Romans 8:26, 35, 38-39 – The Spirit comes to help us in our weakness. For when we cannot choose words in order to pray properly, the Spirit itself expresses our pleas in a way that could never be put into words, and God who knows everything in our hearts knows perfectly well what the Spirit means, and the pleas of the saints expressed by the Spirit are according to the mind of God.
Nothing can come between us and the love of Christ, even if we are troubled or worried, or being persecuted, or lacking food or clothes, or being threatened or even attacked.
For I am certain of this: neither death nor life, no angel or prince, nothing that exists, nothing still to come, not any power, or height or depth, nor any created thing, can ever come between us and the love of God made visible in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Job (selected verses)– There was one a man in the land Uz called Job, a sound and honest man who lived in awe of God and shunned evil. Seven sons and three daughters were born to him. And he owned seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen and 500 female donkeys, and many workers besides. He was indeed a man of merit among all the men of the East…. One day the angels of God came to attend to the Lord God, and among them was Satan. So the Lord said to Satan, “Where have you been?” “Round the earth,” he answered, “Roaming about.” God asked, “Did you notice my man, Job? There is no one earth like him: a sound and honest man who holds me in awe and shuns evil.” “Yes,” Satan said, “but Job is not a God-fearing man for nothing, is he?” Have you not put a wall around him and his house and his entire domain? You bless all he undertakes. But stretch out your hand and lay your finger on all he possesses and he will curse you to your face.” God replied, “All he possesses is in your powers, but keep your hands off his person.” So Satan set out.
[Job's family and all of he possessed quickly fell under the power of Satan and came to suffering and ruin; everything. Job's family and his friends urge him to curse God, he resists.] He laments with all his being, “I cry out to you and you do not answer me; I stand, and you do not heed me.” Help me understand, why me, what is the meaning, where are you in al of this? [Job's questions – each without curse or denial -- roil through the heavens to the ears of God until finally God answers Job from within the whirlwind]: “Who is this that speaks without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me. Where were you when I laid the foundation of earth?” [And so it went for verse after verse, chapter after chapter.]
In my research on Nazi era rescuers, the empathic imagination was a central element for sensitizing and activating their altruistic interventions that saved Jews from the Nazis. “The essence of the empathic imagination is the ability to place oneself in the actual situation or role of another person and to imagine the effect and the long-term consequences on that person.”
In my biography of Herman Graebe, a German engineer who directed large labor columns in the Ukraine for the Reich Railroad Administration and saved nearly 3,000 Jews, I noted that his mother consistently counseled her young son with two teachings. The first was from the Bible, “Do for others what you would have them do for you.” And, second, she routinely asked, “And what would you do?” Her question was never rhetorical and sought a response consistent with the biblical admonition.
The combination of the admonition and the question instilled in Graebe a creative and attentive empathy for the plight of others. The influence of his articulately moral parental role model was clearly evidenced at the edge of a mass grave in Dubno, the Ukraine where a Nazi mobile killing unit was murdering an entire Jewish community. Graebe watched a contemporary, an anonymous, naked Jewish man, point to the sky and speak to his son moments before the two descended a ledge in the mass grave. In Graebe's empathic imagination, he and his own son became the two Jews standing at the edge of the pit. As Graebe walked from the horrors, heartsick, he heard his long-dead mother's voice, “Fritz, what will you do?”
We engage the Self and others by asking the compelling questions, “Why do bad things happen to good people,” or “Why is this awful thing happening to me or to them,” or “why did this good thing come to me?” The empathic imagination and acts of loving kindness, compassion, charity, and justice are supported by the ‘why' questions. There are three steps that ignite such empathy: the ‘why' questions cause us to reverse roles, put ourselves in the place of another, second, the biblical admonition comes to mind, and third, we respond to the challenge, “And what will you do?”
Let us shift for a moment. “Why me?” We want to know how to make sense of things that happen to us and to others. Curiously, we mostly ask the question in extreme circumstances. Something goes wrong, perhaps horribly wrong just when life seemed on a roll, and in shock we ask “why me?” Why now, why this, why me? Those questions often unleash a theological tsunami: why did God do this to me, or why did God allow this to happen to me, or what did I do wrong to deserve this tragedy? Do you see how those three questions are deeper and much more complex than the basic “why me” questions?
A spiritual caveat: those three questions belong to an earlier time in life when the tsunami was passed along at a vulnerable or impressionable moment. That tsunami of questions needs to be arrested and jettisoned. It's an antiquated, superstitious image of a tyrannical and capricious god who acted as judge, jury, and executioner. That is not our experience or image of God, nor is it our theology. Let us exercise great care that we not fall into the trap of Job's friends or the baleful laments of Job himself. Job's story is powerful but it need not be your story.
Let's shift again for a moment from empathic imagination, extreme circumstances, and theological tsunamis to another perspective on the “why” questions. Without going ‘theologically superstitious' with all manner of attributions to God, the questions invite us to take constructive account of all the seasons and circumstances of our lives – the good times and the hard, the joys and the trials – from a spiritual point of view. When life is going well and filled with meaning and purpose, we are best served when our default thought is one of gratitude. Be thankful for the gift of sight, the blessings and challenges of relationships, a life that in the moment feels peaceful, ordered, and good. The second spiritual response after gratitude is the desire to share that abundance and goodness with others and to want nothing less for them.
Again, it is not that we deserve or earn the good things that happen to us any more than we merit the bad things. Good things and bad things happen to everyone, without regard, but neither confers privileges, it is always what we do with them that matter. When hard times hit we keep the faith even if God seems distant, we turn our pain or suffering into blessings rather than into resignation or bitterness. In good times we are mindful and pay close and grateful attention to our experience of the goodness. We turn that abundance into blessing, generosity, and kindness rather than into hubris, self-satisfaction, entitlement, or a drive for more and more.
A cheeky cartoon in a recent New Yorker invites us to reframe the ‘why' question. A forlorn patient, eyes downcast, listens to his physician say, “Sometimes it helps to turn the question around. Why not you?” Instead of asking why something is happening to you, we want to learn to ask, “What could this experience be for me?” Early in my tenure here, a friend of a hospitalized man asked me to visit him. He was critically ill with a complicated cancer and a less than hopeful prognosis. The visits became daily conversations at hospital and home. In the midst of a debilitating treatment, throughout which he was unpredictably peaceful, calm, centered, thoughtful, and meditative, he said, “It's probably a good thing this is happening to me. I've found a peaceful place in my heart – I have no fear – not even of death, no anxiety, and am discovering what strength I have inside me. Someone else going through this might have a harder time, might not have such gifts as mine. I can't imagine these treatments without the peace I feel.”
In a most positive, faithful, and generous way he lived into the question, “Why is this happening for me?” Good times and hard can carry us to new dimensions of enlightenment, faith, and true Self. They summon us to greater attunement to the often untapped graces within us, to a place of interior peace that nothing can shake because that peace comes from experience of being held in Divine hands, of living in God's presence. The cancer may not be cured but the soul is made whole.
If you and I ask the reframed question, “Why is this happening for me,” from whatever good or hard time we are experiencing, seeking blessing, gratitude, and faith, we discover an incredible strength, a profound faith, an engaging and generous compassion, and we become living blessings.
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