Live into the “What” not the “Why”

When someone is drowning, the only thing worse than failing to throw them a life preserver is handing them a reason.

Kate Bowler

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Live into the “What” not the “Why”

Religious people (me, for example) are really good at focusing on the “whys” of life. Pastors and theologians, in particular, make this their specialty. We think it is our duty to explain the mysteries of God, life, and the universal code of justice. We imagine that the people in our congregations and communities are filled with questions about these and other transcendent matters, eager to get the right answers so that their minds and souls can rest at ease in the midst of life’s ups and downs.

Not so much.

At least in my experience, we religious types (especially leaders, teachers, and passionate Bible study types) seem to be the only ones who really care about such things on any regular basis. Most of the rest of the human race simply goes about the business of living.

Oh sure, there are occasions, especially in painful and overwhelming seasons — what Walter Brueggemann calls the times of “disorientation” — when most people might feel the cry “Why?” rise up and explode from their mouths. But even then, the questions they ask, like Why? How long? Where are you, God? Why me? How much more can I take? and protestations like This isn’t fair! are usually exclamations of pain and panic rather than intellectual queries.

We’ve made the point here many, many times that people in such circumstances aren’t looking so much for answers as for reassurance. They want comforting company. They long to feel the “thereness” of someone who cares, who is with them and will not abandon them, who will not freak out but be a calming presence and a sure guide through the storm. They long to feel safe and secure. Having little or no control over their situation, they want a sturdy anchor to hold on to so they won’t be washed away in the rushing waters that threaten to overwhelm them.

Words, explanations, arguments, apologetics, analysis, etc. — these are most certainly not the tools of ministry to reach for to support such people. And you know what? Most of the time, I’ve found they don’t really want those things either. Even if they present themselves as serious about wanting explanations, when you start to give one, I’ve noticed that people tend to tune out, recognizing right away that the “comforter” is just throwing bits of paper into a whirlwind.

Friend, they already know you don’t have the answer! If anything, they are testing you to see whether you are smart enough to know that too. Then, maybe they might trust you.

But most ministerial training keeps on giving pastoral leaders books instead of bread to feed the hungry. Especially in the biblicist evangelical world, in post-evangelical streams such as neo-Calvinism and neo-Puritanism, and in any tradition that places prime value on doctrine and rational “answers” as a main approach to religious practice, we continue to produce miserable counselors who focus on the “whys” of life and encourage people to live into the why.

As a hospice clinician, I have come to appreciate a different way. We live into the “what” of life, what we’ve been talking about this week as the “thisness” of life. We simply deal with what is before us. Discussing theoretical speculations and solving transcendental puzzles rarely enters into the work. No, we sit face to face with people and try to ease their pain. Period.

It’s as simple and as complicated as that. It can be hard enough at times figuring out what the “what” is that is causing distress. If we were tasked with going beyond that to figure out the “whys” and “wherefores” too, we’d waste a lot of precious time that could be devoted to genuinely supporting those we serve.

The work of supporting others and providing comfort is always more about the “what” than the “why.”

Now I’m not stupid. I realize that ministers and spiritual teachers are in a different setting, and it is their job to maintain and nourish certain traditions within covenantal communities. Those traditions have been developed over time to help explain some of the “whys.” Part of a minister’s kerygmatic and catechetical duty is to encourage people to embrace those as means of grace and strength in the various seasons and circumstances of life.

Fine. I am not arguing for a contentless religion of mere human compassion.

But even within a tradition, I’ve found that, in the end, for me, my “whys” are assuaged by a few relatively simple things: the liturgy and sensory comfort of sacred spaces and rituals, a few precious reassurances from scripture, hymns, and wise sayings, feeling the texture of my prayer beads and hearing the psalms prayed. Things like these provide more than enough satisfaction for the “whys” and other laments that pour from my soul.

And you want to give me a lecture on the sovereignty of God?

Instead, I’m going to need you to look at me in my time of distress and say, “What can I do to let you know you’re not alone? that you are loved and safe and cared for? that you can be at peace?”

When I’m in that situation and need you, don’t try to engage me in some conversation about “why.”

Live into the “what” and love me.

