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Ted Schroder
January 12, 2005

The scale of the suffering caused by the Asian tsunami raises many issues of faith in the face of such devastation and human pain.

I picked up an old book that I had been meaning to read: Why Do Men Suffer? By Leslie Weatherhead. It was written in 1935 and took the view that God limited his power in order that the world could exist with a certain natural autonomy, including freedom for human choices. In his chapter on earthquakes, volcanoes and storms, he argues that the earth had to be created in such a way that the stresses and strains of the molten core of the earth could be vented at various times. The earth could not have been created without that ability. The effect of such eruptions have always been catastrophic for human beings living near them. We remember Vesuvius, Pompeii, Krakatoa, the San Francisco earthquake, Mount St. Helen’s and other similar disasters.

Growing up in New Zealand, we were taught earthquake drill in our school. Seeing the sea roil offshore from my home town and experiencing shock waves is a sobering experience. We were aware that the whole country was created by volcanic activity. New Zealand would not exist if volcanoes had not risen above the Pacific, and then became extinct, or dormant. What had been created in that way can also be destroyed by the same action. “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord,” said Job. It reminds us that all of us live precariously, as the result of the choices of other people, on time lent to us for a season, on an earth that gives us no guarantees as to assured security and continuity.

The book of Job reminds us that calamities occur without warning: Job lost his family, his fortune, his health, and his reputation. His friends ‘comforted’ him with accusations that he must have done something wrong to deserve such suffering. The book refutes such shallow thinking. Suffering may be the result of evil, and the sins of humanity, such as through crime, or war, or human neglect, or cruelty; but they are not always the result of one’s personal sins. Jesus teaches us that Satan is behind much suffering. Natural disaster or disease is not God’s judgment upon an individual. It is part of the warp and woof of the universe that is still being born. Our present universe is in “bondage to decay”, and “groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.” (Romans 8:21,22)

Jesus also tells us that suffering does not discriminate between good and bad people. “Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners that all those other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them – do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will perish.’” (Luke 13:1-5)

The first incident refers to a massacre perpetrated by Pilate, and the second to the collapse of a building. Both are tragedies. Did the victims deserve it? Darrell Bock comments: “Jesus responds by changing the import of the question. The reason such events are so tragic is that they expose our mortality. Death exists in a fallen world, and nothing exposes our mortality more than when death comes suddenly and unexpectedly, cutting short a life that had the potential to be much fuller. Jesus argues that what should be contemplated is not the cutting short of these particular lives, but the fact that life terminates. This raises an even more basic question, what comes after that? How does one prevent the end from being the ultimate end? Jesus has taken a question about mortality and made it a question about the possibility of eternal punishment, which Scripture calls the ‘second death’ (Rev.20:11-15). So he urges the people to repent, without which all will perish – only in a death that is more than a mere loss of mortality. His point is that with death comes a decisive encounter with God, one that does deal with sin. Whether one is a little sinner or a big one, repentance is the only way to survive that coming encounter.”

Human tragedy, such as on such a massive scale of the Asian tsunami, causes us to take stock of our own life, and turn to God in repentance and faith. The forces of nature, and of creation, remind us of our vulnerability and humble us. When tragedies happen, Jesus tells us, we need to face up to our need to get right with God. We do well to acknowledge our mortality and weaknesses by seeking to worship and serve the Lord of creation.

Lest we think that this God is uncaring of human life we need to remember that the same God has come among us in Jesus and took upon himself all our suffering on the Cross. He continues to experience through his people our pain and losses.

The good news is that one day this suffering will be no more. It will have no part in his new creation. “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Rev. 21:4)

Amelia Plantation Chapel
Amelia Island, Florida

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