Catastrophe and the Creator
Learning to trust in the midst of the storm
Rabbi Harold Kushner in his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People writes: “There is only one question that really matters: Why do bad things happen to good people? All other theological conversation is intellectually diverting.… Virtually every meaningful conversation I have ever had with people on the subject of God and religion has either started with this question, or gotten around to it before long.… They are all troubled by the unfair distribution of suffering in the world.
“The misfortunes of good people are not only a problem to the people who suffer and their families. They are a problem to everyone who wants to believe in a just and fair and livable world. They inevitably raise questions about the goodness, the kindness, even the existence of God.”1
Rabbi Kushner isn’t the only person asking this question. Many of us struggle to correlate catastrophe and the Creator – and perhaps never more frequently than now. Throughout the last decade we have been continuously bombarded with tragic news. Images of unimaginable suffering and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people because of war, hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, and tornadoes flash on the TV screen and sometimes overwhelm us to the point of being unable to bear viewing them anymore.
During the years I’ve worked for the Adventist Review, the editors have covered numerous stories of tragedies among Adventists. They include:
- The sinking of a boat in Bangladesh that was carrying 22 children from an Adventist elementary school; 20 of the children survived, but two drowned in the river.
- The death of four Georgia-Cumberland Conference administrators and an Adventist pilot when their plane crashed shortly after takeoff near Chattanooga, Tennessee.
- The loss of Adventist mission pilot Robert Norton, a volunteer for Adventist Medical Aviation (AMA) in Venezuela, and five passengers (including two children) when their plane went missing in Venezuela. Although volunteers searched long for the plane, it is yet to be found.
- The murder of a Northern Caribbean University student just hours after more than 10,000 Adventists marched against violence through the streets of Kingston, Jamaica.
- The murder of a young student missionary and Southern Adventist University student, while she was serving as a teacher on the island of Yap.
Amid all these tragedies, the uninvited question that inevitably plagues the thoughts is, Why? There are no ready answers available – at least while we’re here on this earth – but we ponder the dilemma nonetheless.
In 2009 I worked on a cover story about factory farming based on an interview with Loma Linda University professor Sigve Tonstad. The article addressed the issue of human antibiotic resistance – a consequence of the massive amounts of antibiotics being fed to factory farm animals as growth enhancers – as well as the horrendous living conditions and inhumane treatment of the animals. Tonstad’s position centered on biblical principles of stewardship and on the seventh-day Sabbath and its meanings. It was a very difficult topic to research, write about, and find pictures for. I learned things I wished were not true. It made the world seem a much darker place. And even though the experience left me with a longing to do something about it, I also grappled with a feeling of helplessness as I questioned whether anything I personally could do really would make any difference. And this situation can seem small compared to the incalculable, atrocious humanitarian challenges throughout the world.
I do believe that even one person can make a significant difference. Throughout history, evidence abounds that assures us this is so. But when we see evil flourish, with efforts to thwart it having apparently little impact, some people ask, Where is God?
I don’t, of course, have the answer to this question, but as I’ve pondered it I’ve come to believe that in the end, it all must boil down to trust. I don’t mean to sound trite and say that there is always a “silver lining” in every situation or that these occurrences are God’s will – because I don’t accept those concepts. An enemy hath done this. But I do believe that we must trust in the goodness and the justice and the love of God. Trust that He is in control no matter what the circumstances. Trust that somehow, someway, something good – eventually – will come out of even the worst that life can deal us.
David, in Psalm 52:8, 9 (NIV), says: “I trust in God’s unfailing love for ever and ever.… In your name I will hope, for your name is good.”
And Ellen G. White writes: “God gives us lessons of trust.… Faith grows strong in earnest conflict with doubt and fear.”2
There is also a short story – one of those old parables with a moral – that is on the lighter side but reflects a similar principle. It’s about a farmer whose horse ran away. His neighbor learned of the situation and came over to commiserate.
“I hear that you lost your horse,” he said. “That is bad news.”
“Well, who knows?” the farmer said. “Maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t.”
The next day the farmer’s horse returned to its stable, but it brought along a drove of wild horses it had befriended. The neighbor came to congratulate him.
“This is so good!” he said.
“Well, who knows,” the farmer replied. “Maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t.”
The next day the farmer’s son decided to ride one of the new wild horses to break it in, but he was thrown from the horse and broke his leg. Upon hearing this sad news, the neighbor again came over to offer condolences.
“This is such a sad thing,” he said.
“Well, who knows,” the farmer responded. “Maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t.”
On the following day soldiers showed up to commandeer an army. They took sons from most of the surrounding farms, but because this farmer’s son had a broken leg, he could not go and was spared.
“Now I know,” the farmer said, “that the running away of my horse was a good thing.”
The moral given for the story is that until we’ve reached the end of a series of events, it’s hard to know exactly why things happen as they do.
Our lives are a series of events, and though we realize that the ultimate end – when Jesus comes again – will result in victory, we often don’t understand why occurrences in our daily lives happen as they do. What possible good could ever come out of tragedies? We struggle to answer that question.
Yet ultimately, in the end, we don’t have to understand; but we do have to trust.
Sandra Blackmer is feature editor of Adventist Review. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Harold Kushner, Why Bad Things Happen to Good People (New York: Avon Books, 1981), p. 6.
- Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, California: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948) vol. 4, pp. 116, 117. Emphasis supplied.
- -------------, The Great Controversy (Mountain View, California: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 1911), p. 519.
- Gina Wahlen, Adventist Review, April 14, 2011, p. 7.