What to Do When Things Don’t Make Sense

One of the more plaintive cries in the Bible is found in Psalm 13. When I read it in the Latin Breviary,  somehow its impact is stronger, more sorrowful:

Usquequo Domine?! Oblivisceris me in finem, usquequo avertis faciem tuam a me? Quamdiu ponam consilia in anima mea, dolorem in corde meo per diem? Usquequo…! (How long O Lord! Will you forget me unto the end?! How long will you turn your face away from me? How long must I take counsel in my soul, and sorrow in my heart all the day? How long!?) Psalm 13:1-2

There are just those times in our life when things don’t make sense, and we wonder why,  and seeing no end in sight, we wonder how long. It is not just the suffering, it is not knowing why or how long, that intensifies the agony and makes up most of its content.

The theologian Jacques Philippe well describes the experience of this way:

In situations of trial, not knowing why we are being tested is often harder to bear than the testing itself. “What is the meaning?” People ask. “Why?” and they get no answer. When, by contrast, reason is satisfied, suffering is much easier to accept. It is like the doctor who hurts us–we don’t get angry with him because we understand that he does it to make us better. (Interior Freedom – Kindle Edition, 547-69)

Yes, it’s not knowing why or how long that is often the worst part. Our questions are not without merit, and God even seems to sanctify them by including them in the prayer book he inspired, the Book of Psalms. Yes, asking “Why,” & “How much longer!?”  is part of our dignity, and our fundamental makeup. Again as Jacques Philippe notes:

Man has a thirst for truth, a need to understand, that is part of human dignity and greatness. To despise intelligence, its capacities, and its role in the human spiritual life would be unjust. Faith cannot do without reason; and nothing is more beautiful than the possibility given man of cooperating in the work of God…when our minds grasp what God is doing, what he is calling us to, how he is teaching us to grow, enable us to cooperate fully with the work of grace.… It is therefore good and right that we want to understand the meaning of everything in our lives. (ibid).

And so yes, our questions “why,” and “how long,” are understandable, even sanctified.

That said, even though our questions are valid, it does not mean that we will always get an answer. Indeed, our need to know everything requires some purification, some understanding of the limits of our ability to know.

On the one hand, there are some things that are not for us to know. For example if someone offends or harms us, we may call out for God and ask why. And yet, it is not God’s role, and might even be inappropriate for God, to reveal to us the secrets of another’s heart, their motives, and what the personal histories and hurts were that may have led them to act in a certain way. Frankly, there are some things that are simply not for us to know, that are none of our business.

Then too, there are other things, that are beyond our ability to know, such that, even if God did tell us why, all we would hear would be thunder. To some extent this is the answer that God gave Job, when Job asked “why” in reference to his sufferings. God reminded Job of all the magnificent things that He, the Lord, had done. He told Job, in effect, that if Job could understand all these things, then perhaps He, the Lord, would answer Job why things were going bad for Job and why the Lord had permitted it. And thus, Job realized that the answer to the question “why” was beyond him.

Strangely enough, I have often had this truth illustrated for me in the interactions that I have had with my pets. Recently, it was time for me to take my cat, Daniel, to the vet, something he dreads. Suddenly, in an instant, I appeared to him as an enemy, swooping down upon him, and placing him in a carrying cage. He cried with protest, meowing and caterwauling with such volume that the neighbors looked out their windows as I brought him to the car. All the way to the vet he bellowed, he cried, meowed, moaned and, caterwauled. I tried to explain to him,

“Daniel, it will be just fine, we’re just going to the vet to get a few shots that you need, and to get a quick checkup. You’ll be home in an hour!”

But Daniel is just a cat, he does not speaking English, and thus, all he heard from me was thunder. Nothing I would say could satisfy him. Indeed, I could not satisfy him with an answer, I could not console him, for he has only a cat brain which cannot understand the larger concepts like health, like the notion “temporary.”  No, for him it was two hours of sheer terror, terror he did not understand or know when it would end. And, until we returned to the rectory and I opened the cage door in the familiar living room, he would not, he could not, understand or be consoled.

I think it is like this was God and us. Though our minds are certainly more rational than that of a cat, when it comes to comparing our puny minds to God, and the cat’s puny mind to God, I’m not sure the difference is that great. There are many things that God knows that we can not hope to know, things that he sees that we cannot hope to see. And were He to say, “I am doing thus and so, and this is why,” we would have no greater understanding of what he was saying than my cat does of me as I try to explain the terrifying car ride.

