There are plenty of Bad Things happening in the world at the moment. There are thousands, nay millions, who find cause to mourn today, this week, this last year or two. If that isn’t you or a family member then it’s a friend or neighbor. Yesterday, it was another school shooting, another two dozen parents in anguished shock, another incomprehensible act of violence and death. Yesterday, this happened in a small town in Texas, but it could have been your town or your kid’s school. Like you, I’m sad and frustrated and angry, all at the same time. Who’s fault is it? Why does this happen? Is God to blame? Is it guns? Bullying? Mental illness? Is it you? Is it me, Lord? Why do Bad Things happen? Maybe once in a while you can claim that Bad Things happen for a Good Reason, but not all the time and maybe not even very often. Stephen’s W&T post yesterday invited a critique of that strange claim that everything happens for a reason and, in particular, that Bad Things happen for a reason. In this reply post I accept that invitation.
In the comments to Stephen’s post, commenter Damascene offered an insightful comment suggesting that a lot of LDS views related to this topic tie in to a Calvinist view of the world, and that somehow those Calvinist views, so strongly rejected by early Mormonism and indeed by Joseph Smith himself, have snuck back into Mormon thinking. This post is also a reply and an addition to Damascene’s fine comment.
I want to add another Calvinist teaching that has snuck into Mormon thinking: Calvinism’s exaggerated view of God’s sovereign involvement with the world (aka Providence) and the view that God is right there controlling every little thing. This Calvinist view takes the comment attributed to Jesus in Matthew, that no sparrow falls from the sky without God’s action or at lease God’s active acquiescence, and runs with it to an extreme conclusion. This exaggerated view of Providence is what makes the Problem of Evil such a conundrum. If that’s your view of God, that He runs every little thing on Planet Earth and indeed the Universe, then why is there so much Evil in the world? But the problem isn’t God or Evil. The problem is the exaggerated view of Providence, of God’s action in the world, which creates this pseudo-problem. Sorry, God doesn’t pull every lever or monitor the flight of every sparrow. Sometimes Bad Things … just … happen.
The other end of the theological spectrum is Deism: God created the Universe and set it running with its laws, but then He steps back and just watches it all play out. He isn’t involved at all on a day-to-day or year-to-year basis. But there are some midpoints along this theological spectrum. They are hard to defend in theory but they work nicely in practice. God puts a finger on the scales from time to time, but not very often. God may extend His hand of mercy from time to time (a miraculous healing or a tragedy somehow averted) but not every time. Not even very often. Yes, a lot of Bad Things happen, but that’s just the way the world works. That’s why we mourn with those who mourn. There are those who have cause to mourn, and we should mourn with them, not tell them things happen for a reason. Not tell them that their son or daughter is in a better place. Just mourn with them!
So here is my message to those who say, in the face of a tragedy or a devastating loss, that “everything happens for a reason.” It is often believers who think it’s God who has the hidden reason and that God pulled the levers (or refrained from intervening) to make the Bad Thing happen. These believers somehow find reassuring the notion that when a Bad Thing happens, God is directly responsible for it. What they are trying do, often with good intentions, is to deny that a Bad Thing is really Bad and that somehow this claim alone makes things better. This is reflected in Mormonism in the idea that you shouldn’t really mourn when someone dies: “They’re in a better place.” Or don’t be sad when a young missionary dies while serving: “They were doing God’s work.” No, don’t do that. They don’t need a lecture. They don’t need a justification like “things happen for a reason.” They need sympathy and support. Just mourn with them.
A final thought. It’s not easy to mourn with a stranger, but if you mourn with them a few minutes, they are no longer a stranger. It’s easier to mourn with an acquaintance than with a stranger. It’s easier to mourn with a friend than a casual acquaintance. That, perhaps, is a reason to reach out and be friendly to more of those around you. If you are an introvert — and I know that many of those who write on blogs and who read them are — that’s moving out of your comfort zone. Too bad. Right now the world needs you to be a friend to more of those around you. Elsewhere in Matthew it is said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Do some comforting today.
Very well said.
And remember. Christ mourned Lazarus.
Thank you for writing a lovely essay on an important topic.
Many years ago, as I dealt with a tragic loss in my life, I was surrounded by people who kept trying to put a positive spin on the situation. There was nothing positive about it; and yet, so many people attempted to make the situation into something that should be celebrated. Some would share a favorite scripture or inspirational story and expected their 30 second intervention to solve the situation and cure my pain. They were incredibly uncomfortable with my grief.
An older Catholic acquaintance came to me. She wrapped her arms around me. As she hugged me, she whispered into my ear, “What a TERRIBLE and AWFUL and HORRIBLE thing to deal with.”
The relief I felt was immediate and immense. As she hugged me, I realized that it was the first time anyone had allowed me to simply grieve and feel my personal feelings. It was the first time anyone wanted to share in my honest and real emotions . I felt so validated.
As I have shared that story in the past, it has been surprising to have so many hear that story and immediately look for a way to put a positive spin on the original tragedy. My wish is that LDS culture could figure out that it is not helpful, honest or ethical to end every essay, story and situation with the LDS equivalent of “And they lived happily ever after.”
