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Bring comfort instead of answers to those in grief

Walt Shelton Special to the American-Statesman
Walt Shelton is a part-time professor at Baylor Law School and an environmental attorney in Austin. He leads small discussion groups in association with Highland Park Baptist Church in Austin.

We recently had a long-time friend die unexpectedly in a bicycle accident. He and his wife were consistently gentle, caring, and loving people. Do we need to understand from a faith rooted perspective why he died prematurely and arbitrarily?

In Jewish and Christian scripture, Proverbs 8:18 tells us that "[r]iches and honor...[and] enduring wealth" are with those who follow wisdom and good morals. In contrast, the "Teacher" that is the source of the Book of Ecclesiastes emphatically says "there are righteous people who are treated according to the conduct of the wicked, and there are wicked people who are treated according to the conduct of the righteous" (Eccles. 8:14).

Somewhat between these perspectives is the Book of Job. According to the prose prologue and epilogue (Job 1-2 and 42:7-17), an archaic characterization of God and his heavenly court includes a predecessor sort of Satan, the "accuser," who prompts God to test the righteous Job ("blameless and upright ... and turned away from evil," Job 1:1) with suffering, including killing his children (Job 1:6-12 and 18-19). Per the epilogue, in the end Job gets back family and riches (as if children are fungible and replaceable like grain in a silo; Job. 42:10-17).

Sandwiched in the middle is the real emphasis of Job, the poetic portions (Job 3-42:6). Generally, Job questions God about all the bad things happening to him because he is a righteous person. In this heart of the book, Job's so-called friends grill him to inquire about his actual morality, as if he must be guilty of wrong-doing to experience such extreme misfortune.

Although there is more diversity to these three books, with each of them worthy of study and reflection, the basic contrasts are striking. All three are what theologians call "Wisdom Literature," which is quite different from other scripture, such as books of law and prophecy, in the Hebrew Bible and Christian Old Testament. Generally, wisdom books (especially Proverbs and Ecclesiastes) record and reflect teachings of a universal nature rooted in life experience, observation of the lives of others, and reflections on such by respected teachers.

How do we put the contrasts together? In my view, we don't. Rather, we recognize the differences in perceptions of God. Historically, people of faith understood wealth, a large family and good health as consequences of ethical behavior, with punishment the result for immoral actions. Many have seriously questioned or outright rejected this traditional theological outlook. Nevertheless, some seem to hold onto it and teach the same even today.

One implicit issue is the role of life experiences, our own and others, in our faith journeys. Scripture, worship, prayer, meditation, teachings, and role models are examples of other faith-related elements. Paying attention to what happens in life, however, is a strong faith-related element and filter of sorts for religious teachings.

When something bad happens in our own or the life of another, such as a painful terminal illness or the loss of a child, where is God? In such circumstances, sometimes "friends" or others claim God has some "plan," insist it will all work out for good, or dismiss it as beyond our understanding. Perhaps they are clinging to a predictable view of God in this life to rely upon. In contrast, life experiences show us that the best of people, like everyone else, are subject to serious health, accident and other misfortunes.

In his newest book, "Nine Essential Things I've learned About Life," Rabbi Harold Kushner terms the belief that "an all-wise, all-powerful God who is totally good must [have] His reasons for inflicting incurable illness on innocent children, reasons beyond ... comprehension" as "religion done badly." Indeed it is. I like the title of Rabbi Kushner's book, using nine instead of 10 (which seems more complete) things he has learned — because at age 84, he is still observing, seeking, and learning, as we all should be doing.

Returning to the recent death of our friend and his widow, some might say "it was just his time" as if it was preordained. I disagree and think instead that it triggers "our time" to comfort and help his wife in her grief, being present actively to care for her.

Where God fits into extreme suffering and grief is not in the causation. Rather, it is embodied in the caring and loving response actions of others in actively helping the sick, grieving and unfortunate people around us. From a faith perspective, instead of trying to explain and defend the erroneous proposition that God causes bad things to happen to people, we should alter our attention and invest our energy and time in helping those who are suffering, while seeking God's enablement to do so.

Walt Shelton is a part-time Professor at Baylor Law School and an environmental attorney in Austin. He leads discussion groups in association with Highland Park Baptist Church in Austin.