5 God Excuses to Avoid After a Natural Disaster

Tracking Hurricane Sandy
In a disaster aftermath, whether caused by hurricane or earthquake or tsunami, the right impulse is to rush in with appropriate relief. For people of faith, too often this same “rush in” model is applied to making excuses for God.

This comes to mind today — now — after conversations both with friends in Haiti and my sister in Manhattan in Sandy’s wake. After Haiti’s earthquake, I wrote about avoiding these kinds of statements in this excerpt:

We grope at straws trying to make sense of the suffering. To fill the silence, we say things that are sincere but sometimes silly. We find slivers of Scripture that prop up our defense, but do we want the kind of God that the logic of our straw-patched statements creates?

“What a miracle how that girl was pulled from the rubble!”

The straw God spoken into being by this statement is one whose power and compassion are disturbingly out of whack. If God could orchestrate the rescue of the one, then why wouldn’t God have protected the many in the first place?

Also by Kent Annan: Kony 2012 and the Golden Rule: How Do ‘We’ Tell ‘Their’ Story?

Friends in Port-au-Prince told me about an 8-year-old girl who survived when the building she was in collapsed — but her mom and sister died in front of her, and her father had died some years ago. She wandered the streets in shock. Days later someone found her and got her back to her village. At that point, do you say, “What a miracle of God that she survived and was brought back to her village”? Isn’t that like a babysitter taking your three children out for a canoe ride, returning with only one — because the other two drowned — and then expecting to be congratulated for bringing back one of the three alive?

“Well, people down there have always been really poor, right?” Or “They believe in Voodoo, right?”

Most people avoid saying these types of statements (one prominent TV personality aside) because when said aloud the monstrous logic is so clear. But I have heard them spoken in conversations, and they often seem to linger in the background as a way to find some order. The logic implied is that God’s rain falls on the just and unjust, but God’s judgment is highly selective and tends to fall especially hard on those who are poor (and whose skin isn’t white). But what about my friend Emmanual? He is a pastor and a motorcycle taxi driver. When the earthquake struck, he was out working on his motorcycle. Hundreds of people in his church (including two of his sisters and a brother) were together at a prayer service in the name of Christ. They were all killed. God, then, must not judge only harshly — at least that would be consistent — but also capriciously and disproportionately. The victims are to blame for the crime.

“At least they’re in a better place now.”

Even if we believe eternal life is true, which I do, that doesn’t reduce present suffering, does it? And it’s not a fair dismissal of suffering, because God put such value on this life. Nobody, not believer or atheist or anyone in between, is certain about whether there is a next life. Conceivably any suffering on earth could be eclipsed by the goodness of what is to come, but meanwhile a statement like this simply creates a monstrous God for whom the ends (even if they torture people) justify the means.

Brave New Films

“Isn’t it amazing that we … happened to be there at just the right time to help?”

This self-help God provides suffering to some as an opportunity for others to express compassion or work on self-improvement. This wouldn’t be an all-bad God if everyone made it through. Suffering can be positive for both the helpers and those being helped. But it’s far from positive for everyone. Some die. Some suffer too much to ever recover. Others fail the opportunity for self-improvement and live lives of disappointment (often taken out on their own children).

Also by Kent Annan: What Can We Say? Theology for Murder and for Living

And doesn’t this create a God who is a buffoon of a logistician — who can coordinate getting one group into the perfect place, but for some incompetence couldn’t get the young mother off the porch before the concrete blocks collapsed on her?

“We might not understand, but it’s all part of God’s plan.” Or “It was meant to be.”

Wouldn’t any plan this flawed be sent back for major revisions before it could be put into place? The architect says, “Here’s the building design, but occasionally the elevator will malfunction and a dozen or so people will plummet to death. The water piped in for the daycare is occasionally radioactive and will cause slow, painful deaths for some of the children. Oh, and the entire building will collapse in the middle of the business day every few years, but we’ll rebuild.” Um, back to the drawing board please. This platitude about God’s plan is often said citing the verse in Romans 8:28 that “all things work together for good,” but surely the assertion of faith is that “in all things God works for the good of those who love God,” that God eventually overcomes evil with good, not that all this madness is part of a detailed plan.

