Author's Note: Ever since Hurricane Katrina I've
been thinking and thinking about these issues, and the Lord finally has
compelled me to write this down. I claim no credit for this story; it
is all of Him. Many of the ideas and theories presented I have learned
from John Piper, Jonathan Edwards, CS Lewis, Charles Spurgeon, and too
many more to mention. And for anyone who is interested, Pastor Kevin is
based on my father; my parents have given me great training in studying
"Oh Lord, show us mercy," whispered Matthew as he stared in horror at the television screen. The gruesome images of death and suffering from one of the world's worst natural disasters in recent history seared themselves into his soul. He closed his eyes briefly. "Show us Your grace," he murmured again. "What can we poor sinners do?"
His friend Corwin cursed angrily. "God? How can you call out to God when you see things like this? What kind of a God would allow innocent people to go through this kind of torment? You claim God is both loving and all-powerful, so why doesn't He stop this kind of tragedy?" Corwin's angry red face contrasted sharply with his thick black hair, and his Scottish accent, normally faint enough to be barely heard, was slurring his words strongly.
Before Matthew could answer his irate friend, the third member of their party piped up. "Don't be ridiculous!" snapped Alex, Matthew's cousin. "God had nothing to do with this tragedy, Cory. He couldn't!"
"Oh yeah?" challenged Corwin. "Then why didn't God stop it?"
Alex leaned in to the attack. "God can't interfere with the way the world operates. He responds to it, not controls it." Matthew put his hands over his ears to drown out their words. In the face of so much pain, he had neither the time nor the patience to deal with their bickering.
The television camera switched from panning over the scenes of destruction from a distance and instead began focusing on individuals, all of whom were angry at someone for this. Most were angry at the United States and Great Britain for not doing more to help them, some were angry at all the world for no reason whatsoever that Matthew could see, some were bitter against their own government for not preventing this from happening, and many were angry against God (or whatever gods they believed in) for sending this disaster upon them.
"See," sneered Corwin, gesturing at the screen. "Even they think God is sadistic."
"Just because people who are in great pain feel the need to blame someone doesn't mean…" said Alex, and so the debate continued.
Matthew got up and walked out of the bar. He had met Cory and Alex there earlier just to hang out. The three were good friends, despite the differences in their beliefs. Corwin was an atheist and proud of it; Alex was an Open Theist—that is, he believed that God could not foresee or interfere with the future, or with people's choices and actions. Matthew believed that God was omnipotent, omniscient, and perfect in all things.
The three had been amiably wrangling earlier when news of the tragedy flashed onto the overhead television. All thoughts of fun and casual ponderings had been swept away at once. Matthew shook his head. As he walked through the streets, broad shoulders hunched beneath his black leather jacket, feet kicking aimlessly at the sidewalk, scraps of conversation floating by penetrated his consciousness.
"Can you believe it? Such a horror…"
"I was going there in two months for vacation! I'll have to cancel my plans now."
"Who cares about it? It has nothing to do with the U.S. and we shouldn't even be over there helping out. Let their own government take care of them."
"God is punishing them for a great sin."
"It's a crime against humanity that we weren't right there to help. The president should be doing more…"
Matthew ran his hand through his spiky brown hair as he walked more quickly. He didn't think he had any particular destination in mind, but his feet carried him right to the door of his church and stopped. He looked up in surprise and shrugged. "Well, why not?" he muttered. He might as well see if Pastor Kevin was in and able to help him sort through all the random thoughts and emotions whirling around in his mind.
He stepped into the empty foyer of the little white building and called out a tentative "hello?"
Pastor Kevin popped his head out of his study. "Matthew!" he exclaimed. "Come on in, son. What brings you here tonight?"
Matthew entered the pastor's spotlessly clean study and shrugged. "Have you heard the news?"
Pastor Kevin's cheerful face suddenly sobered. "Yes. My wife just called a little while ago and told me it might be a good idea to change the topic of tomorrow's sermon." He gave a wry smile. "Suddenly a sermon on the destruction of Nineveh doesn't seem so wise."
Matthew chuckled cynically. "Especially considering that I've heard people saying this tragedy is God's punishment on the nation for their sin."
"Exactly." Pastor Kevin sat back in his leather chair. "So. What's up?"
"I just—everyone is talking about the disaster, and Cory says it's proof that there is no God, and Alex says God had no control over it, and others are saying that punishment for sin thing, and I just…I want to know why God allows such things to happen? Why is there suffering and evil in the world? Why doesn't He just wipe it all away? I know He can! I believe He is good—but I need to understand," he finished breathlessly.
"Well, here's my sermon topic all laid out for me," smiled Pastor Kevin. The overhead lights gleamed off his bald head as he leaned forward and rested his forearms on his desk. "First off, I'm not sure I can explain this adequately, Matt. I'm not sure any human being can, but I'll do my best to explain things the way I understand them at this time. Hopefully that'll be good enough." He rifled through the pages of his open Bible as he began speaking.
