09/15/2005 02:48 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Who Is This Obscuring My Designs With Empty-Headed Words?

Why do bad things happen? We are hearing speculation about answers to this question in the aftermath of Katrina, but the question is as old as humanity. In fact, the title of my post comes from the book of Job. In this book, Job, whom the text explicitly recognizes as a person of high morality and integrity, suffers the loss of most of his family, his home, and even his health. After these calamities have befallen him, he sits in the ash heap to ask the question that all of us have asked: Why me? What did I do to deserve all of these bad things happening to me?

As Job is mourning the loss of everything, three of his friends come to visit. These three friends exhibit great wisdom initially in that they simply sit down with Job and they keep their mouths shut. Afterwards, Job is the first one to speak, and his “why me?” has transitioned to wishing he had never been born. Then, to make a long story short, the next 30 some chapters can largely be summarized as Job’s friends telling him that, since God does not allow the just to suffer, his suffering must be punishment for wrong doing. Consequently, Job needs to ‘fess up, admit his sin, and seek restoration. In the last chapters, God himself speaks, and the first words attributed to him are those cited above, and they are to Job's "counselors." May I paraphrase? “Why are you guys talking when you don’t know what you are talking about?”

It is unfortunate that some Christians have seen in Hurricane Katrina divine judgment and punishment for a variety of sins--generally, the ones that that particular speaker considers most serious. May I suggest that, should you hear someone make these comments, you quote God in response: “Who is this obscuring my designs with empty-headed words?” If suffering as great as Job’s can come to someone explicitly identified as a highly moral person, then we should readily admit that we cannot so easily identify the causal links between “wrong doing” and “divine judgment”. Further, to blame some particular suffering on some particular sets of behaviors is unwarranted and indefensible--and it is unbiblical.

Consider the account of the blind man that Jesus heals in the Gospel of John. The disciples take it for granted that this man has been blind from birth as a consequence of someone’s sin. So, they ask whose sin resulted in his blindness: did the man sin or his parents? Jesus denied their presupposition by noting that the blindness was not related to anyone’s sin. Later, in the Gospel of Luke, some are wondering about the slaughter of some Galileans. Jesus asks them point blank: so, do you think the fact that they were killed means you are morally better? He even ups the ante by referring to a recent case where a tower fell, killing eighteen, and then asking: so, do you think they suffered because they were worse sinners than the rest? The implication of Jesus’ statements are straightforward–if you think they were punished because they were worse than you, you are mistaken.

There were those who attributed the tragedies of September 11, 2001 to divine judgment, and there are now some voices attempting the same thing in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. If and when you hear these claims being made, keep two things in mind. First, the connection between suffering and wrong doing is not nearly so easy to figure out, and those of us who seek to follow Jesus should know that. The bible and history are full of cases where the wicked prosper and the good die young. Second, Jesus gives no basis to think that those who do not suffer tragic circumstances are any better morally than those who do. In fact, he explicitly denies the connection. So, when you hear someone attribute the suffering in New Orleans to divine judgment on particular sins, feel free to quote God: Who are you to obscure God’s designs with empty-headed words?

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