance to rely on Him in faith, a chance only available to us if our "why?" questions are left unanswered, for "faith is not to have a perfect knowledge of things; therefore if ye have faith ye hope for things which are not seen, which are true" (Alma 32:21).

When we walk by faith, and not by sight, the emptiness of soul we experience when a perfect knowledge is denied us is filled by a “perfect brightness of hope,” which leads to “a love of God and of all men” (2 Nephi 31:20). This hope “groweth brighter and brighter until the perfect day” (Doc. & Cov. 50:24), a day when we will see the things we have hoped for, and rejoice in the knowledge that comes, not as a sign to convince us, but as a reward for our patience and a natural consequence of our faith. In that day, “God shall wipe away tears from off all faces” (Isaiah 25:8), and we will kneel before the Lord and, with perfect understanding, acknowledge that His judgments and His purposes are just, that His plan was perfect and His love complete.

Until that day, let’s trust Him. Let us go forward in faith, with confidence in the Lord’s plan for each of us, trusting in “the word of Christ with unshaken faith in him, relying wholly upon the merits of him who is mighty to save” (2 Nephi 31:19). As we do so, our power will increase and we will come to know the Savior for ourselves, "that when he shall appear we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is; that we may have this hope; that we may be purified even as he is pure" (Moroni 7:48).

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  1. I recommend reading Philip Roth's *American Pastoral*--an excellent novel that addresses the issue of what happens when bad things happen to good people.

  2. Amy, I love you. We do need to play again, seriously. Soon.

    Anyway I read this entry when you first posted it and was thinking about it on Thursday for some reason. I started thinking about how many times I have asked the Lord "why?," especially since my heart problem was found. And I decided that duh, I was asking the very wrong question. Instead I decided, if I must ask, that I will ask "what do You want me to learn from this?"

    Does that make sense?

    Anyway, I thought of it and it was seriously like a lightbulb went off in my head. Clearly, I need to rely on faith, but sometimes it's just so hard, and that's when I give myself permission to ask a question other than why :)

    Also I have been reading "I Need Thee Every Hour -- Applying the Atonement in Everyday Life" by David Vandagriff. I highly recommend it, if you haven't read it already. It is awesome.