God In the Hurricanes

I love the Book of Job. Job is the place in the Bible for cranks. You may know the story, but perhaps a quick review is in order: the Book of Job imagines a little wager between God and Satan, where Satan bets God that if the fortunate and pious Job were deprived of his fortunes long enough, if he were made to really suffer, he would abandon his loyalty to God and curse God. God puts his money on Job, and the wager is on, as God allows Satan to inflict Job’s family, his financial circumstances, and his physical health with trial after trial. When Job responds, he is not the “patient Job” we are taught to expect in the story. He endures his sufferings without abandoning God, but he does not do so quietly. He complains. Job is a crank, as he goes on and on about the unfortunate, undeserved circumstances he is enduring. And God is a crank, when God finally responds to all of Job’s laments and accusations with the perfectly parental, “You don’t know what you’re talking about, little man.” The whole book is a contest of crankiness (and a fitting reflection of my disposition much of the time, which might explain my affinity for it).

Of course, I also love the Book of Job because of its substance, its preoccupation. The Book is trying to take seriously something with which we all struggle, the reality that bad things happen to good people, and the fact that it can be hard to locate God in all of that bad stuff. Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people? How is this fair or good? What I love about the Book of Job is that it refuses to answer the question easily—you could argue that it refuses to answer the question at all. Job asks God for a justification of his misfortune and gets from God in return a lesson in the grandness of the cosmos and the smallness of human knowledge and experience. And Job’s response is to acknowledge that yes, he is guilty of speaking “things too wonderful for me.” (Job 42:3)

I’ve been thinking a lot about Job the last several weeks. Watching the news as a series of hurricanes of biblical proportion wreaked havoc on communities in the U.S. and devastated Puerto Rico. Noting the anniversary of 9/11 and remembering that horrific, confusing morning—my first day teaching at Middlebury College. Following the reports of political unrest in Charlottesville and other places, amazed at a country that, in some ways, I don’t recognize—chastened by others’ insistence that it is a nation they recognize all too well. Weighed down with the medical and personal crises of dear friends. Many of us are carrying around an awful lot these days, and it’s understandable that we might be perplexed by the apparent disconnect between a world of chaos and pain and affirmations of a God of goodness and love. Where is God in all of that?

It’s an age-old question. And there are some standard answers, two of which I find deeply unsatisfying. The first response many of us have heard in moments of personal trial: honey, it’s God’s will. It’s God’s will that he died when he did. It’s God’s will that you are going through this challenging time. We also hear it invoked from time to time in response to tragic events in the nation or world—as in, “It was God’s will that 9/11 happened, a consequence of Christian America losing its way.”

To be honest, I find that response to tragedy misguided in the best of cases, repulsive in some formulations. First of all, it’s not at all helpful to tell people in their moment of struggle that somehow God wants this suffering. Is that really supposed to make us feel better? The great preacher William Sloane Coffin, in what was probably the hardest sermon he ever had to deliver, addressed this very complaint when he rose to the pulpit about a week after his own son died in a tragic automobile accident:

“For some reason,” he admitted, “nothing so infuriates me as the incapacity of seemingly intelligent people to get it through their heads that God doesn’t go around this world with fingers on triggers, his fist around knives, his hands on steering wheels… My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break.”[1]

Not only is the invocation of God’s will pastorally unhelpful, it’s also theologically arrogant. Who are we to know God’s intent? How are we so certain that this is what God wants? Did God leave a note? God’s rebuke of Job is a word to the wise to those among us now who would invoke God’s will as an explanation of tragedy: who are we to claim to know the mind of God?

