(Editor’s Note: This blog originally released in 2012. We thought it was appropriate to share again, following the devastation in Oklahoma.)
It has been deemed the most destructive storm, hitting the most densely populated areas of our country, in decades. At the time of this writing, over fifty deaths have been reported. Damage is estimated to be in the $20 billion range. Over 8 million have been without power in 17 states.
So where was God?
Some would say this proves there isn’t a God, or at least a loving, benevolent God. If there was, He would have intervened. So either He wouldn’t (a bad God) or He couldn’t (a weak God).
Others, with equal determination, claim that this is just another example of God’s sovereignty. There was a Sandy because God wanted there to be a Sandy. So take that, New Jersey.
A CNN survey of social media found four main themes running through our cultural psyche: “God Bless,” “Thank God,” “God’s Wrath,” and “God Does Not Exist.”
So who is right?
The only way to answer that is to go back to the very beginning of our existence.
God made us in order to love us. We were tenderly crafted and designed, each as an individual, for the purpose of being related to, known, and deeply cherished. Yet this meant that we were also given the freedom to make choices with our life, to live as fully conscious, self-determining beings.
Even to the point of whether we were going to respond to the Creator’s love.
God did not choose to force Himself upon us against our will. Instead, He determined to woo us, knowing that in so doing, we might very well spurn His love. But this was the only way to have relationship be relationship.
This is the dynamic at the heart of human existence. God could have made me love Him, but if He had, His relationship with me – and mine with Him – would have been meaningless. God wanted my relationship with Him, and with others, to be real. So when He created me, He had to take the risk of setting me free.
The first use of this freedom to love was, as you might expect, made by the first humans, Adam and Eve. The tree in the middle of the garden stood as the great authenticator that the love between the first humans and God was real.
Then they chose to eat the fruit.
The Lover was spurned.
And all hell broke loose.
The decision the first humans made to reject God's leadership and an ongoing intimacy within a relationship with Him radically altered God's original design for how the world would operate and how life would be lived. Theologians have termed this “the fall," and talk about how we now live in a "fallen" world.
In other words, we live in a world that is not the way God intended it to be. When Satan told Eve that if she ate of the fruit in the garden that she would not die, he lied. It was the day death and dying was born in to the human race. They had chosen to sleep with another on the night of the honeymoon, and forever stained the relationship of loving intimacy that had been intended for eternity within the Lover’s heart.
Langdon Gilkey observes that few of us find it easy to believe that one act of disobedience brought about a fall for the whole race that is now continued in us by inheritance. Yet reflecting on his experience in a Japanese internment camp during World War II, where prisoners representing a cross-section of humanity were forced to participate in a living laboratory of community, Gilkey noted that the theological idea of a pervasive warping of our wills is the most accurate description of the reality of life. “What the doctrine of sin has said about man’s present state,” Gilkey concluded, “seemed to fit the facts as I found them.”
The results of our collective choice to turn away from God run so deep that it isn't just moral sin and evil that we face, but natural evil as well.
The whole world is sick.
In the Bible, we’re told that: “...the whole creation has been groaning” (Romans 8:22, NIV). Which is why we have earthquakes and tidal waves, volcanoes and mudslides, wild-fires and birth defects, famine and AIDS.
And, yes, hurricanes named Sandy.
Our world is "The Stained Planet," writes Philip Yancey. The pain and suffering and heartache is a huge cosmic "scream...that something is wrong...that the entire human condition is out of whack." These are far from original insights, much less contemporary ones. The medieval Christian philosopher Boethius aptly noted that “evil is not so much an infliction as a deep set infection.”
Which raises a provocative point - that God is not behind what is tragic with this world, much less responsible for it – people are. Or as G.K. Chesterton once wrote to the editor in response to a request by the London Times for an essay on the topic, “What’s Wrong with the World,”
In response to your article, ‘What’s wrong with the world’
– I am.
Our hearts shy away from His in light of the pain of our lives, and the pain of the world around us. We feel betrayed, yet fail to see that it is we who have done the betraying.
Now some will say, “Well, if He knew how it was going to turn out, He should have never created us, because everything from cancer to concentration camps just isn’t worth it.”
Yet when we blithely say such things, we betray how little we know of true love. Yes, God took a risk. Yes, the choice He gave each of us has resulted in pain and heartache and even tragedy. Yes, it would be tempting to say that it would have been easier on everyone – including God – never to have endured it.
But that’s not the way love – real love, at least – works.
To remember this, I need only reflect on one of the most defining realities of my life – my own role as a father. I have four children.
My oldest daughter will soon be twenty-six years old. And as her father, as the one who loves her more than anyone, who would lay down his life for her instantly, let me tell you what has never entered my mind.
Never having her.
Never bringing her into the world.
Never going through life with her.
