Random Tragedy

In one of the churches I served, I got to know a young man who suffered brain damage from a motorcycle accident.  At night, on a dark rural road, Jordan ran into a cow, who, for no obvious reason, was standing in the middle.  The after-effects of the collision were a small shuffle when he walked and some trouble formulating words.  Although he handled his condition pretty well, there was no way to deny the tragedy of what happened.  He wasn’t drunk.  He was wearing a helmet.  He was probably going too fast on a route he had traveled many nights before.  By the time the cow appeared, there was no time to stop.

He couldn’t figure out why it happened.  Why would a cow be standing at that spot, at that moment, instead of in a pen somewhere?  Even assuming the cow got loose, it could have been in a million other places.  The whole arrangement almost seemed planned.  What caused it?  Did God do it?  Was it something he brought on himself?

Jordan wasn’t the first person to ask those types of questions, of course.  Why do bad things happen to good people?  What did I do to deserve this?  Personal tragedies never make sense to those who experience them.  There are also different ways the questions are answered, depending on whom you ask. 

I’ve known both priests and pastors who would say, “Yes, Jordan, the cause lies with you.  God punishes sin, both here and in the afterlife, and it’s a punishment we bring on ourselves.”  Unlike Hinduism, the Christian form of karma, where bad behavior triggers negative consequences, is personally directed by an all-knowing God.  I listened to one sermon in which a priest blamed the death of a father upon the sins of his son, a reversal of the standard Mosaic norm of parental sins causing the deaths of their children.  One way or the other, God’s intention was at work in Jordan’s accident.  This is always followed by an invitation to get right with God, as a way to change God’s intentions.

The counsel of other clergy is less judgmental.  Everything happens for a reason, even if we don’t understand the reason, since, not being God, we cannot see the plan.  But, be assured that God is in charge, and all things work out for the good for those who love God.  For those who don’t, all bets are off.  This is always followed by an invitation to get right with God, to insure a winning hand.

The original version of this argument said that even the ability for someone to love God was pre-planned.  In other words, God determined those going to heaven or hell before they were born.  Jordan’s accident was a sign of his probable destination.

If Jordan happened to ask a scientist, instead of a pastor, he might still be told that, yes, there was a reason. The collision was no accident, but a mathematical necessity, even if the mathematics that prove the necessity are too complex for demonstration. Actions causing reactions, in a series of determined events reaching back to the beginning of the universe, inevitably led to the collision. It’s the way the numbers played out. Jordan was literally along for the ride; it wasn’t personal.

Whatever perspective you choose, whether religious or scientific, a force greater than ourselves is in charge and making the choices.  After all, how can anything happen in the universe that is not intended by an all-powerful and all-knowing God, or by algorithmic inevitability?  Depending on your point of view, the actions affecting you may be personal, or maybe not, but they aren’t an accident.

One morning I received a call from a family in the church and was told to hurry over.  The husband, who enjoyed flying a small, prop-driven plane, had died in a crash.  Even worse, pinned within the wreckage, he burned to death.  The house was filling with friends and fellow church members.  Flowers and food were arriving.  Making myself known to the wife, I went and sat down, listening to the well-wishers assuring the widow that everything happens for a reason.  Bill lived a good life and the Lord decided to call him home.  Don’t despair.

This went on for a long time.  Finally, when the people cleared, the wife came in and sat down.  And we sat there.  And I didn’t say anything.  Until finally she looked at me.  “I’m so tired of being told there’s a good reason for this.  There’s no good reason he had to burn alive.  Thank you for not telling me the same thing.”  In the presence of unexplainable tragedy, silence is an appropriate response, because there is nothing that can really be said.  After sitting together for a while longer, we committed her husband to God.

Reasonable assurances are not helpful for someone who has experienced a tragedy, because the experience makes clear they aren’t true.  When directly confronted with the question of why something awful occurred, we find there is no actual answer, even if we tell ourselves otherwise much of the time.  For that reason, in the presence of unexplainable tragedies, it is best to leave them as what they are.  Nothing can make them sensible; presence is more important than words.

This is seen most clearly when facing the deeply personal nature of tragedy.  Why did that particular girl get shot in the school, and not the child next to her?  Why did that particular man encounter a drunk driver, rather than the three cars the driver missed?  Why did that particular husband burn to death, rather than dying quickly?  Why did Jordan collide with a cow?  There are no satisfying personal answers, only depersonalized, theoretical ones, which is also why they aren’t comforting.  If something can’t be made personal, it isn’t real.

When we allow ourselves to look, we see that arbitrary events happen all the time. Lots of things occur for no discernible reason. Neither God nor mathematical probability governs everything that transpires; there is no such thing as fate.

We are surrounded by randomness. The answer to the question “Why?” can be uncomfortably simple: there is no reason. We live in an unreasonable, unpredictable world.

God doesn’t intentionally punish anyone, or find pleasure in our troubles.  The undetermined and unexplainable provide the freedom God granted to us.  Humans are able to make choices, and no human is entirely predictable.  Rather than protect us from random tragedies and the dangers of freedom, God offers strength for the difficult journey, while suffering along with us.

That is what I wish I’d told Jordan.

Image of foggy night by https://www.pexels.com/photo/cold-dark-eerie-fear-207985/

Image of pointing finger by Tumisu from Pixabay

Image of grieving woman by pixabay.com/photos/worried-girl-woman-waiting-sitting-413690/

Image of no fate sign by http://www.pexels.com/photo/cold-dark-eerie-fear-207985/

2 thoughts on “Random Tragedy

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  1. These words of yours come at a time that I truly need to hear. Just a couple of days ago I discovered that a close friend of mine, whom I have chosen to cut ties with (very long story) was shot and killed by her own son back in Oct 2022. I can’t seem to come to terms with this awful tragedy. She was there for me during such difficult times, and I am so saddened that I cut ties with her. I also remember her son as a child. They were so close, and everyone knew he was her favorite child. I am still asking why? What caused her son to do such a thing. I am extremely heartbroken, and tears come and go on a whim. The only thing that keeps me going is my faith. It allows me to lean into the pain and heartache and fully embrace it. It is a part of my human experience that I can take with me to the afterlife.

  2. There have been several times I knew God had saved me from a tragedy. There also have been times of loss and pain, but through it all, God has been faithful. Your article states it so eloquently.

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