The Danger of Explaining Tornadoes

The Danger of Explaining Tornadoes

Today’s post is the first of two about God and suffering in the wake of this week’s deadly tornadoes.

For some reason we humans believe it is our responsibility to explain everything that happens. And religious people are even worse. I suppose that if we can explain it, we feel that we somehow have mastery over it. Silly, aren’t we?

Life has been lost in Kansas, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee with the recent round of tornadoes this week. I remember a few years ago when a tornado tore through Nashville and someone informed me that God was judging the city for leaving her Bible-belt roots and embracing the vile entertainment of country music. Regardless your opinion of country music, I think it is the most theological of all non-religious music because it is blatantly honest about what sin does to people.

So, I ask, is there a connection between the spot a tornado hits and the morality of the people on that spot at a given moment? Are tornadoes a part of a cause and effect world? Are they the consequence of something? Before I answer, come with me to the book of Job.

Those of us who have lived awhile have learned some things by trial and error. We’ve watched humans behave and have drawn conclusions. Certain actions result in certain consequences:

  • The fool and his money are soon parted.
  • The one who sows wicked deeds reaps wicked consequences.
  • The one who cares for a tree will eat its fruit.
  • Cause and effect.
  • You reap what you sow.
  • You get what you deserve.

We believe this. We want our children to believe this. We want them to wise up and listen to us, because we know the consequences of their bad choices. We know where the moral boundary lines are drawn. We know what people ought and ought not to do.

And besides, it’s scriptural. The Proverbs are a fine collection of this type of observed wisdom – cause and effect religion.  Deuteronomy is a narrative masterpiece of this theology. Obey God and you will inherit the land, produce bountiful crops, drink from choice wells, and have lots of kids. You’ll be heaven-blessed. But disobey God and you’ll pay a hefty price. You’ll get drought, blight, enemies pestering you, childlessness, poverty aplenty, and maybe a tornado. Cause and effect religion: good things happen to good people, bad things happen to bad people. God as much as guarantees it in Proverbs and Deuteronomy.

And then something happens that makes no sense. We did good and got bad. Or even worse, the guy that did bad got good.

Job doubts what he has always believed to be true and is groping his way toward a new knowledge of God. He is entertaining the thought that God may not be as cut-and-dried as he thought. He has lost his business, his possessions, his kids, his social standing, his reputation, and his health—all in short order. He’s sitting atop an ash heap scraping sores and wrestling with cause and effect religion.  Maybe God has a dark side, mysterious, wildly free.

Job has friends who’ve come to help. They live where Job has always lived, like Job has always lived—until now. They haven’t suffered. But they’ve come to fix their pal Job. After listening to his soliloquy, they begin. They offer the scriptures, the tried and true texts of cause and effect religion. They’ve quoted this party line all their life and it has been enough to quell doubt. The only explanation for Job’s plight is that Job has sinned–big time. He’s been bad, real bad. And he is reaping what he has sown. “Repent Job, change your wicked ways! God will be good to you if you do!”

But Job, being the man of integrity that he is, knows he has done nothing wrong, nothing to deserve this type treatment from God. He says so. His friends don’t believe him. Their theology has only one explanation for this calamity.

Job’s friends scare me. I’m afraid I might look in the mirror and see one of them. I can be so sure about God’s ways and God’s doings. I have my theology down pat, tightly woven, no loopholes, airtight. I can explain to you why things happen to certain people.

“I saw it coming 3 years ago.”

“I knew she was a flirt and this would come back to haunt their marriage.”

“I can tell you his problem; he’s too liberal.”

We’re so sure. We know about people, don’t we, friends of Job? And if they’ll give us half a chance, we can fix them. We know how. But Job refuses to be fixed by the religion of his friends. He refuses to be fixed because his authentic experience does not fit their theology. They think he sinned. He knows that sin has nothing to do with this. He calls them names: windbags, sorry comforters. He’s not getting by with a little help from his friends. Instead, he challenges them:

When desperate people give up on God Almighty, 
their friends, at least, should stick with them.
 But my brothers are fickle as a gulch in the desert— 
one day they’re gushing with water from melting ice and snow 
cascading out of the mountains, 
but by midsummer they’re dry, gullies baked dry in the sun.
 Travelers who spot them and go out of their way for a drink 
end up in a waterless gulch and die of thirst.
…And you, my so-called friends, are no better – there’s nothing to you! 
One look at a hard scene and you shrink in fear.
 It’s not as though I asked you for anything—
I didn’t ask you for one red cent—nor did I beg you to go out on a limb for me. 
So why all this dodging and shuffling? 
Confront me with the truth and I’ll shut up, 
show me where I’ve gone off the track.
 Honest words never hurt anyone, 
but what’s the point of all this pious bluster?
 You pretend to tell me what’s wrong with my life, 
but treat my words of anguish as so much hot air.
 Are people mere things to you? 
Are friends just items of profit and loss? 
Look me in the eyes! 
Do you think I’d lie to your face? 
Think it over—no double-talk! 
Think carefully— my integrity is on the line!
 Can you detect anything false in what I say? 
Don’t you trust me to discern good from evil?”

