December 28, 2020 by lucieromarin
The sparring-partner who asked me, “Why can’t God tell me why He let something bad happen?” gave the example of a random bus accident that kills seventeen people, for which tragedy there is no obvious internal logic, as there might be in cases such as building a house on the San Andreas fault line or getting cancer in old age after years of so-called high living.
The first thing to note about this question is that it is normal. Even the Sayings of the Desert Fathers record: “Antony was confused as he meditated on the depths of God’s judgements, and he asked God, “Lord, how is it that some die young and others grow old and sick? Why are there those who are bad and rich who oppress the good and poor?” So, your first thought about a person who asks this question needn’t be, “She’s just prideful and trying to get out of going to Mass.” Confusion is normal, and so is the frustration that attends it; tragedies will always be experienced as such, and the questions that arise from grief are not the same as a non serviam. Context is king.
Three other points at the outset:
First – this question is not a request for God to make His presence known in our lives in a general sort of way, such as by consolations in prayer, sudden conviction of precepts of faith, or a vague sense that Everything Will be Alight. The interlocutor does not ask, “Why can’t God make me feel okay about suffering?” The interlocutor asks, “Why can’t God supply me personally with an explanation for the deaths of these seventeen individuals about whom I otherwise know nothing?” This question is about requests for particulars, for answers that are specific, detailed, not related to the salvation of our souls or God’s will for our lives, and not communicable expect by extraordinary means such as private revelation, a locution or apparition, or through unusual charisms. Therefore, where I talk about ‘communications from God’ in the discussion that follows, I am talking about the extraordinary experiences that such answers necessitate.
Second – an assumption behind the question is that God’s answer would be consoling. Nobody asks this question expecting God to say, “I let the children die because I like watching you cry,” or “I find it really fun to mess with your heads. Ha ha.” The question, which seems to challenge God’s existence or authority, actually affirms a default belief in His goodness. So, when you hear this question, you’re not necessarily hearing a refusal to serve God; you’re hearing a slightly tangled-up request for help on the assumption that He is in some way benevolent even though He doesn’t seem that way in this moment.
Third – an assumption behind the question is that God’s answer would be comprehensible. This is a little awkward. You can’t say to someone, “You wouldn’t understand it,” because that sounds like a patronising fob-off. Somebody whose thoughts are with seventeen newly-dead and their grieving families is not going to say, “Well, I was in shock over this terrible thing, but when my good Catholic friend pointed out that I couldn’t understand God’s ways, I felt so much better.” However, at some point in our lives, we do have to confront this possibility for ourselves. Most of us will grant that there are bodies of knowledge that only make sense if we’ve mastered certain other bodies of knowledge first; physics, chemistry, pure mathematics are all cases in point. Consider my experience of trying to understand a virus. I was told it was a protein. But what is a protein? It’s a bundle of amino acids with a polypeptide chain (or something.) Okay. But what’s an amino acid? It has amines at one end and carboxyls at the other end. But what’s a flaming carboxyl? And so on. The answer that I thought would be neat and simple turned out to be completely unintelligible, not because I am stupid or because science is patronising me, but because there was a body of knowledge that I had not mastered before asking this question. The same goes with God. Sometimes, a neatly-packaged, comprehensible answer is not available, not because it will never be available, but because there are some other things you need to learn first. If you choose not to take GOD101, you have to expect difficulty managing GOD404.
Okay, so having stirred our thoughts a bit with these preliminaries, I’d like to share my response – which is really just a bunch more questions.
My first question for anyone who wants specific answers from God is this – how would God give you those answers so that you could be sure it was Him?
It’s true that God can give us guidance, answers or good feelings, and that He can use dreams, visions, or voices as instruments of communication; it’s also true that the restless imagination, emotions aroused by beautiful music, mental illness, diet-induced hallucinations and evil spirits can produce (at the outset, anyway) exactly the same experiences. Genuine mystics conceal (and fear) their own experiences for precisely this reason, because, being normal, they can see all the other dreadful things those experiences might be. False mystics advertise their experiences with confidence, because, being deluded, they don’t consider for a second that they’re undergoing something other than a visitation from God.
How would God talk to you about the tragedy on the road without burdening you with the fear of transient psychosis? It’s no good saying, “Well, I’m sure He could find a way,” or “I would just know.” Venture into the New Age section of any bookshop, and you will notice that God is already talking to quite a lot of people, as are mermaids, fairies, angels, spirit-guides, deceased relatives, and unspecified forms of higher powers with vaguely Judaic names. There are 40,000+ Protestant denominations because everyone genuinely thinks the Holy Spirit is giving them a different interpretation of Scripture. They all Just Know. All of these people are writing on the grounds that they’ve been given the very kind of communication that you ask for, but neither you nor I believe them. And all the reasons you don’t believe them would have to be applied to you if you suddenly started hearing things.
