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When We Suffer, Where Is God?
Disasters cause us to ask difficult questions about suffering. The Christian view of suffering, however, is different from that of other religions.

Where was God when the tsunami struck the Indian Ocean Rim countries? It's an understandable question when natural disasters hit innocent people. In fact, the question comes up when any hardship strikes.

Satan wants to make God's creation suffer as much as possible.

Job's comforters sought to console him on his ash heap through philosophy. And the best rationale Job could come up with, as he scratched his itching boils with a gourd, "If God gives us good, why shouldn't He also let evil befall us? … Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward."

How true! But the Christian view of suffering has important distinctions from that of other religions. The devastation around the Indian Ocean Rim on December 26, 2004, made me search further for meaning in suffering.

First a caveat: In expressing the following thoughts, I do not want to give trite or flippant answers to tragic problems. In no way do I trivialize the suffering and grief in one of history's greatest recorded tragedies. Within minutes, the waves completely smashed idyllic resorts and swept away crowded communities—the affluent as well as the poor, the strong and the weak.

The disaster's immense scale stunned me. "Biblical," was the term even secular newscasters used. But the mass numbers were really individuals. Inwardly, I shed tears as a survivor described the desperate horror in the eyes of a mother whose babies were torn from her arms. I have tried to find perspective on the carnage, and I don't want to seem callous. I have been thankful for people of all persuasions, including my Christian colleagues, who sought to bring succour to suffering survivors.

Ten tentative thoughts

1) Suffering is not the inevitable result of an inescapable calamity.

If the proper equipment and system had been in place, as it is in many Pacific Rim countries, people could have been forewarned, giving them (apart from residents immediately adjacent on Sumatra) time to escape to higher ground. Also, governments could insist that licensed buildings (such as tourist resorts) be built on elevated land, and that mangrove swamps (forming a protective cushion for fishing villages) not be destroyed. They may not take action, but there's the possibility, meaning we can't blame fatalism, as do some religions (such as Islam).

Neither is suffering (necessarily) caused by demons. Spirit worshippers are free to believe otherwise, but seeking to placate spirits wastes resources, hindering remedies.

2) Suffering is not a virtue, as most Roman and Iberian (Spanish-Portuguese) Catholics believe—earning eternal bliss.

To them, Christ's sufferings are exemplary for us to emulate, rather than vicarious for our redemption. "By His stripes we are healed," Isaiah prophesied concerning the punishment of God's wrath that Jesus bore for our sins. Hinduism and Buddhism both look upon suffering as payment for bad karma, earning good karma—thereby (perhaps) reducing the cycles of re-incarnation. In fact, on this basis, some Hindus and Buddhists oppose alleviating suffering. Professor Vishal Mangalwadi of India attributes much of the sub-continent's poverty to the Hindu and Buddhist view of suffering.

3) Evil is a reality in our world, ensured by the enemy of God.

Satan wants to make God's creation suffer as much as possible. In fact, he wants to damn humanity for eternity. For the very continuation of the human race, God has to judge sin, but he does so with sorrow for his creation. Jesus, seeing Jerusalem's rejection of his grace, and foreseeing the city's destruction by Rome, wept over the city. On another occasion he grieved with a bereaved family.

The Devil infused our world with sin, but God went one better, by providing redemption—if sinful mankind will only accept it. (Remember, men and women, invested with free will, are not robots and are not programmed by God. For them to be human, not machines, the choice has to be theirs.)

"The question of why evil exists is not a theological question, for it assumes that it is possible to go behind the existence forced upon us as sinners. If we could answer it, then we would not be sinners. We could make something else responsible. Therefore 'the question of why' can always only be answered with the 'that' which burdens man completely." Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall/Temptation

4) The physical creation is fallen—not just the flora and fauna and geology. Therefore all creation exhibits destructiveness similar to man's unregenerate nature.

Volcanoes and geological faults and tidal waves were likely not part of Paradise. When Adam and Eve were in the Garden, there likely were no polar ice caps (which have affected our globe's weather systems ever since the Deluge).

