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!