An act of God?

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By David Whitlock


"Frightening beyond belief. I have no words."

-Resident of Sendai, Japan, victim of the tsunami

Most of us who saw the telecasts of the tsunami's destruction in Japan could understand that man's reaction to the horror of the cataclysmic event. Your jaw drops. Your eyes widen. You have no words.

The devastation in Japan was so enormous - it's beyond words. In Minami Sanriku, a town in northeastern Japan, it's estimated that 9,500, people - half the town's population - may be unaccounted for. The death toll in Japan has exceeded 4,000. Multiple nuclear meltdowns threaten thousands more. Japan's prime minister said it is the nation's gravest disaster since World War II. In the words of President Obama, it is "heartbreaking."

The question inevitably edges in somewhere between the televised reports of the heartache and pain, between the visuals and the commercials, between the interviews and analyses, just as it did in other major natural disasters - whether it's Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the 2008 cyclone in Myanmar, or the 2010 earthquake in Haiti - the question arises and begs an answer, "Where is God in all this?" Where indeed? Why does God allow natural disasters like tsunamis, typhoons, tornados, earthquakes and hurricanes?

The question is not only reserved for the monster-sized disasters. Yesterday morning while updates of the tsunami were being broadcast on television, my wife received a text messaged prayer request. A friend of hers has a relative whose 2-day-old baby is undergoing open heart surgery. Included in the message were the heartfelt words, "I can't help but wonder how and why this is a part of God's plan."

Anyone who has felt the fear of loss and the agony of grief can empathize with the words in that text message. Even Job, righteous as he was, asked the question. Having been slammed to the canvas of life's tragedies, having lost everything except a nagging wife, he wanted to know why and just what in the heck he had done to deserve it. Is this pain of ours a result of random chance or an act of God? Rather than giving Job an answer, God revealed himself to him. And, in the presence of God, all Job could do was lay his hand over his mouth.

Which is another way of saying, our question of who is responsible is unanswerable. Nature itself, the apostle Paul tells us, is fallen, waiting for complete redemption. We can study nature and point to reasons for natural disasters. Hurricanes can be traced to warm waters and gale force winds, tsunamis are caused by underwater earthquakes, earthquakes are caused by the earth's shifting plates, and there is, I'm sure, a medical explanation for what caused the infant's heart problem.

The question on our minds is, why didn't God do something? Why didn't he direct Hurricane Katrina to some harmless place in the Gulf of Mexico? Why didn't he divert the earthquake in Haiti to an obscure place? Why didn't he take that tsunami into an unpopulated area in the middle of the Pacific? And why didn't he intervene in the life of the baby, preventing that heart problem from ever occurring? After all, he is God, isn't he? Isn't he in charge?

And the answer is yes, God is God. And at the same time, we live in this world and not another. The hurricane that died in the middle of the ocean doesn't make news, the tsunami that rocked the middle of the Pacific where no people live is a five second report on the weather channel, and God isn't questioned when the baby is healthy. God is rarely mentioned in those instances.

In the world we live in, it is inevitable that we will experience disasters. It's the natural order of things, and for God to intervene in every unsavory instance of our life would place us in a different world altogether.

As C.S. Lewis wrote in his classic work "The Problem of Pain," "Fixed laws, consequences unfolding by causal necessity, the whole natural order, are at once the limits within which [our] common life is confined and also the sole condition under which any such life is possible. Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself."

It's the world we live in; it's life itself, painful and tragic as it is.

It's an act of God.