Responses to Anguish


I’m interrupting my explorations of the relationship between justice and equality to think about another issue that often forces itself upon us, especially when we let ourselves care about other people. Three words sometimes misused as synonyms can help us clarify the problem: explanation, rationalization, and answer.

An explanation tells us how something happens – the process by which it occurs. When the matter is not painful emotionally, an explanation seems rather straightforward if not always simple. Say, the water in the birdbath was frozen this morning. We don’t have to look far for an explanation, do we? The temperature must have dropped low enough last night to freeze the water even with the debris in it. When the situation is painful emotionally, even tragic, matter-of-fact explanations may be helpful medically and even personally (to some degree), but they do not satisfy our questions. A child has died because of a genetic glitch that set in motion a terrible series of events that physicians do not yet know how to interrupt successfully. So, now parents and friends know how it happened, but in our anguish we don’t ask, “How?” We ask, “Why?”

That anguished question triggers rationalizations as people, meaning to be helpful, cast about for satisfactory ways to make sense of the child’s death. There are none. It does not make sense! If it makes sense to me, then something’s wrong with me. Religious faith often serves as the source of rationalizations, but decades in pastoral ministry and even more years of biblical and theological study have led me to believe there are no acceptable rationalizations for such tragedies in human life. That such terrible things happen every day to many people makes them worse, not better or more acceptable. Christians who take Jesus seriously cannot accept the rationalization, “It’s God’s will and not to be questioned,” because he did not accept it. And, no, God did not need a little angel.

One rationalization that needs special attention says, “It (the death) was a blessing.” Well, yes, when the suffering is terrible and all reasonable hope for recovery is gone, death does bring relief from the torment as a natural form of the ironically named coup de gras (the “stroke of grace” that puts a bullet into the victim’s head to make sure the execution is completed). For all people whose process of dying is long and difficult, there comes a time when that process needs to end, when enough is enough and death is the only release, but that realization does not answer the anguished question of, “Why?” Many times, I have left a home or hospital room saying silently to God, “Enough is enough, please don’t let this go on and on,” but that prayer for release is not an answer for love’s grief but just a human request to end it if it won’t be fixed. That prayer comes from the simplest compassion that does not want torment and decline to drag on toward the only conclusion apparently left open and, also, from the trust that death does not have the final word. People who believe God will keep their loved ones and friends until “that day” when death is swallowed up in life do not need to cling desperately to life that is waning or to prolong “life” artificially when there is no life left. But death as the end of the process of dying and, therefore, as relief from it does not justify the loss of the person to those who love.

I believe we need to be careful about rationalizations of human misery. We use them, especially it seems with women and the poor, to blame the victims. We use them also to blame flawed or broken people for the painful outcomes they may have brought upon themselves in part (almost always only in part). When no human “fault” (being a woman, being poor, or doing something unwise or self-destructive) can be found, we blame God. The irreligious just blame God or scorn the very idea of God; the religious blame God but call it good in some mysterious way we don’t understand.

It is not our job to rationalize human suffering! If we care, it is our job to help where we can (without forcing our idea of help on already anguished people). Where we cannot help, it is our job to stand with them and, in some measure (not overblown) to share the distress. If we believe in God’s grace, it is our job to pray for those who suffer. But it is not our job to offer rationalizations as though they were answers.

The answer to a problem solves the problem. Finding a way to suggest the problem is not really a problem but a blessing in the most terrible of all possible disguises is not an answer. Jesus’ answer to human disease and suffering was to heal it. How many times have I wished I could do so but could not? I cannot count them. His answer to the greater problem of suffering was to give himself to it, for us and with us.

It goes against the grain of our human nature to leave questions unanswered. It makes us uncomfortable. But what else can we do with people’s suffering, and should it not leave us uncomfortable? What I cannot ease or cure, I cannot answer. Rationalizations seek someone to blame and offer ways to accept the unacceptable. Faith does not despise grief, because grief is love’s response to hurt and loss.