Why Does God Allow Disasters and Suffering?

PrJohnsonThe most recent issue of Lutherans Engage the World (Nov. – Dec. 2013, Volume 2, Number 2) features a ‘Meet and Greet’ with the Rev. Ross Johnson. Rev. Johnson is the incoming director of LCMS Disaster Response. He answers “10 Questions” (page 2), of which, number seven particularly caught my attention:

“What do you say to people who ask: Why does God allow disasters and suffering?”

It’s not an uncommon question for pastors to receive. For Johnson, the question is particularly appropriate, given his new position with Disaster Response. I was impressed with the points that he covered in his answer:

“We’ll never understand why God allowed something to happen. We do know that we live in a fallen world. When disasters happen, it’s a sign that we are no longer living in a world that is a paradise. But we do know that something Satan meant for evil can be turned into something that will bless that community. The rest of the world may say, ‘Oh, that place is devastated.’ Although it may be devastated, the Lord will eventually use it for good.”

Four points to consider from this Response

First: “We’ll never understand why God allowed something to happen.” Johnson acknowledges that God could have prevented the evil from taking place. He “allowed” it. Though He could prevent it from happening, yet, in His wisdom, God allows things to happen, for which we may ‘never understand’ the reason. Ultimately, we must confess that we do not know everything that we would like to know and that there are times when we cannot put ourselves into the mind of God.

Second: “We live in a fallen world.” Disasters are “a sign that we are no longer living in a world that is a paradise.” The true place to lay the blame for the disasters and the evil that takes place in our world is upon sin. We suffer here in this world because of our own sins and the sins of others. Though God is almighty and could certainly put Johnson out of a job by preventing disasters from happening, God is never to blame for our human suffering. The blame lies elsewhere.

Third: Johnson equates disasters and suffering with “something (that) Satan meant for evil”. Here, I am reminded of something similar that Luther says, in his explanation to the Fourth Petition of the Lord’s Prayer (Give us this day our daily bread) in the Large Catechism:

“But this petition is especially directed also against our chief enemy, the devil. For all his thought and desire is to deprive us of all that we have from God…. [The devil] also prevents and hinders the stability of all government and honorable, peaceable relations on earth. There he causes so much contention, murder, sedition, and war, also lightning and hail to destroy grain and cattle, to poison the air, etc. In short, [the devil] is sorry that any one has a morsel of bread from God and eats it in peace; and if it were in his power, and our prayer (next to God) did not prevent him, we would not keep a straw in the field, a farthing in the house, yea, not even our life for an hour, especially those who have the Word of God and would like to be Christians.” (Large Catechism, Lord’s Prayer, 80-81, bookofconcord.org).

Satan means all sorts of disasters for evil. When such evil takes place in our communities, whether through natural or man-made disasters, we can safely say that it is ultimately ‘the devil’s handiwork’.

Fourth: “But we do know that something Satan meant for evil can be turned into something that will bless that community.” Johnson’s point here seems to be ripped straight from Genesis 50:20, where Joseph answers his terrified brothers: “But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive.” When disasters and evil things happen in the community, God remains in control and can and often does use such situations for good.

There’s nothing like the theodicy question to get the ball rolling when introducing someone to the Synod. Welcome aboard, Rev. Johnson.

About Pastor Nathan Higgins

Pastor Higgins was a member of the Bemidji Circuit (one of the best in MNN) of the Minnesota North District when Pastor Joshua Scheer served as a pastor up there in the northland. He is also one of the assistant editors that produced Treasury of Daily Prayer for CPH. The Rev’d Nathan W. Higgins is a 2002 graduate of Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, Indiana. He has served as Pastor at Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Long Prairie, Minnesota (emmlp.org) since December 2008 and has participated for many years in the Lutheran Mission Association (lmamnn.org) which provides relief in Haiti.


Why Does God Allow Disasters and Suffering? — 6 Comments

  1. God causes disasters, which are His punishment for sin.

    God doesn’t “allow” disasters, as if there were some other cause for them, unless we believe in a weather god.

  2. @Robert #2
    God causes disasters, which are His punishment for sin.
    God doesn’t “allow” disasters, as if there were some other cause for them, unless we believe in a weather god.

    So, the people who died when the tower of Siloam fell, you think that was because they sinned more than others?

    Job “must have done something wrong” to lose his flocks, family and finally, his health?

    Look it up before you make another rash statement?

    Do you think you are somehow better, in the sight of God, than the hundreds who lost their homes to tornadoes across Illinois and the Midwest today?

  3. Having dealt with a sudden tornado (near) touchdown yesterday one block from my home and church, which knocked down 70-foot tall grain bins, but hardly tore any branches off the tree in our backyard, I’m reminded of that idea that Luther posited–Things would be *far* worse if the Church were not constantly in prayer and our dear Lord did not graciously hear those prayers. No injuries, some fairly close calls–an elderly couple had several windows blown in, a window air-conditioner blown into the house, but no injury to them. Power out for only about 5 hours–amazingly. (Kudos to our power company, about whom we complain all too much.) This one seems to have been in the low EF1 category–I heard something about 102 mph winds.