So, it is not wrong for us to ask why, and how long. Again, it is part of our dignity. But in the end, there is only so much we can know. Some things are just not of our business. Other things, are way above our pay grade. And God cannot reduce to mere human words what he is doing and whereof he acts.

In cases such as these serenity can only be found in finally acknowledging, and accepting that there are some things we cannot know, and that is enough that God knows what He is doing, and whereof he acts.

Jesus once told the apostles What I am doing, you do not understand now, but afterward he will understand (Jn 13:7). He also spoke to them of the day that they would see him again, and said, On that day, you will have no more questions to ask me (Jn 16:23). For now, there are plenty of questions, and only some answers. It is enough Lord, it is sufficient that you know.

Jesus, I trust you!

28 Replies to “What to Do When Things Don’t Make Sense”

  1. You mention the Book of Job and I don’t know why and cannot explain the feelings that come but; whenever experiencing hardship; that book was always a comfort to me as I read it throughout the hardship and, sometimes, the feeling of hopelessness.

  2. How you always have wonderful videos for each and every teaching is amazing!
    Thank you all!

  3. I really enjoyed this article, especially the comparison with the cat. However, I will admit, I still can not understand why God allows evil to happen to innocent people. Too many (and according to statistics, it is epidemic), innocent children are abused all over the world. Some are sold into slavery, some are physically or sexually assaulted on a daily basis (even infants suffer). If one tries to reason–God has a greater plan for that soul or God allowed the evil to happen but good will come to it—I still think there is something missing to those answers. Yes, we can not truly know the mind of God as mere humans, but to allow evil to those who either through ignorance don’t know they can offer up their suffering or are simply too young to even understand prayer–it does not seem to make sense. Do the saints offer answers to suffering of children? Does St. Augustine or St. Thomas Aquinas have any insight into evil against children?

    1. No, I think your concerns are uniquely modern ones. I don’t know many children who have escaped trauma, be it abuse or just the scary things of life. Most of the ancients accepted that life was hard, a valley of tears and that the world was unjust and something to be endured, on our journey to a better place. God made paradise for us, we wanted a better deal, to be gods, welcome to the better deal. As for children, though they may have a relative innocence, none of us are truly innocent, we are all born in sin and alienated from God. Your argument seems to couch the problem of suffering as something that ought to be merely due to ones personal level of guilt and hence when those less guilty suffer somehow the injustice of it is more grievous. But Jesus sets aside such logic in John 9. Suffering is not per se related to ones relative sinfulness viz some human standard of “innocence” it is just a result of the vicissitudes of this fallen world, and we have made it thus. God then acts in the midst of all this mess to show his glory in spite of it. (cf Jn 9).

      When I think back on the traumas of my own childhood, and they were not few, I can only say this, having come through them and looking back to them in faith, they are today part of my strength. And even those traumas that are yet unresolved and still part of my disfunction, I am sure God will ultimately resolved and they too will will be part of my strength if I remain faithful. And thus I experience Gods glory.

      1. I appreciate your answer even on the suffering of innocent children, but I cannot understand the “why” of the suffering of truly innocent animals. They have no sin nor are they heirs to original sin. Yet they are God’s children too although different from man. Where is God’s glory in the torture and suffering of “truly innocent” animals? Or is it not important?

        1. Animals are not God’s children, we should not misuse words. They are not persons and do not have capax Dei. We cannot speak of animals as innocent since they have no moral faculty. It would seem they are part of the natural order of life and death that may or may not have been part of the world prior to as after sin. But for the record, the cycle of life and death is evident in them as in every aspect of life on this planet. I like my cat Daniel, but he is a killing machine, taking out every mouse in this rectory, he has even gone over to the Church to kill bats and bring them to me. He is not culpable for what he does, but neither is he innocent. He is not a moral agent. He is part of the cycle of life and death. Further, without rational intellect it is difficult to say that animals suffer in any human sense. They do suffer physical pain, but there is no evidence they suffer any existential pain or ask why. This of course is the greatest aspect of our suffering and there is no evidence whatsoever that animals have this.

          1. With all due respect, Msgr., I hope you never have to experience Daniel suffering as I have seen animals suffering. Their pain, while different from human beings in one respect, is very real. Even C. S. Lewis tried to explain this issue but couldn’t come up with any definitive answers. So I take it your answer is that it isn’t important enough to address.

