When We Can Only Ask 'Why?'

Posted on April 11th, 2011
AP Photo/Kyodo News

The images of devastation coming to us from Japan raise once again the question of why. Why would a just and loving God allow–or worse yet, cause–such human suffering? Can’t God prevent such tragedies? And if God can do so, why doesn’t he?

Inevitably, certain Christians respond that God has used the earthquake and tsunami to punish the Japanese people. As some said afer the Haiti earthquake and Hurricane Katrina, disasters of this scale can only come from God, and they show God’s anger with human wrongdoing. Others, while reluctant to lay this tragedy directly at God’s feet, do so implicitly by repeating such commonplace phrases as “everything happens for a reason.”

We could spend a lot of time looking at what is wrong with such statements. Suffice it to say that a God who would cause such indiscriminate suffering is not the same God we see revealed in Jesus Christ. Everything about this event moves us to sympathy with the Japanese people. I cannot believe that God is less moved with compassion than we are.

But that still leaves us with the question of why. How are we to understand what has happened in Japan? Where is God in the midst of this tragedy?

Throughout most of human history people have seen earthquakes as acts of God. How else could pre-scientific people explain such widespread destruction? But today we understand that earthquakes are the result of the movement of the earth’s plates, a process designed to keep the core of our planet from overheating. It is an amazing feat of engineering and physics. Without it the earth could not support life. Likewise the monsoons that bring terrible flooding are part of the earth’s system for cooling our atmosphere. These two processes allow our planet to support life.

So, we know today that these forces of nature are key to our survival. We also have a basic understanding of when and why they occur. We are no longer bound to believe that God sends earthquakes or floods. Likewise we understand why God does not intervene and stop these things from occurring; to do so would be to ensure the destruction of our planet.

That doesn’t change the fact that sometimes people get in the way of these natural events. When the ground bucks and rolls, when the sea pushes suddenly beyond its bounds, human bodies and human lives are no match for the forces unleashed. Few countries would have been better prepared for this disaster than Japan; yet even so, the scenes of carnage and destruction are wrenching to watch.

Where is God in the midst of this suffering? As always, God’s provision for human beings who face these natural disasters is to send others to provide care. As human beings we are meant to hear the call of God to provide food and clothing and shelter for those in need. We wrap our arms around those who survive and help them put the pieces of their lives back together again.

When God wants to bring hope and help to others, God sends people. Some suffering is the result of misguided or destructive choices we humans make. Some arises from impersonal forces like disease and natural disaster. Yet regardless of where suffering comes from, God calls us to be God’s hands and voice in responding to it. Jesus teaches that the essence of love and authentic discipleship is to help those who are in need. By doing this we become the presence of God for others and in this way God answers prayer and works in our world.

Rather than being disappointed with God for the natural disasters and widespread poverty that affect so many in our word, I see them as a call to action. The question is, will God’s people heed the call?

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