Watching the news of the Oklahoma tornados in May, where numerous people including children were killed, made me recall the following thoughts written after the March 2011 Japan tsunami. During that first week following that tragedy, I noticed a friend’s Facebook status update. I think he borrowed it from somewhere else, so I don’t know the author, but the quote urged us to stop calling disasters “acts of God,” but rather “acts of nature.” The quotation went on to call acts of compassion “acts of God” because God does not send disasters. Instead, God sends us out to care for and help other people, to pull together, and to bring good things out of tragedy. I liked the quotation so I borrowed it, with credit to my friend, for my own update. I’ve been noticing similar posts in the aftermath of the new tragedy.
The quotation led to an interesting exchange of ideas among some of my other Facebook friends, centering around the nature of God’s presence amid disasters and tragedies. One friend introduced several scriptures that do affirm God’s control over natural processes.
Moses said to him, ‘As soon as I have gone out of the city, I will stretch out my hands to the Lord; the thunder will cease, and there will be no more hail, so that you may know that the earth is the Lord’s (Ex. 9:29).
When the waters saw you, O God, when the waters saw you, they were afraid; the very deep trembled. The clouds poured out water; the skies thundered; your arrows flashed on every side. The crash of your thunder was in the whirlwind; your lightnings lit up the world; the earth trembled and shook. Your way was through the sea, your path, through the mighty waters; yet your footprints were unseen (Ps. 77:16-19)
When heaven is shut up and there is no rain because they have sinned against you, and then they pray towards this place, confess your name, and turn from their sin, because you punish them, then hear in heaven, and forgive the sin of your servants, your people Israel, when you teach them the good way in which they should walk; and grant rain on your land, which you have given to your people as an inheritance (1 Kings 8:35-36).
The mountains quake before him, and the hills melt; the earth heaves before him, the world and all who live in it. Who can stand before his indignation? Who can endure the heat of his anger? His wrath is poured out like fire, and by him the rocks are broken in pieces. (Nahum 1:5-6)
Our Facebook discussion continued for several more comments. Some of our group argued that God allows disaster to happen, whether by giving Satan a short leach, by setting up creation to function in a certain way, or by exercising at least some control over the circumstances. Even allowing for poetic imagery in the above scriptures, the biblical witness is such that God’s authority over Creation is difficult to deny; the Bible’s God is not the “lesser god” of Tennyson’s poem, who creates but lacks force to shape creation properly. Nevertheless, we don’t understand God’s ways or why God does allow (or guide) certain events. But we can affirm that God does work for good (Romans 8:28), expresses compassionate help to the suffering, and moves us to love and serve people who are suffering.
As it happened, I was at that time doing research for a church curriculum lessons, which used the story of Elijah in 1 Kings 19. I kicked myself for not thinking of that passage during our Facebook discussion; it would’ve added some spice! The passage famously indicates that God was not in the wind, fire, and earthquake, but rather in the gentle silence afterward. God clearly was present in some way during Elijah’s crisis but God was not “in” the destructive natural occurrences. So…. where was God in the “natural disaster” of 1 Kings 19? Any natural disaster? Isn’t it inappropriate to affirm God’s sovereignty when innocent people are suffering or have been killed?
One other source for my freelance research was John Wesley’s sermon “The Cause and Cure of Earthquakes”: http://wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/the-sermons-of-john-wesley-1872-edition/sermon-129-the-cause-and-cure-of-earthquakes/ To the other scriptures discussed so far, Wesley adds Psalm 104:32 and Ps. 97:5, as well as Ps. 18:7, 114:7, Isa. 13:11, 13, Isa. 24:1, 18-20, Isa 29:6. Clearly the Bible is rich in praises for God’s supreme divine power, somehow present within natural circumstances.
But Wesley’s sermon raises even more urgently the question of God and natural disasters—where is God when they occur, and why does God allow them to occur? Wesley stresses that God uses earthquakes to punish sin and to awaken people to repentance. Wesley gives examples to show how good and bad people alike suffer and are killed in disasters like earthquakes, which is all the more reason to repent and strengthen our relationship with God.
Although Wesley reasons from Scripture, the awakening of repentance is a too human-centered and simplistic way to interpret the providence of God within these natural occurrences (although one wouldn’t rule out circumstances in which the Spirit did indeed awaken in someone a new relationship with God due to crisis). You’d never tell a farmer, discouraged about crops amid a too-wet summer, that God had arranged rain storms in order to awaken the farmer and surrounding community to repentance for some sin. You’d never tell someone in Moore, OK that God used the tornado to remind us to be godly.
Writing from a Reform Jewish perspective, W. Gunther Plaut notes that the doctrine of “chastisements of love” (yisurin shel ahavah) is found not only in Deuteronomy 8:2-3 but also Psalm 94:12-13 and 119:71. He notes that, for Jews, this belief that God sends hardships in order to guide the people was upheld in Judaism until Maimonides, who argued instead that we suffer because of natural occurrences, social occurrences, and our own imperfection. While the biblical passages interpret the divine-human interaction in those situations, Plaut argues that the doctrine no longer has application in Judaism following the Holocaust, far too horrible an experience to attribute to a loving God (W. Gunther Plaut, ed., The Torah: A Modern Commentary, New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1981, 1390-1391).
This is such a difficult philosophical, theological, and pastoral issue. I don’t want to take a deistic, “watchmaker God” kind of interpretation: that is, God simply created and wound-up the universe to function on its own, and then withdrew for the most part. The tragedy of physical life is that, short of the final redemption, suffering and death happens to everyone, regardless of whether we deserve it or not. It’s human to wonder where God is amid tragedy, though all of us are mortal and live among many, many potential dangers, just in the course of living. For whatever reason, God intervenes in many situations, but we do not see a divine role or perceive a divine purpose in many other circumstances.
But I do come back to Matthew 25:31-46, which does answer the question of “Where is God?” God (in his passage, Christ) is with the suffering, and therefore that’s where we need to be, too.
(After I posted this, I noticed this article with a similar theme: Evangelical author John Piper had tweeted verses from Job concerning the death of Job’s children in a wind storm. He was subsequently criticized for thereby implying that the Oklahoma tornado had something to do with God’s judgment. As one person quoted in the article stated, “Piper was highlighting God’s sovereignty and that he is still worthy of worship in the midst of suffering and tragedy,” but one writer’s response, with which I agree, is that “Christians have to stop the idea of responding to tragedy by suggesting God is inflicting his judgment.” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/23/john-pipers-tornado-tweets-stir-up-a-theological-debate_n_3328857.html?1369350389&ncid=edlinkusaolp00000009 The article also points out a real dilemma in times of tragedy: what gives one person theological comfort may be distressing to someone else. )