          2. Your personal assessment of me is off target. I have had many animals in my life and had to make many journeys with them and sadly put more than a few of them down when their life was ended. But perspective is needed here and I consider your observations not unimportant (as you suggest) but to some degree out of balance. Animal suffering is not to be compared with human suffering. Animals do not have rational souls, which is a significant source of human suffering. Given the priority of human suffering, of abortion, of poverty and the disgrace of affliction humans inflict on fellow humans it would seem our reflections in this area are more important. I do not want any animal to suffer and have worked to prevent that. I feed our hungry alley cats etc., but in the end, I am less agonized over animal suffering than human suffering.

          3. Agreed. Because we share the capability for emotion, animal emotions disturb us greatly, and rightfully so. But non-human animals are not God’s children – if they WERE God’s children, I think that God would have said so (at least, He would not have allowed animal sacrifice).

    2. @Mei I struggle as well with the same issue. Probably everyone must. The best I can come up with for myself is kind of a two part answer. “Why does God allow the innocent to suffer?” Clearly everyone has some suffering and it can’t be tied to their sins as Msgr. Pope says. There is badness or evil in the world. But that all being said again, God allows suffering but he also allowed his son to chose suffering. So Christ suffered. He was innocent without question but he suffered and was able to give his suffering for others so maybe his understand of why he suffered made it more bearable but his suffering did not drop out of the blue. He could have stopped it at any point. The other part for me is a related question. “Where was God when such and such terrible suffering happened?” God is accused of standing back and watching an innocent suffer when he coudl have stopped it. So part of the response is this is the down side of free will. If all humans are given free will then people have the free will to do bad things even to others. So God exists in the hearts and souls of those around who can do something about the suffering. IF I stand back and wait for God to fix everything it will get pretty bad. So I have to allow God to act through me to address the suffering of the innocent. God allows the suffering so the rest of us who are not suffering at that moment can act out of charity.

      As I said just where my mind goes on this topic.

    3. I still can not understand why God allows evil to happen to innocent people

      Of course, there have only been two entirely innocent people in all of history — and they suffered. Maybe our own suffering is a chance to be a little more like them. Maybe it’s a chance to remember what we’d otherwise forget: our dire situation separated from God, and our desperate need for a savior.

  4. Msgr. Charles Pope, would you be kind enough to share with us a personal particular situation that you went through and you either asked or wanted to, or ordinary people asked God ‘WHY’?

    1. Nothing in particular, i just wrestle with the question in the past, as I have shared here before, and also wrestle with it commonly in the lives of parishioners and spiritual directees.

  5. It’s funny how intellect can evaporate under duress. You haven’t said a single thing that I didn’t already know, yet everything you’ve said is exactly what I needed to hear.

    Thank you Monseigneur.

  6. As there is a gulf between man and cat, perhaps there is an ocean between God and man. I state this because we share characteristics with God that cats do not. God’s ways are not our ways. Man can say the same about cat. Yet, God became man for our sakes in the hypostatic union – the Incarnation. Man would not / could not do that for cat. So, there is something in God which makes Him far more appealing and understandable to man than there is something in man which makes man appealing and understandable to cat. Likewise, isn’t man’s need to trust God much greater than cat’s need to trust man? Thus, the Incarnation. Cat can live and die without man (cat’s soul probably returns to the earth), but can man live and die without God? No, at least not according to man’s eternal, life-filled intellectual soul. Man’s soul lives on and needs God to make man a whole person again. God made it that way. Because God made it that way, there is something special and continuous about the relationship of God and man. “I made you to live with Me forever.”

    Can you imagine man becoming cat in order to convince cat that going to the doctor is good for cat? If a cat can not think, then it could not happen. Also, I don’t think man wants to live with cat forever (well, it would not be possible anyway). It would be strange for man to say to cat in the future, “Your ways are my ways now.”

    But, because of the Incarnation, there is something intimate about God’s relationship with man. We are meant for each other I believe. We are not like master and pet; we are actually family.

  7. One way to read to Job is that he had to go through that suffering in order to be able to recognize the magnificence of God when presented before him.

