Seeing With a Blind Eye

A friend finds you at Church, and pulls you into a quiet hallway. His eyes are red, wet with tears. He recently lost his spouse. Now he tries to make sense of the tragedy and looks to you as a confidant and advisor. “How,” he asks, “could this happen to me? How could God do this to me?”

How do you reply?

Putting aside the matter of consoling your friend — he is looking for an answer, not consolation — there are lots of possible responses. Some are more common tropes than others. Consider:

1. “God called her home. It was her time.”
2. “It was the act of an evil man, and God was not involved at all.”
3. “It is all part of God’s plan.”
4. “There is no way for us to know.”
5. “Probably because of something you did. Or she did.”

Each reply tells us something about how we view the world, how we see God’s intervention in our lives, and the overall problem of evil. Some of these replies are probably better than others, but none of these (in my view) are moral or truly correct.

1. “God called her home.” This appears to be a nice source of comfort. But it implies that the death was not only God’s will, but in some way it was God’s act. This statement belongs to a mindset in which life is a mission, with a clearly defined set of tasks and an arranged beginning and end, and that when you’ve accomplished those tasks, the celestial taxi arrives and picks you up. Alternatively, the bounds of life are set out by the sands of the hourglass, and when the sand is gone the taxi arrives. While there are some scriptures that support this view, this perspective fails to help us understand why God calls home some people sooner rather than later, or why one person’s time is longer than another’s. As such, this statement is mostly a platitude that implies some sort of involvement on God’s part, but leaves our friend with more questions than answers.

2. “God wasn’t involved at all.” Deists in the house, represent! Some people are so troubled by the idea of God’s involvement in tragedy that they excise him out of the equation entirely. It is definitely a clean solution to the problem of why bad things happen. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be a very scriptural solution. On its own, the phrase also suggests that God is only involved with those events we in our narrow view consider as good; which is why any self-respecting deist will also tend to rule out divine intervention, both positive and negative. Baby and bathwater are both out the window in a nice bit of clean reasoning, but God hates them for it.

3. “It is all part of God’s plan.” Other iterations include “God is over all,” or “all things will work out as part of His will.” Like #1, this suggests an interventionist God, but in this instance God is the architect of the death. Again, this is largely a platitude, but it strongly implies that on some level, God is behind everything that happens. With this, the problem of evil creeps in to haunt us; is God behind Darfur? Did God approve of the Holocaust? Those extreme examples may seem too shocking to be helpful, but I use them because the very concept of a masterfully interventionist God is what has led many of my own friends to resort to agnosticism or atheism; they cannot bring themselves to worship a God who is behind (whether permitting, allowing, or accepting) the recurring grand tragedies of the world.

4. “There is no way for us to know.” This answer fails because it is completely unsatisfying. What is the point of our religion if it cannot help us with this problem, at least in some partial measure?

5. “Probably because of something you did.” The Jack Handey reply is also a category that lumps together expressions of divine retribution as well as suggestions of free will. The divine retribution model is certainly not comforting, and it presents problems found in other interventionist models. Alternatively, we can take this as referring to expressions of free will by human kind — a spouse has been murdered, for example, and you might say that God had to allow the murder to happen because to intervene would have meant a subversion of free will, which is a greater good. This free will model has tremendous appeal for Mormons, but unfortunately it too is fraught with complications, as the scriptures are replete with instances of God subverting the free will of, say, Nephi’s brethren in order to save Nephi’s life. So while we might refer to it generally, we cannot take it as an absolute rule and as a result we’re not much better off. There are other variants of the free will arguments to consider; for example, take the notion that God primarily intervenes in our lives by inspiring others to act.

While I understand that there are many other permutations, let me suggest an alternative to these examples, one that has worked fairly well for me thus far. Say to your friend, “I don’t know why this happened. Some day, God may tell you. But until that time, we can’t say for certain.” This takes the ignoramus view (#4), but qualifies it to account for personal revelation and the restored gospel. In other words, I would simply state the truth: unless God tells us in our hearts the reason behind an event, we cannot know why it occurred. We can make suppositions; we can try and fit the events to match our predisposed worldview; but we cannot know until God tells us. This sounds similar to “putting an issue on the shelf,” as people often do with thorny problems of history and belief. In a way, this is right, but the approach I suggest is more a means of preserving the mystery behind the world in a way that works to God’s favor.

What, then, do we do with the scriptural accounts of divine intervention and retribution? Take them for what they are: individual accounts. As they say in a prospectus, past performance is no indicator or guarantee of future results. That the Nephites were unable to slay Samuel the Lamanite does not make all missionaries arrowproof; nor does the slaying of the innocent in the city of Ammonihah mean that God will never intervene to save the righteous. We simply do not know, and cannot know absent revelation. This, I would argue, is the point of our existence: to walk by such personal revelation, knowing that there are no guarantees of anything in this mortal life. To find the certainty we need, instead we should turn to the only certain things we can have: a knowledge of our existence, personal knowledge of God touching our hearts, and personal faith in the Atonement in our individual lives. Those are the anchor points.

I think it’s a big mistake to make presumptions about why things happen. Even if we are right about God’s intervention in a given instance, we may be making wrong guesses about the future – and inadvertently teaching false doctrine to others. We end up defining God in ways that may not be correct, and conditioning our confidence and belief in God on evidences that He himself has warned us to eschew.

