My friend puts it this way: does God hate Haiti? Four hurricanes in 2008. Some 40 measured earthquakes in the last year, and now this big one January 12—aftershocks continuing—all the destruction, all the death, all the suffering. Does God hate Haiti?
It’s hard not to ask the question. Even if we reject the implicit assumption that God aims hurricanes and directs earthquakes—even if we affirm that God being God is not about that kind of control—that God’s authority and power are not made manifest in micro-managing creation. Even so, we’re left with the question. I mean we are talking about God here—a being whose infinite power we affirm and whose deep, deep love. So how do we live with such affirmations in and through tragedy?
I have found, maybe you have too, that as many times as we deal with such questions, as much as we process our thinking, each new tragedy, each new experience of suffering raises the questions all over again. And that’s good. Not indicative of an uncertainty about God and faith, but indicative rather of a certainty about the profound significance of needing to locate God in the midst of experience and experience within the reality of God.
There’s the always-at-the-ready Pat Robertson answer: tragic circumstances constitute God’s punishing response to sin. Now that answer certainly allows the consistent affirmation of God’s control, but in the words of the Black-Eyed Peas, we have to ask, “where’s the love?” When people lie crushed under collapsed buildings. When children lose parents. When parents lose children. When hundreds of thousands are estimated dead and 1.5 million homeless.
Do advocates of God’s micro-management simply project love as the ends towards which God works … ruthlessly? That gets us to the ideology of the ends justifying the means while more and more, I lean into a Scripturally inspired ideology of means that create ends in their own image. And the willingness to manipulate tragedy as punishment creates an end I don’t even want to contemplate.
At some point, defining love as the ends and not the means will also run into the question, do we really define God’s love as God’s manipulation of circumstance into that which is beneficial for … well, for whom? the ones whom God loves? No, because God loves everyone. The ones who love God? the ones who are obedient to God? And the logical extreme leads to questioning the faith of anyone who suffers.
Doesn’t work for me. And this isn’t me utterly rejecting Robertson’s theology in absolute abhorence … well, it is, actually, but not just as a matter of rejection, more importantly, as a matter of greater affirmation. The Jesus story, as a story about the fullness of God within experience, has always struck me as a story prioritizing the loving of God over what I call the omni’s [the omnipotence (all-powerfulness), omniscience (all-knowingness), omnipresence (ever-presentness)]. The Jesus story, representative of so many stories about God (in Old and New Testaments) is about a love submitting to the free choices of the ones loved and working always within the desire for and hope of transformation. The Jesus story—the God story, in other words, is love as the means to the end God anticipates—shaped in the very image of love—shaped in the very image of God—an investment, not an imposition.
So what do we say? What do we say in times of tragic circumstance? As lovers of the Jesus story? Because silence is not an option. We say God is present. We say God is present in grief and present in love. We say, in the words of one of my theology professors, Frank Tupper, “God always does as much as God can do.” And yes, we acknowledge the implication that God cannot do anything. We believe that when it comes to free will, don’t we? God cannot force me to believe. God cannot force me to love. And I will say, too, God cannot redirect the shifting of tectonic plates, the direction of wind and wave. I do not/cannot believe in a puppet master God whose power is justified in a control of every dimension of being—such that circumstance is only to be understood as manifestation of the divine will. No.
God is present—present in grief and love—doing as much as God can do. And we also say, God is present and at work in us. For we are taught in our Scriptures, that we are our sisters’ and brothers’ keepers—that we are called as good neighbors. But we also say that while we extend the parameters of what God can do in what we do (in our praying; in our raising questions about why 98.5% of Haiti’s forests are gone—virtually eliminating the island’s ability to absorb water while, at the same time, speeding up erosion; in our giving in partnership with any number of help organizations)—while we extend the parameters of what God can do in what we do, we do not define the parameters to all that God can do. And so we say, over and over again, God is present—present in grief and in love—doing as much as God can do—at work in, through, and beyond us.
It never feels like enough. In face of tragedy, nothing we say or do ever should.