The Apostle Paul affirms the general agony of a dysfunctional creation …

I assume that from the fact rain didn't fall upon the earth, but a gentle mist (or springs) watered the ground. The Fall seems to have changed the characteristics of both flora and fauna. Before the Fall, God pronounced His creation as "good." After the Fall, God listed thorns as one of the problems Adam would have to cope with. Also, prophecy of God's restored creation anticipates that the lion and the lamb will lie down together.

The Apostle Paul affirms the general agony of a dysfunctional creation, but he also points to its promised redemption. Meanwhile, Christianity does not take these physical problems of nature for granted, but plays its part in protecting both nature and humanity from harm (e.g. with sea walls, forest-fire barriers, environmental care). Contrary to allegations, Christianity approves scientific analysis of, and solutions to such problems.

5) Christianity also deplores suffering caused by mankind and seeks to correct it through social laws based on God's Ten Commandments given to Moses.

Jesus succinctly re-affirmed those laws, one being, "Love your neighbour as yourself." A report on the response of religious communities to the 2004 tsunami disaster caught my interest. A Muslim imam gave a fatalistic explanation, a Hindu priest blamed bad karma, and a Buddhist lama commended submission to suffering.

A Christian theologian, however, reported the outpouring of love and assistance to sufferers. Yes, Christians hasten to help suffering people, and they sorrow with others who sorrow. Yet they do not "grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope."

This is not to imply that followers of other faiths do not feel sorrow when bereaved—how ever they may rationalize existence beyond death. All humanity experiences sorrow in parting from loved ones.

At the same time, Christianity recognizes that humans are not naturally climbing some evolutionary upward spiral, but that mankind needs to implement in society the moral values (yes, including justice), often unrecognized as stemming from God's laws for His creation. In doing research for a book on Asia, I was interested to find that whereas some colonial administrators did not believe Hindu masses could ever be brought out of illiteracy and poverty, Christian officials set up programs that brought them hope. They also developed irrigation and agriculture in areas chronically beset with drought and starvation.

Over two centuries ago, William Carey, the Baptist pioneer missionary, and his colleagues spent their lives reducing vernaculars to writing, translating the Bible and other literature into 44 languages. Those included Sanskrit—which Brahmin religion decreed no lower caste members should even hear. If they did, hot lead was to be poured into their ears!

Professor Vishal Mangalwadi of India credits Evangelicals with establishing the rule of law and educational systems that brought India civilization, and with holding Britain to its earlier promise of granting Independence. Christians are continuing to aid those who suffer in India and other lands. An example is SIM's Project HOPE—treatment that brings hope to HIV-infected people.

6) God could step into our world at any time and prevent (a) the destructiveness of nature, and (b) the violence of mankind. But He doesn't usually.

One historic instance of His doing so was when a violent storm unexpectedly arose off the east coast of England and wrecked the Spanish Armada, which Spain (perpetrator of the cruel Inquisition) had sent to invade and destroy Protestant England. My father, an Englishman and descendant of French Protestant Huguenots, told me that Christians in the UK fervently prayed for God's protection from the approaching Spanish fleet, and thanked God for deliverance.

A closer-to-family instance occurred when my brother, Dave, with OMF in the Philippines, was badly burned. As he and a Filipino pastor painfully trekked out for help, the pastor prayed for strength. A cloud cast shadow along their path, providing relief from the scorching sun. To one side, the sun blazed away; to the other side, rain was turning the clay trails into a slippery bog.

But not often does God step into our circumstances. He has set His laws in motion and has left it up to us to use them instead of relying on a supernatural power, which man (because of his superstitious nature) would quickly use as a magic solution to all problems. Most "divine healers" proclaim a gospel of solutions on demand—resulting in big income for their coffers but much heartbreak for many sincere though gullible followers.

