Evil, Suffering & Tragedy—
Proofs of God’s Displeasure?
A self-styled member of the clergy told the Seal Beach City Council and all others listening on March 24 that the city’s neglect of the homeless led to the “Salon Massacre” in October, 2011—Orange County’s worst mass murder, eight innocent lives. Had city officials listened to advocates of services for the homeless, “God would have been unjust to allow that massacre in this city. “ Read on…
“Who has understood the mind of the Lord?
or instructed him as his counselor?
Whom did the Lord consult to enlighten him,
and who taught him the right way?
Who was it that taught him knowledge
or showed him the path of understanding?”
– Isaiah 40:13-14
Do our moral actions or inactions bring identifiable judgments from God? Does anyone have the right to tell us, “Thus saith the Lord!” when tragedy strikes?
Biblically speaking, bad things happen for many reasons or (to our finite understanding) for no reason at all. Sometimes tragedy strikes those who are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Sometimes punishment can come from God for violating his commandments. This can be seen in the Law of Moses (see Deuteronomy 30:15-20 for summary promises of blessing and judgment; the warnings are common throughout the Mosaic Law as found in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy). Warnings are also common in the prophetical writings (for great examples, read the first two chapters of Amos).
Other scriptures speak of the natural consequences of the choices we make, good or bad. I highly recommend reading the Book of Proverbs to see literally hundreds of moral truisms (generalizations) on the consequences of conduct.
“The prudent see danger and take refuge,
but the simple keep going and suffer for it.” (27:12)
“Those who work their land will have abundant food,
but those who chase fantasies will have their fill of poverty.” (28:19)
“Drunkards and gluttons become poor,
and drowsiness clothes them in rags.” (23:21)
But still other scriptures make it clear that many things that happen to us are not subject to moral cause-and-effect equations. The greatest example is from one of the oldest works of literature—the Book of Job. If you have never read this Old Testament book with its splendid poetry, treat yourself to it!
Job was a good and honorable man, wealthy and blessed. Then he was struck with a rapid series of disasters: (1) great evil: his animals were stolen and his servants killed by marauding bands; (2) great tragedies: fire destroyed his sheep and killed more servants, and a wind collapsed his son’s house and all his children were killed; (3) great suffering: he himself was covered with painful sores from head to toe. Yet Job retained his trust in God, in the face of no answer to the question why.
Enter his three friends. Most of the remainder of the book is the poetic arguments back and forth between Job and his “counselors.” They are sure that Job’s own conduct must have brought God to bring these disasters his way. Job’s protests are judged as proof of his blindness to his own deeds and his willful failure to understand the moral cause-and-effect equation.
Obedience brings abundance and sin brings punishment—it’s as simple as that! “Blessed is the man whom God corrects; so do not despise the discipline of the Almighty” (Job 5:17). That’s the theory—alive today—set forth by Job’s “counselors.”
Certainly God has compassion for the poor and homeless and calls on us for compassion as well. “Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God” (Proverbs 14:31).
But poverty is complex and can have many causes: oppression, natural and economic happenings, choice and slothfulness among others. How we respond to poverty must take the range of causes into consideration. And the solutions need to be efficient, effective ones that will lift a man up rather than reinforce the circumstances.
So the moral cause-and-effect linkage between a failure to provide housing for the homeless and a mass murder is fallacious in the extreme.
How can one prove that, in the case at hand, God demands local housing as the solution for the homeless? Over many years I’ve known many of these men and women through talking with them on the street, providing meals for them, and welcoming them to church. Many will not change their situations. They “come and go.” Some will ask money from others while spurning truly helpful assistance. Alcoholism runs deep. Housing alone isn’t the answer.
Why would God punish the innocent for the wrongful omissions of others, if indeed there was omission? Who is qualified to draw the connection?
And who can claim to know the mind of God and be the voice of God, to speak “thus saith the Lord” and lecture others? Again, over the years I’ve had many visitors come to church and tell me God sent them here today to give me a message. I will tell them I don’t want to hear it.
I hope and pray that the consciences of good citizens will not be troubled by preaching that draws a cause-and-effect between sin and suffering. And I pray that people’s minds will not become jaded and critical of Christian people and churches who are struggling to understand and speak and practice the true will and love of God in a world full of challenges and difficulties.
Other theological and philosophical issues:
• Is God “unjust” if he doesn’t intervene to prevent an “undeserved massacre”? And aren’t there many examples of this very thing in the world today? Theologically speaking, it is impossible to charge God with injustice, since he is the source of all justice and justice is defined by his character. Abraham’s rhetorical question before God was right: “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Genesis 18:25).
• A distinction between what God “allows” versus what God “ordains” when used to exculpate God from responsibility—this won’t fly. If God foresees an action (like mass murder) and possesses the power to forestall it but instead permits it, how can saying God “allowed it but didn’t ordain it” excuse him from moral culpability? If I’m standing beside a small child who will surely run out into a busy street unless I restrain him, and if I do not act to restrain him when it is within my knowledge and power to do so, how could I be exempt from a moral claim of negligence? Personally, I think this matter is insoluble with regard to God’s knowledge and action or inaction. The Bible seems to let the question rest.