Comments

  1. This is wonderful, Steve. I like it. Thanks.

  2. Gilgamesh says:

    How about –

    It’s pretty normal to ask these types of question. I really don’t believe there is an answer that would be able to satisfy you and fill the void in your life. But I will be here with you and have hope that you will come out all right.

  3. You know, when my wife passed away, I had many of the same questions, although I had had a confirmation of the Spirit, that God was aware of what was happening, and He was in control. To this day, I don’t know exactly why it happened, especially when it happened (she was only 27, with 3 young kids).

    I had a home teacher tell us that “if we were righteous, she would live.” That seemed particularly insensitive at the time. We were trying to do all we could do to follow Heavenly Father, yet in spite of everything, she had terminal cancer.

    We asked for, and received a new home teacher.

    Bottom line is, sometimes things happen, that we don’t know the answers too. I don’t know why she was called home at that time. I do know that Father was aware of our situation, and blessed us mightily at the time, and in the years since.

    And I don’t buy the “Divine Retribution” or “Divine Indifference” angles, at least in our case.

  4. I would try to find a euphemistic way to say: “S**t happens. Even though I doubt that God directly responsible for the timing of her death, he can probably help you learn and become a stronger person as you pull through this trial.”

    I guess this is a qualified version of Steve’s #2 in the original post.

  5. Christian Harrison says:

    Though I would never broach this with the aggrieved—it’s just not the time or place to bring it up—I must admit that my first, gut reaction is: why is this about you? Do you honestly think that God would kill your wife to do something to you? What kind of god do you believe in? And since when are any of us beyond experiencing pain—sometimes profound, excruciating pain? Why is your pain somehow so different than the pain of billions of others?

    Sorry … it’s not such an frustrating question.

  6. Christian, whether or not the question comes from selfishness, it’s still an important one. Essentially yours is a sidestep.

  7. StillConfused says:

    I would say something like – I am sorry for your loss. She was a great gal. Remember the time when ….
    I really don’t like to get into the whole Why business. It really doesn’t change anything.

  8. Christian Harrison says:

    Hey Steve … as I said in my response: it’s not what I’d actually say to the person. But that’s certainly what the question elicits from me. So it’s not so much a sidestep as an aside. ;)

    As for an actual response, I’m guessing StillConfused would be mine. That, and a hug.

  9. Christian, I think your response is only good for those who are constantly stuck in the “why me” phase and can’t get out. For normal people, I think it’s important to ask why. You’ll likely never get a clear-cut answer, but you’re more likely to learn from it and find ways to cope. It also gives you a real opportunity to draw closer to your Heavenly Father.

    Steve, I’m completely with you. For me, it would be something like “I don’t know why. But I know God loves you and doesn’t enjoy your suffering. Be patient, He’ll help you, you’ll see.”

  10. Thanks for your thoughts on this, Steve. I largely agree with your take.

  11. Nice post! Some disagreement.

    “I don’t know why this happened. Some day, God may tell you. But until that time, we can’t say for certain.”

    But sometimes we do. Sometimes it was because someone got drunk and decided to drive. Or decided to randomly start shooting people, or other things that have direct and distinct causes. This where the talk about not knowing why it happened seems odd. The real question seems to be why didn’t God intervene. But sometimes free agency completely explains it. I suppose my honeymoon head-on with a drunk driver has jaded my views. We were in a wreck because someone made bad choices. No higher reason. I’m not a deist, but I think God rarely intervenes when free agency is being exercised. If you choose not to wear a seat belt, smoke, eat blowfish, climb mountains without ropes, ride motorcycles without a helmet, etc. there are risks and when someone you love’s head hits the road without a helmet it seems odd to ask, “Why did this happen? God will tell you someday.” I can tell you what He’ll say right now, “He wasn’t wearing a helmet. That’s why he is dead.”

  12. After my nephew died suddenly, our family took an approach similar to Steve’s. Thanks for codifying it so succinctly.

    I think the answer also works in cases where family members suffer unexplained tragedies and live (disablement, children born with problems, etc.).

  13. SteveP, agreed that we can point to proximate causes, but we don’t know as to ultimate causes — so statements like “the drunk driver was meant to be” can’t be evaluated, true or false.

  14. I would say “I don’t know why. But I too would be in sorrow beyond anyone’s understanding right now… and as mad as hell. I hope time and faith will help you find your peace.”

  15. Molly Bennion says:

    Such an important question. Too many people leave religion blaming God for tragedy.
    As I told my next door neighbor when he lost his daughter in a car accident: God weeps with you and stands ready to comfort you. He may give you insight into the whys of this tragedy. He may not. Seek an understanding of Katie’s death, but prepare to be very surprised if you are one of the very few to whom God chooses to grant that rare blessing. With our permission, he placed us into this world allowing evil, natural disaster and disease to, by his choice or in accordance with the proper order of things predating him and beyond even his control (we don’t know), try us–to try our ability to choose the right and live by faith. Your lovely daughter passed that test well.
    Think of the trees on your farm. The strongest face the elements and strengthen with each storm. Those in the center of the orchard, less buffeted by the wind, are the weakest. Did God place your daughter in harm’s way? No. Could he have intervened and prevented the accident? Yes. But he does it so seldom, so very seldom and so without human reason, because the larger plan calls for things usually just to happen. Innocents suffer. Evil sometimes triumphs. God promises us only that all will be right and understandable if we can endure with faith, hope and charity.
    I cannot imagine the core alternatives: a God who controls all good and evil or a God who has no control. Either would drive me to atheism. And then I would cease to seek his comfort, which I can personally attest is far more liberally granted than understanding.

