It almost never fails. Every time I raise the question of “Why me?” I hear the kind, mild and well-intentioned rebuke that perhaps I should ask the question “Why not me?”
I understand the point–I think. Of course, why should it not be my child that dies? Why should it not be my wife that dies? Did my son and my wife deserve to live while others do not? Of course not! My son no more deserved to live than any other child (including thousands in China) nor does my wife deserve to live any more than anyone else’s spouse (including thousands in Myanmar). In that sense “why not me?” is a good question as it reminds me that my family has no privileged standing in this chaotic world. It forces a certain humility upon me which I often need.
But “why did my son die” (etc.) is a totally different question and the two are not mutually exclusive. This question asks why did my son die while others lived. It asks why was my son the 1 in 100,000 births with his genetic condition. It asks why is my wife a statistic where she is the 1 in 10,000 who dies ten days after her back surgery.
“Why not me?” does not undermine the intensity or legitimacy of the question “Why me?” or “Why my son?” or “Why my wife?” That question is not about what anyone deserves or does not deserve; it is not about the assumption of privileged position. Quite the contrary–given the reality of the situation, the question seeks the meaning of the event. “Why this?” “Why now?” “Why me?” are questions about meaning, purpose and significance.
Sometimes I feel some want to deligitimize the question “Why?” I have even heard people gently (sometimes not so gently) hushed in the midst of their grief or, worse, judged for asking the question as if the question is an arrogant and distrustful one. Rather, they are told to ask “why not me?”–so I have heard people told and I myself have been advised. Supposedly, it is a more noble and faithful response to suffering.
In my experience this suffocates the sufferer. It covers the sufferer with guilt for feeling the question and wanting to throw it in God’s face or simply express it to other believers. Instead of asking “why not me” within the story of Scripture, faithful lamenters in Scripture asked “why this?”. They wanted to know the purpose and meaning of their suffering. The question was certainly a venting, but I think it was more. It touched the deepest desire of a sufferer, that is, to understand and “make sense” of what is happening. It is a question that belongs to faithful lament. Listen to some of their questions.
Psalm 10:1, Why, O LORD, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?
Psalm 42:9, I say to God, my rock, “Why have you forgotten me? Why must I walk about mournfully because the enemy oppresses me?”
Psalm 44:23-24, Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O Lord? Awake, do not cast us off forever! Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?
Psalm 74:1, O God, why do you cast us off forever? Why does your anger smoke against the sheep of your pasture?
Psalm 88:14, O LORD, why do you cast me off? Why do you hide your face from me?
Job 3:20, Why is light given to one in misery, and life to the bitter in soul,
Job 7:20, If I sin, what do I do to you, you watcher of humanity? Why have you made me your target? Why have I become a burden to you?
Job 10:18, Why did you bring me forth from the womb? Would that I had died before any eye had seen me,
Job 13:24, Why do you hide your face, and count me as your enemy?
Ex. 5:22,Then Moses turned again to the LORD and said, “O LORD, why have you mistreated this people? Why did you ever send me?
Judges 21:3,They said, “O LORD, the God of Israel, why has it come to pass that today there should be one tribe lacking in Israel?”
Isaiah 63:17, Why, O LORD, do you make us stray from your ways and harden our heart, so that we do not fear you? Turn back for the sake of your servants, for the sake of the tribes that are your heritage.
Jeremiah 5:19, And when your people say, “Why has the LORD our God done all these things to us?” you shall say to them, “As you have forsaken me and served foreign gods in your land, so you shall serve strangers in a land that is not yours.”
Jeremiah 14:19, Have you completely rejected Judah? Does your heart loathe Zion? Why have you struck us down so that there is no healing for us? We look for peace, but find no good; for a time of healing, but there is terror instead.
Lamentations 5:20, Why have you forgotten us completely? Why have you forsaken us these many days?
The question “why” presumes that God has his reasons and purposes. I believe that; otherwise, I would be forced to believe that the deaths in my life are purely arbitrary (and thus subject to meaninglessness) or they are the chaotic results of a disinterested, perhaps apathetic, God who does not get his hands dirty in his own creation.
I prayed for the health of my wife; we prayed for a successful surgery and recovery; we prayed that she might be able to bear children to full term (we had already lost one in a miscarriage). Barbara and I prayed for a healthy child; we prayed that he would grow into a leader among God’s people.
Now here’s my problem. When I petitioned God for those healthy and seemingly “within the will of God” kind of outcomes, what did God do or say to me? Did he say, “Well, John Mark, I would like to do that for you but I just don’t do that kind of stuff. We will have to see how it all turns out. We’ll hope for the best.” Or, did he say, “Well, John Mark, I will do what I can and work for that goal because I also think it would be great, but there are some things just outside of my control.” Or, did he say, “No.”
No? How could God say “No”? Is this an arbitrary roll of the dice or was my number was just up? Is it the apathy of a God who really does not get his hands dirty in the details of life? Or, is this a purposeful, meaningful and mysterious answer?
I prefer the purposeful, meaningful and mysterious answer. The “No” is not arbitrary but a reflection of divine wisdom and purpose. “John Mark,” God might be saying, “this is gonna hurt, but I have a purpose in this. I know it won’t make sense to you, and I know it will be painful, and you might even deny there could ever be any purpose worth the price, but I have a special interest in this matter. I am doing something beyond your imagination–something you would not believe if I told you. John Mark, my beloved, trust me on this one.”
Why do I prefer that answer? Well, it gives meaning to my suffering even though I don’t know what that meaning is. But, more importantly, I think it is consistent with the story we have been given. As God deals with individuals and communities in his story, he deals with them out his purposes and invests meaning in their lives. He actively engages their stories and integrates them into his story.
Why did these tragic events happen to me? I don’t know, but I keep asking, exploring and searching. In this I am following faithful lamenters and exemplars in Scripture. In this I follow Jesus himself who cried “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Given his cry, I think I can ask the same question with full legitimacy!
Why shouldn’t it happen to me? There is no reason it should not–I have no privileged position in the universe; nothing in my life–including my own life–can make any claim on God. Why did it happen to me? I don’t know but I trust God has his reasons. And I trust God–though I am often frustrated with him. I wish I knew the reasons, but I doubt if it would lessen the pain. There is just too much that I don’t understand and if God explained it to me I would probably end up as confused as a three-year old to whom a Lipscomb Physics professor is trying to explain quantum mechanics.
In the end, I don’t really need to know the reasons why; I don’t really need to understand the divine goals in each specific situation. I want to know them but I don’t need to know them for the purposes God has in mind for his creation, that is, communion with him and with others. In the end, it is not about rationalizations or deductions or inductions or syllogisms. In the end, it is about faith, about trust. It is about communion, about relationship.