Written by: Conrade Yap
Date: 18 June 2010
“The LORD is my Shepherd, I shall not want.” (Psalm 23:1)
It was supposed to be a happy occasion. It was the end of a successful Church camp. What better way than to end our glorious week together with a sumptuous spread of local seafood dishes. With people we love, the atmosphere was perfect; Almost perfect. After our dessert, we found out that one of the cars our entourage came together with was broken into. All of us were stunned. This initial shock soon turned into a mixture of anger and disbelief. Our joyful week was marred by the sight of a smashed car window. Toward the end, when I ask my dear brother in Christ how he feels, the answer was a terse two-word phrase: “It happens.”
Bingo! These 2 words may be simple but they carry a deep insight into our fallen world. It happens. Whether it is good news that happens to ordinary people, it happens. Whether it is bad news that happens to regular working class people, it happens. In fact, I personally feel that these two words carry sufficient philosophical weight to challenge the many thoughts on pain and suffering made by talented individuals throughout history. What interests me is what happens next. What will we do AFTER we say ‘It happens.’ What happens next will reveal our approaches toward things that do not make sense. This week, I like to lead us through three possible pathways of dealing with bad things.
A) Path of Fatefulness
Simply put, this path paraphrases as, “We cannot do anything about it.”
Harold Kushner’s “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” is one example of this approach that tilts toward an acceptance of one’s fate. The book concludes that God essentially is not able to control the outcome. The result is that man simply has to accept the nature of this world, that when bad things happen, it is not because God is evil, but because God is not in control of that bad event. Note that Kushner uses the word ‘when’ rather than ‘why.’ Thus, there is a tinge of fateful acceptance, that one cannot do anything about it. This is one reason why I disagree with Kushner’s philosophy in his best-selling book. When things do not make sense, it does not mean it is fate in action. Saying God is not in control is speculation.
In tough moments, people commonly ask: “Why me?” They want a reason to understand. They want an answer to a hard question. They demand some fairness in the midst of injustice. When such reasons are lacking, there is no other options anymore, the fateful way is to accept the ‘unacceptable’ in utter despair.
B) Path of Fearfulness
If the first approach is to accept fate as it is, and carry on our lives, this second approach appears at first to ‘accept’ the problem outside, but not inside. After saying ‘It Happens,’ one could plant a seed of fear inside the heart, like wondering when and what the next bad thing is going to happen. It is like saying it is a premonition or a bad omen for something worse.
My mother once explains to me the presence of certain omens in the life of any one person. She tells me that sometimes, certain events in life can reveal a future occurrence. In an old Chinese movie, a young woman had a dream of his father waving at her at a door of a train leaving for an unknown destination. This filial daughter woman loves her father. Upon having this dream, she turns hysterical. She sees this dream as an omen that some ominous event is going to happen to her father in some unknown future. Soon, as the film progresses, the father had a tragic death and one bad thing seems to lead to another.
My problem with such a view is that there is too much unhealthy paranoia going on. It cripples. It discourages. It allows doubts to fester in the midst of uncertainty. When we allow fear of bad things happening to us, it distracts us from our ordinary work. Not only is such a path of fearfulness unhelpful, it is deeply misleading. Worse, it invites doubts to accumulate that God is not exactly good and loving. The entire fearful cycle repeats itself as one starts to search for reasons to prove that the omen is true. In the age of the Internet, it is so easy to find all kinds of ‘facts’ from dubious places to prove our emotions of fear. For Christians, there is a better way.
C) The Path of Faithfulness
The path of faithfulness is the way of trust. Senseless things may not make sense now. That does not mean God cannot reveal some answers in the future. Sometimes there is a light that seems to reveal a certain reason. Other times, all the darkness is doing is to force us to be humble and to wait upon God. The path of faithfulness will build in us a deeper insight into wisdom.
I lead an adult Bible study group in my Church. Increasingly, I realize that there is a certain pattern in the questions and statements of people according to different ages. For the young and the middle-aged, there is a lot of interest about explanation and searching for answers. “Why” is a popular interrogative to the hard questions of life.
I listen to those who are older, the seniors and the elderly. They give the group a lot of experience in terms of accepting the hard reality of life. It intrigues me that one of the most popular biblical books for such people are Ecclesiastes and Job. Unlike the younger members who are relatively more interested in answers, the elderly amongst us are more interested in the giving and receiving of wisdom. One respected elder I know reminds us that the book of Job touches on suffering and pain directly. It does not conclude with scientific or philosophical answers, but is full of questions from God about the limits of man.
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” (Job 38:4)
This one question should put the most prideful person in his rightful place. Indeed, who are we to try to explain the unexplainable? Who are we to try to answer the unanswerable? When we encounter the bad things in life, it is a good first step to say, “It happens.” The next step is not to rush into another frantic search for answers. It is to learn to lay our doubts and our questions at the foot of Jesus, so that He can embrace us in love. When bad things happen to us, the next thing we need is not an answer, but companionship.
D) Concluding Thoughts
Let us return to the first verse of Psalm 23. I will suggest that how we approach the challenges in life will dictate our reading of this verse. For those with a ‘fateful’ approach, that man and God cannot do anything about it, they read.
“The LORD is my Shepherd, there are no answers for there is none.” (Fateful approach)
Those who let fear dominates, they read Ps 23:1 as:
“The LORD is my Shepherd, I do not want answers as long as there is no repeat of such bad experiences.” (Fearful path)For the faithful, good news or bad news will never be able to distract them from the Shepherd. Throughout Psalm 23, there is this common thread: God is with us. The faithful will read Ps 23:1 exactly as what God intended:
“The LORD is my Shepherd, I shall not want (anything else).” (italics mine)
When we allow fate to control us, we begin a downward trend of bitterness and meaninglessness. When we allow fear to scare us, we start to behave like the post 911 terrorist victims, where we behave like airport security staff sparing not even a bottle of mineral water! However, when faith and faithfulness to God is our guide, we strengthen our growth and relationship with our Lord Jesus.
Fate numbs us into meaningless acceptance. Faith gently guides us from a pointless event to a Person of love. Fear separates and pulls us further away from God. Faith draws us nearer. The primary line of thought in the Shepherd Psalm, Ps 23 is not that bad things do not happen. It is the promise that God will be with us no matter what happens.
For those of us who have a recent bad experience, let us not be trapped in a silly cycle of fateful acceptance that sucks away any joys of living. Neither should we be victimized by fear, that evaporates meaning and hope. Instead, remember that our hope is not of this world, but in a Person of Christ. The LORD is my Shepherd, He alone is enough reason to continue to live in anticipation that he will come again.
My friends, certain unhappy things do happen in this life. Regardless, God promises to be with us, and never to forsake us. This is the single most meaningful reason not just to live on, but to live with God.
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