    Couple years ago, and “EF0” one went through the back of the property at my other church–trees topped off, and an outhouse demolished. within 50 yards of the church building. Not even a broken window. The dear lady living in the parsonage was safe.

    No, it’s a damned, sinful, sin-cursed world–I don’t wonder why bad things happen. I more wonder why much worse things *don’t* happen. And I have extra reason for Thanksgiving.

  4. It is so easy to go wrong on this.
    On the one hand Holy Scripture makes it clear, as do therefore also the Lutheran Confessions, that God is not the cause of sin.
    And it is not for us to know, and we do not and cannot, exactly why this or that happened to these or those persons, and not to somebody else.
    On the other hand Holy Scripture also makes it clear that all sufferings in this world are expressions of God’s judgement against sin, and that we have brought this judgement upon ourselves by being sinners and acting accordingly and actually doing sin.
    Holy Scripture also teaches that all that happens, even that which seems obviously evil, is in the hands of God. The evil one has no power other than what God allots to him. He is, as Luther said it, “God’s chained dog”. Even in his evil schemes he must serve the good will of God. Clearer than anywhere else, probably, is this demonstrated in his scheme to have the Son of God crucified and cursed by God – which was really God’s will for our salvation all along.
    For those who are called according to His purpose, and therefore have been overcome by the love of God so as to embrace His salvation in love all things must work together for good – even that which is obviously evil, or cannot but seem so to us. Only God Himself knows, however, exactly how this works – and as such it would be an insult to His wisdom and His goodness for us to work out explanations as to why exactly this and that had to happen, and to exactly these and those, and not to others, as Job’s friends did.
    But “He who did not spare His own Son but gave Him up for us all”, He takes no delight in the sufferings of His beloved ones, rather, His will is for us to enjoy as much good as is good for us. It is safe to assume, therefore, that it is only and always for very good reason that He allows His beloved ones to suffer, always and only for His great purpose, which is the salvation of His beloved – for sinners, that is, who are not easily won over by His love, nor easily kept and preserved in the faith, and must often be so by rather drastic measures.

    The image of God coldly and carelessly causing human suffering, without compassion, is an affront to His goodness.

    Blasphemous is also, however, the image that is often given (although never presented in so many words by its proponents), of God watching helplessly while sinners suffer in natural disasters (referred to even by unbelievers as “acts of God”), or in disasters brought about by the evil of other sinners (when God “uses one villain to punish another” as Luther says it), leaving the impression that God has no other power than the power to comfort us and assure us of His sympathies.

    Blasphemous is also the image of God that is often presented (although never in those words) running around cleaning up after the evil one, or evil ones, by trying to make something good of that which happened, which was not only against His will, but also beyond His control, or at least to make the best of it – as if only either the evil one or evil ones were really in power, and not God Himself.

    And blasphemous is the worship, even when called by another name, that is so often the response of society to disastrous events, not only because of the worship of false gods involved, nor only because of the worship of false gods so obviously being endorsed by allegedly Lutheran Pastors through their enthusiastic participation (as at Yankee Stadium in 2001, in Newtown in 2012, and just a few weeks ago, when the participation of an LCMS Pastor in such joint worship was once again presented as an example for Lutheran Pastors to follow in the face of disaster by this Pastor being called as banquet speaker at an LCMS conference about disaster response, and subsequently in an article in “the Reporter” – no, blasphemous is such worship in its very own nature, in that, instead of and exactly oppositely of the appropriate response of letting such disaster lead to repentance, it assumes and conveys the message, implicitly or explicitly, that God is most certainly not angry at any of us, and He has no reason to be, and we will all be saved, for we are all good enough to be, and we are all living right and doing right (as opposed to others, namely our enemies), regardless of which god we worship, if any, for in this country or in this community it is all good, and we have no need nor any reason to repent of anything, nor to reconsider and radically change our ways in any way.

    God is Lord of all things. He does not owes us any better, rather, He owes us nothing. We, on the other hand owe Him everything, and deny Him what we owe Him. And as such we have earned nothing from Him, nothing other than judgement and damnation.

    And although God owes us nothing, He gives us everything, out of His goodness alone. He has demonstrated His love for us is the greatest love of all in what His Son has suffered for us, who are evil, and have made ourselves His enemies. On account of His own severe sufferings, so far greater sufferings than any sinner has ever yet known, the Son of God gives us His Kingdom and His eternal life, against the glory of which no suffering in this world is worth comparing, and He does so freely and for nothing, out of His goodness and love, and for no other reason whatsoever, all in accordance with the heavenly Father’s will.

    How, then, can we accuse God of not being good?

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