(Job 6:14-30, The Message)

To be continued in my next post …


  1. Kevin Rector says

    Yes, there is a direct correlation between sin and death. But it doesn’t flow the other way, there is no direct correlation between death and sin. Sin leads to death but death does not necessarily come from sin.

    Having lost my home in this tornado, and having also studied Wisdom literature at Trevecca, my mind instantly went to Job. Not more than an hour after losing my house I said aloud in prayer, “The LORD gives and the LORD takes away, blessed be the name of the LORD.” The best part is remembering the end of Job when he realizes God gives grace through the trial. In our circumstance, and we still have a long way to go, we have seen the grace of God shine through God’s church in miraculous ways.

  2. James Elkins II says

    If I may throw in my two-cents…

    Human Egocentrism always seems comes to the surface here, which isn’t surprising since we are really talking here of PSYCHOLOGY. Storms and Tornadoes are entirely of Nature. Storms and Tornadoes are sad, Yes. Tragic, Yes. Destructive, Yes. But Natural, but not Supernatural. We are alive because a universe such as ours that can support life apparently has a tendency to do just that- through the process of self-organization. One of its manifestations is the Hurricane and Tornado.

    The first step lies in the idea that none other than which takes form as Nature through the process of self-organization, which is a consequence of the physical-laws which define existence. Nature’s story is evolutionary processthat has been going on for billions of years. We all Exist due to the nature of these Systems.

    This is simply a matter of superimposing and projecting human-motives upon a non-conscious objects and systems like Nature? We tend perceive the natural world as capricious and perhaps therefore possessed of minds or perhaps one big mind, (God). (Theory of Mind) What about the 200,000 people the earthquake killed in Haiti and failed to notify them. There is no evidence whatsoever that God goes about caprciously-intervening in human affairs.

    So I totally-reject the idea that presents God as an Agent behind the scenes who goes about doing things like a Bit-Player in human drama affairs. This is not how God works. And I think this is Totally-Obvious just by looking at how the world works.

    God does not capriciously control the weather-events…moreover, anyone who credits divine-intervention with changing the course of a hurricane or tornado or anything else about the storm to save someone’s life is implicitly insulting the victims whose lives were not “Intervened” for. This brings to mind the telecast of Pat Robertson praying a decade or so ago for a change of course in a hurricane headed for the state of Virginia, and more significantly, for the televangelist’s studios. Robertson implored God to veer the hurricane in the direction of a neighboring state!

    Seeing of connections” accompanied by a “specific experience of an abnormal meaningfulness,” but it has come to represent the human tendency to seek patterns in nature and random-information in general. This is a “process of experiencing abnormal meanings in the entire surrounding experiential-field including Nature,” which are entirely self-referential. People display this bias when they gather or remember information selectively, or when they interpret it in a biased and meaningful way.

    There is ‘Confirmation-Bias’ as you would put it. Confirmation bias the tendency of people to favor information that confirms their own deeply-entrenched beliefs. People display this bias when they gather or remember information selectively, or when they interpret it in a biased way. The effect is stronger for emotionally charged issues like this…the illusory correlation when people falsely perceive an association between two events or situations.

    We have also made our specialty and career for ourselves as Pattern Recognising humans. So we have “the tendency to infuse patterns with sacred or divine meaning, intention, and agency. The effect is stronger for emotionally charged and religious issues and for deeply entrenched beliefs.People are natural biased toward confirming their existing beliefs and see things in a One-Sided way, focusing on one possibility and ignoring alternatives. The observed biases include wishful thinking and “the limited human capacity to process information.”

    Is there a connection between the spot a tornado hits and the morality of the people on that spot at a given moment? ABSOLUTELY NOT. Are tornadoes a part of a cause and effect world? YES. Are they the consequence of something? NO.

    I do not believe (or ever have) in God primarily as a means of answering the ultimate-mystery question of the origin of the nature-storms or the Universe etc..

    Personally, I have never thought of or questioned God mainly in terms of relevance to Nature and Origins of the Universe or Evolution. I Never have…I say it’s a Mystery and leave it at that! Now I realize that’s very odd and weird to many people. And I guess i’m probably in the Monority here.

    While God’s presence in public discourse these days seems limited to Fundamentalist straw-man arguments about Evolution and the Big-Bang (pseudo culture-wars and other nonsense), the Bible in general are much more concerned with “God’s relationship with people”

    I dont think the Christianity hinges in absolutely anyway on our need to explain Nature, Storms, Energy/Matter and the Origins of the Universe (life, existence, being). The GOD IS…in one word, MANIFOLD. MANIFOLD-GRACE…MERCY AND LOVE…BROTHERLY-LOVE…LOVE-IN-EXTENSION…Manifold Amazing-Grace! This is my working “definition” of God.

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