|Photo Courtesy of Heather Lockwood (https://www.facebook.com/heathAlocks)|
Most everyone knows by now a tornado ripped through central Illinois (specifically the towns of Washington and Pekin) on Sunday November 17, killing two people, injuring many others, and destroying some 1000 homes, leaving many many indefinitely homeless.
As people begin to pick up the pieces of their lives, inevitably questions will begin to emerge in an attempt to find meaning in what has happened, and eventually they will begin to point their questions heavenward: "Why did this happen God?" or even "God why did you allow this to happen?" and then "Why did this happen to some people and not others? Did the people who this happened to deserve to have their houses destroyed?"
Now, I am no professional theologian or Biblical scholar but since this event has affected so many people that are close to me (I once lived in Washington for several years and grew up in Metamora) I want to offer people a way out of this guessing game to (immediately) assign (a definite) meaning and the temptation to put God on trial. Actually sorting through events like a tornado, (natural disasters) a genocide (human disasters), and more generally death and the existence of evil are part of a larger conversation (or study) known as theodicy. Simply put, life-altering tragedies on micro and macro levels are nothing new for the human race and Christians have been working through "what it all means" and "what God is trying to say to us" about it all for a long long time.
So, in the wake of this horrible event that has affected so many of us here are five recommendations:
1. Let's read related Scriptures together and then discuss them.
2. Let's read related books on this subject together and then discuss them.
3. Let's listen to those who have been affected, allowing them to tell their story.
4. Let's help those in need with time, service, compassion, and money.
5. Let's pray to and praise God a lot together.
I would encourage us all to not come to any hasty conclusions (other than that God is in control and is working all things according to his purpose), but to instead be willing to walk with each other through our grief and our questioning. Let's pray, let's worship God, let's study, let's ask questions, and let's listen--and let's do it within our worshiping communities. And all the while let's help our neighbors get their lives back.
My friend, Dan Leman, a pastor in the Metamora area who lives in Washington (and who's house was not damaged by the tornado) and I were talking about God's role in events like this and he inevitably said "Look. This is what we can say: God has a purpose and a plan in everything and people are still responsible for their own actions." In other words, God is fully in control (i.e., sovereign) and people are still culpable for the way they have lived their lives. And so I said to him, "OK, that's fine, as long as you can acknowledge that that's a paradox--between God's ultimate will governing the universe and humanity's free will. That there's tension and mystery between those two things and that we don't fully understand how God's will and our wills interact to accomplish his purpose...except that they will and are accomplishing his purpose." And he said, "Yes, OK." And then we were silent and kept cleaning up the downed trees in the tornado victim's yard we were standing in. (Dan preached a sermon at Faith Evangelical Free Church last week regarding what a Christian's response should be to an event like this, which can be found here.)
At this point you might be asking:
1. So, are you saying God caused this tornado and that he causes all natural disasters in general?
2. Do you think he had a specific purpose in this particular tornado; that he guided it to specific houses, sparing some and destroying others.
3. Do you think God was specifically judging Washington since they were the hardest hit? Was God sending them a message?
4. Or are you simply saying that this was a horrible event and God will ultimately work it for good and for his glory and purpose?
3. Because wait...you couldn't possibly be implying God had anything to do with that tornado--surely that was the randomness of nature at work?
And to that I would say...please read the previous paragraphs about not coming to hasty conclusions, but also thoroughly read through the Scriptures I provide below in community with other believers, and then read the books on theodicy and suffering I recommend. Mull over the answers for a couple of years--perhaps even a lifetime--and then we can talk about where God was at in the great Central Illinois Tornado of 2013. Perhaps by that time other natural and human tragedies will have taken place for us all to think about again...
So, finally, here are some resources.
First are the Scriptures, all worthy of reflection, of course. These are not new and in no way exhaustive--that is, they have not been hidden in some secret book of the Bible and do not include every possible verse on the subject, but they deserve to be wrestled with, each one of them considered on their own and in conversation with the other verses. They are not to be used as a weapon to club a message over someone's head but to instead instruct, correct, and serve us as we attempt to sort through a tragedy as finite flawed creatures created in God's image:
1. Romans 8:18-30, ESV
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit,groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. 27 And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saintsaccording to the will of God. 28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.
2. John 9:1-7, ESV
As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. 2 And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3 Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him. 4 We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work. 5 As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” 6 Having said these things, he spit on the ground and made mud with the saliva. Then he anointed the man's eyes with the mud 7 and said to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). So he went and washed and came back seeing.
3. Luke 13:1-5, ESV
There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? 3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. 4 Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? 5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
4. Habakkuk 3:17-19, ESV
Though the fig tree should not blossom,
nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
and there be no herd in the stalls,
18 yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
19 God, the Lord, is my strength;
he makes my feet like the deer's;
he makes me tread on my high places.
5. Ecclesiastes 2:12-17, ESV
So I turned to consider wisdom and madness and folly. For what can the man do who comes after the king? Only what has already been done. 13 Then I saw that there is more gain in wisdom than in folly, as there is more gain in light than in darkness. 14 The wise person has his eyes in his head, but the fool walks in darkness. And yet I perceived that the same event happens to all of them. 15 Then I said in my heart, “What happens to the fool will happen to me also. Why then have I been so very wise?” And I said in my heart that this also is vanity. 16 For of the wise as of the fool there is no enduring remembrance, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. How the wise dies just like the fool! 17 So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after wind.
6. Matthew 5:43-45, ESV
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.
7. Isaiah 46:8-11, ESV
“Remember this and stand firm,
recall it to mind, you transgressors,
9 remember the former things of old;
for I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is none like me,
10 declaring the end from the beginning
and from ancient times things not yet done,
saying, ‘My counsel shall stand,
and I will accomplish all my purpose,’
11 calling a bird of prey from the east,
the man of my counsel from a far country.
I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass;
I have purposed, and I will do it.
8. Psalm 103:6-19
The Lord works righteousness
and justice for all who are oppressed.
7 He made known his ways to Moses,
his acts to the people of Israel.
8 The Lord is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
9 He will not always chide,
nor will he keep his anger forever.
10 He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities.
11 For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
12 as far as the east is from the west,
so far does he remove our transgressions from us.
13 As a father shows compassion to his children,
so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him.
14 For he knows our frame;
he remembers that we are dust.
15 As for man, his days are like grass;
he flourishes like a flower of the field;
16 for the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
and its place knows it no more.
17 But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him,
and his righteousness to children's children,
18 to those who keep his covenant
and remember to do his commandments.
19 The Lord has established his throne in the heavens,
and his kingdom rules over all.
9. Acts 2:42-47, ESV
And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43 And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. 44 And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 45 And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 And day by day,attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God andhaving favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. [my emphasis added in bold]
And here is the book list:
If God is So God, Why Do I Hurt So Bad? by David B. Biebel
Evil and the Justice of God by N.T. Wright