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'Why?' A Theological Comment on the Tsunami

The Asian Tsunami brought “Jobian” destruction and despair. With over 200,000 estimated dead and missing—one half from Indonesia and a quarter from Sri Lanka—thousands of “Jobs” sit in despair on their own ash heaps.

Jobian experiences generate Jobian questions. Interpreters—apparent “friends” who seek to comfort—weigh in to speak almost prophetically about the “whys” and “reasons” for such a disaster.

“God is punishing evil,” some say, echoing Job’s own friends. The biblical story does have examples of analogous divine acts (the Noahic Flood). “God is testing the region,” others say. Testing is a thread weaved into the fabric of many biblical stories (apocalyptic tribulation tests the whole world in Revelation 3:10). “God is warning us about the end of the world.” Jesus pointed to some earthquakes as warnings or signs (Matthew 24:7).

Others, unlike Job’s friends, explain that God is uninvolved, or that such disasters evidence that there is no God, at least not a good one. The former defends God at the risk of diminishing prayer and demystifying the biblical story while the latter substitutes human notions of “good” for theological ones.

All answers to the question “why” are overly simplistic. It is too simple to say “God was not involved” since Scripture involves God in many similar situations, and it is too facile to assert “God was judging humanity” because Job’s friends made that mistake. Since I don’t even know why I do some of the things I do—I am often a mystery to myself—how can I grasp the “whys” of God? The mysteries of God’s involvement have often remained hidden during the deepest struggles of God’s faithful servants, including Job, Joseph and Jeremiah.

God understands the question, and we trust he has an answer. But he doesn’t think like us (Isaiah 55:9). Even if God answered the question, it might be like trying to explain Quantum Mechanics to a five year old. We simply do not have the capacity to think after God or grasp the fullness of his purposes.

Though the ultimate answer is unfathomable and unavailable, the human question arises naturally in our fallen circumstances—sufferers know it is an unavoidable question. Job asked “why” (3:23; 7:20; 13:23) and never received an answer. Along with Job we yearn to make sense of tragedy. If only, we imagine, we had a rationale—natural law, chaos, judgment, testing—then we could bear its weight. But would it hurt any less? Nevertheless, we question and there is no answer.

While God has not provided an intellectual resolution, he has responded to our cries. He responded to Job, surprising both Job and his “friends,” with his presence. Job had once only “heard of” God, but now his “eyes” had seen him (Job 42:6a).

The Christian message, consistent with Hebrew history (see Exodus 2:23-25), is that God responds to suffering with redemptive presence. God draws near to comfort sufferers and heal their brokenness. In Jesus, God did not explain suffering—how I long for a “Sermon on the Mount” about suffering—but rather he experienced it as one of us and redeemed us from it.

Jesus responded to suffering by sharing its burden, even death. Moved by love and compassion (even for his enemies, including us), he redeemed cosmic fallenness through healing and atonement.

Jesus is God’s response to suffering. It is not his only response (there are other parts of the story), nor is it the totality of all that is involved (the difficult questions of providence are not so neatly settled). But through Jesus God reveals his compassion and redeeming purpose. Our “why” questions remain unanswered but God has shown us who he is.

Moreover, we know who we are. We are the body of Christ on earth. We are his hands and feet. We must respond to suffering with love, compassion and redemptive healing. We do not act out of mere humanitarian concern. Rather, we act out of the movement of the Spirit who loves the world through us. We act because we are disciples of Jesus, and we offer grace because we have been graced.

The friends who came to Job’s ash heap became interpreters and accusers rather than comforters. Asian victims need the body of Christ to sit with them—without interpretation, without accusation, but with compassion and aide.

But if there is a divine message in the Tsunami, perhaps—just perhaps—it is not directed at impoverished Indonesia or India. Maybe the message is for the world’s wealthy economies. It forces us to think beyond this particular tragedy.

The tsunami has rightly generated worldwide compassion. But what if the daily headline were “26,000 Children Died Today of Preventable Diseases”? (See Michael Learner’s article at http://www.tikkun.org/index.cfm/action/current/article/286.html.) There is a need for the daily compassion of the nations as well as Christian people and churches (see Larry James’ January 4 suggestion, “One Way Communities of Faith Can Make a Big Difference” at http://larryjamesurbandaily.blogspot.com/.)

Yes, contribute to tsunami relief—demonstrate the love of God by offering grace to the hurting. But don’t permit compassion to be circumscribed by major headline disasters. We receive daily gifts to help the daily tragedies of life. There are other tragic circumstances, even in our inner cities, which need our help. $350 million for emergency aide to south Asia? Yes, absolutely! But what if we gave $1 billion to dying children in 2005?

If we have sent a donation for disaster relief, God be thanked! But now perhaps God reminds us to send an equal or greater donation to dying children or other needs that don’t get the headlines but are equally tragic. Perhaps that is the message of the tsunami—a reminder that suffering is pervasive, life is fragile, and the wealthy are blessed for the sake of the poor and not for their own consumption.

Appeared in the February issue of the Christian Chronicle




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