“[He has sent me] To comfort all who mourn, to console those who mourn in Zion, to give them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they may be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that He may be glorified.”
– Isaiah 61:2-3
It’s the complaint of a child, when something goes wrong – to shout out that it’s not fair. And as adults faced with this perennial cry, we roll our eyes and say (with as much patience as we can muster) that life isn’t fair. The child we were said the same thing, after all, and was answered with the same reply. Life isn’t fair. Bad things can often happen to people that don’t seem to deserve it. We know this. We’ve understood it from an early age, had it drummed into us by our elders never to ask that question, because it betrays our inexperience with the way of the world. So why, after all that, do we still ask WHY?
Because asking WHY? is a habit that we find much more difficult to break, isn’t it? When faced with adversity, trials and tribulations, calamities that we know we do not deserve, we seek an explanation. A part of this desire stems from simply wanting to know, to be able to understand. We seek meaning, purpose and significance in life. It’s a part of the human condition, to need to know, to comprehend the reasoning behind circumstance, to be able to explain how things occur. We strive to see the patterns behind things, in order that we can pattern ourselves accordingly.
But the greater part is that we have a need for resolution, because adversity doesn’t just hit us in one place. It affects our minds, our wills, and our sense of self. Our strength fails us, and in its place doubt sprouts like a weed. We don’t just need explanation – we need that explanation to be reasonable. It should help us in our time of trouble. It should make adversity easier to bear. It should assist us in adjusting to our new circumstances. The explanation, when delivered, should allow us to heal. It’s what’s referred to in pop-psychology as ‘closure’ — a pat ending, a faux-resolution, something to put the cap on a traumatic event, and to end one chapter and allow us to move on to the next, as if we were characters in a film, bringing the third act to a close. It’s essentially the old complaint of ‘it’s not fair’, but uttered with an adult’s capacity for self-deception… we think that if it’s reasonable, then we can accept it. We can put it behind us.
But it’s still the same old child’s complaint. Life isn’t fair. The processes that determine how an event takes place do not necessarily provide peace, once they’ve been determined. The question WHY? will not deliver any answers that will actually help us. It doesn’t help us move on, it hinders us, leaves us trapped in a moment in time, and that moment of grief becomes despair, self-pity, anger, resentment and bitterness.
Romans 8:28 says, “ And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.” But God does not just create bad circumstances in order that He can then produce a good result, like a rabbit out of a hat. He doesn’t engineer calamity so that He can come and save the day, like some underhanded superhero. God knows that life has occasion to be both awful and terrible, and that the strength of a person, the action of their spirit within them, is evidenced by how they deal with it when things don’t go their way. When life isn’t fair.
Look at the story of Job, the patriarch famously tested in Scripture. Cited by the Father as an exemplar of virtue for His sake, a man devoted to God, in having his faith tested Job loses his property and his prosperity, his children, and finally his health. Steadfast to begin with, Job’s devotion begins to waver, as the age-old question WHY? begins to form in his mind and on his lips. His friends, come to comfort him, are pretty spectacularly useless — horrorstruck at what’s befallen their virtuous friend, they begin to speculate on the secret shame that must exist within his life, that God allowed him to be so afflicted.
Job knew that they were wrong to speculate so crassly, but he still wondered WHY? and he wanted vindication, in the eyes of his friends. He wanted an explanation and a confirmation that it was nothing he had done himself that had brought this upon him. He felt that he had done nothing to deserve this. That it wasn’t fair. Certain of his innocence, he professes that innocence to Elihu as reason why he should not have been afflicted. Job is unable to see past himself, to recognise a possible area of growth in even his virtuous spiritual life.
And on behalf of the Father, Elihu gently berates him, saying, “Look, in this you are not righteous. I will answer you, for God is greater than man. Why do you contend with Him? For He does not give an accounting of any of His words.” (Job 33:12-13). Job was indeed an exemplar, but he wasn’t perfect… Elihu was moved to contradict him, because he saw that Job “was righteous in his own eyes [and] because he justified himself rather than God.” (Job 32:1-2) Job is cross-examined by God, who refuses to even hear his servant’s WHY? questions and instead asks questions of His own, asking how he has come to condemn God’s justice. But God never condemns Job himself, never accuses him of anything in his turn, because that’s not the person that God is. Job comes out of the other side of his immense hardships with a greater sense of his identity in God, and of his own flaws. The Job at the end of the book that bears his name has a greater understanding of himself and is a greater person in the eyes of God even than when it began.
In Christ we find our pattern, the over and underlying reason that we can take comfort in. Jesus Himself suffered as no man has before or since. When James and John asked to be set at his left and right hand in the Kingdom, Jesus asked them, “can you drink of the cup that I drink of?”, in yet another of the instances where he would allude to His own upcoming trials. And of course the disciples and apostles would indeed bear crosses of their own in the years to come, sometimes literally, as the post-Pentecostal newborn Christian church suffered persecution upon persecution.
But more than that, Jesus referred to the way in which He would deal with such calamity. It’s a common misconception that, in the depths of his anguish, Christ cried out “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?”, seeing the back of the Father turned to him in extremis. But Christ was not asking the age-old question WHY? in the face of suffering. Instead, he quoted the beginning of Psalm 22, the poetry that prefigures that moment that had come upon him, the Passion, in recognition that He had come to be sacrificed as prophesied. In that moment, Christ did not cry out for an explanation but in acceptance of His place, and the place of the suffering that He undertook, in the great scheme of God’s creation.
We are in Christ, and no matter what occurs to us in life, we must not look for answers that exist outside of the scope of our own place. Instead ask, as the apostles did on the day of Pentecost, ‘what does this mean?’ and ‘what shall we do?’ As they did, we must seek His Presence, and find the question for God that best fits the circumstances that we find ourselves in. Give thanks for the opportunity for growth that has been given to us. In the Kingdom, mourning is forever linked with joy, as God gives us beauty in place of ashes, and invites us to rise again.
–Ben at Team Brilliant