This week in class, I listened and observed as the fall interns discussed a particular case involving the question of theodicy. In its basic form, theodicy involves the question of where evil stands amidst a God who is believed to be all-loving, all-powerful, and all-knowing. Theodicy questions include things like, Why does evil happen in the world? Does God have the ability to stop it? Is God a vengeful God, a forgiving God, or perhaps both? These questions used to be too complicated and distant for me to consider. When I first started seminary, I did not like theology. I thought theology to be a time where ancient, abstract concepts of God were brought into conversation with each other. However, once I began my work as a hospital chaplain, I saw theology come to life and have loved it ever since. Because the questions of life and death are a part of people’s everyday lives, and instead of discussing ancient theologians’ answers to the questions, we help families look at their own stories and seek to find an answer to their own grief.
In this conversation with interns, we talked about a mother whose son (in his mid-20s) was on his death bed after a car accident. His brain was bleeding and his death was imminent. In my interpretation, this son was the glue that held this somewhat dysfunctional family together. And here they were, watching it all unravel in a split second. The mother asked several times, “Why him? What did he do to deserve this? He is a good kid!” There was a fear among some of the chaplains in the conversation that this mother was going to ask the age-old theodicy question, “How could God let this happen?!” The fear grew as some of the chaplains wondered how they might answer that question. How do you answer the question as to why God would let this happen to her son? I had an easy answer: you don’t.
It may sound like avoidance, but hear me out. I think our hearts and minds have a way of eventually processing out why things happen in our lives - it is our way of grieving. Let me be clear that I do not believe we always get a cut and dry answer; sometimes our answer is settling on the fact that we just don’t know why. That being said, I do not think God created us to grieve and process all the same way. For example, when my grandfather died, each person in my family grieved his death differently. The beauty of our family’s grief was not that we grieved uniformly, but that God created the space and presence for each of us in our varied grief.
Another example from my experience came when I told someone about the death of an unborn child in my extended family. That person had the nerve to say to me, “Well, I’d bet God took that baby’s life because God knew something would be wrong with the baby if it was born. But now you have an angel waiting for you in heaven.” I wanted to slap him. Seriously, do you think you know why this baby never got a chance to live? And more importantly, do you honestly think THAT answer is helpful?? Perhaps you have had a death or some sort of loss in your life experience. How did it feel when someone came to you and told you why it happened?
I think when we answer questions of this nature, it is out of our own anxiety, or even avoidance, about the topic at hand. I see it happen all the time at the hospital (yes, I sometimes find myself doing it, too, without realizing it). The other day, I was with a family member after her long-time boyfriend suddenly died. Perhaps out of his anxiety, I heard the physician say to the woman, “My only explanation is that God must’ve wanted him more than we did.” In an effort to provide an answer to an answerless situation, I believe the physician gave a potentially harmful statement for this woman to carry with her: God must’ve wanted him more than we did. Translation: if you wanted him more, maybe this wouldn’t have happened. I cringed a little on the inside.
I don’t think the physician who said that meant any harm by it. But I do think we as humans want to give an answer that makes people feel better. So why is the ‘why’ question so awkward? I think because the question stumps us. And it is hard for us as people to admit we don’t have the answer to everything.
As a chaplain, I think my role is to create the space for grief. It is a common misconception that we as chaplains come to explain why something happened to someone. I don’t know why something horrific happened any more than the next person. I have no idea why unborn babies die, why perfectly healthy people are suddenly diagnosed with stage 4 cancer, or why a good and loving person can suddenly die in a fatal car accident. But giving families the space to cry out the “why” questions, and equally as important, allowing the space for the silence of the unanswered questions, helps remind me that I am not God and I have not begun to understand why bad things happen to people. But I believe that in that awkward silence rests the presence of God, encompassing the space for every felt emotion.
My closing statement to the interns was equally helpful for me as I continue to wrestle with the question of why bad things happen: “The beauty of the chaplain’s role is that we don’t carry the pressure to answer questions of theodicy…but we do carry the privilege of entering into a family’s grief with them.” And that, to me, is what makes the silence a little less awkward.