God, Suffering, and Tornadoes

God, Suffering, and Tornadoes

In my last post, I introduced our topic of God and suffering with regard to this week’s deadly tornadoes. Go back and read that here if you haven’t already.

And now, for Part 2 of “The Danger of Explaining Tornadoes”:

Joseph Cardinal Bernardin wrote a God-anointed book in the last days of his battle with the cancer that claimed his life. In it he wrote:

Whenever we are with people who suffer, it frequently becomes evident that there is very little we can do to help them. … The reason this is so frustrating is that we like to be ‘fixers.’ We want not only to control our own destiny, but also that of others.

My experiences with those who have suffered tell me that it is cruel to interpret their suffering via our explanations. I think Cardinal Bernardin was right. We know we do not have control of our friend’s suffering and therefore, neither do we have control over our own impending future. The security of our hedge-theology is in question.

We must be merciful to those fixers who have not suffered. Their cause and effect faith has gotten them where they are. They are enjoying their health, homes, jobs, business success, educational attainments, and reputable friends. They accept all this as a gift of God – which it is. They believe it to be either the wink of God’s approval on their righteousness, or a blessing with no other explanation but God.

But in the grand scheme of the God-Satan wager, Job’s friends are betting with Satan. Job was good because God protected and blessed him. If Job will repent to get back in God’s good graces, he’ll be restored and get his stuff back. But God has given Job the terrible dignity of proving them all wrong.

Who are you cheering for? I think we want Job’s friends to be right. Then we can look across the fence at the family whose kids are turning out bad and we can be assured it’s because they didn’t take them to church; and be equally assured that our kids will turn out just fine because we rarely miss church. We can look at folks who are sick and know they just didn’t eat right, while reminding ourselves of the care we take in our diet. We can conclude that the poor are poor because they are lazy, while knowing we’ll always have enough because we work hard—and tithe. And the kids who have no honor roll bumper stickers to grace their parent’s cars; well, they just didn’t apply themselves like ours did. And maybe every bit of this is true!

Could it be that, sometimes, most of the time, cause and effect is right? Could it be that Proverbs and Deuteronomy explain life most of the time? Could it be that this is a good way to raise children, work, eat, study, run a business, and live? Job’s friends are partly right. There are consequences for behavior, rewards for discipline, and punishments for sin. This is the way of God.

But it doesn’t always explain what happens or fit every situation. God cannot be boxed in or universally predicted, especially when people suffer.

Job actually wishes his friends were right. Because then, the solution would be easy: an apology from God. When it dawned on God that Job had not committed grievous sins, God would come down with a sheepish grin on his face and say, “Job, old buddy, old pal, I owe you an apology. I wasn’t paying attention the other day and some nasty stuff got labeled with the wrong address and I’m here to make it up to you because I know you did nothing to deserve this. You’ve been a faithful and loyal servant, and I’m going to see to it that nothing like this ever happens to you again. I’ve fired your Guardian Angel.”

But we never hear God say “oops.”

The language of Job towards God in chapters 3—37 is blunt, brutal, and accusatory. Repeatedly, the friends try to reel him in and change his mind about why this has happened to him. But Job is not buying it. Interestingly, at the end of the story (Job 42:7-8), God says that Job spoke well of God while the friends didn’t. They said all the good holy words found in the Psalms and prayers and praise songs. Job, on the other hand, accused God of breaking his word. He said God was stalking him like a hunter stalking a wounded animal, looking for a chance to pump another arrow into his already dying carcass. He accused God of destroying the good right along with the bad. He challenged God to a debate. He portrayed God as wildly free doing as he pleased with diplomatic immunity from any law. He dared God to appear in court and defend himself. He banged on heaven’s doors until his knuckles were bloody, but apparently no one was at home. Had Job been talking like this in church, we’d have booed him out of the building, or had ushers escort him to the atheist’s club.

But God said, “Job spoke well of me.”

Ray Dunning told me one time that the essence of faith is wrestling with God. The word, Israel, probably means those who wrestle with God. Job is doing quite well for himself given his paltry health and pitiful handicap. He is wrestling with a God that he does not understand. Ash heap theology shoots holes in cause and effect religion. God hides and won’t appear in court to defend himself, so we do what Job does. We call him out. And according to our story, God is pleased with this.

I find myself wondering about the conversations in Gethsemane and on the cross. Maybe the essence of faith is wrestling with God.

Elie Wiesel, a holocaust survivor, wrote in his Memoirs:

I have never renounced my faith in God.
I have risen against his injustice,
protested his silence,
and sometimes his absence,
but my anger rises up within faith,
and not outside it.
Prophets and sages rebelled against the lack
of divine interference in human affairs during the times of persecution.
Abraham, Moses, Jeremiah teach us
that it is permissible for a man to accuse God,
provided it be done in the name of faith in God.
Sometimes we must accept the pain of faith
so as not to lose it.
And if that makes the tragedy of the believer
more devastating than that of the unbeliever,
so be it.

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?

No. But God is there on the pile of rubble suffering with us.

A Prayer

Give us a holy uncertainty about our wrong certainties.
Deliver us from fixing each other with answers that are non-answers.
May we be led by suffering to the heart of God,
revealed most clearly on a cross,
where God came to us on the ash heap
and there died in our place.

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