There is something else meaningless that occurs on earth: the righteous who get what the wicked deserve, and the wicked who get what the righteous deserve. This too, I say, is meaningless.
Ecclesiastes 8:14-15, NIV
“Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have.”
James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time.
“And when the broken hearted people living in the world agree
There will be an answer, let it be”
“Let it Be,” originally written and recorded by The Beatles, covered by Bill Withers.
I can still feel the heat rising in my body if I stop to think about it long enough. I was sixteen, perched on the arm of a well-worn couch in the youth room at the church I attended in high school. My youth pastor had just posited the idea that, perhaps, not everything happened for a reason. I was indignant.
Looking back, his suggestion was a gift. An invitation to rethink the saccharine ideas around suffering so often present in the evangelical subculture of the 1990s. But I, as Baldwin observes, was imprisoned to a god who needed absolute control and utter fidelity in order to maintain his glory. I was offered a wide open space to consider where God was in the midst of suffering, and instead I screamed my own small view even louder as I slammed the gate closed, enamored with my small fenced-in-yard instead.
Over time, I stopped believing that everything happens for a reason (thank goodness). I no longer need to think that God is being gracious in allowing people to suffer, but even though my professed beliefs shifted, I still suffer from a faith that places an odd-double-edged sword at the center: inaction and urgency.
Inaction stemming from a latent belief that God is so all-controlling that whatever happens is obviously his will and cannot be bent or changed in any way. Any personal sorrow or systemic suffering is ordained and must simply be endured.
On the other hand, urgency that rises from an over-inflated view of myself, rising from the spirit of whiteness that has so deeply formed me. This edge cuts through the pain of the world not with resignation, but a belief that I alone can change or fix or save. That it’s up to me to master all that is causing harm and dictate the terms of freedom and beauty not only for myself, but inevitably for others as well.
What I’m learning, this year more than ever before, is that the path toward freedom is neither a passive denial of suffering, nor a demonic obsession with being the one to fix it. The path toward freedom is found through bearing witness and being present. When we pour our tears onto the ground, rather than bottle them up in an idol, we together create a nourished soil, ready for something new and beautiful to take root.
I have no interest in pretending I have the answers any more, that I know the god who causes events and tragedies, or that I know the right strategies or philosophies to save us from pain. Instead, I will stand arms wide and unashamed to tell you of my despair, and listen to yours in turn.
Megan Westra is a dynamic and passionate public speaker, and author of Born Again and Again (Herald Press, 2020). With over a decade of pastoral experience, she is deeply committed to the work of the Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven, and particularly in the Sherman Park neighborhood of Milwaukee, where she’s lived and worked for ten years with her husband Ben, and daughter, Cadence.