Love and Suffering

June 17th, 2011
Image © Kevin J. Hunt | Flickr | Used under Creative Commons license.

Even for people familiar with the destruction tornados can inflict, the images from Joplin, Missouri, were horrific. Wide swaths of the city with a population of 50,000 were reduced to piles of rubble that resembled a war zone. Stately old trees that remained standing were stripped entirely of their leaves and all appearance of life. The devastation was so complete that some of the affected neighborhoods are devoid of any former landmarks and unrecognizable to the people who lived there before the storm. In a matter of a few minutes, the funnel that suddenly materialized out of the sky killed at least 141 persons.

Every spring, especially in April and May, tornados exact a fearsome toll across the United States. This year’s season has been unusually severe. In addition to the storm that struck Joplin, killer tornados left a trail of death in Alabama, Oklahoma, and elsewhere.

These storms are especially frightening because they seem so random—they can destroy one home while leaving the house next door untouched—and they tend to strike with little or no advance warning. So sudden and deadly are they that it’s easy to understand why people often refer to such natural disasters as “acts of God.” But are they? Does God unleash deadly storms that appear to kill indiscriminately? Does God cause human suffering? Or, if not the direct cause, does God allow human suffering? And, if so, why?


These are questions that have troubled believers from ancient times. The questions are as old as Job, an upright man who lost everything but his life for reasons he found difficult to fathom. There’s a name for the problem of an all-loving God who allows suffering: theodicy.

The question of theodicy has no easy answers. We know that God is capable of intervening. But we also know that destruction and devastation are inevitable in our sinful, broken world. Too often we suggest that God directly caused a disaster—calling it an “act of God” or saying that it was “all part of God’s plan”— instead of focusing on how God is present with the victims of a disaster and how God brings healing in the aftermath of a disaster.

Some years ago in another city, after a tornado destroyed an old church building there, the congregation erected a sign that read: God was not in the tornado. God was in our response to the tornado. As people of God, we need to proclaim this truth to a hurting world.

Responding as Jesus Did

Disasters such a tornadoes, earthquakes, and floods are not punishments for sin. Jesus illustrates this when his disciples, upon seeing a blind man, asked, “Who sinned so that he was born blind, this man or his parents?” (John 9:2, CEB). The answer is neither. But Jesus didn’t dwell on this answer. Instead he responded with compassion, restoring the man’s sight.

As Jesus’ followers, we should do likewise. We may wrestle with the question of theodicy, but we must also equip ourselves to reach out to victims of disaster with love and compassion. For Christians this begins with prayer. None of us may ever fully understand why people suffer. But all of us can affirm that God’s purpose and God’s kingdom are revealed when we care for those who are hurting.

This article is also published as part of LinC, a weekly digital resource for youth small groups and Sunday school classes. The complete study guide can be purchased and downloaded here.

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