  8. [48] And seeing him, they wondered. And his mother said to him: Son, why hast thou done so to us? behold thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing. [49] And he said to them: How is it that you sought me? did you not know, that I must be about my father’s business? [50] And they understood not the word that he spoke unto them. [Luke 2:50]

    Even Mary and Joseph temporarily experienced/perceived the suffering and loss of the Trinity, their Son. They also apparently wondered, asked why and didn’t understand. Consideration of the Seven Sorrows of Mary — the Presentation in the Temple, Flight into Egypt, The Loss of Jesus in the Temple, Mary at the Stations of the Cross, Jesus’ Crucifixion and Burial helps to make, for me, the mystery of suffering become, perhaps, no more sensical, however, much less questionable.

  9. C.S.Lewis has a great book on the problem of the suffering of innocents, animals & the rest of us: “The Problem of Pain”.

  10. The book of “Job” in the O.T. is a meditation on suffering of innocents, that is, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Surely most of the blog readers know that.

  11. Sigh.

    Then there are those times when you do not even bother to ask “why?” You stop asking because the bitter disappointment has happened so many times before. So you don’t ask “why?”, you only say that you were foolish to take it for granted that the good would happen.

    But the truth is, you can’t take it for granted, you can’t be sure until the last out is made. Not even with a 6-0 lead. Not even with still a two-run lead going into the 9th. Why did it happen?? Sigh. I’m too spent to even ask.

    The real question is — will I work up the courage to watch the Tigers now or will that be too tense to bear and I’ll do something else? It’s bad enough when it’s a close game and series, but when a blow-out isn’t even safe . . .

  12. Dont know if I am a little late in posting this but this article couldnt have come at a better time. Our family has been in a turmoil in the last 2 days. It is a result of decision made several years ago. Bad decisions. One member of the family ( totally Catholic) decided to convert to Islam to marry a muslim man. Everyone agreed with the exception of 2 members. Today that Muslim convert deceived the entire family and took her Mother to live with and convert her to Islam within a matter of 2 weeks. The mother in question has severed her ties with her Catholic family with whom she has been for the last 69 yrs of her life. She has severed her ties with her God, Jesus Christ who has loved and sustained her all her life. How God allows things to unravel in our lives is a wonder. He has revealed the true nature of the muslim convert and the mother in question. Does this make sense? It does to me. From where I sit and just ponder and can just sit in awe of our God. Its amazing how he in one blow He opened the eyes of all asleep in their faith.

  13. I enjoy the way Fr. Philippe puts so many things. I trust you’ve read his book on St. Therese.

  14. Father, the cross becomes more difficult to carry when you do not only fail to get an answer to ‘why’, but your mind or the devil start suggesting answers that could throw you into despair. Pray for us!

  15. In John 9, as referenced above, it seems that the chapter concludes with a claim to a (partial?) degree of innocence if one didn’t know that they were sinning. Reminiscent of the lesser consequences in the Mosaic instructions for consequences of sin, where there is a lesser consequence if there is no “malice aforethought”
    When I was growing up it would have been rare that a child grew up in North America without encountering the biblical warnings of suffering through our own fault of sin. These days children are not only offered other easygoing options but, are also becoming progressivley deprived of the Christian option.
    Often hear a claim that there’s an atheistic motive to protect people from being preached at. If this is the case then, why is so much hedonistic spirituality being preached without objection from the alleged atheists and: if those who grow up hearing that agenda dominate; aren’t the sinners who never heard the Word less culpable as the ones who induced them to sin without awareness pile up a massive debt of consequences for themselves? Does Matthew 18:6 Mark 9:42 Luke 19:2 describe the one who causes the sin bringing upon themselves the consequences in gap between malice aforethought and without malice aforethought?
    Also, you mention “existential pain” in reference to animals yet I hear progressively more derision at the concept of pain that is not physical and, that trauma induced by physical pain is valid but, the brutality of growing up in an emotionally painful environment, is not real. I can’t see how derision proves, or disproves, anything except against the one who derides, instead of weighing the facts. Consider this along with a push toward sexuality that may be somewhat suited to animals which mainly have sexual urges during breeding season and not at other times and; it starts to look as if relationships are being reduced to animal levels as an obsession with “open marriage” sex with everyone, including both genders, pushes the concept of love away from human beings.
    An agenda like this seems like it originates with a hater of mankind and may reveal the true religion of those who endorse that agenda as being traitors to the human cause. They may think that they will receive a reward from the hater whom they endorse but, who trusts a traitor? Not the one who recruited them because he’s proven that they can’t be trusted.

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