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How Will You Respond When the Tragedy Seems “Meaningless”?

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Mark Twain believed he was brilliant at highlighting experiences and apparent contradictions that pointed in his mind to God's cruelty, which led him to reject the God of the Bible. For instance, in his novel The Mysterious Stranger, he wrote:

A God who could make good children as easily as bad, yet preferred to make bad ones; who could have made every one of them happy, yet never made a single happy one; who made them prize their bitter life, yet stingily cut it short; who gave his angels eternal happiness unearned, yet required his other children to earn it; who gave his angels painless lives, yet cursed his other children with biting miseries and maladies of mind and body; who mouths justice and invented hell—mouths mercy and invented hell—mouths Golden Rules, and forgiveness multiplied by seventy times seven, and invented hell; who mouths morals to other people and has none himself; who frowns upon crimes, yet commits them all; who created man without invitation, then tries to shuffle the responsibility for man's acts upon man, instead of honorably placing it where it belongs, upon himself; and finally, with altogether divine obtuseness, invites this poor, abused slave to worship him!

He concluded therefore:

It is true, that which I have revealed to you; there is no God, no universe, no human race, no earthly life, no heaven, no hell. It is all a dream—a grotesque and foolish dream. Nothing exists but you. And you are but a thought—a vagrant thought, a useless thought, a homeless thought, wandering forlorn among the empty eternities!

Challenging Twain's Assertions

Yes, Mark Twain overstates and misstates many things, such as God having no morals. Even Twain would state that there is honor among thieves, therefore we must conclude that there is something moral and noble even in the worst of us, including the God to which Mark Twain has described.

Too, Mark Twain misses the core message of the New Testament when he writes that God "gave his angels eternal happiness unearned, yet required his other children to earn it." For me, in understanding Christ's death on the cross for all my sins, I don't have to earn eternal happiness—in fact, I am incapable of earning it on my own—but receive it as a free gift. When I first learned this, I found it hard to miss the wonder of God's grace and mercy in the New Testament and Christ's love and sacrifice for me.

Wrestling with Existential Questions

One also wonders if Twain wishes to conclude that God is unjust when extending extra kindness to others. Jesus addressed this in a parable about workers who agreed to a certain wage early in the morning, and they gladly accepted that wage, but when the owner paid the same day's wages to someone who worked at the end of the day for one hour, they hit the roof and screamed it was unjust and evil. Jesus replied, "Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own? Or is your eye envious because I am generous?" (Matthew 20:15).

But Twain, who lost children of his own early in their lives, captures well the pain we feel about hell or about why a good child dies early. These questions haunt any of us with any degree of concern about separation from God forever or when our precious baby falls out of a car window and brutally dies, which I learned today about a family I know. We are left brokenhearted and stunned, with no answers.

Seeking Wisdom in Scripture

Even so, the Bible does not turn a blind eye to the frightening and tragic phenomena that disturbed Samuel Clemens (a.k.a. Mark Twain). In his case, the apparent injustice, suffering, and evil ignited his resentment of God, which then led to his rejection of God altogether.

Like many of us, he tried to resolve certain realities that cannot be resolved, which is why Paul penned such things as the "mystery of lawlessness" (2 Thessalonians 2:7). There is a component here that means “unintelligible.” Solomon referred to it as vanity, which can be translated as futile, meaningless, without purpose, making no sense, useless, and absolutely pointless.

Each person must grapple with what Solomon records in the book of Ecclesiastes about what is meaningless and futile.

"Vanity of vanities," says the Preacher, "Vanity of vanities! All is vanity." (1:2)

I have seen all the works which have been done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and striving after wind. (1:14)

Thus I considered all my activities which my hands had done and the labor which I had exerted, and behold all was vanity and striving after wind and there was no profit under the sun. (2:11)

Then I said to myself, "As is the fate of the fool, it will also befall me. Why then have I been extremely wise?" So I said to myself, "This too is vanity." (2:15)

And who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? Yet he will have control over all the fruit of my labor for which I have labored by acting wisely under the sun. This too is vanity. (2:19)

When there is a man who has labored with wisdom, knowledge and skill, then he gives his legacy to one who has not labored with them. This too is vanity and a great evil. (2:21)

Because all his days his task is painful and grievous; even at night his mind does not rest. This too is vanity. (2:23)

For to a person who is good in His sight He has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, while to the sinner He has given the task of gathering and collecting so that he may give to one who is good in God's sight. This too is vanity and striving after wind. (2:26)

For the fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts is the same. As one dies so dies the other; indeed, they all have the same breath and there is no advantage for man over beast, for all is vanity. (3:19)

I have seen that every labor and every skill which is done is the result of rivalry between a man and his neighbor. This too is vanity and striving after wind. (4:4)

There was a certain man without a dependent, having neither a son nor a brother, yet there was no end to all his labor. Indeed, his eyes were not satisfied with riches and he never asked, "And for whom am I laboring and depriving myself of pleasure?" This too is vanity and it is a grievous task. (4:8)

There is no end to all the people, to all who were before them, and even the ones who will come later will not be happy with him, for this too is vanity and striving after wind. (4:16)

He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves abundance with its income. This too is vanity. (5:10)

A man to whom God has given riches and wealth and honor so that his soul lacks nothing of all that he desires; yet God has not empowered him to eat from them, for a foreigner enjoys them. This is vanity and a severe affliction. (6:2)

Embracing Trust in God's Sovereignty

But Solomon concluded differently than Mark Twain. He wrote in Ecclesiastes 12:13, "The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person."

Let me add, Jesus Himself acknowledged the question about why an evil person is permitted to kill innocent people and why accidents happen that result in the suffering and death of undeserving people (Luke 13:1-5). The Bible addresses these matters. The Bible never sweeps under the rug the reality of injustice, suffering, and evil.

For me, I came to a crossroads as all of us must. Will I trust God in the face of unanswered questions on the basis of what I understand about Christ's goodness and lordship in the New Testament? Or, will I distrust what I understand about Christ in the face of unanswered questions?

Will you trust God, as Solomon did, when supposedly “meaningless” injustices, sufferings, and evils rear their ugly heads in their life? Or will you conclude as Twain appears to have, that it is all “a grotesque and foolish dream”?

Emerson Eggerichs, Ph.D.
Author, Speaker, Pastor

Questions to Consider

  1. How would you respond to Twain, if while in conversation with you he shared what he wrote above in The Mysterious Stranger?
  2. Part of living in a fallen world means tragedies and hardships that oftentimes cannot be explained. Why must one refrain from insisting on resolving certain realities that simply cannot be resolved?
  3. After all that Solomon wrote about vanities in the book of Ecclesiastes (“This too is vanity . . .”), what do you think he meant when he closed out his book with: "The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person."
  4. When have you come to a crossroads before when you had to choose whether or not you would trust God’s goodness in the face of unanswered questions? Did you find comfort, despite not receiving answers?