Dr. Thomas Lane Butts: WHY?

Recently I was in a local place of business enjoying some light-hearted conversation with two young people. Two or three adults were standing around making comments now and then. Out of a lifetime habit, I asked the handsome young man I had been teasing where he went to church. (I would gladly have made a Methodist of him.) The sudden change in the tone of the conversation was palpable when he abruptly said that he did not go to church. Someone asked why he did not go to church. He said that he had not been back to church since a close and dear relative had been killed in a tragic accident. By then I realized I had inadvertently precipitated a very personal and serious conversation.  I changed the subject because I knew we had stumbled into a subject too deep and painful to pursue in a public place . I could see it in his eyes and hear it in the tone of his voice. There was obviously unresolved hurt over a tragic loss. The unspoken "why?" was written all over the young man’s face. The conversation quickly turned jovial again. When I walked away, there was a certain sadness in my heart that something very important had surfaced and had been left unattended. But then there are some things not appropriate to pursue in the presence of an audience.


One of the most common questions people ask when they experience a tragedy in their lives is "WHY?" A definitive answer to that question is never simple and seldom possible. Sometimes we get a flash of insight - a partial or probable answer. But for the most part, the question remains shrouded in mystery. When we do not have knowledge, then we must have faith else the pain becomes unbearable.

There are many people into whose lives great sorrow has come. In fact I know very few people who have not experienced an imponderable tragedy of some kind. I do not want you to think that I take lightly  what has happened to you. I came across this story that was helpful to me. Perhaps it will help you. It has no attributed author, but it feels real:

"There was a group of women in a Bible study studying the book of Malachi. As they were studying chapter three, they came across verse three which says: God will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver. This verse puzzled the women and they wondered what it meant about the character and nature of God.


"One of the women offered to find out about the process of refining silver and get back to the group at their next Bible study. She called up a silversmith and made an appointment to watch him at work. She didn’t mention the reason for her interest, beyond her curiosity about the process of refining silver. As she watched the silversmith, he held a piece of silver over the fire. He explained that in refining silver, it was necessary to hold the silver in the middle of the fire where the flames were hottest so as to burn away all the impurities. The woman thought about God holding us in such a hot spot - then she thought again about the verse: God sits as a refiner and purifier of silver.


"She asked the silversmith if it was true that he had to sit there in front of the fire the whole time the silver was being refined. The man said that  he not only had to sit there holding the silver, but he had to keep his eyes on the silver the entire time it was in the fire. If the silver was left even a moment too long in the flames, it would be destroyed.


"The woman was silent for a moment. Then she asked the silversmith, "How do you know when the silver is fully refined?" He smiled at her and answered, "Oh, that’s the easy part! When I see my image reflected in it".

If you are feeling the heat of some painful experience, remember that God has His eyes on you and will keep His hand on you and watch over you until He sees His image in you.


That is the story. I realize it does not clear up all the imponderables in your life that make you ask "Why?". No single insight clears up everything. But a glimpse of truth here and there lightens the load when the burden gets heavy.


I do not want to leave you with the impression that I think that all the bad things that happen to us are God's intentional will.  There is no concept that produces more confusion in the minds of people than "the will of God."   It is used so loosely and often so inappropriately that we sometime tend to turn God into a being quite unlike Jesus.  It was not God's will that hundreds of thousands of people suffered and died in the earthquake in Haiti.  They died as the result of the laws of nature in which there was a shift in tectonic plates.  It was the will of evil people that millions died in concentration camps during World War II, not the intentional will of God.  When I think of the deaths of little children because of incurable illnesses, or the result of natural disasters, or those who die because of the evil of wicked people, I simply cannot attribute that to the intentional will of God.  My thoughts go back to the gentle words of Jesus in Matthew 18:14: "It is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish."


It is not possible to deal properly with this concept in such a limited venue as this brief column. It is too large and complicated.  Many years ago Dr. Leslie Weatherhead wrote a little book of less than a hundred pages in which he writes of the intentional, the circumstantial and the ultimate will of God.  More than a million copies of Weatherhead's book, The will of God, have been sold.  I have read and reread it.  I have given away more than a hundred copies to people who were trying to make sense of a tragedy in their lives.  I keep copies in my office.  I commend it to your reading.  It will bring light to your mind, substance to your faith and comfort to your heart.  If you cannot find the book, come by to see me and I will give you a copy.  Then you can thank me at your leisure.


There is a wide variety of understandings of the "will of God".  We tend to develop our theological understandings much more in the light of our personal experiences and needs than in the light of what others think and feel.  That is as it should be. I cannot chew your food or map out your journey for you. That is your job.  The Bible and our theological heritage offer rich resources.  Take what you need and if your needs change, come back to the table for something more or different   It is a big table, and there is plenty to choose from.


When we are in the midst of a tragedy (in the fire), even if it is not of God's making, God will keep his eye and hand on us, even until we reflect God's image.


Perhaps this "silver" story will cast some light into a dark corner of your life. Perhaps it will help with some unresolved tragedy, some lingering "Why?", until such time as we pass into that dimension of reality in which faith become knowledge. Now we see as in a mirror dimly, but then we will see face-to-face.  Then we shall understand fully as we have been fully understood (A paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 13:12)