The Gift of Life from the Ashes

She holds a necklace in her hand and talks of her son’s death. Slowly rolling the jewelry in her fingers, she reveals the truth: Her son’s ashes are in the necklace.  It hangs close to her heart, close to her broken soul, but not close enough to heal the gaping wound from a life cut short. She asks for advice, how to explain this tragedy, and we are struck dumb.

Sometimes there is no good way to explain our suffering.

Across my computer screen the CNN headline flashes.  It’s the question–the one that trips us up when we feel weak, the one that beats us down in the dead of night.

“Is our suffering God’s will?”

The story features an American Jew named Joshua Prager who was in a bus accident 22 years ago.  While traveling in Israel, a truck slammed into the back of the bus, leaving Prager with a broken neck and half his body paralyzed.

After the accident, Prager questioned how life would be different if he had not been on the bus that day.  His plans to become a doctor were cut short. He never married. So many plans turned to dust because of one man’s failure to brake. After 20 years of questions, Prager ventured back to Israel to search for some answers.  He wanted to find the other people involved with the accident, including the 18 Israeli Chasidim, the bus driver’s widow, and the errant truck driver who slammed into the bus.

Prager’s journey is chronicled in his book, Half-Life: Reflections from Jerusalem on a Broken Neck.  Those who spoke with Prager believed that this accident, that killed one person and permanently disabled the author, was meant to happen for a reason.  They used an Arabic term called “maktoob” which means, “It was written.”  They concluded that the bus accident was written in God’s plan and was part of their story even before it happened.

When Prager met with the bus driver’s widow, she also used the Arabic term “maktoob” as well.  She said, “If you don’t believe that, you will go crazy.”  Prager then searched for the truck driver who caused the crash, hoping for some apology, some sign of remorse for the crash. After finding the driver in the Arab town of Kfar Qara, he didn’t give the apology Prager longed for; instead he spoke of “maktoob.”

It was written.  How could one accident that killed and maimed be part of God’s plan?

Prager wasn’t convinced.  Although he admitted that he once felt that “maktoob” was enough for him, it no longer was.  He did not believe the crash to be God-ordained, but merely the circumstances of carelessness, coincidence, and science.

Prager does not dismiss the beliefs of his crash mates.  But he takes the factual events of the crash, including the driving violations of the man who caused the accident and the dangerous bend in the road and puts these together as his answer to why.

According to Prager, the accident wasn’t God’s will, just a very unfortunate event caused by “a reckless driver, a truck loaded with four tons of tiles, a backseat with no headrest, and a dangerous road.”

But Prager’s conclusions leave me unsatisfied.  If all of life’s experiences are the result of the carelessness of fate, then what is the purpose behind our pain?  In this context, the reasons for our suffering become nonexistent.


Watching the lady with the necklace, the ash of her son’s being, I feel her unspoken pleading for some answers.  I have long struggled with the question as to why I was given my son only to watch him die.  I know that life is not fair, but it does not answer the question of why we suffer.

I wield my words as sense-makers, trying to give life to these ashes.  I pull out the Word and search for those who have long grappled with these questions.

In Job 9, the main character also asks the question of why he had to suffer. After losing his children and everything he had, including his health, Job concludes that God is punishing him for no reason.

“For he crushes me with a tempest and multiplies my wounds without cause.” (Job 9:17.)

The word “without cause” is the Hebrew word “chinnam.”  Throughout his speeches Job asks for an answer to why he is suffering because he believes it is “without cause” (chinnam).  When God finally does answer, he does not give Job an answer to the question of his suffering.  Like Job, this leads to uncomfortable truths:

We might never get an answer to why we suffer.   We may have to be satisfied with no answer.

But our unanswered questions do not have to be the final answer.

IMG_0372Like the mythical Phoenix who dies only to reemerge from ashes as a new beautiful creature, we can emerge as new creatures through Christ.  It is a picture of new life, of redemption from ashes.

Is it any wonder that people mourn in sackcloth and ashes?  That is where I am, fully broken, fully ash, waiting for new life, for the acceptance of the maktoob (It is written) and the redemption of hope.

When we see our lives born from ashes, how can we not believe in a God who makes life come from dead things?

The hopeless came to a God of hope and through their healing, they praised God.

In my loss and from my ashes, I still will praise him.  Though I do not have understanding, I have my faith, my maktoob, my belief that from dust, life will rise.


Source:  Prager, Joshua “Is Our Suffering God’s Will?” (22 May 2013).