Recently I was reminded of the story of John Newton, the 18th century London-born seaman who authored the extremely-popular Christian hymn, “Amazing Grace.” Newton was captain of a ship that plied in the slave trade, but in 1748 he underwent a dramatic conversion. His conversion took place at sea, in the midst of a raging storm, when he cried to the Lord for mercy and the ship was delivered. As he reflected on what had happened, Newton began to believe that God had addressed him through the storm and that grace had been at work in him. Not long after, he penned the words to the well-known hymn, “Amazing Grace,” in which he acknowledged that God’s grace had rescued him when he was lost, and given him sight when he was blind. Following his conversion, Newton left the slave trade, became an Anglican minister, and advocated for the abolition of slavery.
I was thinking of Newton’s conversion yesterday as news that another storm that arose at sea had turned its fury on the eastern coast of our country, affecting the lives of millions of Americans. I began to wonder what God’s connection to this storm might be. If Newton believed that God had addressed him through a storm and used it as a means of grace in his life, I wondered if this storm might serve such a purpose in the lives of some and, if so, did that mean that God had designed this storm and sent it with such a purpose in mind? These types of questions lead to larger questions, such as “Does God allow suffering, and even, in some circumstances, intend to bring suffering on us?” “Is suffering ever ‘God’s will’ for us?” “Are we meant to find God in circumstances like the one we are facing right now in Hurricane Sandy?”
For some, the answer is a clear and resounding ‘yes.’ The now infamous Westboro Baptist Church, broadly known for their extreme hatred of homosexuality, is publicly “giving thanks” for Hurricane Sandy, which they see as clear evidence of God’s wrath and punishment on a wayward nation. In recent years, televangelists like Pat Robertson have claimed that natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and the Haiti earthquake were initiated by God as punishment for the moral or religious failings of the people who reside in New Orleans and in Haiti. No doubt others will come forward in the next few days to insist that Hurricane Sandy is somehow related to the re-election of President Obama or the increasing acceptance in our culture of same-sex marriage.
Most of us will strongly object to such attributions. Jesus himself refused to see human suffering as evidence of God’s punishment and warned his disciples against doing so (e.g. Jn 9:1-3). Although we recognize that sinful words and actions may well have direct negative consequences, we no longer see natural disasters as clear evidence that God is punishing errant behavior. Unlike ancient peoples, we tend to look for scientific explanations for why these things happen rather than religious ones. As Boston University religion scholar Stephen Prothero wrote yesterday, when it comes to earthquakes and hurricanes, we are more likely to turn to the Weather Channel for an explanation than to the Christian Broadcasting Network. “For me,” writes Prothero, “any God worth worshipping isn’t going to be so predictable, or so capricious.”
If we choose not to align ourselves with Westboro Baptist Church or with Pat Robertson and others who claim to know the mind of God in these things, where does that leave us? How will we answer the question, “Where is God in relationship to natural disasters and the suffering they bring upon innocent victims?”
First, I think, we have to acknowledge that no one can give a completely satisfactory answer to this question. This is the classical problem of “theodicy” with which all Christians, Jews and Muslims have to wrestle: If we put our trust in a personal God, we have to face the question, “In a world in which God is all powerful and all good, why do bad things happen to good people?” No one has yet been able to give a satisfactory answer to that question, though every generation has tried.
In the end, we can only say that we believe in a God whose ways remain mysterious to us. We recognize that we will never fully grasp the mind of God or understand God’s ways. In the words of the prophet Isaiah, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isa 55:8,9).
In an article in America magazine, Rabbi Daniel Polish, author of Talking About God, put it this way: “I do not believe in a God whose will or motives are crystal clear to me. And as a person of faith, I find myself deeply suspicious of those who claim such insight.” Polish goes on to quote Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: “To the pious man knowledge of God is not a thought within his grasp.” This is the greatest challenge of faith, says Polish, “to live with a God we cannot fully understand, whose actions we explain at our own peril.”
What, then, can we say? Jesuit priest and author James Martin writes, “While there are no definitive answers to the question of suffering, and while we may never fully understand it, there are some time-honored perspectives offered by the Jewish and Christian traditions, which have helped believers as they move through periods of suffering and pain.”
Some of these perspectives Martin finds “at best, wanting; at worst, unhelpful.” “For example,” he says, “the notion that suffering is a punishment from God makes no sense in the face of innocent suffering, especially when it comes to a terrible illness or a natural disaster.” “Does anyone believe,” he asks, “that a small child with cancer is being punished for his or her “sins”? It is a monstrous image of a vengeful and cruel God.”
But there are other perspectives found in the tradition that can be of real help to us in times of suffering. Many of us, like John Newton, have found God in our suffering. Though we would never wish to return to that place of sickness or trouble, we have found that passing through it deepened our faith in God or changed our outlook on life in significant ways. We are different people, better people, because of what we endured. We have been able to look back on these periods with increased insight into ourselves, greater understanding of the mystery of human life, and a deeper bond with God. Some of us may even be able to express gratitude for those times and recognize that gifts of grace were given us by God in and through them.
It is often in our vulnerability, our poverty, our brokenness, that we find God in new ways or relearn our need to rely on God in all things.
Does that mean that God “sent” those trials to us with this purpose in mind? We cannot know for sure. Some, like Joseph in the Old Testament or St Paul in the New Testament, have seen God’s hand in their sufferings. Joseph looks back on years of trials and difficulties and says to the brothers who betrayed him, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good…”(Gen 50:20). And Paul, who endured many sufferings for the sake of the Gospel, concludes that “all things work together for good for those who love God” (Rom 8:28).
We dare not speak with certainty about God’s intentions or motives in any circumstance – to do so is presumptuous and beyond our ability to know – but we can testify that, at times, God is able to use times of suffering and trial to instruct us and to deepen our faith. Saints in every age have known that to be true.
What they have also known is that God has been present with them in suffering. God does not stand outside our pain but within it, as a Companion, holding us in his arms and sharing in our grief and loss. Indeed, God has shared our suffering and knows our grief. We are not alone. Even after countless sufferings, which included shipwreck, persecutions and imprisonment, Paul was able to write with faith and hope of God’s love and faithfulness: “For I am convinced,” he says, “that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:38-39).
Where is God in Hurricane Sandy? We will never know for certain, but this we say in faith and in hope: God is with us. Always.
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