WARNING: This isn’t one of our church growth posts. Instead, I’m taking a moment to share what I believe is an important pastoral care/theology kind of question. Read on with that warning 🙂
I teach preaching for the Center for Ministry and Lay Training at Phillips Seminary and one of those Pastoral Care kind of questions came up. I’d just written a snippet about preaching God in tragedies.
I wrote, “For instance, where’s God when the drunk driver kills the single mom who was walking down the street and minding her own business? Or when the hurricane takes out Corpus Christi? Or in the turning of autumn leaves? According to Buttrick (David Buttrick, Homiletic: Moves and Structures), it would be the preachers job to name God in the thick of life.”
And the student responded:
“I dread the day when a tragedy happens and one of my congregants comes up to me and asks, ‘Where was God when this happened? Why did this happen?’ It’s times like those that I pray God gives me wisdom and the right words at the right time. I think if I don’t know what to say it would be better for me to say, ‘I don’t know why this happened, but I know God is there with you.'”
That brings me to the pastoral care/theology part of this post. My response to the student is below:
Keep Ecclesiastes in the forefront of your mind: “Meaningless, meaningless. All is meaningless.”
There is NO meaning for anything until you/me/we assign meaning. That doesn’t mean there’s no lessons to be learned from what happens, but what happens is what happens.
The single mom’s dead because someone got into a car after drinking too much. That’s what happened. There’s no meaning.
Corpus Christi sustained billions of dollars in damages because a hurricane made landfall there. That’s what happened. There’s no meaning.
The summer leaves changed color because there was less light during the day and photosynthesis was curtailed and the leaves began to die. Again … that’s what happened and there is no meaning.
The meaning comes when WE decide what it means.
Jesus ticked off the powerful and political religious leaders and they arranged to have him arrested, tried, convicted, and executed. That’s what happened. Where’s the meaning? Well, that depends on which Gospel writer or which Epistle you read. Paul likens Jesus’ death to a sin sacrifice (a sin sacrifice is something that a practicing Jewish person would NEVER eat because it was tainted). John, on the other hand, likens Jesus’ death to the Paschal Lamb – which has nothing to do with sin and everything to do with obedience and salvation (the Paschal lamb is something that every practicing Jewish person ate during the Passover). Which of the two meanings is “right”? That kinda depends on what you think about communion!
But ultimately the answer to which “meaning” is right is … Yes. Paul made meaning out of it and John made meaning out of it. Both are different. Both are right. And perhaps both are wrong. Since meaning didn’t exist until someone made meaning out of it, there isn’t necessarily a right/wrong meaning. There is just the event and the meaning is gravy or syrup, so to speak.
(Theologically, the cross-resurrection event fulfilled the Jewish redemption laws – or God’s law – and salvation was afforded once-for-all for those who choose to participate. That’s a consequence of what happened rather than the meaning of what happened.)
All that’s to say, when something bad happens, you don’t need to create the meaning because there is no meaning. All you need to do is bring comfort, support, and perhaps offer a path forward to those in difficult circumstances. If you try to assign meaning, you could end up doing more harm than good. And as for the answer to “Where was God?” … God was at the same place when Jesus hung on the cross. Just because Jesus may not have acknowledged that (or been aware of that) in the end, it doesn’t mean God wasn’t there. Now, the question about why God didn’t intervene is a different question for a different class.
And thus ended the conversation … at least for now.
So, why is this post here? Because one of our tasks as church leaders is to bring comfort to those who are distraught and too often I’ve heard good church leaders spout horrible theology because they assigned meaning to the event. From “God wanted to bring home one of his little angels” to “God was visiting his wrath upon the city.” When it comes to bringing comfort, let’s stick to good theology and keep the meaning making to ourselves.