Overlooked by many, especially in the face of a major calamity, is the fact that God has stepped into our history, and he wants to step into our lives if we invite him. The most amazing event of history was when God became incarnate--a babe born in Bethlehem. And that remarkable incarnation became even more significant to a suffering world when the same Son of God, of his own free will, gave himself as a living sacrifice for our sins.

Jesus became incarnate to live among us and to suffer every emotion we feel, but He also endured more than human suffering. He, sinless God who had set in motion the universe and laid down the penalty to be paid for sin, subjected Himself to that penalty on behalf of the creation He loved! This is so unthinkable, that Judaism and Islam both reject Jesus as the Messiah. To their thinking, He could never die on the cross. Contrary to God's Word, that, to them, is proof He was not God incarnate. Yet He underwent death so He could free us from sin and rise to destroy the power of death.

7) Good people and innocent people (innocent of any particular incident that brings calamity) suffer along with the rest of humanity, because we are all offspring of Adam, and we share in the effects of the curse that Adam brought down upon himself and the world. As responsible beings, we're supposed to arrange protection by using the intelligence God has given us—for instance, to treat our bodies with respect, not abusively; to dwell in safe quarters (as safe as possible); and to avoid danger for ourselves and our children—such as not walking across a four-lane highway in rush-hour traffic, unless it is for an emergency (e.g. to pull a driver from his burning rig).

If God were in the habit of stepping in to order our personal world, (1) we'd quickly lose the preservation instincts He has given us, and (2) we'd soon be blaming God for making us robots.

"Look how God pushes us around!" I can hear certain elements complain. "He denies our human rights!" (That's not far-fetched, because I remember how a court forbade social welfare workers to monitor a pregnant mother, under their care, whom they suspected of taking drugs.) Besides, if God were acting as our heavenly nanny, would we really be willing to obey Him—all the time? I don't think it's fair to demand His protection without requiring our obedience.

… some folk … will complain that God was unjust in causing this man's suffering …

Unfortunately, in a disaster people are quick to blame either God or the sins of the people harmed. Nothing new about that. People asked Jesus such questions, as recorded in the New Testament. "Who sinned—this man or his parents?" they asked concerning a blind man. A logical Buddhist or Hindu question. But Jesus set them right. "Neither," replied Jesus as He healed him. "This happened to the man so people may glorify God."

That explanation won't sit well with some folk, who will complain that God was unjust in causing this man's suffering, just to be glorified in his healing. But Jesus didn't say God caused the blindness. He only said the deformity wasn't the result of sin, and God would be glorified by healing him—true of any genuine divine healing. Many people are injured by innocent accidents—that's a human risk. On another occasion, Jesus explained that a natural disaster wasn't necessarily because the dead and injured were greater sinners than anyone else. At the same time, sin can also directly cause illness, as Jesus warned the paralysed man He healed at Bethesda. Everyone needs to repent and accept God's salvation.

8) With due respect to the sincerity of the enquirer, the question, "Where was God?" is … well, to be kind, misplaced.

I respect the question if it is an anguished outcry under deep emotional trauma, but it could also be an excuse to blame God: "See—there's no God of love anyway! Gotcha!"

Charles Darwin, son of an Anglican clergyman, came to that conclusion when his sister died of leukemia. Why hadn't his father's religious magic (call it "faith") worked? To ease the pain of his loss, he set out to demonstrate that our world really didn't need a Creator, even if the idea of God were comforting to his religious parents and their friends. (Maybe he thought that would get God off the hook. Darwin did end up being a deist—God exists, but only as an impersonal, distant force.

Could the question also be similar to that of the unrepentant thief who taunted Jesus on the cross? "If you are the Son of God, get down from the cross and save us all!" he spat out. Well, why didn't Jesus? He could have. Where was God? But the other criminal, the repentant one, saw through the cynical rhetoric. "Shut up!" he more or less retorted. "Don't you know we're suffering for our sins, but He's innocent?" And in the agony of death he apparently trusted Jesus for the eternal life of his soul.