  16. I have a good friend who’s wife died this week after a long battle with cancer. During her long fight, a co-worker of my friend arranged for him to have lunch with a member of the Seventy, who had also lost his wife to disease.

    The Seventy said “You will doubtless wonder why this is happening. I don’t know why it’s happening to you and your family and I don’t know why it happened to me and my family. All I can do is trust God and hope she’s happy wherever she is.”

  17. I wouldn’t say any of the above.

    A person who comes to YOU with that kind of pain is talking to the wrong person. That person needs to get down on their knees and pray. That’s what you should tell them.

    We should never encourage our friends, as much as we love them, to rely on the arm of flesh–on our insufficient explanations and imperfect understanding of their situation. They need to go to the servants of the Lord who have a right to revelation concerning them, or to the Lord Himself in humble and sincere prayer.

  18. Paradox, that’s another way of sidestepping — but ultimately your answer basically says what I said. Thanks for agreeing!

  19. Christian Harrison says:

    @Steve Evans … I don’t think SteveP is trying to read anything more into the situation than what he said. No “meant to be” — nothing. Also, who says that the drunk driver isn’t the ultimate cause (assuming you’re not wanting to go back to the driver’s awful childhood or high school desocialization)? Perhaps I border on deism, but I don’t think God is much in the business of orchestrating the quotidian events of our lives. Sure, God intercedes … but such intercession, I believe, is rare — and must always account for the nuanced workings of Agency.

    @Martin: again, my reaction to the question is just that — a gut reaction. The power of grief and despondency are not lost on me. Moreover, I find Mormon doctrine to be a superior ally when tackling questions of theodicy.

  20. amen to SteveP.

    Q: Why was my son born with Trisomy 21?

    A: Because during the month my husband’s sperm were given free reign, my ovary released an egg carrying an extra 21st chromosome, due to a previous glitch in cell division.

    That’s the only “why” I or anyone else has any right to assert, unless and until God speaks on this particular matter.

  21. #19 yes, that is my point. Sometimes the ultimate cause really is the choices made by ourselves and others. I decide to get drunk, I crash into a family of six, they all die. The ultimate cause just is my decision to get drunk, i.e, if I had not gotten drunk they would still be alive. I decide to gun down my neighbor. I am the cause. Why did it happen? Because I choose to gun him down. Metaphysics over. End of story.

    Of course that doesn’t make a very comfortable story to tell your friend, but maybe looking for reasons is the wrong approach. Maybe the question is how do I deal with this. How do I live again when my wife was taken from me. Looking for reasons often leads to either unanswerable questions or obvious causal stories (he died because he was not wearing a helmet). The real gift you could offer to your friend is to say, “Forget the reasons they are irrelevant or trivial now. How do you live again after that event. That’s where God can step in and say, “Here’s how. And I’m going to help you do it.”

  22. Yes Kathy, I think that is the right approach. I was writing when you posted, but I find that a much healthier attitude than wringing our hands and saying, “Why? Oh why?”

  23. (#22) Steve, I can’t fault anyone in a crisis for hand-wringing questioning–I think it’s pretty much inevitable. The problem comes when well-meaning observers think it’s their job to provide a satisfying answer.

    It’s natural to want to be the one who comes up with just the right thing to say to someone in need. Sometimes this want comes out of a pure desire to help another. More often, that desire is tainted at least a little bit with a need for self-gratification. Either way, we don’t help anyone by making truth claims that we have no right to make.

  24. Very nice post, Steve, and nice addendum Steve P. Asking metaphysical questions in response to our pain is a waste of time and perhaps our lives. In spite of that, talking about the question has a place–like this. Talking about it can help us see both the evil we encounter and that what is required is our response rather than our metaphysics.

  25. Kathy, thanks for your and SteveP’s followups. If anything it shows how hard it is to view these issues in the abstract.

  26. My 2 cents, although I’d have a hard time explaining it to someone grieving. I actually find the best explanation from Buddhism. There are 5 essential causes to everything:

    Kamma Niyama—Consequences of one’s actions
    Utu Niyama—Seasonal changes and climate
    Biija Niyama—Laws of heredity
    Citta Niyama—Will of mind
    Dhamma Niyama—Nature’s tendency to produce a perfect type

    So, some is karma, or results of actions of us or others. Other things include nature (ie. an earthquake), laws of nature (Downs, etc.), etc. Also, nothing we do is in isolation, but we’re all in a big interconnected web. If someone decides to leave for work at 7:49 instead of 7:51, the world is a different place.