Even though she can reject me, hurt me, turn from me, and tear out my heart by hurting herself as well as others. If someone were to say, “Why did you ever bother?” My only reply would be, “You have obviously never been a father.”
This is why suffering cannot be reduced to mere injustice, much less punishment. As a Time magazine reporter, attempting to understand Christianity’s unique perspective, rightly noted, “it is a harrowing invitation to a higher dialogue.”
That higher dialogue is love.
When one loves, there is risk – risk of suffering, risk of loss, risk of rejection. But without this willingness to be wounded on the deepest of levels, there cannot be authentic relationship on the deepest of levels.
As C.S. Lewis once observed,
"To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket - safe, dark, motionless, airless -it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable...The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers...of love is Hell."
So where am I in the potential pain of my daughter’s life - the pain that might come her way, and that might flow back to me because I chose to have her? The same place God is with my pain, and where God is with your pain, and where God is with all of the pain in this world.
Right by her side.
Caring, weeping, and longing to hold her in my arms.
Just as God is longing to hold us. He reaches out to each person, by name. The Bible says that "The Lord is close to those whose hearts are breaking...The good man does not escape all troubles - he has them too. But the Lord helps him in each and every one" (Psalm 34:18-20, LB). And those who have opened up their heart to God's presence and comfort in the midst of their pain have found this to be true.
Some might say, “But why doesn’t God just wipe out all pain and suffering and evil?” Because in doing so, He would be wiping out all opportunity for authentic relationship. Free choice would be meaningless. But further, it would be cruel. If all evil were wiped out at midnight tonight, who among us would live to see the dawn?
No, he endures the pain that comes with the love in order to redeem as many of us who are willing.
But that’s not all.
He’s invested Himself in the process of healing the wounds that have come from our choice by entering into the suffering process with us in order to lift us out of it. God Himself in human form came to earth in the person of Jesus and suffered. He knows about pain. He knows about rejection. He knows about hunger, injustice, and cruelty - because he has experienced it.
An ancient graffito on the Palatine shows a crucified figure with a donkey’s head, bearing the inscription “Alexamenos worships his god.” While meant to disparage and even mock, the image rings true. We worship, as German theologian Jurgen Moltmann observed, the crucified God.
Jesus on the cross was God entering into the reality of human suffering, experiencing it just like we do, in order to demonstrate that even when we used our free will to reject him, his love never ended. But this was not suffering for its own sake, but suffering so that we might use our free will and choose again.
And that this time, the choice would be the right one.
Frederick Buechner put it this way: “Like a father saying about his sick child, ‘I’d do anything to make you well,’ God finally calls his own bluff and does it.” The ultimate deliverance, the most significant healing, the most strategic rescue, has come. My greatest and most terrible affliction has been addressed. God has given me the greatest answer to my questions.
He has given me Himself.
So the real question is whether I will allow the reality of pain and suffering of this world to drive me away from God, or to God, where He can wrap his arms around me and walk with me through its darkest night toward the promise of a brighter tomorrow.
For His will be the final word, and it will be not only good, but best.
I am reminded how the song “40,” based on the 40th Psalm, often marked the end of U2 concerts following the events of September 11, 2001. As the band toured around the world in support of their CD “All That You Can’t Leave Behind,” tens of thousands of people nightly could be heard singing the refrain, “How long (to sing this song)”.
Bono, lead singer of the group, reflected, “How long...hunger? How long...hatred? How long until creation grows up and the chaos of its precocious, hell-bent adolescence has been discarded? I thought it odd that the vocalizing of such questions could bring such comfort: to me too.”
But this is precisely what does bring comfort – hope that lives within the now and the not yet. Bold living in light of our falleness, and a frank embrace of the realities of a fallen world, is the mark of faith. It embraces the emotional anguish, but never lets the emotions grow beyond the shadow of the character of God – or the knowledge of the story at hand.
The truth is that God loves passionately, and lives with the pain of that love more than we could ever imagine.
And that is the greater story – the one in which I must place my own.
James Emery White
Conor Finnegan, “Online conversations around Sandy feature God, prayer and atheism,” CNN, October 30, 2012, read online.
Langdon Gilkey, Shantung Compound.
Philip Yancey, Where is God When It Hurts?
Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy.
On Chesterton: This is widely attributed to Chesterton without protest, considered to be the basis for his 1910 work, What’s Wrong with the World, and has never been attributed to anyone else. Chestertonians consider it valid, and reflective of his humility and wit (see the official web site of the American Chesterton Society at www.chesterton.org), but alas, there is no documentary evidence.
David Van Biema, “When God Hides His Face,” TIME, July 16, 2001.C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves.
Jurgen Moltmann, The Crucified God.
Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking.
Bono, Selections from the Book of Psalms.
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His newly released book is The Church in an Age of Crisis: 25 New Realities Facing Christianity (Baker Press). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log-on to www.churchandculture.org, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.