How can a loving God allow for the horrific destruction of natural disasters?
The following reflections were written in response to questions posed after the 2004 Asian Tsunami that killed more than 200,000 people.
In all honesty, I cannot explain why such a disaster happens. I realize that it is very difficult to understand how a loving God would allow this kind of tragedy. While I don't have clear answers to the question 'why,' I do have some thoughts that may be helpful. I think it is important to remember that we are human and as finite human beings, we have a finite understanding about the mind of God. We do our best to make sense of things, but with our human limitations, we cannot ever really know the grand picture of eternity. I have often felt myself that death is one of the cruelest aspects of life, especially when it comes through innocent suffering. But, the way I have tried to bring sense out of that seemingly chaotic cruelty is to recognize the fact that perhaps God sees death differently than we do. Perhaps death and suffering are not as final in God's eyes as they are in our own. It has also helped me to realize that God is timeless— God dwells in timelessness. With God, the past is the present is the future is all one. That seems like a strange phrase without punctuation, but in the timelessness of God, death is not a single unilateral event stuck in a chronological moment of time. Because God stands outside of time, or rather, is not limited to chronological time as we know it, God always has the entire grand picture in view.
As humans, we struggle with the tragedies, disasters, and vagaries that life deals out, and wonder why everything cannot be peaceful. And yet, peace is sometimes most fully realized through conflict, resurrection is sometimes most fully realized through death, light is sometimes most fully realized through darkness. If we had the eternal mind of God and could see the grand picture, we might have less difficulty understanding it all. As it is, we may find that we have little chance of fully understanding, but we have been given a great capacity for faith. And as the Bible says, "Faith is the substance of what we hope for, the evidence of what cannot be seen." (Hebrews 11:1). And again in Romans, "We are saved by hope, but hope that is seen is not hope..." (Romans 8:24a). And we have the promise of God's everlasting presence, "I will never leave you or forsake you." (Hebrew 13:5).
The pain and suffering you are bearing now may make you feel hopeless and helpless. But, there are slivers of grace to be found even in the darkest moment. There is the presence of God to be felt in the smallest touch of another. There is the hope that beckons, and the peace of God that is somehow still available even though every breath may feel like it is crushing your chest. And, just maybe, your pain and suffering will help those of us who are not there, to stand in stronger solidarity with you, and together we can storm the gates of heaven, not for answers, but for mercy and love.
Be patient with yourself. It's okay to be mad at God, and cry out to God, and ask God why. When you allow yourself the freedom to be angry and hurt with God, and say what you are feeling, God will hear, and you will find your soul calmed and comforted. May God's great love be wrapped around you and all who are suffering in this tragedy, and in time I pray that the peace of God that passes all understanding will fill your heart and soul with the light of heaven.
Faith communities should be discussing this deeply. Raising money is a good thing, certainly, but we also need to be examining what this tragic event says about God. I will share my understanding, but I encourage you to explore deeply with your pastor, within your faith community, and through the words of those thinkers, writers and leaders whose understanding of God brings you new insights.
First, I don’t believe God caused the undersea earthquake that started the tsunami. Such undersea events happen because the earth is made that way. It does God a great disservice to blame God for this specific event. We don’t protect God’s sovereignty by saying that this, too, must have been part of God’s “plan.” We merely make God a monster.
Second, I don’t believe God aimed the resulting waves toward Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand, as opposed to other targets. The areas hit had done nothing to “deserve” the tsunami. Some assert that God was punishing those areas because residents had sinned, perhaps by failures in personal life or by choosing the wrong religion. To deduce from a storm that its victims were sinners being punished is nonsense and an affront to God. Ours is a God of mercy and forgiveness. Our call after the storm is to help in alleviating misery, not to pile on more misery by blaming the victim.
Third, I don’t believe that God caused certain people to be nearby when the wall of water hit shore. I know that many people want to believe in a God who controls all things, who has a plan for our lives, and who determined long ago where each of us would be on December 26, 2004. I just don’t believe God works that way. Scripture shows God as being engaged dynamically in humanity’s journey, as surprised as we are by the way events proceed. God was surprised by the behavior of Adam and Eve. Abraham wasn’t a puppet when he bargained with God for Sodom. God was appalled by David’s choice to seduce Bathsheba, a married woman. Theories about
God’s having a plan usually come from the prosperous and powerful, as a way of justifying their good fortune. Such theories mean less to a man carrying a dead child out of the water.
Fourth, I don’t believe that we can make our world safer by blaming God for misfortune. If we want to make our world work better, we need to stop distancing ourselves from other people’s suffering by blaming it on God, and to start seeing how we are bound together: American and Indonesian, Christian and Muslim, rich and poor. We will never have safety until we see ourselves and each other as God sees us, as beloved children of a merciful God.