How NOT to respond to unimaginable grief
Here we go again. The indestructible Society of Job’s Friends speaks out in the wake of the mass shooting in Sutherland.
This time the theologizing comes from Lutheran pastor Hans Feine at the Federalist. In the article Pastor Feine defends God against critics and cynics who charge that prayer is futile in the wake of such an act.
For example, Feine quotes one angry man who said, “They were in church. They had the prayers shot right out of them. Maybe try something else.”
Another critic excoriated someone who appealed to prayer in the wake of the shootings: “The murdered victims were in a church. If prayers did anything, they’d still be alive, you worthless sack of shit.”
The good pastor comments:
For those with little understanding of and less regard for the Christian faith, there may be no greater image of prayer’s futility than Christians being gunned down mid-supplication. But for those familiar with the Bible’s promises concerning prayer and violence, nothing could be further from the truth. When those saints of First Baptist Church were murdered yesterday, God wasn’t ignoring their prayers. He was answering them.
When Christians pray “deliver us from evil,” Feine says, one aspect of that is “we are asking God to deliver us out of this evil world and into his heavenly glory, where no violence, persecution, cruelty, or hatred will ever afflict us again.” Their prayers were answered.
He also appeals to the theology of the cross to explain how God accomplishes his sovereign will and delivers his children from evil:
Sometimes, his will is done by allowing temporal evil to be the means through which he delivers us from eternal evil. Despite the best (or, more accurately, the worst) intentions of the wicked against his children, God hoists them on their own petard by using their wickedness to give those children his victory, even as the wicked often mock the prayers of their prey.
…So when a madman with a rifle sought to persecute the faithful at First Baptist Church on Sunday morning, he failed. Just like those who put Christ to death, and just like those who have brought violence to believers in every generation, this man only succeeded in being the means through which God delivered his children from this evil world into an eternity of righteousness and peace.
Let me be the first to say that I agree with Pastor Feine on the substance of his post. This is solid Lutheran theology that gives, in my opinion, “right answers” in addressing this situation.
The problem is, it’s not the right time for right answers. If I were an ecclesiastical referee, I would throw a penalty flag and call a personal foul — unintentional pastoral misconduct. If I were a teacher grading Pastor Feine’s article, I would mark him down for failing to include the most essential elements of pastoral theology in his argument: silence, commiseration, and lament.
In fact, in my opinion, the comments he is responding to may have seemed disrespectful, ignorant of the scriptures, and evidence of lack of faith, but in fact I think they may be more appropriate and indeed (to use a word I don’t like), more biblical than Pastor Feine’s right answers.
Ask the people who wrote the majority of psalms in the Psalter. They penned lament songs in times of trouble, not theological defenses of God. The way these psalms are written exemplify some essential truths about facing the hardships and sometimes incomprehensible experiences of pain and suffering in this world —
- these experiences hurt,
- they hurt bad,
- God seems absent and uncaring when we go through them,
- and it takes time (maybe a long, long time) for us to struggle through these experiences and their aftermath before we are able to say, “Praise the Lord.”
Does no one really pay attention to the Psalms anymore?
Does no one read the book of Job and get the picture?
Where are the laments?
Why must we jump immediately to apologetics and theologizing?
Why do we think “answers” are the cure for what ails us?
The people who reacted by doubting or blaming God and discounting prayer’s efficacy were being human, expressing anguish, telling it exactly like it is when you feel the pain, the anger, the questions, the doubts. When you can’t wrap your mind around something so incomprehensibly devastating and destructive. When you feel like you are in the presence of actual evil that frightens the living daylights out of you. When your heart is utterly broken as you think about babies and pregnant mothers, senior citizens and young people, whole families, good, gentle, neighborly people being mown down by a deranged and violent man. When the terror of imagining what it must have been like in that church gives you a sense of existential dread that shakes you to your core. When, even in a church, God doesn’t seem to show up.
Pastor, please don’t come to me in the immediate aftermath of something so harrowing and try to give me answers.
Let me scream at God. Let me damn God. Let me cry my eyes out. Let me question God and complain to God and demand answers from God. Let me say in private and in public that God abandoned me, that God, who promised never to leave or forsake me did just that. Let me say that prayer is useless, that God is deaf or has refused to listen to me. That God doesn’t care about me. That maybe God doesn’t even really exist.
If you let me do these things, it will help me in my faith more than a whole library full of theologically correct answers.
Let me work through it, pastor. Be there with me when I want you to be, but be quiet. Just let me know you’re available. Let me come to church when I can and don’t worry or think I’m losing my faith if I can’t for awhile. When I do come, please understand if I don’t participate with much enthusiasm. You can pray for me, and have others pray for me, but don’t make a big deal about it, and accept the fact that I may not want to hear those prayers said aloud right now.
Consider me in rehab, and give me as much time as it takes to heal and adjust to a new normal.
And, please, don’t ever say or imply that this is something I will “get over.” That God’s promises and truths will make this okay. Life has forever changed and this will always be a part of me. Don’t forget that. And don’t forget that it hurts like hell.
I know you want God honored as God. Well, let me be a human being. Please.