By now everyone knows about the disastrous earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan in March of last year. With a final death toll in the tens of thousands and a financial tidal wave of insurance claims by Japanese home owners and business owners exceeding $100 billion in US dollars, the triple disasters of an earthquake, a tsunami and what we now know was a meltdown of 3 nuclear reactors at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in northeastern Japan, are the worst Japanese disaster since World War Two.
Just this week we have had tornadoes sweep across the mid-western and southern US from Alabama and Georgia all the way up to Ohio and Indiana, claiming 31 lives and causing many millions of dollars in damages. During times like these many wonder, either to themselves or out loud, why God allows such disasters to occur. It seems to those who lack any faith that if God were the all-loving and all-powerful God that He is, that such disasters would never happen in the first place.
I completely disagree with this idea, which from my vantage point is based on insufficient or incorrect teaching and misguided secular education. God takes us through hard times and allows us to go through all kinds of trials and hardship – even persecution by supposedly “Christian” churches such as I have experienced – to build and strengthen our character and our minds, and to teach us resolve and fortitude. St. Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans that “persecution builds character, and strong character builds hope, and hope builds patience.” So, to go through hardship is to be in growth and to engage in personal enrichment. That is why, in times like these, many people find comfort in their faith.
Whenever disasters like this occur, I go back to the Bible, to the First Book of Kings. Elijah, in despair over the situation in Israel, runs to the desert, back to Mt. Sinai to find the God of the Revelation to Moses. “And lo, the Lord God passed by. There was a mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks, but the Lord was not in the wind. There was an earthquake but the Lord was not in the earthquake.” To me, that is the key: the Lord was not in the earthquake. Natural disasters are acts of nature, not acts of God. God cares about the well-being of good people; Nature is blind, an equal-opportunity destroyer.
Where is God in Japan today? In the courage of people to carry on their lives after the tragedy. In the resilience of those whose lives have been destroyed, families swept away, homes lost, but they resolve to rebuild their lives. In the goodness and generosity of people all over the world to reach out and help strangers who live far from them, to contribute aid, to pray for them. Where is He in Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia? How can people do such things if God were not at work in them to lend a counterweight to a natural disaster? I tend to think of the law of cause and effect, searching for a cause. It is the same approach as science. The cause of this earthquake is the friction between the North American plate and the Pacific plate.
For the believer, there is no satisfactory answer for why we suffer. Each person has to come to grips with that. It’s not as if some magic answer can be found. But the idea of God suffering along with us can be very helpful. The Christian believes that God became human and that God underwent all the things we do. Jesus on the cross cried, “My God, my God, why did you abandon me?” Christians do not have an impersonal God, but a God who understands what it means to suffer. People can relate more easily to a God who understands them. Where is God? God is right there with the people who are grieving and sorrowful. In my own life, when I have felt great sorrow I have trusted that God is with me in this and that I’m not facing my struggles alone. Oftentimes people become much closer to Jesus in times of sorrow. They find that they are able to meet Him in new ways. Why? Because when our defenses are down and we’re more vulnerable, God can break into our lives more easily. It’s not that God is closer, it’s that we’re more open.
These sort of natural disasters become the collective responsibility of all mankind to mobilize our compassion and resources to ease the pain of the people who have suffered. These disasters are not the result of any sins of these people; we need to be clear that there is no belief that these victims “deserved” it for any of their actions. Rather, I see these kinds of tragedies as a test from God. I firmly believe that God tests those He loves, and these tragedies also serve as a reminder to the rest of us to remain grateful to God for all our blessings and cognizant that we must support those in need. These kinds of calamities should push us in positive ways. They should strengthen our faith in God and in his goodness. We attribute the things we don’t understand to his limitless wisdom and comfort ourselves that He is with us and He loves us, so there must be some meaning in what has happened, even if it is beyond our comprehension here at this time.
We are trained by our faith that every suffering, whether big or small, brings us closer to God’s mercy and forgiveness, to the extent that Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven”. These times of suffering give us an opportunity to demonstrate patience and faith, and therefore, become closer to God.
Every natural phenomenon challenges us as God’s trustees on this Earth, showing us that we should continue to study and explore ways of safeguarding humankind and all creatures from being subjected to this kind of devastation. It is the collective duty of all humankind to put resources into this and advance our understanding of how to respond to these disasters in a scientific way.
As we contemplate the great number of people who have died in this tragedy, we may feel very strongly that we ourselves, in some part or manner, also have died. The pain of one part of humankind is the pain of the whole of humankind. And the human species and the planet Earth are one body. What happens to one part of the body happens to the whole body. An event such as this reminds us of the impermanent nature of our lives. It helps us remember that what’s most important is to love each other, to be there for each other, and to treasure each moment we have that we are alive. This is the best that we can do for those who have died: We can live in such a way that they can feel they are continuing to live in us, more mindfully, more profoundly, more beautifully, tasting every minute of life available to us, for them.
I don’t believe God wanted any of these disasters to happen. I don’t think it was ever God’s intention. We know that there are going to be storms in life. No matter what happens we need to keep our faith and trust in almighty God. And I want the people of Japan, the United States and all the rest of the world to know that God hasn’t forgotten them, that God does care for them and that he loves them. We care and God cares, and we’re standing by them. And we will use these experiences to practice that which strengthens us most, which is human compassion and empathy. As the human population continues to grow throughout much of the world, it is our responsibility as believers in Jesus to begin making sure that there is enough to go around for everybody if we share our natural and human resources wisely. Taking care of disaster victims, or donating whatever one can spare if they are unable to be there in person, is a very good place to start.