For this request to be a) reasonable and b) consistent with the idea of God being in some way benevolent, it has to be not only possible, but possible-without-causing-more-problems-for-us-than-we-had-to-start-with. This is not as simple as it sounds. The whole history of genuine mysticism shows consistently that mysticism screws over the life of the mystic. Think about it. If someone asked you, “Why are you suddenly so composed in the face of tragedy?” what would you say? Would you want to share the insight you’ve been given, to console others as you have been consoled? Who would you tell? Your spouse? Your family? Would you go to a doctor first? An exorcist? Both? Could you hold fast to the truth of your experience if everyone derided you? Would it spoil the experience to be derided because of it? What if they feared you? What if they said, “How the hell could you know this stuff about the lives of people you’ve never met? Don’t talk to me again!” Would your question, “Why did those people have to die,” become replaced with, “Why won’t You make people believe me?” We ask ‘why’ from the experience of not-knowing, but God keeps silent from His vision of the consequences of our knowing. In other words, most of the time, when God doesn’t give us the answers we’d like, it’s not only because we’re still at GOD101 level of understanding, but also because He knows that we don’t actually want to spend the rest of our lives as lonely as St Faustina Kowalska, who was not only scorned as an hysteric by those around her, but who wondered constantly if she was indeed mad.
I asked a friend, who was non-Catholic at the time, what he was looking for in his quest to decide whether or not Catholicism was the true faith. He answered, “Something that I know I couldn’t have made up.” I asked what that would be, and he said, “Something like another person.” This is exactly where a Church comes into it. Yes, yes, I know that there can be false churches and that clergy-classes and prophets and popes have all sorts of issues – but the point here is that we never have to wonder if we made them up. If they are evil and manipulative, the defect is in them. If I am delusional and hallucinating, the defect is in me. God’s decision to speak through other people sometimes, rather than through direct communication at all times, spares us a lifetime of the latter concern.
There is another logistical point to be considered. Suppose God does start talking to you… where will it stop? You can’t possibly imagine that He’s going to explain His decisions about other people’s deaths to you, and then not tell you to get out of bed on Sunday morning and go to Mass. Do you want to be woken on the Sabbath by an audible Divine summons to your Sunday obligation? I bet you don’t.
God doesn’t yell at us every time we gossip, lie, slander, steal, fight, blacken the eyes of our neighbours, etc and He doesn’t produce a memo upon command. His silence when we ask for answers is related to the same respect He shows you on Sunday mornings by leaving Mass attendance up to your free will and keeping quiet about your choice. Communication is indeed the two-way street of cliché, so the more you align your will with His, the more likely you are to receive the answers that complicate your life as they complicated the lives of the saints. But this choice is up to us. (I don’t mean to suggest that you become holy so you can get answers from God. The holier you are, the less you’ll ask for them. The point is that the holier you are, the more capable you will be of receiving those answers that God chooses to give you for the sake of your particular mission and the salvation of your soul.)
The trouble is that if you’re imagining God as a kind of butler who can be summoned at will to give you the answers you desire and dismissed until you ring the bell for your hot buttered toast, then you’re kind of forgetting what God is. Sorry, I have to sound mean here, but God isn’t your butler. One reason He won’t give us what we ask for if we talk as though He’s our servant, is that if we speak from this assumption, we’re not actually talking to Him anymore. We’re addressing a fiction and then wondering why the fiction doesn’t behave as we tell it to. We’re children yelling at a sock-puppet on television, while the adult makes dinner in the kitchen.
Why can’t God tell us why He lets bad things happen? I said at the beginning that to ask this question is normal, and I repeat that statement here. But, in conclusion, I say that it’s not quite true to say that God can’t tell us why He lets things happen. It is more the case to say that He can’t tell us yet. It is by fulfilling certain conditions that we make their consequences possible. Like the student of physics, we do a certain amount of work first, and by so doing, become capable of the next body of work. Like the genuine mystic, we strive for that alignment of the human and divine wills. By growing in quotidian virtue, we become prepared for the virtues we’ll need if God suddenly separates us from the normal experiences of ordinary life. (Don’t hope for this. Mystics have terrible lives.)
The answers we want from God are contingent upon the relationship God wants with us. He’s not refusing you; He’s waiting for you. We start by asking for the grace to know (insofar as He is knowable in this life) the real God.