21 thoughts on “Live into the “What” not the “Why”

  1. “In order to get a point across, one must sometimes speak in terms of dramatic contrast. ”

    brings to mind:

    ” . . . The sages have a hundred maps to give
    That trace their crawling cosmos like a tree,
    They rattle reason out through many a sieve
    That stores the sand and lets the gold go free:
    And all these things are less than dust to me
    Because my name is Lazarus and I live.”
    (G.K. Chesterton)


  2. Did they teach you how to twirl your pens (a common mannerism of Christian Debate teens)?


  3. However, when you’re not in the front line but in an Intellectual Salon twirling your pens in an Abstract Theological Debate…


  4. chaplain mike, Excellent point if I am getting it right. It is like someone severely wounded in a firefight and a combat medic is there to aid and comfort. You are on the front line were the rubber meets the road. The corpsman does not go into the why you are hurt and bleeding, he deals with the now. There is the big picture of course the whys but the now, what individuals feel now is the issue, stop the bleeding.. We are told to live in the “now” and that is true and all we can do. There is the old country western song Help Me Make It Though the Night. Different question, different answers for different circumstances different timeline.
    Even when we were young, inexperienced and really not very open to show emotions I think we instinctively knew that just being “there” in a terrible situation and just trying to offer some support in a inarticulate and mindless way saying or doing anything we thought could help, was the best we could do. Looking back it was all we could do, we were there in the moment. Time and God will heal but you have to get though the night, plenty of time to ask why. Not that there is any answer to that many times.


  5. –> “It’s taking me many years to relax in the presence of Jesus…”

    Or, as Matthew 11:28-30 says in the Message, you’ve learned “the unforced rhythms of grace.”


  6. –> “It’s taking me many years to relax in the presence of Jesus…”

    Or, as Matthew 11:28-30 says in the Message, you’ve learned “the unforced rhythms of grace.”


  7. Growing up in a conservative Presbyterian church, I was raised on the “whys”. Most of our sermons were forensic lectures; I can’t recall many drawn from the Gospels. We were Pauline Christians and spent most of our energy figuring out what Paul said about Christ than what he himself said, let alone what how he ministered. Fom Awana on up, our relation to the Bible was one long apologetic, getting the right doctrinal answers to the question, “why?”
    It’s taking me many years to relax in the presence of Jesus and not insert that hometic into everything. Having gotten to know Christ through Paul’ Epistles for so long, I guess I’m happy now to settle for the “Who”.


  8. I think you all know the drill. In order to get a point across, one must sometimes speak in terms of dramatic contrast. Read more closely and you’ll see that, of course, I’m not eliminating all “whys.” I even tell you how to satisfy my whys in simple ways. And if there are honest intellectual questions, of course it would be unloving to ignore them.


  9. I agree it’s the balance. Mike’s complaint seems to be the balance in training is mostly “why”, in practice (particularly in his ministry) mostly “what”.
    My own view is that doctrine is for understanding and guiding the experience and practice (and because if the doctrine is all wrong it’s all just nonsense to begin with) and it is principally through growing in experience and practice that we grow as Christians, and not so much developing ever more elaborate and detailed working out of doctrinal formulas (although they obviously can nevertheless be useful).


  10. But most ministerial training keeps on giving pastoral leaders books instead of bread to feed the hungry

    Why I am getting rid of MOST , not all, of my books. Keeping my Pensey’s spices.


  11. I don’t doubt that I may be confusing terms; that’s entirely possible. But it seems to me there is an element of doctrine in my understanding of who Jesus Christ is, and what he has done for my salvation, and without that element any existential comfort you offer me in my distress will be far less comforting. As in so many things in life, it seems to me that balance of these things is of utmost importance, is different from person to person, and is extremely hard to attain.


  12. From what I understand Chaplain Mike to be saying all the things you are talking about fall into the “what” not the “why” camp. The “why”s he is talking about (as I understand it) are things like apologetics, theories of the atonement, predestination or what-have-you explaining the theological logic behind what we believe and practice. The presence of God in Jesus Christ and the promise of salvation are very much ” what”s.


  13. Same here. Because no “what” that you or anyone else can possibly do can make me feel that I’m not alone as I face death, that you or anyone other human being can love me adequately, that this unsafe world is ultimately safe, that I can be at ultimate peace in my distress in this life. No, not you or any other human being can do any of those things for me; only God in Jesus Christ can, and I will only know him fully after I’ve passed through all these waters. He calls to me from beyond them, or possibly from a place in the midst of them that is so deep that it is as good as beyond.


  14. I guess I’m one of those weirdos who actually think the ‘what’ isn’t worth much without a solid ‘why’. I know it’s not what you’re saying, but to me, without a solid ‘why’, it *is* just contentless compassion. I appreciate the comfort of having someone hold my hand when I die, but if there is NOTHING beyond death, what good is it?


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