I’m not even sure that the language of God’s intention is the right language to use in moments like this. The idea that God has ulterior motives that God is working out in our personal contests strikes me as an exaggeration of the personal language we use for God. We talk of God as a person in part because it’s what we are, and we need to translate God’s unknowableness into something we can get our minds around. But there’s a hiddenness to God too, aspects of God that extend beyond the human metaphors and experiences we can use to capture God for our own comprehension. God is bigger than we are, and from time to time, the language we use for God says more about God than we have reason to claim with confidence. We are constantly at risk of exaggerating the similarities between us and God, and I wonder if this preoccupation with “God’s will” or “God’s intent” behind the tragedies we experience is one of those moments where we say things too wonderful for ourselves.

But if I generally break out in hives when someone starts talking assuredly about God’s will or God’s intention in the bad things that happen to good people, I also react viscerally to the opposite claim. Sometimes, in part as a counter to those folks who have such a certain read on God’s will, others will just as confidently claim that God has nothing to do with tragic circumstances that befall us. God has nothing to do with hurricanes killing innocent people, or a friend getting cancer, or a nation inflicted with trauma. But I don’t see why these well-meaning folks should be any more confident. How do you know that God’s will has nothing to do with it? Do you have a secret access code to get behind the meaning of it all? If God is the animating force behind all of life, it doesn’t make theological sense to imply that God goes on vacation when tragedy hits, conveniently absolved of all responsibility. And why would I want to say that? Because it helps me avoid assigning God responsibility for the bad things that happen in my life? I don’t find it particularly helpful to avoid making that connection by implying that God is absent or not up to the task in the hardest moments of my life. To categorically claim that my suffering is not God’s intention suggests that God is as much an innocent, helpless bystander as I am in those moments, and that’s not exactly reassuring. It’s also presumptuous. Another example of saying things too wonderful for ourselves.

So if I can’t pinpoint God’s intentions either way, what can I say about God and the tragedies I witness, observe, or endure? I can say that the world is bigger and more complex than I will ever understand; mysteries that elude human comprehension are real; and moments that inflict us with a sense of powerlessness and helplessness remind us of the scale of the cosmos and our place in it. Natural disasters check our arrogance as a species, our assumption of scientific control of or consumerist entitlement to the earth; they remind us that we still live largely at the mercy of the world we occupy. Disease reminds us of just how much of living and dying we don’t control. I don’t know the precise causal relationship God has with any of this, but it all reminds me that there is much in the world and about life that is too wonderful for me to speak of intelligently, and that check on perspective strikes me as helpful, if profoundly uncomfortable at times.

Perhaps more comforting, although I may not be able to know for sure the extent to which the bad things that happen to and around me align with “God’s will,” I do know that when those bad things happen, God is there. I know that God is there in the quiet of the hospital room. God is there in the terror of a hurricane. God is there in the trauma of oppression or on the front lines of its opposition. God is there in the bad things that happen to good people. My confidence that God is there with me and with those I love in our suffering is borne out by the words of St. Paul, who assures us: “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.” (Romans 8:38-39)

My confidence that God is there at ground zero of trauma also comes from the promises of faith, in both the message of incarnation (God-with-us) and the symbol of the cross. My confidence that God meets me in my hard moments is rooted in the story of Jesus, who embodied the good news that God is with us, even (or especially) on roads that lead to suffering and death.

And I am confident that God in Christ can be found standing with us in our tragedies because when I look, I often find the Body of Christ there. This is what it means for the church to be church: that we are invited to be the presence of God to people in their tragedies. God walks with those we love in their personal trials because we do. God stands with the marginalized in moments of injustice when we do. God rises to help and heal in moments of natural disaster when we, the church, do. Being the church means being the embodiment of Christ in the world—we are a way for God to be present in the hurricanes of one others’ lives.

I don’t know why God lets bad things happen to good people. I doubt that’s even the right question to ask. What I do know is this: the world is big and mysterious, life is complicated and hard, and sometimes “stuff” happens. But through it all, I truly believe that God is with us. I think that’s enough for me. Everything else risks speaking things too wonderful for myself.

[1] William Sloane Coffin, “Alex’s Death,” A Chorus of Witnesses, 263-264.