taking the words of Jesus seriously

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?

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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.

“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).

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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

About The Author


Kent Annan is author of Slow Kingdom Coming
 (2016), After Shock (2011),
and Following Jesus through the Eye of the
Needle (2009) and is co-director of Haiti
Partners, a nonprofit focused on education in Haiti. He’s on the board of directors of Equitas Group, a philanthropic foundation focused on ending child exploitation in Haiti and Southeast Asia. He’s a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary. He is married to Shelly, and they have a young daughter (2005) and son (2009).

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