Posted in reflections

Finding God in the rubble

Note to the reader:

These thoughts on “natural evil” apply as much to yesterday’s devastating tornado in Joplin, Missouri as they did to the  Haiti earthquake of January, 2010. Faith seeking understanding can raise more questions than it answers, yet sometimes, questioning is its own solace. Our prayers go out to the families of those who lost loved ones, whether in Port-au-Prince or Joplin.


Last night, I tossed and turned. Finally, at 4 a.m. I gave up and went downstairs. Haiti was on my mind.

Estimates are that 110,000 Haitians died in the recent earthquake. News reports included names of specific locations in Haiti’s capital city that my wife, sons, and I frequented while living there briefly as missionaries, like the supermarket where we shopped that collapsed into rubble.

Some stories have been wrenching. Eleven year old Anaika Saint-Louis was a happy girl, sang in her church choir, and told anyone who would listen that someday, she would be a lawyer. When the quake hit, she was trapped under tons of concrete. For three days, she prayed desperately to God to save her. After heroic efforts, workers freed her, but at the cost of an amputated leg. She died en route to specialized medical treatment, three hours away. The Apostles’ Creed affirms: “I believe in the resurrection of the body.” We will see courageous Anaika again someday, but meanwhile her mom weeps, and we weep with her.

Christians know the problem all too well. If:

1. God is in control, and if

2. God is good and loves us, then…

3. Why does He permit such terrible tragedies?

Atheists have a ready answer, and they’ve been vocal on comment threads at online news sites. In short – for them – God doesn’t exist, and the random cruelty of natural disasters is eloquent proof that we’re on our own. Yet secular humanism is like drinking salt water. It only makes you more thirsty. Even in a country like France, where a godless humanism has dominated for two hundred years, a hunger for the supernatural is never far below the surface. Interest in witches, wizards, and the occult is as obvious as the horoscopes and magazines sold in Paris bookstores. Likewise, a hundred years of communism in Russia couldn’t kill belief in God. As for Haiti, the earthquake sparked all-night prayer meetings in the streets. More than ever, people are turning to God, hardly the reaction one would expect. In short, atheism satisfies only a handful of human beings. Whether as poor as a Congolese or as rich as a Wall Street banker, we seem designed to believe in something bigger than ourselves.

A second answer, this time from Christians, is that the earthquake is a “test” of our faith. This was the recent status of one of my FaceBook friends. The Book of Job notwithstanding, I’m hesitant to use that template to interpret catastrophes on this scale. Getting laid off from a job, or having a illness from which I recover, these are life events that draw me closer to God and increase my reliance upon Him. But how exactly is a dead earthquake victim’s faith strengthened? Am I willing to say that God would allow another to die for the sole purpose of increasing my reliance upon Him? That’s a pretty egocentric view of life. Besides, why not turn the tables? Perhaps God should have allowed me to die so that my brother’s faith could be reinforced. Would I be O.K. with that?

A third answer is to simply re-affirm that “God is Sovereign.” Closely akin to this is an appeal to the unknowable, like the the theology book on my shelf with a chapter entitled “the mystery of evil.” Let’s be honest” “mystery” is not an explanation, it’s a dodge. It merely cuts off discussion before it has gotten started. It’s a back-handed way of scolding us for having doubts. To call God “Sovereign” is only the very beginning of an answer. At very least, we need to determine the exact nature of that Sovereignty. This includes an apparent refusal on God’s part in most situations to intervene in the workings of nature, stories of angelic interventions aside. I might have wished that God would have suspended gravity when playing basketball I came crashing down on my leg and dislocated my left knee cap. On the other hand, the same force that caused me injury keeps us all on the ground and prevents us from floating to our death in the stratosphere.

Another response is what I call “blame shifting.” It’s not God’s fault, it’s ours. There can be no question that many in Haiti died because construction was flimsy. But a 7.0 earthquake would test even the best of buildings. Say we chalk 75% of the deaths up to poorly built structures, that still leaves 25% – around 30,000 – who perished through no fault of their own. Blame-shifting might take you half-way around the track, but doesn’t get you across the finish line.

Dennis Bratcher provides insight that may sound strange to the Christian ear, but has the merit of taking our experiences seriously. In a nutshell, God the Creator has built randomness into the Creation.

Click here to read the entire article.

Written as a reflection upon the horrid F-5 tornado that swept through Oklahoma City on May 3, 1999, Bratcher admits that there is no logical explanation for why a family on one side of the street was spared, yet a family on the other side of the same road perished. Was one family punished by God? Jesus rules out this kind of explanation in Luke 13:1-5.

Is it possible for God to be both the Designer/Creator of this world, and also to have left “wiggle room” for random events? I believe it is. In my own denomination’s Manual, there is an affirmation about God as “Sovereign of the universe.” At the same time, we acknowledge that there are games of chance, such as the lottery. One belief does not negate the other. Math students toss coins and learn something about randomness as related to probability. Computer programmers design games that build randomness into the algorithms — or is that merely a mirage? Design and randomness are not mutually exclusive.

Having acknowledged randomness, that sometimes things “just happen,” Bratcher concludes:

 And yet, I will never abandon the idea that God works in marvelous ways in our world, daily! The Bible never teaches that God is in total personal control of everything that happens in the world. That is our desire and, I think, an expression of our own sinful need to control. But it is simply not what we know about God. Rather, the biblical promise is that whatever happens in the world, God can take that and work it for good (Rom 8:28). That is the basis of our faith and hope and ability to cope with the world. There is nothing that is beyond God’s power to redeem and use for his purposes.

Speaking of redemption…

I just spent a week teaching 15 pastors in Madagascar, including 8 female pastors. Each had a chance to tell their “before” and “after” story, of how they came to Christ. Tears welled up in the eyes of several as they related how God had taken them out of desperate circumstances, including living on the street or horrendous beatings from drunken husbands. God’s redeeming love gave them for the first time a reason for living, and now they are sharing the Gospel with others. Hearing such stories reminds me why I’m a missionary. It’s all about people, and God’s “fingerprints” are all over their lives.

Jesus said: “In this world, you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). I’m thankful that even in the randomness of an earthquake, we can be instruments in the hands of the Lord, bringing hope in practical ways to those who are hurting. In a world that sometimes is just random, we can be intentional. God can help us systematically reach out in the name of Jesus. What a privilege. What a responsibility.


Greg is interested in many topics, including theology, philosophy, and science.

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