I’ve never had much luck persuading God to explain things to me. Many people reading that statement would chuckle knowingly and say, “It’s stupid to even ask—that lack of explanation you get? Probably a clue that GOD DOES NOT EXIST!”
I could point out that an argument from silence (God doesn’t answer my questions) can’t prove anything, but let’s head in a different direction.
Humans are inveterate and incorrigible explainers. We love explanations, and we love explaining; we love definitions defining. Be we Buddhists or Christians or Jews or atheists, we all seek to explain the world and our lives to ourselves.
Meaning matters. If the ultimate meaning of my life is only to be found through the ever-expanding opportunity to maximize my choices, life will develop in a certain kind of way. It will increasingly become about power, my power to pursue my choices. If the meaning of my life is to serve the State, a very different life will come to fruition. I will give myself over to whatever the State desires or commands. If life is ultimately without meaning, that, too, will flower into a particular kind of life. We will need many anesthetics and anodynes for our sense of purposelessness, and many distractions and entertainments to keep our minds occupied. How we explain meaning, purpose, significance really matter.
Explanations are one way we understand and make sense of the world and our lives within it. The sun appears to revolve around the earth, but a better explanation shows that it’s the earth that orbits the sun. Some sicknesses seem to travel through the air, but it’s a better explanation to understand that transmission as the result of viruses and bacteria instead of evil spirits.
Explaining and defining are one of the ways we exercise control over life. It can be awfully unsettling when I can’t “make sense” out of what is happening, and explaining is a way of making sense. Good explanations and clear definitions make a lot of life work better.
But there are a set of experiences and questions that, as we say, “defy explanation.” So much of life’s goodness defies explanation. Why is the world beautiful, why do we all know that love is the greatest virtue, why is there satisfaction and enjoyment of anything?
And there are also the can-someone-explain-this-to-me questions. These questions are often generated by the fact of great suffering, serious illness, unmitigated injustice. They tend to be “why” questions: why did this happen? Why did God allow it? Why this, why me?
“Why” questions are meaning-questions: what does this mean? Houston is flooded by 50 inches of rain: why did this happen, what does it mean? In the abstract, it’s simply weather patterns and changes in climate; the weather fronts and wind patterns fell into place in just these particular ways, and that’s what happened. In these instances, we ask “why” questions in part to see if we can prevent such disasters from happening to us ever again. That explanation works well enough—until it is your house that gets flooded or your loved one who drowns. That raises the question differently, or raises different questions.
It is suffering that exposes the weakness of reliance on explanation. You or someone you dearly love gets a diagnosis of aggressive cancer. The doctors can explain, perhaps, “why it happened, what caused it,” but can’t really help you with the “why” of it, what it means, other than your life may be greatly and unexpectedly shorter than you had hoped or planned.
The medicos can’t help you with what does this mean, what is it about, is there any purpose other than fighting to survive and “managing quality of life.” Some people are OK with that.
But what if it’s the latest slaughter at a school or church, or a tsunami that kills multiple thousands, many of them children? A violent civil war shreds a nation to pieces? Is there any “meaning” to be found, or is it simply and only the randomness of life, one of the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to? Anything more to say than “S—ks being you, being them?”
What the Good News of Jesus presents us in the God who is with us, not a god who explains everything to us. What we most need when we’re really up against it isn’t an explanation; it’s companionship, it is being accompanied through the valley of the shadow of death. To be accompanied by the God who became “the man of sorrows, well-acquainted with our sufferings and griefs” is worth much more than all the explanations in the world.
God-with-us is different than “God wills whatever happens” or “God can’t be all powerful and all-loving at the same time.” Those are attempts to explain.
But there are some things in life—many more than we suspect—that are not under our control, or subject to our explanations. These experiences of life’s ecstatic heights or unfathomable depths can become meaningful as we allow ourselves to enter into the Presence rather than into a forest of explanations. There is, of course, more to the Good News than this, but there is not less.
And it is this, this God who is with us in Christ, that makes meaning out of all that we cannot understand or control.