CPE reflections (3)

3. When someone asks ‘Why?’

It can be tempting to respond to a heated or angst-filled ‘Why me?’ question — e.g., from a cancer patient who never smoked — with an answer that tires to satisfy the head rather than the heart. Although we may realise the need to resist this temptation, the bare recognition of the inadequacy of a purely intellectual response often just translates into a sense of inadequacy, frustration and bewilderment.

Quoting ‘all things work for the good of those who love God’, or launching into a five point explanation for the presence of suffering in the world, isn’t going to help. But what are we supposed to say instead?

The article, ‘A New way of Responding to the difficult Why Question’ offers some helpful advice. Crucially, it suggests we distinguish between the emotional component and the existential component — pertaining to the head, and particularly to the search for meaning. So that the emotional component can be addressed first, and the search for meaning arise organically, it outlines a three-step crisis intervention model:

  • Ventilation
  • Differentiation
  • Integration

When someone asks ‘Why?’ often their tone or voice or body language gives a clue about the emotions roiling away below the surface. At this point what most people need is sympathy. They need someone to take their feelings seriously, seriously enough verbalise the emotions they detect and — without deflecting, avoiding or communicating disapproval — give permission to express (or ventilate) those feelings.

Having ventilated (and been assured that they’ve been heard), a patient can be encouraged to attempt to differentiate or examine exactly what he or she is seeking. While theologically neat answers may be available to the question, they will often be experienced as empty in so far as they short-circuit the journey of self-discovery as the patient works through what it is they are pursuing (which usually has more to do with meaning than answers).

In time, therefore, the search for meaning yields the fruit of integration as the difference between the reason (or explanation) for their situation and its meaning comes into focus.

All I would want to add to this profound reflection on the dynamics of questions arising from the experience of suffering is an insistence that this is not merely a matter of strategy or pragmatism. Rather, it is deeply informed by theology — especially theology done at the foot of the cross. There we learn that while God may bring good out of even the most tragic experience of evil and suffering, that doesn’t make it good — or excuse its perpetrators.

The cross (and resurrection) declares that evil has no future in God’s good world. It doesn’t belong. And it will have no ultimate place. So the only response that makes sense in the long run is protest against it, and the refusal to settle for answers and reasons (which often explain it away — either minimising the reality of evil or implying a certain symmetry with good in God’s purposes), while still seeking what meaning might be made of it under God’s good hand.


  1. Someone told me about this model and a search led me to your page but no further -can you provide a source or author for the origianl theory? Thanks a lot! (so I can use it with my CPE students)

  2. Thanks Chris, I know Morris so will ask him next time I see him at a NSWCPE Centre meeting, appreciate your help!

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