Innocent Suffering: The Tragedy of Murder in Lake Highlands
The Tragedy, A Blue Period Piece by Pablo Picasso 1903
"Why is this happening? What did I do wrong?"
Those were the two questions that a young, vibrant woman in her 40’s asked as she sat in my office and struggled to explain that her husband had stage four brain cancer. She and her husband had good jobs, two great children in high school, and were active in committee life at the church. But none of that prevented cancer. And so now she was in my office with a Kleenex box in her lap asking "why is this happening? What did I do wrong? This isn’t fair. I need some answers."
We talked and we cried. Six months later we buried her husband, and we talked and we cried some more. One of the questions she kept coming back to is one of the oldest in human history: Why do people suffer and die, and does God have anything to do with it?
It’s a question that many in the Lake Highlands community where I live are asking these days. Yesterday on a trail very close to my house, one that my children have walked on alone many times, one I have run hundreds of times, an innocent man was stabbed to death with a machete. On the same day, a young 18-year-old woman from our neighborhood left for church and was later found dead in her car. It is clearly a homicide.
What does a person of faith do in light of horrible tragedies like these?
I believe every answer we offer will be incomplete, but the worst thing we can do is ignore that they happened. Recently, a parishioner whose husband died told me that what hurts the worst is the people she runs into who know something is wrong but act like nothing is wrong. That is one of the church’s problems when it comes to suffering. We can develop a sort of easy optimism and cheerful piety that just keeps smiling and never addresses suffering.
In his book, Thank God It’s Friday, William Willimon describes a woman who came to him to complain that her church was a happy church. "Everything is so happy and upbeat. The preacher jumps up on the stage at the beginning of the service, just grinning and giggling… He’s so insufferably happy: every other word is ‘awesome.’ All the music is upbeat and giddy."
"You know," she said, "it’s hell to be going through a tough time in your life and have to worship at a happy church."
Another thing we often do that’s not helpful is offer glib and trite answers like, "God needed another angel" or "God has a purpose for everything." I am skeptical of anyone who has complete answers as to why these things happen. It's okay to not have an answer. It's even okay to question God about it. ⅓ of the psalms are lament psalms asking questions of God like, "How long, O Lord" (Psalm 13) or "Has God’s steadfast love ceased? Has God forgotten to be gracious?" (Psalm 77)
It is most helpful to love those who are suffering, and sometimes without words. In a book he wrote about the death of his son, Yale philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff asks the question: What should you say to someone who is suffering?
"Your words don’t have to be wise," he writes. "The heart that speaks is heard more than the words spoken. And if you can’t think of anything to say, just say ‘I can’t think of anything to say. But I want you to know I am with you in your grief.’"
When a child asks, as every child does sooner or later, why everyone has to die, my experience has been that the best answer is not a lengthy attempt to explain human mortality but a hug.
"We’re in this together, God and we," Wolterstorff writes near the end of his book. Together we are in these horrible tragedies.
However incomplete the answers, we do have something very powerful to lean on during times of suffering. What comforts the Christian in the midst of suffering is knowing that God in Jesus Christ came to sit beside us – to walk with us, live with us, love with us, suffer with us, die with us, and rise for us.
We know that at the center of life is the cross. The amazing assertion that God was there, that in his innocent suffering and death, God’s love for the world is completely revealed. It is an amazing affirmation that as Jesus suffered and died, God experienced it all – all of it.
At the center is the cross, with the assurance that God has experienced the worst that can happen to any of us. At the cross God comes closest to your life and mine at its most human and precarious and vulnerable moments. God suffers with us.
Finally, we know the most powerful thing of all: The cross is also empty. It means that neither suffering, nor death, have the last word. God’s love is the last word. Jesus Christ is God’s promise, God’s invitation to trust that all, finally, shall be well; that no evil, finally, shall befall us. The last word spoken will not involve suffering but will be love. And there will be a day that you, too, bask in the loving arms of God.