God Squad: Blaming God for tragedy

God Squad

Rabbi Marc Gellman God Squad

Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday.

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In 2009, our daughter lost her daughter, age 31, to melanoma. Now she blames God and won't change her mind. What are your thoughts when people blame God for tragedy? This saddens us, as we are Christians.

-- M., Boynton Beach, Fla.

My first response is personal, pastoral and simple: Be present for your daughter and be silent. This is not the kind of situation that demands a facile verbal response. There's an old wisdom teaching in my tradition that although it is a commandment to teach what can be learned, it's also a commandment not to teach what cannot be learned.

Your daughter is not in a place where she can learn a coherent defense of God's providence (called theodicy). She's still broken, grieving and angry, and your patient love is more important to her than your defense of God. Don't take the bait. Just listen and try to move the conversation to a loving remembrance of stories about the good your granddaughter did during her life. That's enough for now and for the future until your daughter's anger subsides enough to allow wisdom and faith to enter her life again.

My second response is for others who harbor a similar anger. I would say to them, "Please bring your guarantee to our next counseling session." Should they ask, "What guarantee?" I would say, "You know, the guarantee you got from God promising you and those you love a life where nothing bad ever happens. Bring me God's guarantee that you and your family will all live long, happy lives and die peacefully and without pain at 120 years of age. Your anger only makes sense if you have such a guarantee from God. The only reason to be angry is because you believe that God broke a promise to you and yours." Should they then say, "I never got such a guarantee," I would say, "Neither did I."

Somehow, we've latched onto the belief that loss is a betrayal by God. Judaism, Christianity and Islam do not teach such a belief, yet people think it's part of our theology. I think this mistaken and anger-provoking belief comes from the erroneous assumption that the good deeds we do are like deposits in some heavenly IRA, and we receive the rewards of a long, healthy life because God owes us this as a kind of divinely funded interest payment. When God doesn't pay off, we're furious.

The truth of what we actually teach and believe is that goodness is its own reward. If it were otherwise, goodness would just be an instrumental good -- not good in itself but only a means to get what we want. Both religious people and rational atheists believe the same thing in this regard.

Goodness must be a terminal virtue. It must be something we do for its own sake. Goodness does produce, I believe, a better life, but it doesn't always produce a longer life. What comforts religious people is the trust we have that God suffers along with us and helps us focus on what we have been given, not on what has been lost.

What comforts religious people is the trust that death is not the end of us and that our souls live with God without pain and in the joyous emanation of God's abiding love for us all.

Psalm 90 reminds us of the fleeting nature of our lives, even when they're not cut short, and that our task is gratitude, not anger: "So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom." (90:12).

Wisdom is different from intelligence. Intelligence is knowing what is. Wisdom is knowing what matters, and what matters about loss is what we learn from it. If we learn anger, cynicism and bitterness, that will be its legacy. If we learn gratitude, hope, trust and love, then that will be its legacy. Which legacy does your daughter really want? The death of her daughter could produce a second death -- the death of her capacity to feel joy. Alternately, the death of her daughter could produce a hard-learned but wise trust that we will not be separated forever from those we love. It's her choice. God sets before us life and death, not as an exercise in divine accounting, but rather as a choice to choose life even in the valley of the shadow of death.

May God comfort you and your daughter.