A more appropriate question would seem, "Where was our vaunted technological science?" Why wasn't mankind using the brains the Creator had given him? Properly utilized, technology could detect earthquakes and tidal waves, forewarning the entire world at the speed of light. Such a system is in place around the Pacific Rim. Indian Ocean Rim nations simply had not put it in place—it hadn't seemed a likely need, and it would have cost millions. Now that this disaster is costing billions, maybe a global warning system will be set up.

By the way, the question some Thais asked was this: "Where was the Director of our Meteorological Bureau?" Thailand is actually part of the warning system used in the Pacific—although only on its east coast. The Bureau knew a powerful earthquake had occurred under the sea, and that it could have disastrous effects. But, according to ABC News of January 4, 2004, the Director chose not to report it, lest superstitious people blame him for causing the devastation! (Thailand's Buddhism overlays deep-seated animism and belief in shamans.) Better to blame a loving God for allowing the disaster!

"Where was God?" Anyone who insists on asking that should also ask another question: "Where was God when I sinned against Him the other day? Why didn't He smite me on the spot?" Ah, maybe He really is a loving and patient God!

9) After we have tried to fathom "why?" there still is a dimension beyond our comprehension—that is the eternal one.

Scripture tells us God is not willing that anyone should perish. Instead, He wills that all should repent and accept eternal life.

But when the tsunami struck, what about thousands who had no time to repent, or didn't know how to prepare for eternity? What monstrous scenario am I suggesting? None—I don't have to answer "iffy" questions. Only the Holy Spirit knows a person's true relationship with God, and whether he/she would accept the gift of eternal life if further spared. In Jesus' story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, Abraham said that if unrepentant people would not listen to the Word of God, they wouldn't believe even if someone rose from the dead.

I do know God warned the world of Noah's day: "God's Spirit will not always strive with man." After all, God had given them some thousand years' warning. Noah's father, Methuselah, was a living warning. His name meant, "When he dies, it will happen." He died just before the Deluge. No doubt as the Ark floated away, Noah's drowning neighbours cried, "Where is your loving God?"—not recognizing that God had extended Methuselah's life (making him the oldest person in history), waiting for their repentance!

10) The Indian Ocean tsunami is but a foretaste of what is yet to come upon this world.

The Revelation of John, given to him by the Spirit of Christ, warns of the End Times, when one-third of the world's population will be destroyed amidst fire and earthquake. Ironically, despite warning, and despite the alternative of accepting God's redemption, mankind will hide in caves, refusing to repent. Instead, they'll curse God. Regrettably, people instinctively blame God ("Where was your loving God when all those people died?"), instead of the evil one, who (at present) "controls the whole world."

Philosophy can rationalize human existence, but concerning time and eternity, we can only accept God's Word …

We simply do not understand evil versus righteousness, sin versus holiness, and mortality versus God's immortality. Philosophy can rationalize human existence, but concerning time and eternity, we can only accept God's Word, because it has never failed. In this life, we attach such importance to time and matter that we cannot conceive of the greater importance of eternity and the spiritual. Even as an unborn infant cannot comprehend the amazing world outside his tangible, comfortable environment (even if it is only a bag of amniotic fluid), we cannot understand existence beyond the world we see and touch. Meanwhile, we've become complacent about evil and the perilous state in which most of the world's population exists.

What lessons can we learn from a tsunami—a monster suddenly rising out of the sparkling ocean on a sunny day and wiping entire communities off the face of the earth? As we compassionately alleviate the temporal suffering of fellow humans, we should also be concerned about those who have not yet prepared for eternity. That's why Jesus gave us the Gospel to pass on to people of every race and creed in every nation.

Where is God? Jesus delegated to His disciples the answer: "You are the light of the world." Paul understood that to be "Christ in you, the hope of glory," not Buddhist "self-enlightenment." The Spirit of Christ indwelling us, enabling us! Hope for a suffering world. Go ahead—"Let your light so shine"!

Harold Fuller, now retired, is formerly a deputy director for SIM International.

Originally published on the SIM website, www.SIM.ca.

 

 
 
 
 

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