As I write this article, police are piecing together the events that led up to Derrick Bird’s horrific shooting spree. As this tragedy unfolded in Cumbria on Wednesday, shock and disbelief were quickly followed by tears and questions. Perhaps the most prominent question was ‘Why?’ Why did this 52 year old taxi driver start killing people? It’s a question that may never be fully answered, and even if it is, I doubt we’ll ever be able to understand it.
This weekend, it is likely that the focus of the ‘Why?’ question will move from Derrick Bird onto God - especially if there’s a Christian in the room. Why does God allow things like this to happen? So, if that ‘Christian in the room’ is you, what’s your answer going to be?
My suggestion is this: Don’t provide an answer to their question!
That’s not to say that you shouldn’t respond, that would be rude, just don’t respond with an answer! If we’re honest, we’ve all probably tried that, and however ‘right’ our answers were, I doubt they were that helpful.
One of the most famous examples of Jesus confronting tragedy is when he arrived in Bethany to be greeted by a distraught Mary and Martha. Their brother had just died. Like today, people were asking questions, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” (John 11:37) Jesus had the answers, and in this case he also had a very tangible solution, but first, “…he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled,” and then, he wept (John 11:33-35). If we discuss the ‘suffering questions’ without feeling the pain what we say will come across as academic and theoretical. Nine times out of ten, that’s not what people want at moments such as these. Genuine empathy can lead to a healthy discussion.
Secondly, join them in asking questions; this can be a lot more helpful than trying to provide answers. It is my experience that in situations such as this answers do not necessarily increase understanding, but asking questions can increase our faith. This approach appears to be extremely biblical – just flick through the Psalms and the books of Job and Ecclesiastes. Their authors ask many questions of God and about their experiences of life, which contains so much pain and injustice. Attempting to provide an answer is almost certainly the fastest way to end a conversation, asking genuine questions can lead to a healthy discussion.
There’s a danger that we associate theology with ‘knowing the answers to the God-questions’. That both diminishes the depth and misses the point! The word ‘theology’ is made up of two Greek words, one meaning God, the other meaning words, discourse and thinking. Theology is about discussing the things of God, not simply presenting answers. It’s not primarily about coming up with formulas and answers; it’s about increasing our faith in, and deepening our relationship with, the Creator.
Asking questions doesn’t necessarily result in increased confusion and doubt. Take a closer look at the Psalms and books of Job and Ecclesiastes. In all three examples, the questioners seem to end up with a greater respect of, and faith in God. As we wrestle with the ‘God-questions’ with our colleagues, friends and family, it gives us all an opportunity to discover more of the things of God – wherever we currently are on our faith journey.
Phil Green, Public Theology Research Assistant