"What Alex, and a lot of Christians, think today is that God is sovereign when things are going well, and He's not when things go bad. Their view of His power and authority—and His goodness—are very limited. But that view is just not supported by the Bible. In the book of Job, especially, it is made very clear that God is the one who controls what happens to us. Right in the beginning, at the end of chapter one, Job says 'The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.' And then, in case we missed that this is indeed the case, the author adds, 'In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong.' In chapter two, Job rebukes his wife and says, 'Shall we indeed accept good from God, and shall we not accept adversity?' In Deuteronomy God says, 'There is no god besides me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; nor is there any who can deliver from My hand.' Not much room for doubt there." Pastor Kevin looked directly at Matthew; his hazel eyes, normally twinkling with good humor, were sober and serious now.
"A lot of people call this total view of God's sovereignty fatalistic, but as Charles Spurgeon says, the difference between fatalism and Providence is that fatalism says 'whatever will be will be,' while Providence says 'whatever God ordains must be,' and God never ordains anything without a purpose."
"Okay," said Matthew. "I get that—in fact, Job is one of my favorite books, and the one I use the most when I'm arguing against Alex—but why does God allow evil to exist? Why does He allow innocents to suffer?"
Pastor Kevin sighed. "There's no easy answer to that one, Matt. Let me try to give it to you simply, concisely, but clearly.
"Suffering in this world happens because of sin. That's the bottom line. When Adam sinned in the Garden of Eden, this world was cursed. Right there in Genesis it says 'Cursed is the ground for your sake.' Paul elaborates on this a little more in Romans. In chapter eight, it says 'For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now.' That's clear enough.
"But as for why God doesn't just wave His hand and wipe the stain of sin from the earth? For one thing, read Job again, especially chapters thirty-eight through forty-two. God's response to Job. When Job is wondering why suffering has fallen on him even when he is innocent of sin, God basically tells him that He is God and Job is not, and whatever He does is right. That's the short version. For another, God is holy. He is righteous. There is no getting around that. He cannot permit sin to go unpunished. That is why Christ Jesus had to come to earth. He had to bear the wrath of God and the punishment for the sins of his sheep on himself. God cannot ignore sin or its consequences. There has to be judgment.
"And that brings me to my next point, which is why God permits evil to exist at all. He does it that His glory and His goodness might shine all the brighter. Think about it. A beautiful flower might seem nice enough when you see it on its own. But hold it against an ugly weed, and its beauty is made that much more evident. God's grace and power is shown far more clearly against the contrast of evil than it could on its own. If God had not allowed sin to enter the world, there would have been no need for Christ's sacrifice, and we would never have known the heights and the depths of the Lord's love, holiness, justice, and grace. Holiness against ungodliness. Love against hate. Forgiveness against wrath. Mercy against vengeance. And on and on it goes."
Matthew's blue eyes were shining brightly. "Now it makes sense! And you know what else just occurred to me while you were talking, Pastor?"
"What's that?" queried Pastor Kevin, the twinkle evident once more.
"Tragedy brings people to repentance! When suffering strikes, we realize once more that we can do nothing on our own, and turn again to Him. That was the whole point of all the bad things that happened to Israel throughout the ages, right? It was to bring them back to the Lord!"
"That's exactly right, Matt," agreed Pastor Kevin, brushing a hand over his white beard. "And one more thing to keep in mind: God doesn't owe us anything. We are all sinners, every single human being on earth. Again, in Romans, it says 'There is none righteous, no, not one; there is none who understands; there is none who seeks after God. They have all turned aside; they have together become unprofitable; there is none who does good, no, not one.' We complain about bad things happening to good people, but in fact, there are no good people. All we deserve is death and destruction. It is only by God's grace we are kept alive at all."
"And who are we to complain if He should remove that common grace at times?" ended Matthew.
"Exactly," nodded Pastor Kevin. "Does that clear things up, or have I just totally confused you forever and for good?"
Matthew grinned. "No, I think you explained things quite nicely. In fact, if this is going to be the base of your sermon tomorrow, I might just drag Cory and Alex along with me so they can hear it as well. And I might add to Cory that if he continues to turn his back on God, he will have to endure eternal suffering that makes this disaster look like nothing."
"Good point," said Pastor Kevin. "Mind if I steal that for part of my conclusion tomorrow?"
He did indeed use that solemn warning as his conclusion Sunday morning, although he finished on a much more pleasant note.
"Remember, brothers and sisters, those of us who are redeemed and bought by Christ have a much more joyful prospect awaiting us." He quoted from Revelation 21: "'Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. Also there was no more sea. Then I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from god, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, "Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away." Then He who sat on the throne said, "Behold, I make all things new."' Let's pray," ended the pastor quietly.
All Scriptures taken from the New King James version, emphasis mine.