My nine year-old daughter’s friend’s father passed away this week after being in a coma for some time. As we sat with our daughter’s friend’s mother, I couldn’t help but notice that time continued to march on for everyone but her. I did not utter those words, or any words, out loud. We just sat there with her until she was ready to move on.
One bad experience in my life was when my wife had a miscarriage in 2012. At that time we had two children and since that time have had two more children. But we still experienced loss, and we still needed to grieve. What made the experience so horrible were the comments “Been there; done that” “Well at least you already have kids” “you will raise them in the next life” “God needed them back”. Just awful things to say, all from my tribe (the first one was my mother; just horrible).
My wife’s agnostic brother just said that he was sorry. And that simple phrase allowed us to finally move on. As Damascene noted above, we just needed validation that it was ok to be sad. Mormonism never taught me how to be appropriately sad; I had to learn that as an adult watching “Inside Out.”
Thanks for pointing out trends at Mormon funerals. How many times have I heard in Sunday school how great the church is because we know from the gospel (that is, the Mormon version of it) that we can continue to live and return to our heavenly father after we die, therefore, no need for excessive sadness and mourning, which is what the “world” does because they have no such knowledge. Nevermind the fact that most people on this planet believe in some sort of life after death.
“God’s plan” attitudes about missionaries dying are far worse. Many of these missionary illnesses, assaults, and deaths are completely preventable with better preventative action in mission administration. But, of course, how dare we ask the mission department to make changes to better protect missionaries.
John W: this is why I don’t want a COJCOLDS funeral. They are handled as “missionary opportunities”.
What I’m seeing in my extended family whataboutism. It’s them knowing history and talking about how much blood Stalin and Mao and Pol Pot have on their hands…so we don’t need to get too upset about these twenty-three people or the slaughter in Ukraine. In their thinking even Hitler can’t be vilified because whatabout ….
We can “mourn with those who,” but the USA and the world need action. We can pray for rain, or peace in Ukraine, or to end world poverty, or whatever. But the world problems scream for action.
Thank you for a beautiful and intelligent, well-written post.
I am all too aware of Mormon Pollyannas who
seem to say the wrong thing at funerals and in other responses to tragic events. In 48 years of the Church, I have personally seen too many examples. I think people are often overwhelmed by the’ tragedies of others, and have a desperate need to say SOMETHING, and shore up their own fragile testimonies. So they thoughtlessly say vacuous things about it all being part of God’s plan. Fortunately, I was spared that ordeal when my wife died 18 months ago. I was blessed with people who mourned with me and quietly helped me.
I was sorry to hear, some time ago, when you mentioned your late wife and I realized then that she had passed. From your comments, she appeared to be a gentle soul, as do you. I am sorry for your loss and from afar I and others are mourning with you.
I watched a Stake President hijack my grandmother’s funeral and say some things that were unkind about that grandmother while building himself up by spouting platitudes. The only highlight of the event was just as the Stake President delivered the final platitude, my elderly uncle said “Shut the h*** up” in a firm voice that echoed throughout the chapel. I vowed to never, ever hold a family funeral in the church. Funerals are family duties, not church services. My family has firm instructions when the time comes, they will hold my funeral at the mortuary chapel, with “Amazing Grace” performed on the pipes and only family and friends as speakers.
At my MIL’s funeral, a chiropractor gave an oration on the wonders of chiropractic. So the Church isn’t alone in having bad taste at funerals.
At my aunt’s funeral, the children talked about how their mother never was really a believer. She joined the Church and went through the temple to make my uncle happy. I found the children’s salute to their mother very touching.
My mother is 102 and has requested a small family graveside service. There will be no Church speakers. Just relatives who want to speak.
My grandmother requested to have no funeral, only a short graveside service. So the graveside service ended up being long and having the usual sorts of testimonials, but at least it was small and family-run.
Having lost two sons and facilitating grief support groups for parents in Utah for a decade, I offer a vigorous Amen to everything above.
All I want to add is many members think that the atonement will remove all pain – and quickly. If you are still grieving after a few months, you aren’t doing it right. The fault is yours. One bishop told my wife, “Everyone has lost someone. It seems you have been grieving too long. You need to get over it.”
I heard Fiona Givens relate our covenant to bear one another’s burdens, mourn with those who mourn, and comfort those who stand in need of comfort in this way:
If you were aiding Jesus as he was carrying his cross, you would physically help carry the burden. Having done that, you are in a better position to understand and mourn the loss that is being grieved. Finally, this would inform what you need to do and say to be of comfort.
Almost everyone skips this part – the actual work – and just say something that makes their own self feel better as they walk off.
One of the lessons from the story of Job is how his friends just came and sat with him for days. They didn’t say anything. They didn’t just leave a Sheppard’s pie outside the tent.
They shared themselves. Their commitment was significant and sustained.
Dave B.: Long, Slow, Deliberate Clapping. Very Well Done. An Absolutely Beautiful Narrative…….