It is natural, when faced with great suffering, to ask the question, "Why?" As we do, even those who are only nominally religious wonder if the tragedy is not an act of God, a punishment for our sins.
On Monday, Tokyo's governor, Shintaro Ishihara, was quoted as saying, "I think (the disaster in Japan) is tembatsu." Tembatsu is a Japanese term that means "divine punishment." His remarks are reminiscent of the 2005 comments of the then New Orleans' mayor Ray Nagin, following Hurricane Katrina's destruction of his city. At the time he noted, "Surely God is mad at America. He sent us hurricane after hurricane after hurricane." Both governor Ishihara's and Mayor Nagin's saw the disaster as punishment for human sin.
We often suggest the same when we're dealing with our own individual suffering. A woman in the church I serve miscarried. Her friends told her it must have been "the will of God." A man who lost his job two years ago asks me why God is so angry with him that he's kept the man unemployed for two years. A young woman asks me, "Why did God kill my sister?"
Does God send earthquakes and hurricanes that indiscriminately kill thousands upon thousands of people? Does God take babies from the wombs of their mothers, depress the American economy and keep people from getting jobs? And does God kill the people we love? This picture of God has led many people to reject God all together.
As a pastor, I've spent 25 years working through the problem of suffering with my congregation. While it is natural, in the midst of intense grief and loss, to blame both God and ourselves for terrible tragedies (God is punishing me for something I've done/God is punishing our nation for something we've done), these answers miss the mark.
From a Christian theological perspective there are two challenges to this view: The first is that the Bible consistently teaches that God is loving, merciful and just. There is nothing loving, merciful and just about thousands of people being buried alive in mudslides or rubble or washed out to sea by a tsunami. There is nothing loving, merciful and just about a child being born with cancer, or a young person being raped and murdered. These acts of violence and widespread destruction are inconsistent with the character of God. Further, when considering whether these acts may be punishment for human sin, the central focus of the Christian gospel, which the present season of Lent is pointing us towards, is that Jesus Christ bore the punishment for human sin on the cross, there offering a prayer that would echo throughout history, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."
The answer to the question why is not to be found in a vengeful God who wreaks havoc on the human race. It is to be found in understanding that we live in a world of cause and effect. Our actions can have negative consequences for us or others. Others actions can have negative consequences for us. We also know that our bodies are not indestructible, and that there are genetic and external factors that affect our health. These can be exacerbated by our lifestyle and actions. And we know that there are forces of nature at work in our planet -- atmospheric, environmental and geological -- that are destructive. These very forces, which can be so destructive when human beings are in their path, are also essential to our planet being able to sustain life. Our actions as human beings can exacerbate these forces, but the forces themselves are a part of our planet's essential operating system.
Why did the earthquake and tsunami occur in Japan? Was it the act of an angry God? No, it was the result of the movement and collision of the earth's tectonic plates -- a process driven by the earth's need to regulate its own internal temperature. Without the process that creates earthquake, our planet could not sustain life.
So if God is not sending earthquakes, destroying economies and inflicting pain upon human beings, what is God doing? God works through people, calling them to help their neighbors in need. God comforts his people, walking with them even "through the valley of the shadow of death." And, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. noted, God bends or forces suffering, tragedy and evil that occur to bring about good. God redeems the suffering. Those who are believers in God find strength from their faith in the face of suffering. They are compelled to give sacrificially to help those in need. And they have the hope that comes from knowing that, with God by their side, the tragedy they are facing is never the final word.
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