    I differ from espousing a pure Buddhist philosophy, as I think that God can intervene if He chooses, but I think these times are very few and far between. Otherwise, how does one explain a person dying when they were blessed they would have a complete recovery by a worthy person hours before? Why do bad things happen? Why Hitler? Did God cause them, in which case He’s an evil God. Could God NOT stop them, in which case He’s not omnipotent. Or doesn’t He care? I don’t know. I don’t have the answer.

    So, overall, I suppose my answer is that S*&^ happens. Maybe someday you’ll know. Maybe not. The essence of life is that there is going to be unhappiness. People will die. We will grow old. We will be disappointed. We will get sick. That’s just life.

  27. Life is sorrow and suffering. Everything we build and work for, all the people we know and love, will be taken away, destroyed and lost. All things will end, despite our efforts. But even though our efforts are doomed to fail, I believe that we are transformed through our work.
    We cultivate a garden even though all things in it will die, return to weeds and wildness. On the one hand, it seems a futile effort. But on the other, every day we work in the garden, we enjoy it; the feel of the soil, the fruits of our labors. We become gardeners, attuned to the life and changes of the garden in ways that mere observers cannot.
    So in this life, what matters is that we love. We cultivate friendships and families, skills and attributes. We know that nothing we can do is enough, but we believe that through some grace, God will deem our works acceptable.
    In the meantime, we can work, and pray for that peace that quiets the pain, so though we suffer, we do not despair.

  28. Stephanie says:

    I think my answer would be, “I don’t know why. Sometimes bad things happen to good people, too.” It may not be particularly satisfying, but it is the answer I tell myself when bad things happen in my life.

  29. aloysiusmiller says:

    I would tell him that it was Cosmic Justice and then I would make my confession here on bad things I have done.

  30. Recording Angel says:

    “aloysiusmiller” is shorthand for “bad things I have done.”

  31. Nice post, Steve.

    I just can’t believe that a former subject of the Queen of England didn’t manage, in a post with this title, to bring up the incident in the Battle of Copenhagen, where Admiral Nelson, advised that the commander of the fleet had directed the English fleet to withdraw, put his telescope to his blind eye, said he really did not see the signal, and continued to press the attack, winning a victory for the English.

    I agree that there are times when we too should put the telescope to our blind eye, but in the issue raised in your post, it’s more likely that even with the glass to our good eye we will not see the answer to the questions.

  32. Any commenter that mentions Lord Nelson automatically becomes a legend — and you were already a legend, Mark! Good work.

  33. Aaron Brown says:

    Jim F.:
    “Asking metaphysical questions in response to our pain is a waste of time and perhaps our lives … what is required is our response rather than our metaphysics.”

    In the past, when I’ve run across this claim — whether in a Jim Faulconer paper, a Nate Oman blogpost, or wherever — it has irritated me. It has seemed like a cop-out, a refusal to engage a profoundly important question, a restatement of Steve’s #4, with the attendant unsatisfaction. I simply couldn’t accept it. And I’m sort of on record with my own Deist leanings here: http://bycommonconsent.com/2006/08/15/when-we-just-dont-know-just-isnt-good-enough/.

    But in revisiting this question recently — i.e. making the rounds through old Bloggernacle posts — I think I’m finally getting it. Sort of. I mean I’m still irritated at my (our) inability to make sense of tragedy intellectually, and my Mormon upbringing — characterized as it was by all-too-facile “responses” to evil and injustice — has trained me to believe that Sunday School answers should be available and sufficient. But in the end, I have to concur that the act of exploring various theodicies has not only been a futile quest for intellectual and spiritual closure, but a quest that, on some level, I knew was futile from the get-go. It’s been a catalyst for getting mad and staying mad at God, injustice, bad Sunday School answers, thoughtless Mormons, etc. But when I find myself in a situation like the one Steve posits — where I need to provide comfort for someone suffering in front of me — do I really even want to have a glib, “satisfactory” answer to share to the “why?” question? Not really. So maybe I should stop searching. Or at least stop searching under the pretense that I’m really going to find what I’m looking for.

    AB

  34. AB, I don’t think that asking metaphysical questions is, in itself, a waste of time. I continue to like philosophy and think it is worth doing. But it is a waste of time to think that our answers to metaphysical questions, even tentative ones, will assuage someone’s pain.

    I recommend Paul Ricoeur’s book, Evil: A Challenge to Philosophy and Theology. Short, good read. Or Job.

  35. Aaron Brown says:

    Yes, I understand what you’re saying. Finally.

    AB

  36. I would tell him that only he can give the answer to that question – by what he decides to do from here.

  37. Jim #34 — Very nicely stated. I agree.

  38. Jim #34 — Very nicely stated. I agree.

  39. clarkgoble says:

    Like Jim suggests, I think we have to be careful giving an intellectual answer to what is fundamentally an emotional cry. That said I tend to think God isn’t the deist God. He acts and intervenes but he usually acts and intervenes indirectly by inspiring others. Often the problem is that we aren’t open to those inspirations such that he can have the effect he otherwise would have. Yet I think all of us have had at times gusts of inspiration which have prevented tragedy.

    Sometimes I think the big question isn’t why God didn’t act, but why he does act. What is so special about those moments of intervention – sometimes relatively trivial – when larger tragedies go unprevented. It’s there I think we have no answer, just faith. I think I know God does intervene. I’ve just seen it too many times. While I could get mad at God it seems I usually end up more bemuzed and befuddled at the whole thing. More like a Shakespearean fool looking in on the tragedy around me and wondering if it really isn’t all some divine comedy after all.

