“Why?” A Theological Comment on the Asian Tsunami

In light of the recent tragedy in Myanmar (aka Burma) which has taken the lives of over 32,000 people as well as the tragic earthquakes in China that have claimed over 16,000 lives, I offer the following piece which I wrote–at the request of the Editor–for the Feburary 2005 issue of the Christian Chronicle after the 2004 Tsunami. I find it terribly inadequate. Consequently, I continue to pray laments and seek to follow Jesus in his compassion and mercy toward hurting people. I don’t know what else to do or say.

Theological musings are rather useless in the midst of tragedy but perhaps they give some perspective for those of us who are trying to “make sense” of what is apparently senseless while at the same doing all we can to share the compassion of Jesus with people who hurt.

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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.) 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”.)

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.



7 Responses to ““Why?” A Theological Comment on the Asian Tsunami”

  1.   RICH CONSTANT Says:

    Rom 9:28 for the Lord will execute his word upon the earth, finishing it and cutting it short.
    Rom 9:29 And, as Isaiah hath said before, Except the Lord of Sabaoth had left us a seed,

    We had become as Sodom, and had been made like unto Gomorrah.

    New beginnings are so hard. When not humbly sought after.

    I wake up in the morning in search for a new beginning humbly asking the Lord please continue to forgive me and give me strength to attack the day.
    It’s amazing to me how much we can blame God as we sit in front of our television sets and are computers and go to movies.
    And seeing how mistreated people are in the world.
    I look at that and think how misplaced our feelings have become.
    There’s a lot that we all can do,
    how well do we know the people on our street?
    Are we just really too busy.
    So we watch her news and are catastrophes,
    and know the world will take care of the problem.
    Maybe if we paid a little bit more attention to the biblical pattern.
    Yes the community. Lord help us all.
    When the salt loses its savor…

    Rich in California

  2.   RICH CONSTANT Says:

    p.s.

    Question
    what happened to the Amorites when their iniquity was full?
    I think one of the character attributes of God is that
    (Amo 9:9 For, lo, I will command, and I will sift the house of Israel among all the nations, like as grain is sifted in a sieve, yet shall not the least kernel fall upon the earth.) No matter what we are safe with the Lord.
    Once the world figures this out maybe a few of them will choose to be safe to.
    Praise the Lord all of his judgments are righteous judgments
    Rich in California

  3. Profile photo of John Mark Hicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

    If we had a prophet like Amos who could discern and interpret what God is doing and why, then I might accept the analogy with the Amorites. However, until then, I will walk with Jesus in compassion to heal rather than blame. We are called, I think, to serve rather than interpret; to comfort and heal rather than condemn and judge.

    We will have to leave the Lord’s judgment to him–where and when he wills. But we are no prophets who can discern. Indeed, as I suggested in the post, perhaps these disasters are more about the wealthy in the west than they are about “sinners” in Asia. What will the wealthy do? How will they help? Rather than judgment upon Asia, it might be a test for the West.

    But ultimately, I don’t know and can’t say. But what we can do is follow Jesus into the regions of hurt with compassion, comfort and commitment.

  4.   RICH CONSTANT Says:

    Your sphere of influence boggles my brain.
    Also the ability to manage your influence responsibly through the Scripture.
    My sphere of influence on the other hand is to my family and the small community that surrounds them.
    When a hurricane came ashore in New Orleans I asked the elders of my small congregation. If I asked for donations of people that I associate with my business could I have them make it to the church of Christ and would they be willing to give out the cash. Nothing came of it. And by the way more than a few of the clients that I have are multimillionaires many times over.
    They didn’t know that and that’s not the point.
    I pretty much pass out flyers and talk to people to make my living.
    At one point in time I offered to pass out flyers and talk to people and try to set up appointments for study. Nothing came of it
    they couldn’t make up their mind on how to define a good flier..
    Pretty sure that I would know what Jesus would say in this world that we live in today.
    If you can’t do anything about it don’t think about it God can handle it.
    He would also say we’re all in this boat together,
    Fish or cut bait.

  5.   bc Says:

    I am unable (maybe just unwilling) to attribute all bad things to God, (which I hope is the case, for example, with the brutalizing of a 4-year old and, perhaps, even some tsunamis or tornados) except in the ultimate sense that they could not happen without God’s “involvement” in sustaining the universe and its flaws. I rely the notion that “time and chance happens to all,” Eccl 9:11. Wishful thinking?

  6. Profile photo of John Mark Hicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

    I would not attribute “all bad things to God,” but I do hold him responsible for his world. Not just in a general sense of natural order, but in a more specific sense. For example, prayer seems to assume that God can protect or not protect a 4-year old from brutalization. Or, that God can protect my family during a tornado (I do pray for protection, for example).

    I read Ecc 9:11 a bit differently. The writer also said 7:14: “When times are good, be happy; but when times are bad, consdier: God has made the one as well as the other.” I understand 9:11 to refer to human control over events–humans cannot dictate to life. But God can.

    At bottom, however, my basic response is “I don’t know.” There is no human explanation that makes sense to be at an existential level nor is there any one that fully satisfies my rationality. Yet, I do hold God responsible for his world, and I simply trust he knows what he is doing.

  7.   RICH CONSTANT Says:

    what answer did he give his son in the garden.
    seems slience.

    what is good for the goose is good for the gander.
    ‘faithfulness”
    did god not suffer the loss of his son through-out eturnity.
    throughout time or is he caught in this linier trap as we. i think not john mark.
    he waith for the one last one to change his mind and repent.
    we all know how instant gratification works.
    god will be responable to the good of creation’or we would not call that good love.
    hang in there big guy no matter what feelings are transatory.
    hay if i was the judge last year, oh well i don’t think i was feeling real goodabout the lords church i think it is me that has changed ?maybe????

    and so it goes
    rich in cal.

    what a mess that old evil one made of every thing
    good

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