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By January 2, 2013 2 Comments

Two weeks ago, I was finishing the work of the semester and preparing for holiday travel, so I gladly yielded to the request from our editor to give my space to a guest blogger.  That means I haven’t written a blog since the beginning of December.  Maybe that’s why I’m still thinking about the old events of 2012 here in the new days of 2013. 

Two weeks ago, I was still processing the Newtown massacre. I am still processing it.  To be honest, I’ll probably never fully process it, at least in the sense of processing as “resolving.” “Evil,” as Flannery O’Connor once observed, “is not a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be endured.”  Endurance certainly seems to have been strenuously called upon of late. 

I suppose that’s why it bothers me so deeply that so soon after this tragedy (an inadequate word here to be sure, even in a hyperbolic age) that the press is full of pronouncements by self-identified Christians as to the reasons behind it.  Statements such as:

  • I think we have turned our back on the scripture and on God almighty and I think he has allowed judgment to fall upon us.  (Listen here at around minute 16 and following for the full context) 
  • We ask why there is violence in our schools, but we have systematically removed God from our schools, Should we be so surprised that schools would become a place of carnage?” (See here for the full report)

And of course, it’s not just after Newtown.  It’s after seemingly every tornado, flood, and hurricane.  After plane crashes and car wrecks.  After tsunamis and pandemics.  After any inexplicable horror—or worse, after anything of which the speaker disapproves.  It is then we hear some Christian explain how [insert terribleness here] is God’s divine decree.  (Of course, sometimes we get the equally unfortunate sentimental flip side: “God needed an angel.” But that is for another blog, no doubt.) 

I’m tired of it.  Not simply because I disagree with the theology, but because of the hubris of it all.  And the witness it gives of a faith that is presumptuous and triumphalistic, smug and self-righteous.  

Instead, the best I think we can do is to exhibit what T.S. Eliot calls the “wisdom of humility.”  Every time I hear someone talk about God’s will, God’s judgment, God’s whatever, I am reminded of some lines from Denise Levertov’s poem, “The Tide”:

How confidently the desires

of God are spoken of!

Perhaps God wants

something quite different

Or nothing, nothing at all.

How confidently indeed.

That’s not to assert we can say nothing about God and God’s ways.  Nevertheless, I think we would do well to pay attention to the book of Job.  Job’s friends provide an important model when they came and sat with him for seven days and seven nights in silence because “they saw that his pain was very great” (Job 2:13).  It was when they began trying to explain Job’s suffering—what The Message renders as “pious bluster” (Job 6:25)—that they go astray.  Like them, we seem to get ourselves in trouble most when we open our mouths and speak for anyone but ourselves, assigning motives and interpretations far beyond our ability to reckon.  Job’s friends’ first impulse was the right one: silence, presence with the victim, and lamentation. 

In a season of resolutions, of thinking about what I can do to change things, lamentation is the answer.  Lamentation is about our brokenness and the brokenness of our world—and our absolute inability to ultimately fix any of it.  But, as these beautiful words from Nicholas Wolterstorff describe, it is also in lamentation that we find the God who was broken for us and for our salvation: 

How is faith to endure, O God, when you allow all this scraping and tearing on us? You have allowed rivers of blood to flow, mountains of suffering to pile up, sobs to become humanity’s song–all without lifting a finger that we could see. You have allowed bonds of love beyond number to be painfully snapped. If you have not abandoned us, explain yourself.

We strain to hear. But instead of hearing an answer we catch sight of God himself scraped and torn. Through our tears we see the tears of God.

Jennifer L. Holberg

I am professor and chair of the Calvin University English department, where I have taught a range of courses in literature and composition since 1998. An Army brat, I have come to love my adopted hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m also the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture. My book, Nourishing Narratives: The Power of Story to Shape Our Faith, was published in July 2023 by Intervarsity Press.


  • Annie says:

    Thank you for speaking so candidly; for the prompting for "silence, presence, and lamentation"; for bringing these tragedies to our attention once again.

  • /s says:

    Every life has its own tragedies, many invisible to all but God. These lives express gratitude for your image of God's tears mingling with our own.

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