    Which always leads me to the line that I’m ultimately a Nietzschean Mormon who laughs at all tragedy, real or imagined.

  40. I don’t know the answer. But if some one dies ‘without reason’, I know my question..Why?
    #39: ” I think we have to be careful giving an intellectual answer to what is fundamentally an emotional cry.” I agree. That’s why I would always start with “Why?”. I may fall back on reason or faith, but only after my emotional cry of Why.

  41. Stephanie says:

    What about the mother in CA who just lost her son in the desert? They were going camping, and the GPS led them the wrong direction. They ended up stranded for days, and he passed away a day or two before she was found and rescued. Can you imagine how she must feel? How would you even begin to answer “Why?”. I think my response would be the same as I said before, “I am so sorry this happened to you. Bad thing sometimes happen to good people” and cry with her.

  42. psychochemiker says:

    Why to gps mom? Because she put too much trust in the GPS. My gps unit opens up with a warning every single time, informing me that it is MY responsibility to know where I’m going, so that I don’t get lost, and so that I don’t crash into a building. God didn’t tell her to go camping with a GPS as her guide into the desert. Let’s not blame him.

  43. Stephanie says:

    Well, psychochemiker, it sounds lke your answer to GPS mom would be #5 – “Probably because of something you did”. Comforting and compassionate.

  44. #42: Why would one need a GPS if they knew where they were going? If she had relied on a prayer for safety and direction, who would you blame? When she undoubtedly prayed for rescue, and no one came, who would you blame?

  45. A cyber friend lost her husband two weeks ago when in response to a bomb threat at his work he had a heart attack. She became very tired of the “it was his time” stuff because she felt it was the bomb threat lamo’s actions. She did like the answer of we don’t know exactly why, but we do know God can help your dh and you with the situation.

  46. When a tragedy occurs I’ve found most people, at least initially, are asking questions, but don’t really want to hear and digest answers. I’ve found they just need someone willing to listen.

    As a general rule, I agree with Steve’s approach.

    In one case, I was closely associated with, a teenage girl was found dead under very aggravating circumstances. The family didn’t know what had happened to her. Was it murder, suicide, an accident–was the question on everyone’s mind?

    One of the family members was given a vision wherein he was given to know that a very large group of spirits had assembled on the day of the funeral to give comfort and observe. He learned, many of those who assembled were spirits who were yet to be born. The spirits were so numerous they filled the house and the surrounding streets.

    He told the father, mother, and siblings of his experience while it was occurring. Some believed, some doubted, some were upset they weren’t given the vision.

    Within the hour a lady from the home ward, who was known for her spiritual gifts, came by to see them. She said that when she was walking down the street she became aware of a vast number of spirits filling the area. This was a second witness to the family, and everyone was persuaded.

    Another observation I’ve made, is that the most interesting conversations with those who have lost loved ones, is had several months after the death. Many of them, with the passing of time, have had some kind of experience with the Spirit to bless and comfort them.

    I’m of the personal opinion that the Lord blesses all those who are His followers when the sting of death is present in a family. But not all are able to receive the blessing.

  47. So when someone cries, “why”? are we really required to have ‘the’ answer? Or, if we are that friend that they depend on. do we listen, hold their hand and let them know we’re there for them as long as they need us…

    You know, if you’re a fan of the Plan of Salvation, it’s a simple fact that we’re all dying to live. No one gets out of this world alive (okay with exception of a few nephites and a small list of translated folks.) The rest of us gotta go sometime and I’ve not noticed a reservation board listing preferences for times, dates & exit modes. Stuff happens, take your pick – natural disasters, our choices, other peoples choices. To suggest that God has some master plan to make the survivers miserable is ludicrous.

    After the loss of my child one dear sister showed up on my doorstep with a single, perfect rose floating in a delicate white bowl. She just stood in my doorway with tears in her eyes, handed me the flower, gave me a hug and left. No answers for the unanswerable.

    I quite preferred it that way.

  48. I usually just lurk and enjoy the comments, but I think something crucial is missing from this discussion. The missing piece is this: suffering is the only way to learn some things. When I look at the tragedies in my life from the distance of decades, I’m amazed at what that suffering helped me become. There was no other way. Suffering brings growth. My personal experience that God doesn’t want me to have to suffer any more than I absolutely have to to get the job done. I’ve been warned to slow down, just before I pass a cop. I’ve been nudged to take the keys away from my toddler, or I’ll never see them again. This may sound trivial compared to others’ experiences, but we came home from the temple one night to find the babysitter waiting in the driveway with news that our 5 year old son was in the emergency room waiting for our consent to give him surgery for a badly broken arm. I was really bothered that something like that had gone wrong when we were doing something right. Why didn’t we feel an urgency to get home? We’d left precipitously before to come home to find that two of our little ones were kneeling in prayer, terrified we’d been in an accident. Why didn’t we get that feeling when it was really serious? The answer I got was that this experience was necessary for growth. Mine, my boy’s, I don’t know. Bad things happen so good people have to dig deeper than they ever would have had to without it. I do believe in a compassionate, active Father who spares us everything He possibly can.

