One of the most impacting moments of Terrence Malick‘s Tree of Life is this moment where the son in the film prays to God: why do I have to be good if you’re not? Shortly after, there is this beautiful shot where the camera zooms in on the silhouetted back of the boy as he stands in an open door. As the camera approaches, we get a voice-over from the grown-up version of this child saying: Father, why do you hurt us? This moment is so powerful because you don’t know if he’s talking about his earthly father or his Heavenly one.
Fast-forward. The other day, as I was looking through The Economist and reading on all the loss, debt, crisis, and violence in the world, I noticed I kept having similar fleeting prayers go through my mind: why did that happen? or why did it have to be that way?
Neither the son in Tree of Life nor I found answers.
A huge source of our experience of spiritual doubt is an assumption humans have that “why?” is the fundamental unknown undergirding all things; it’s our knee jerk reaction to every happening in our lives–both good and bad. But when we open the pages of Scripture (supposedly the revelation of God), we don’t find answers to this seemingly core thread running through our existence. Faced with this silence, we get frustrated that we don’t get answers, and perhaps even abandon our faith.
The problem exists because the God of the Bible seems far more concerned with answering “what” questions than “why”–what is the nature of reality? what is the problem with the world? what is the solution?
We are this way because humans are, at their deepest essence, contingent creatures (as philosophers call us). Everything about us, our lives, and our thinking are based off of cause-and effect. We think, feel, and do nothing apart from some prior thought, feeling, or action having inspired us. And so, to us, all things come from something and flow to something. In other words, everything has a why.
But not God. When Moses asks him who He is, He simply says I am. The fundamental thread running through reality is that God is–and there is no why to that truth, only a what.
But there is good news for all of us doubters.
It’s in this that all of us weary doubters also find hope and get swept up into the beauty of this thing. God does not merely see our why‘s and disregard them as the wrong question; he does not simply leave us to our own to wrestle and struggle and doubt.
If asking “why?” is human, and “what?” is divine, we find that in the incarnation of Jesus–where the human and divine have found their meeting–the what and the why have become united. We see God himself then crying out from a bloodied cross “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
The God of “what” has brought our human “why” into his own divine experience.
But there’s something even more beautiful going on. With the why and the what having actually become one, Jesus now becomes the what to every why. He becomes the answer. He becomes the beginning, middle, end, and reasoning behind all things and all reality.
Why do I have to be good if you’re not?
Because Jesus has been good on your behalf and dressed you in his righteousness.
Father, why do you hurt us?
So Jesus can be hurt so he might heal us.
Why did that happen that way?
So Jesus might be seen as beautiful and worth far more than than the vastly inferior trinkets that this world can offer.
Why did it have to be that way?
So you might know Jesus all the more deeply as the fountain of all good things; that you might come, taste, drink, and rest.
This is not at all intellectually satisfying.
I know that. But the hope is not that this might be seen as logical, but that it might appeal to a far deeper faculty than our intellects; that this might be seen as beautiful.
And that it might simply be enough.
And then we might worship.
[image credit: Marc Chagall-White Crucufixion]