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.

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