I DON’T KNOW WHY

As I have mentioned several times before, I love the question “why?”.  It is a question that has served me well over the years in a variety of contexts and situations.  I have discovered that knowing the answer to “why?” often takes me a long way towards making a bad situation better.  Sometimes, knowing the answer to that questions helps me see that there is very little hope of being able to make a change in some situation.  More often than I sometimes want to admit, knowing why helps me accept a less than ideal situation.

So, I have come to love the question and use it a lot.  Now and then, my use of the question causes some frustration to some people, especially in some of the teaching contexts I have been involved in over the years.  Students will hug and protect a cherished concept or idea and take serious offence when I begin pushing them with the why questions, especially since I generally don’t allow “because” as the answer.  I push not necessarily because I want students to change their ideas but because I want them to at least think seriously about their answers.

Given how important this question is, you would expect that the answer would be as important as the question.  But the truth is that while sometimes the answer to why is as important as the question, sometimes the question is the important thing–and an answer not only isn’t necessary but can defeat the purpose of the question.

Why would I write that?  Because of a lot of time spent with people asking “Why” only to be given an answer that harms more than it helps.  The classic example of this, at least for me as a pastor, comes during those times in life when people are pushed to the limits, often as a result of serious illness, a profound loss or death.  At some point in the process, amidst the tears, the pain, the protests, someone will ask “why?”.

And almost without exception, there will be some well meaning individual present who will offer one of the standard answers to that question in an attempt to make everyone feel better.  They will offer, “When it is your time, it’s your time”; “God needed another angel in heaven”; “S/he is in a better place”; “They are not suffering any more”; “There is a reason for everything”.

There will occasionally be a few who offer a more theological answer: “Evil is the result of human sin”; “God allows us freedom and we misuse it”.  Now and then, there may be some particularly offensive individual who will answer the why question with the comment that suffering is a result of our own personal sins.

Some of these answers are simply wrong, some are offensive, some are inappropriate and some have some theological truth in them–but none of them offers the questioner any help, hope or solace in the midst of their struggle.  We use them because we feel we have to say something.  There may appear to be some effect when we give one of these answers because the person will stop asking why.  But I have discovered that that is generally the result of their fatigue and frustration, rather than any positive effect resulting from the non-answer.

For most people struggling with one of these kinds of why, the help they need often comes from being allowed to ask the question.  The question is a way of getting their pain and frustration and hurt and fear out in the open.  They aren’t really looking for an answer–they are looking for an opportunity to vent.  Allowing the question to stand there serves to enable them to further process their pain and loss.  They may or may not find an answer as they ask the question–but they generally aren’t really looking for a canned answer that we can pull out of the answer book.  They are looking for their answer and need the freedom to ask the question as often as possible.

I have even discovered that many times, the best response to one of these why questions is a simple, “I don’t know”.  That answer has the advantage of being honest on all levels–and when people are asking why in these difficult contexts, they want honesty more than canned, ineffective answers.

May the peace of God be with you.

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