'He Has A Reason': How Natural Disasters Test The Faithful
In churches across Houston on Sunday, pastors struggled to tell their parishioners why a God they believed to be good might have allowed a storm of Biblical proportion to flood their city.
"God causes it to happen, but He has a reason," Pastor Gary Smith told the worshippers at Fifth Ward Church of Christ in northeast Houston. "We don't comprehend what God has planned for us."
Spiritual leaders have long offered such counsel in times of human suffering. For people who believe in God, natural disasters can challenge faith. For some, it becomes impossible to believe there is a God in command when truly awful things happen.
"It's typically been called the 'rock of atheism,' " says Mark Scott, chair of the department of religious studies at Thorneloe University in Sudbury, Ontario. "If God is all powerful and omnibenevolent, all good, then why would there be evil in the world? It seems like a logical contradiction."
The dilemma is so serious that theologians actually have a term for efforts to explain why God and evil can coexist: theodicy.
"It's a very important topic," says Scott, who has written widely on the issue of theodicy. "The problem of evil is universally recognized to be a grave threat to faith. People in the midst of suffering often feel abandoned by God."
Religious leaders offer a variety of answers. Some argue that it is not God who is actually responsible for human suffering.
"There are many Christians who want to get God off the hook," says Erwin Lutzer, the pastor emeritus at Moody Church in Chicago. "They say either God doesn't have the power to stop these things, or else they say that he was somehow a meaningful bystander."
Lutzer, a prominent evangelical writer, does not agree. "God is actively involved in all these things," he says. "They are traceable to God."
So what, many ask, is God's will at such times?
One answer is that human suffering is God's punishment. A whole city may be destroyed, some religious leaders may argue, because of its sinful ways. Franklin Graham, the son of evangelist Billy Graham, speculated after Hurricane Katrina that New Orleans was hit because it was known for "orgies."
"We've ended up with public denouncements of gays and lesbians and others who conservative Christians point at as the reason nastiness has occurred," says Anthony Pinn, a professor of religion at Rice University in Houston. "It's not because God is not good. It's because people are screwed up. Folks suffer because they are warped individuals. They are warped communities."
That is not Pinn's view, nor is it Lutzer's.
"When disasters come, they fall equally on Christians and non-Christians," Lutzer says. "Everyone is affected. Natural disasters do not separate the righteous from the wicked."
'That's where we see the grace of God'
Lutzer's view is that through suffering, God reminds religious believers that life is short and full of uncertainty, and that disasters may sometimes serve to deepen one's faith.
"We simply do not know the thousands, or perhaps millions, of spiritually careless people who were forced to take God seriously in a time of crisis," he wrote in a Moody Church blog.
Pinn, who has written on the African-American religious experience, says the faith of enslaved people in America endured not because they understood why God allowed slavery to exist, but because their faith in God enabled them to survive their oppression.
" 'We know God is loving, kind, just and compassionate,' the argument [went]," Pinn says, " 'and what we ought to be doing is live out those principles. We don't know why this is happening, but we know we can do something to alleviate it.' "
Pinn himself left the church after 20 years as a minister because he finally concluded that the persistence of racism and other evils disprove the existence of a just and loving God.
People the world over still believe in God, however, even as they encounter suffering around them. The flooding of Houston has likely not destroyed religious belief there. Wendy Farley of the San Francisco Theological Seminary notes that Houstonians were inspired to help each other in the worst of moments.
"That's where we see the grace of God," she says. "That's where we see God's message, God's message, in that good heart that disasters bring forth." God's will, she argues, is evident not in the allowance of suffering, but in how people resist their suffering and in the compassion that it brings out.
That message was echoed in Pastor Smith's sermon on Sunday in northeast Houston.
"This is a trying time for many of us," Smith said, "but you know what? God is blessing some folks during this time." He noted "the outpouring of love" from other church communities that came to the aid of his congregants in the preceding days.
"We would never have been introduced to each other," he said. "That was not Harvey. That was God."
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