A few days ago I was reading the story of John the Baptist, holed up in prison for having irritated Herod because “The Baptist” disapproved of Antipas’ marriage to his own brother’s former wife, and Herod feared an uprising, according to the historian Josephus. John the Baptist had apparently said, out loud, that he disapproved of Herod’s marriage “to your brother’s former wife.” That woman, then, named Herodias, hated “The Baptist,” and when her daughter Salome danced for her and Herod, Herod was so inspired that he said to Salome, “whatever you want, ask, and I will get it for you.” Herodias saw her chance, conspired with Salome, and with her mother’s prodding, asked for the head of John the Baptist’ head, delivered to her mother on a platter.
As I read that story, and talked about it with a few students, I asked them what they thought about what this story tells us about “God‘s ways.” Here sat John in prison, for doing what his loyalty to God and belief in God’s command to him to “speak truth to power,” and he apparently was not feeling the presence of God. His situation so bothered him that he sent some of his friends to Jesus, who was nearby, to ask Jesus, “Are you the Messiah, or should we look for someone else?” That meant, to me at least, that John was feeling the absence of God when he needed to feel the presence of God most. His unasked question seemed to be, “would God really let this happen to me? Would God not send his son Jesus, who has done so much good for people he hasn’t even known, to rescue me or save me, at least, from death?”
Jesus answered, telling John’s “people” to remind “The Baptist” of how he healed the sick, made the blind see, helped the deaf to hear …basically giving a review of all he had done and was doing, which was not news to John. He knew that. His immediate unasked but internalized question, though, went unanswered. “Aren’t you going to save me?”
The answer was no. “The Baptist” was beheaded later that month, according to historian Josephus. God’s ways are NOT our ways.
There is value in studying God’s ways, even when or especially when, we do not understand something that is going on in our own lives. I would imagine that some of the parents of the children who were shot and killed in Newtown in December 2012 asked God something like, “Would God really have allowed this to happen?” I would imagine that the tragedy that left former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords to be shot and severely injured left someone asking, “Would God have allowed this to happen?” So many times, in so many situations, personal and public, things happen that make people who believe in God scratch their divine-leaning hearts and ask, “Where was God? Why didn’t God stop this?”
Richard Rohr wrote that we cannot think our way into doing something different; we must do some things to get ourselves into another way of thinking. I am still pondering that thought. How would doing that make us more ably handle the things that happen to us that we do not understand, and that either are unfair or certainly feel unfair? And if we were able to do that, when we would find ourselves in a prison of pain or confusion or grief so deep that we cannot reach the bottom, would there be a peace about us, making us know that our ways truly are not God’s ways?
The truth is, sometimes, perhaps many times, God DOES allow bad things to happen to us or in our lives. God allowed Joseph to be terrorized by his brothers, left for dead. God allowed Job to lose everything except his own miserable life. God allowed the children to die in Newtown, God has allowed racism and sexism and homophobia to exist, alongside white supremacy. God allowed the storm in Joplin, Missouri, that killed so many and caused so much destruction; God allowed Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina, storms which absolute wreaked havoc on innocent people, many of them too poor to be able to even jump in a car and get out of harm’s way. God allowed the Holocaust and the Inquisition and Crusades. God allows rampant gun violence in urban areas, responsible for the deaths of way too many children and young adults, but we don’t dare talk about ways to get handguns off the streets and out of the markets! God is allowing scores of children in our United States to suffer from hunger, even though it is said this country grows enough food so that nobody has to go hungry. God has allowed and does allow bad things to happen to really good people, and as we can see from the John the Baptist story, this tendency of God is not a new thing.
In a strange way, knowing that can give comfort. At least we know that this is really the same God that has always existed. Jesus’ answer to John, and God’s answer to Job, were not particularly comforting, in that neither God nor Jesus gave the hard, quick, direct answers that those men and we who have read their stories wanted. No, both deities recited all the divine work they were doing and had done…and apparently, freeing and saving John or giving Job an answer for his dilemma, was not in the Divine Planner.
And yet, these two men believed, as have countless people who have been in a fire of some sort and either come out burned or not come out at all. God blessed Job once his wager with The Adversary was done; John didn’t fare so well. But it is apparent that John, once he received Jesus’ answer about what he was going and had done, calmed down and rested in his faith.
So, since we will never understand God’s ways, we have an assignment to learn all we can about how to live in faith, regardless of what is going on in our lives. We still fight for what is right and just, because injustice is and always has been, a major problem in this world…but we fight for it because it IS the right thing to do, not because we think we are going to get a nice, succinct answer from God on why things are as they are, why they are so slow to change, or why God allows suffering to exist. We do it because by doing it it shows we are “righteous,” that is, in right relationship with God, and that has its own rewards.
A candid observation …