During the immediate aftermath of the September 11, 2001 disaster I was assigned by the Red Cross to the New Jersey Family Assistance Center at the Liberty State Park. As a chaplain, alongside many other professional care givers, I worked with many of the families who were just beginning to come to terms with the loss of loved ones during the collapse of the twin towers. I was confronted with many questions as to “Why?” this had happened to them and to their loved ones.
Towards the end of my two weeks there, I remember a conversation with a New Jersey National Guardsman and a New Jersey State Policeman. That conversation centered on the deaths of so many people—when the estimates were still extremely high—as much as 6500 victims. One of the men said to me, “I don’t know how God could do this to us.” The other remarked about how many of the 30,000 or so occupants of the Trade Centers had gotten out alive and unharmed physically. His comment was to the effect, “How wonderful it was that they were spared.” Don’t get me wrong—we should always have a sense of gratitude for the gift of our lives, but these comments struck me at the time, when there was such random loss of life as happened on 9/11, as being somewhat ill considered—in that they assumed that God had steered the events of that tragedy so that one life was saved and another lost.
This is one of the great conundrums that we all face in life. Rabbi Harold Kushner pondered this issue of randomness after his son died of a deforming and painful disease, Progeria, which aged his son into an old man before he was a teen. Kushner gathered his reflections in a well know book titled When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Here are a few of his thoughts:
You may not agree with Kushner’s conclusions—I struggle with them a bit, also. But in this day and age of pandemic, it may be important for people of faith to struggle with them and somehow come to some terms around such questions.
Early in my career as a chaplain I had the opportunity to minister to a patient whose life was maintained by a mechanical ventilator and an artificial feeding tube—not unlike many who are afflicted with serious symptoms of coronavirus. He was unconscious and had been for the better part of two months. Although he could possibly exist in this condition for years, he was not expected to recover. His wife was very faithful in visiting him daily. They were Jewish—he by birth and she as a convert from her childhood faith as a Roman Catholic. I occasionally found her sitting with both her Jewish prayer book and a rosary. During our visits she would look at me and say, “I know God has a purpose for making my husband like this.”
Being trained in the art of spiritual care, I didn’t launch into a theological dissertation regarding theodicy (the process of answering the question of why God permits evil). I likened her question to the faithful complaint that we here in the Psalms as the writer there entreats God to save him (or her) from some devastation. Kushner’s book was relatively new in publication, so I offered it to her as a way to help her with her questions.
A couple of days later, she handed it back to me saying that she didn’t like it—“He said that God doesn’t control events and things—that things happen in random.” She wanted no part of this thinking. She stated she would rather believe that God did this to her husband intentionally, rather than consider a God who allows for randomness.
As did the conversation so many years later between the policeman and guardsman, her choice to believe the way she did is one of the greatest gifts granted to us by the Creator—our power to choose. Likewise, the natural world of disease and disaster is also free—and the apparent randomness of the universe can be the dark side of this gift of freedom.
Here’s the final awareness for me in this very complex and land-mine-filled discussion. Amid all this apparent randomness, I believe God is present…not necessarily causing it but going through it with me…and us. It is natural to both wonder why and to marvel at God’s power in events. You may even be disappointed in God and ask why God has sent this or that disease or accident—or even this coronavirus pandemic. I think the question “Why?” misses the point. The more important questions are “What am I going to do in this circumstance?” or “How shall I respond to this crisis?” There is a choice in such questions. We can hold on to cynicism, anger and disappointment, or we can respond with grace, hope and peace. We have that choice. Ultimately, God holds you in God’s hands whichever way you respond!