  49. Earlgirl, yes, suffering can bring growth. But I don’t recommend telling someone in great pain that they’re being blessed with a wonderful learning experience.

  50. living in zion says:

    I found #17 comment really irritating. Yes, in the end, we will all turn to God. (No athiest in foxholes, etc.)

    But when a friend who is suffering comes to ME looking for comfort and support, my first move is to grab them in a big hug.

    I think God would want no less.

    I would not consider it good form to respond with a lecture on finding someone more “spirtually qualified” to talk to. I also wouldn’t tell them to take their pain to God. I assume they already have, and God sent them to me.

  51. Researcher says:

    From the original post: “How do you reply? Putting aside the matter of consoling your friend — he is looking for an answer, not consolation…”

    My answer would depend on whether I wanted my friendship with the suffering person to continue. If I don’t care that the bereaved ever talks to me honestly again or allows me to participate in his grief any further, I would go ahead and give some of those answers listed in the original post, or the one that Kathryn Soper just objected to. (“Suffering builds character.” And yes, from personal experience, people actually do say that in response to grief and suffering, and no, it is not okay to say. Explore it in blog posts all you want, but don’t say it to someone in grief.)

    If your friend is a member of the church, he already knows all the “answers” and doesn’t need a review of the things he’s heard in Sunday School all his life.

    Some suggestions: Hug. Listen. Talk about the deceased if your friend can stand it. Ask questions. (Honest questions about the experience, not Sunday School questions.) Listen some more. And then some more.

    Don’t judge. Don’t feel offended if your friend doesn’t respond how you would expect him to. If you are willing to be open and allow someone to suffer and not feel that you have to slap a bandage on his emotional wounds (not that it will help anyway!), you just might be allowed to share or hear his experiences when the beautiful, comforting spiritual experiences eventually come.

  52. anon Says:
    August 7, 2009 at 12:17 pm

    You know, when my wife passed away, I had many of the same questions, although I had had a confirmation of the Spirit, that God was aware of what was happening, and He was in control. To this day, I don’t know exactly why it happened, especially when it happened (she was only 27, with 3 young kids).

    I had a home teacher tell us that “if we were righteous, she would live.” That seemed particularly insensitive at the time. We were trying to do all we could do to follow Heavenly Father, yet in spite of everything, she had terminal cancer.

    We asked for, and received a new home teacher.

    Bottom line is, sometimes things happen, that we don’t know the answers too. I don’t know why she was called home at that time. I do know that Father was aware of our situation, and blessed us mightily at the time, and in the years since.

    Nicely said.

    If your friend is a member of the church, he already knows all the “answers” and doesn’t need a review of the things he’s heard in Sunday School all his life.

    Some suggestions: Hug. Listen. Talk about the deceased if your friend can stand it. Ask questions. (Honest questions about the experience, not Sunday School questions.) Listen some more. And then some more.

    That is more than true of anyone experiencing significant grief and how to support them.

  53. Antonio Parr says:

    Depending upon how the Spirit moved me, I would pass on one or more of the following scriptures:

    1. “I know that [God] loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things.” 1 Ne 11:17.

    2. “For behold, this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” Moses 1:39.

    3. “For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come,
    Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 9:38-39.

    4. “And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God.
    And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.
    And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new. And he said unto me, Write: for these words are true and faithful.” Rev. 21:3-5

    All four scriptures brought comfort to me when I walked recently with very close family members as they passed through the valley of the shadow of death. These verses remind me that God loves us, dearly; that, in the final analysis, we will not be separated from God or from each other; and, that even though the answers are clouded by our mortal vision, we can have faith that God is devoted to us, and has in store a bright and joyous future that transcends the very real pain of death.

    Elder Holland’s recent conference address on the lonely journey of Jesus is something that I would offer to watch with your grieving friend.

    (P.S. This is a very important topic raised by Steve. One of the greatest gifts that we can give another is comfort during time of bereavement, and it is a good exercise to ponder frequently the hope that Christ offers with and through His atonement.)

  54. Just for some perspective:

    A brilliant and humble man I know lost an adult daughter in a freak surgery accident. She left behind a husband and very young daughter.

    One day in our PH Meeting, the topic was “What I Have Learned”. This wonderful man said, quietly and with head bowed, “I have learned that we can draw closer to God in our deepest afflictions than at any other time in our lives.” He then said, “I only wish I had not had to learn that in the way I had to learn it.”

    I only want to stress that we simply MUST avoid any suggestion that implies what causes someone’s pain and suffering is a good thing – even if, ultimately, they learn from that pain and suffering. There is a HUGE difference between the cause of suffering and the potential outcomes of that cause – and conflating the two is what causes much of the difficulty we have in addressing this fundamental question, imo.

  55. Researcher, beautifully said.

    Earlgirl, I apologize for being curt. It takes guts to comment for the first time, esp. on an emotionally charged thread, and you shared significant personal experiences to boot. I’m glad you spoke up. To clarify my response: I agree wholeheartedly that we learn things through suffering that we couldn’t learn any other way. But I believe this is a highly personal learning process, one that usually comes (as you said) when we “look at the tragedies of our life from the distance of decades.” It’s a perspective that can’t and shouldn’t be foisted upon another.

