Theologian asks conferees ‘Why Ask Why’ when questions cannot be answered?
June 5, 2021
Many people of faith have stopped asking big, unanswerable “why” questions. Questions like, “If God loves us and God is all powerful, why is there so much pain and suffering in the world?”
During the recent keynote presentation of the Presbyterian Older Adult Ministries Network (POAMN) annual conference, theologian and author the Rev. Dr. Cynthia L. Rigby, the W.C. Brown Professor of Theology at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, made a case for the importance of asking “why” and “telling it like it is in the form of lament” during times of crisis — not to get answers, but to deepen and shape our faith. Rigby is also co-chair of the Reformed Theology and History Unit of the American Academy of Religion and an associate editor for the Journal of Reformed Theology and the Journal of the American Academy of Religion.
The suffering Job, she said, was “patiently impatient,” telling it like it is for 42 chapters. In John 11, when Lazarus died, his sister Martha, showed “foot-stomping, vulnerable, confessional, active faith,” telling Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Even Jesus asked why in Matthew 27:46 — quoting from Psalm 22:1 — “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Why do we have “why” questions about suffering and brokenness in the first place?
“The whole idea that suffering is a problematic issue is founded in the idea that we expect something different than to suffer,” said Rigby. After all, we know that the God who created everything out of nothing is a loving, powerful and good God (Jeremiah 29:11, Romans 8:28, Ephesians 6:3, Revelation 21:4).
The “why” questions come from “our beliefs about God and our trust in God’s promises and providential care,” Rigby said. “These promises lead us to cry out when we don’t see them coming to fruition.” However, she cautioned, insisting on or coming up with our own answers to the why often does more harm than good, particularly for suffering people, which we all are at one time or another.
“If you can fit it on a coffee mug or a bumper sticker, it probably isn’t good theology,” Rigby said. Saying or hearing from other comments like “Have you found the blessing in that?” or “You must trust that God has a secret plan” diminishes suffering experiences.
“Not ruling out the possibility that God is somehow, in ways we can’t possibly understand, using some suffering redemptively is very different from piously deciding that all suffering is somehow redemptive and you are going to help everyone figure that out,” said Rigby. “That’s the trick of the oppressor that is used to keep suffering people in their place.” On the other hand, she said, it also diminishes suffering if we tell the sufferer there is nothing redemptive about their experience when they say there is.
Yes, if someone asks us why suffering happens, it can be easy to recite a formula answer that we’ve heard before. Rigby reflected on a conversation with a dying friend in the hospital. The friend asked her, “Cindy, why is God letting this happen to me?” Rigby told her she didn’t know why. The friend said, “Now, Cindy, I know you don’t know, but I thought you’d be able to say something after all those years of studying theology.”
“Say something to process,” Rigby said. “Process with them.”
There’s no “one-size-fits-all approach” to the problem of suffering, Rigby said. “Some people become transformed, nicer people through suffering, and others just can’t bear it, they become shadows of their former selves. It’s frightening the different forms and effects suffering can have on people.”
We have to be more creative, present, attentive, certain about God and uncertain about ourselves, Rigby said, giving examples of fictional characters from literature like Don Quixote or Harry Potter’s timid classmate Neville Longbottom, who bumbles forward, hoping he is part of something bigger than himself.
“Christians have too much of a reputation for marching in with certainty and answers and faith,” Rigby said. “Maybe faith, in a time of crisis, needs to be more ‘bumbling.’”
Tammy Warren, Communications Associate, Presbyterian Mission Agency
Today’s Focus: Why Questions
Let us join in prayer for:
PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Let us pray:
Most powerful Creator and gracious God, be our guide. Inspire us to build unity and trust among your people. Teach us to live as you would have us live. We pray in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.