An Act of God

A young man lay comatose in an intensive care unit with a fractured pelvis, facial injuries and an ominous swelling in his brain.  He had a passenger in a car that ran off the road and smashed into a tree. I had known this young man all his life, the only child of a woman who nearly died giving birth to him.  Before she got pregnant, she had thought she couldn't have children and never had another.  Her son was all grown up now and had planned to be married.  Then he took a spin on back country roads with a friend who was showing off his new sports car.  He hung on for some days after the crash with little hope that he would ever fully recover or even regain consciousness.  Then, perhaps mercifully, he died.

His mother has strong faith and has needed it.  Her second husband died suddenly only 19 months earlier.  Her first husband, the young man's father, was diagnosed with schizophrenia long ago and has been living in a nursing home.  There but for the grace of God, we think, without giving it nearly enough thought.  At the very least, God's grace appears to be a hit-or-miss affair.  Why them and not me?  Why me and not them?  Why anybody?

Misfortunes that defy rational explanation are often marked down as acts of God -- a telling note in itself.  Those who make it their business to justify the ways of God to men may offer up some tidy explanation for the calamities that befall us.  Like Job's friends, they try to persuade us there is always some rough justice to human suffering, so matter how arbitrary the apparent cause or how sweeping the effect.  The Holocaust, 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina were all seen by somebody not as random acts but as divine retribution.  Far from reassuring us that God does not act without purpose, such notions can only persuade us we are at the mercy of a blood-thirsty tyrant.

And so we pray -- whether to a God of justice or to a God of mercy we cannot say, if indeed there is anyone there at all.   Judging purely by his actions, assuming these are intentional, we would be hard-pressed to draw any comforting conclusions.  If prayer always worked, there would presumably be no more suffering or hardship in the world.  If it never worked, how would things be different than they are?  The God to whom Job prayed pointedly rejected all the pious justifications offered up by Job's friends on his behalf, just as he also refused to provide any of his own.  Perhaps, as many devout people want to believe, adversity is God's way of testing our faith; if so, toward what end?  We throw up our hands and say, "It is God's will."  Does that leave us with anything more than the fatalism fashionable among bumper-sticker philosophers: Shit happens?

Our suffering is like hot metal hammered against the anvil of God's silence.  Our tears, our pleading, our soul-searching, our outrage -- all are just more empty clanging as the hammer blows rain down.  Only after Job has exhausted his importuning does God condescend to answer him out of the whirlwind, and Job is devastated anew.  "Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?" the Lord demands.  "Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me."  In the end, it is Job who falls silent, and that silence becomes his prayer.

Job 38:1-3

Home | Readings
© Copyright 2004-2010 by Eric