  56. Very nice conversation all. As Christians we are asked to “mourn with those that mourn and stand with those in need of comfort”. Best thing is to give a hug and remember the Atonement and the departed loved one is in their loving care.

    God and Christ are aware of our sorrows and Christ has paid the price. My husband died a month ago and that knowledge has sustained me.

    As an aside I took this position years ago in regards to death/tradgedy– no one is exempt. The question is not “why me”, but instead the statement “why not me”. One of my boys said shortly after his Dad’s passing, “It is now our turn”. I think if we realize this great truth we are better prepared for tragedy.

  57. I find it interesting how this conversation moves from the questions of theodicy to the types of things we tell each other to mourn with each other. I am starting to realize a little more that we cannot view these questions in the abstract.

  58. #55 Kathryn, I agree with you, and I didn’t think you were curt. I got to throw my arms around a friend today to mourn her stillborn baby, and the only thing to say is, “I’m sorry, I’ll do my best to take care of you. I’m praying for you.” There’s such a variety of philosophies and experiences represented here, and I’m glad to be able to share what made it all make sense to me.

  59. Molly Bennion says:

    Steve, we can’t come up with an abstract universal response but I think you were right to encourage us to think in the abstract. The emotional and the intellectual responses each have their times and places. The friend of your example asked for an answer and you would know how much detail to discuss.
    Decades ago the Kubler-Ross 5 stages of grief was all the rage; now it is challenged widely. No new pat theory has taken its place. Experts do seem to agree that we grieve differently. Many people, like my neighbor, come to a point where they do question their friends about their beliefs in search of a more satisfying construct than those they have been taught. My neighbor’s wife turned her back on religion the day their daughter died, but he was searching for a reason not to blame God.
    Within the church we can do better with hugs and theodicy. Who doesn’t know a surviving Mormon spouse or parent who was told by someone that God must have needed their loved one more than they did? Thanks for the discussion. We need to be ready to mourn and, if called upon, to answer, knowing each situation will be different and important.

  60. Eric Russell says:

    Steve Evans (#57),
    First off, welcome to the bloggernacle! Thanks for commenting, your input is appreciated. As you spend some time reading Mormon web logs (blogs), and getting to know commenter personalities and blog status quo, you’ll discover that there a number of unwritten rules in the Mormon blog community. For example, there are multiple topics which are essentially verboten because of the difficulty of achieving an objective or abstract discussion. If you have any questions about what is or isn’t feasible for public discourse, just let us know, and we’d be glad to help.

  61. Latter-day Guy says:

    I think that sometimes the point of suffering is that there is no answer. It’s the Job story: Terrible things happen. Job’s buddies offer varying theodicies. Job doesn’t really offer any explanation, but he does say “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him.” God responds and condemns Job’s friends, but praises Job. Perhaps our suffering is meant to be bewildering, and the only right response in the face of what seems God’s evident betrayal is more trust.

    I don’t like this idea. It seems too much like putting our fingers in our ears and saying, “la-la-la-la-la.” Still, I suspect it may be true.

  62. Happened to me after 41 years of marriage. The only mitigation was the year of cancer treatments gave us time to adjust to the circumstance.

    My response was: life goes on. Figure a way around and move forward. It was somewhat difficult at first. The question was not why did this have to happen, rather, where was the comfort promised. My faithful wife died without spiritual comfort and support. She just gutted it out with her own special determination. I asked “why not give her peace and solace and comfort that all would be OK?”

    (My special comfort was a vivid dream (my first) where she appeared to show me that she was not dead, on the contrary, full of life and more beautiful and desirable than ever imaginable. Moving forward was a comfort. I remarried and life is healing. My daughter had an experience at the veil where she felt her mother’s presence and felt her approval of my life and new wife. I feel her presence.)

  63. I received a Priesthood blessing after I went through a really hard phase of life and I had spent a lot of time wondering if I was to blame. The blessing basically stated that, “it wasn’t my fault–it was just chance, circumstance.”
    I still don’t know why it happened, but I was relieved that it wasn’t caused by anthing that I did. Now, when I have friends who go through a hard time I request for them to get a Priesthood blessing.

  64. I have read this post and the comments with a lot of interest and trying to figure stuff out.

    It stands out to me because I have a newly blind eye, literally. I suffered an accident on a seemingly easy hike back in March. I fell off a cliff (fell between 30 and 60 feet – I’ve heard various estimates), shattered my wrist into 14 pieces, broke my pelvis, blew apart my left eye, and suffered multiple brain injuries.

    I am recovering well, I’ve been able to return to work, my wrist still doesn’t have full range of motion back (and probably never will), my pelvis is healed (aside from some slight discomfort if I sit too long), I’m never going to get my eye sight back but am adjusting to life with one eye, and I’m starting to feel like the effects of my brain injury are fading away.

    Through it all I have felt the hand of God and see His blessings in my life. In some ways, my life is better now then it ever was before. The abundance of blessings had made me wonder if God didn’t want me to fall off that cliff. I asked that to my dad and he pointed out that the good things were results of decisions that I and my friends and family had made long in advance of my fall. That helped me to see that God had been in my life helping me prepare for this type of incident for years. Because He knew what might happen and He knew what kind of help that I would need. He didn’t push me off that cliff, He was just there every step of the way since then to help me pick the pieces back up.

