In a country where religion, especially Christianity, is a huge part of most people’s life, a question about God’s presence and role during a cyclone like Idai that left many dead and many more homeless and without sustenance was inevitable. I was dreading this question and I prayed that it doesn’t come my way, but since there is no rest for the wicked it did come. It was a simple question at first, “Where was God in cyclone Idai?” but it became more complicated, “If God is a good and omnipotent (all powerful) God why does he allow this kind of suffering to occur. This is an old question that humanity has struggled to solve for centuries, without much ado.
This question is implicit in the story of Job, which is struggling with the suffering of a good man. The story is trying to answer the question why bad things happen to good people. The same question is also reflected in Martha’s statement to Jesus after the death of Lazarus, “If you were around, my brother would not have died” (Jn 11:21). It is the same question behind the story of those people who told Jesus about some Galileans whose blood Pilate had been mingled with their sacrifices (Luke 13:1-9). They were asking why people who had come to offer sacrifices to the temple were killed whilst offering to God. Jesus went on to tell them of 18 other people who were killed when the tower of siolam fell on them.
Some have concluded from the paradox in this question about a good God who allows evil to thrive that there is no God. However, a good number of philosophers and theologians have tried to come up with different ways of demonstrating how it is possible for an all powerful God to allow evil, moral and natural. The attempt to explain that possibility is known in philosophy and theology as the question of theodicy. Our hearts are heavy and sad about the disaster caused by Idai and we neither have space nor patience to consider all that philosophers and theologians say, however, we may follow some possible explanations and see if we can draw some wisdom to help us to easy the heaviness in our hearts and think beyond the disaster.
Let’s consider the answer given in the book of Job. As we know the story of Job is a story of a good man who honored God all his life, but he lost everything that he had worked for. His wife told him to curse God and he refused. His friends came to commiserate with him. They tried to convince him that his misfortune must have been because of some misdeeds in his past. God must have been punishing him for something that he had forgotten. In modern language, borrowed from eastern religions, we would say, Job’s friends concluded that his misery is similar to a karma which is about the evil deed in his past that had come to haunt him. It’s a case of chicken come home to roost as some of my American friends would say. But Job adamantly insisted that he had not done anything that deserved the suffering he was going through.
Then, in chapter 38, God came and told them they did not know what they are talking about. He challenged Job and his friends saying “Were you there when I created the world, were you there when I told the sea that you stop here? Were you there when I closed its gates.” In short, he was telling them that the universe is far much bigger and has an order bigger than their feeble minds can imagine. Thus we can say, all we know about this universe, no matter how profound, is a negligible fraction of what can be known of this world. This world has an order which we cannot fathom. Therefore, we should not ask these questions. Only God in his wisdom know why things are the way they are. Thus, it is possible that disasters, dangers or terrible things can all fit into the order planned by God and is well known to him, so we just leave it to God.
A powerful challenge to this thinking is in the novel The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky. Ivan is talking to his brother Alyosha who is training to be a priest. He says, if you say the suffering is about some order that is known to God alone or it is the plan of God to bring about some kind of harmony that will be achieved at the end of time when we get to heaven, there is something wrong with this achievement that allows for such suffering. He criticizes a god who allows the suffering of children because of some vast order or harmony. He gives a heart-wrenching example of a child who, in the presence of her mother, is tortured and ripped by hounds set on him by the landlord. He rebuked the idea that when we go to heaven all will be resolved in that plan of God and that the man who tortured the child and the mother of the child might embrace in love and forgiveness.
Ivan concludes, “I don’t want harmony. From love for humanity I don’t want it. I would rather be left with the unavenged suffering. I would rather remain with my unavenged suffering and unsatisfied indignation, even if I were wrong. Besides, too high a price is asked for harmony; it’s beyond our means to pay so much to enter on it. And so I hasten to give back my entrance ticket, and if I am an honest man I am bound to give it back as soon as possible. And that I am doing. It’s not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return him the ticket.”
Alyosha does not respond to Ivan with an explanation, he just embraces and kisses him. According to the former archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, maybe from Alyosha’s response we may learn that we need not explain the plans of God, but our response should be through our action, the best response. For me, it seems Alyosha’s response of embrace represent a more important response, which is that of love in the face of these disasters. This is the response in the gospel. In my many years of struggling with theological questions, I have come to a realization that explanations of why the death of the messiah have never yielded as much fruit as the messiah’s response to the disaster.
Maybe our focus should be on the messiah’s response to the disaster of his death, where he continues to show love in the face of adversities and death. This is in line with his response to the people who asked about the Galileans whose blood Pilate mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus points out what we should do rather than what this world is all about. This world is full of events that are beyond our comprehension and if we try to speak about them, we speak badly. But there is something that we can do, we can respond in love.
I think the response of Alyosha, embodied by Jesus’ life and death, is the answer that many are following when they responded to the disaster by gathering the little that they have and share with those who were affected. It is a response of love in the midst of the catastrophe that escapes our understanding and imagination. The disaster has come and gone but its effect will be with us for some time. We will never be the same people again. The question is how are we going to respond or what is it that we should do in the midst of this disaster?
As for the why of suffering itself, it is best to follow the book of Job’s wisdom, leave it to God’s revelation in God’s time. But for the sake of those who might not be satisfied with the answer in the book of Job, a simple philosophical transgression might help. The why question centers around the issue of omnipotence (all powerful). It is about how can an all powerful, almighty God allow such suffering. The answer lies in how we understand omnipotence (all powerful). What does it mean to be all-powerful? Is it about doing the impossible or is it about doing everything possible and impossible at the same time? Is it about being in control all the time or is it about imposing your will every time?
I am persuaded by the thinking that omnipotence, whatever it is, can involve self-limitation, that is, the ability to restrain yourself in things that you can do. This idea of limiting one’s power neither contradicts omnipotence nor makes it incredible. A god who is not able to limit his omnipotence is like a machine, which just operates according to the way it is set and not otherwise. It has no alternative. Such a God who can’t restrain himself is like a fired atomic missile. It cannot do anything else, but destroy. A person who fires it is more powerful for he may or may not choose to destroy. Choosing to limit one’s omnipotent does not make one less omnipotent. Thus, one can safely conclude that God creates a world with forces that he cannot restrain and allows them to be themselves without distancing himself from them. Thus God, without losing his omnipotence, is in this cyclone Idai and in every other disaster, human or natural.