But without these simplifications, what can we say to fill the heavy silence? The simple answers are all unsatisfying as attempts to settle the aftershocks of suffering. Hopefully, in faith and doubt, part of faithfulness is to keep asking, listening and asking again.

Kent Annan is author of the new book After Shock: Searching for Honest Faith When Your World is Shaken. He is co-director of Haiti Partners and also author of Following Jesus through the Eye of the Needle. (100% of the author proceeds from both books go to education in Haiti.)

Photo Credit: Mel Evans/AP

Print Friendly

About the Author

Kent Annan

Kent AnnanKent Annan is author of the new book After Shock: Searching for Honest Faith When Your World is Shaken. He is co-director of Haiti Partners and also author of Following Jesus through the Eye of the Needle. (100% of the author proceeds from both books go to education in Haiti.)View all posts by Kent Annan →

  • 22044

    In a similar vein…
    Like Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson would stick his foot in his mouth many years ago…
    now AGW hoaxmeisters like Al Gore & Bill McKibben trot out their stupidity whenever any natural disaster occurs.
    In addition to being wrong, it’s totally inappropriate.

    • Bob

      Because you know better than the world’s scientists of course!

      • 22044

        True science actually debunks the claims of “the world’s scientists”, as you refer to them. The causal relations proposed by AGW defenders has no verifiable basis, and the recent scandals revealing the corrupt collusions between AGW defenders & politicians hurt their claims as well.
        Like so many others, why is your response personal and snarky instead of engaging the point?

        • breid1903

          i don’t wish to sound stupid but where do i find “true science”? i’l add that i don”t have a dog in this fight.
          peaceup billy

          • TheodoreSeeber

            You can start by remembering that climatology is not weather, and weather is not climatology. 99% of the issues surrounding AGW, which flip-flop every 6 months, is caused by this very basic misunderstanding.

          • breid1903

            huh. “true science”. what, when or where. i was a double math major with a physics major as a minor. i’m also a master plumber and drain cleaner now. i can recognize science or crap and see the difference.

            what flip-flops every 6 months? you are right climatology is not weather or visa versa. climatology is the study of climate, weather conditions averaged over time. i hate to rude but what is you expertise?

            peaceup. billy

          • TheodoreSeeber

            The AGW people are up every summer when the heat waves hit. The anti-AGW people are up every winter when the cold waves hit. Both have made the mistake of confusing weather with climate.

  • Bill

    I’d like to see a continuation of your train of thought. I have thought along the same lines, and would like to see if you have come up with a different rhetoric.

    • Kent Annan

      Hi, Bill. Thanks and good to hear your thoughts. This is actually an excerpt from the first half of my book “After Shock” – so I definitely do go on to explore other ways of thinking and talking about this. Sorry to point to something else, but our space here in the comments are limited! You may find the book a good companion to what you’ve been thinking about. Best to you. Thanks, Kent

  • rwarnell

    On Pentecost Sunday in 1755 a major earthquake devastated Lisbon, Portugal. The cathedral, packed with worshipers, was among the many buildings that collapsed. Happening as it did at the flowering of the Enlightenment, this tragedy resulted in a crisis of faith that is still being felt in Europe.

    I, for one, do NOT need a god who explains the result of plate tectonics.

    I DO, however, need a God who works with us to bring reconciliation, healing, and harmony to creation. I DO need a God who invites me into the story and walk with him. I DO need a God who shows us the way to redemption through laying down our lives for one another.

    That’s a God worth believing in.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    The best answer I’ve heard yet is “you don’t have all the variables to even come to the right answer”.

    Anything we come up with as humans to explain natural disaster, will be wrong.

    • Cralls

      True as that may be, that’s the most unsatisfying answer ever, especially in this day and age.

      • TheodoreSeeber

        Only if you fall into the atheist screed that we know everything and there is nothing more that God has that we need to discover.

        Humility is the proper attitude to take on this, and many other, topics.

  • 22044

    Thanks RLC for highlighting this piece. Does Kent Annan no longer post here? I usually like his posts.

    • Kent Annan

      Thanks for your interest and kind words! Alas, been doing other work and writing lately, but hopefully will be back with something fresh before too long. Take care, Kent

Read previous post:
Freedom Rides
21st Century Freedom Ride

BY: JONATHAN WILSON-HARTGROVE -- Fifty years ago, when America’s Freedom Movement was....