    I really think that is the lesson I’ve learned through all of this. God didn’t decide one way or the other to make me fall. He has just been there for me and my family to help make things alright.

    There is no answer to the why, I just know that God is there, cares, and will help to alleviate the pain and help us all to keep on living.

  65. BobW–

    Thank you for sharing these sacred experiences.

    Your willingness to relate them increases faith for many of the readers of this post.

  66. Steve Evans says:

    Spencer, thanks very much for your insight. I appreciate it.

  67. Thanks Steve. I like this. It sounds like a very sensible hypothetical response.

  68. Some of the best advice given to me in the MTC was, “It takes a humble man to say, ‘I don’t know.'” The best way to understand God’s will on a matter is to ask Him directly.

  69. I dunno. I don’t think there is One Right Response for situations like this. Some people may not want or need or be ready to receive anything but a hug and hear anything but “I’m here and I love you.” As such, I doubt that such a response could ever be wrong. I think love is key, love and mourning with them.

    I can’t help but think, though, that there are some who may want/need to explore more of the “typical” answers. In the right situation, with the right person, and with the Spirit, I believe such explorations *could* be right. For all that they can seem pat, the truths and mysteries of godliness really are, in my view, found in the simple, even Sunday School, answers. I don’t think we should be wholly afraid of them…just ever-so-careful not to use them as platitudes or to, as Kathy said, foist them on others.

    I have also heard of situations where it’s the grieving family who is providing the strength born of faith in the simple answers…sometimes even the answers that are rejected here as insufficient platitudes.

    Thus, I am inclined to say that while we ought to be careful about responding too quickly to such questions, on the flip side, I think we ought to be careful about rejecting answers outright in a vacuum, because each situation is possibly very different. Only God knows what they need, and for all that ultimately answers (if they come) can only come from God, sometimes He does use us as instruments. I think the challenge is when we try to be such instruments w/o really having the Spirit’s ok.

    So, I think the only real way to know how to respond is with the Spirit. There are answers that for some would add to pain, but for others would Just The Right Thing.

  70. How about “I don’t know, I’m not sure if I’d want to know, but I wish it hadn’t happened to you.” Yeah, I know, side-stepping, whatever…

    I didn’t read all the comments and maybe someone already said it, but I just think it’s part of the Mortality Deal we all signed up for. We knew these things could and would happen to us.

  71. Some of these replies are probably better than others, but none of these (in my view) are moral or truly correct.

    As I see it, the problem is that everyone interprets scripture and “God” in ways that suit them. Everyone that I know should give the answer “I don’t know”. But that is not what happens.

    Instead, we get all this noise, and formulate beliefs, that just keep us from becoming people able to hear real revelation.

  72. wish I’d had this to read last Sunday, when I endured two hours of superficial Mormon talk about adversity. I’m 50, have metastatic prostate cancer, and have been minimally active for the last couple of years because I get so angry at the shallow back-patting and bad religion of my ward members.

    We want the answer without the struggle for understanding, and as has been pointed out, it’s not about theodicy, it’s about grief work. I’ve been grieving the loss of various body parts and functions for two years, and all I want is someone who will walk the path of grief with me–not tell me to have faith, go on an alkaline diet, or make some kind of cosmic deal with God to heal me. I hope I’m not overstating it when I say the Mormons are bad at grieving. My experience is that everyone wants to retreat to a safe, happy place instead of walk through the valley of the shadow of death.

    I like the Book of Job more than ever now. God essentially asks Job and his friends, “who are you to question me? I’m the creator of the universe!” It’s a good antidote to our cultural bias toward finding an answer rather than experiencing what is there for us.

  73. Christian Harrison says:

    @dan: Powerful reply. Thank you.

  74. Four years ago my parents looked like they were on the brink of the ideal retired life. Due to their careful saving they were going to have enough to retire comfortably and serve as couple missionaries wherever they were called. Looking back, their lives were pretty much perfect – successful kids, a few grandchildren, everyone working toward righteous goals. Then my dad was diagnosed with terminal cancer and in less than a year and a half my mom was a widow.

    Ever since then, she’s asked why this would happen to her, especially since it seemed like half of her ward is retired couples serving missions, and she had been looking forward to leading the life they do. It has died down, though. She still has sad times, but I think the advice I would give to anyone in the position of comforting a friend is to use a mixture of number 4, a reminder of things eternal, and service.

    Encourage them to accept church callings as they come along. My mom was lucky (yes, lucky) to be called to be young women’s president right before my dad died, and serving in that calling and caring about the girls in the ward has helped her deal with her grief, recognize how the Lord has blessed her, and focus on others.

  75. I’m horrible at empathizing, I admit it. But I’ve come to the conclusion that anything bad (or what we, shortsighted as we are, view as “bad”) that happens in mortality is undone by the Atonement, and in the end, doesn’t matter, except for the learning experience that any circumstance puts us in.

    Someday, there will be a huge, joyous family-of-God reunion, and we’ll all be there, and the “why did this happen to me” questions will all be rendered moot.

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