God and the Tsunamis of 26th December, 2004

In the wake of the disastrous earthquake off Sumatra and the tsunamis of December the 26th, 2004, and the death and devastation that was wrought, many questioned both their faith and God. Why should so many have suffered, including the poor, the sick, the innocent? Why?

Suffering, whoever is affected, is hard to see or to take.

The age-old problem of suffering in the world, is and has been a stumbling-block for many, an obstacle to belief in the existence of a God who is loving, compassionate and merciful.

But God does permit suffering. To penetrate this mystery we must try to look beyond the agony itself: to God and to reason.

Here are three views which I have found helpful.

1. The first is simple, and invites to complete submission to the will of God: to know that God is loving, compassionate and merciful; to trust completely in Him, and accept whatever life has in store for us, both the pleasant and unpleasant, the wonderful and the awful, confident that we are safe and secure in God’s hands, and to be comforted and at peace in that knowledge; to go on with life, living it as best as we could, trying to conform our hearts and our actions to God’s will.

2. The second is like the first, but spells matters out both in the light of faith and scientific knowledge.

The cosmos, our universe and our earth have been evolving over billions of years. The laws and processes that have shaped and continue to shape creation and our planet (including plate tectonics) are God-given, and have been at work long before we put in an appearance on this earth. They will continue to operate even when human beings have disappeared from the face of the earth.

In His goodness, God called humankind into being, placing us upon a beautiful, fruitful and probably unique planet, but which presents to all life on earth both perils (including volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, tsunamis) and also opportunities.

Reason assures us that life on earth may be problematic and painful at times, while Revelation tells us that this life is not all that we have to look forward to. Our calling is to love and serve God and one another here and now, and to be united with and to live in the presence and love of God after our death.

This is a calling that cosmic, astronomical, tectonic, hydrographic and atmospheric processes cannot frustrate. It is only we who could do this to ourselves.

So, we conclude that it is both a duty of gratitude to our Creator and a duty to ourselves to pay attention to His voice, which comes to us by the God’s grace through the scriptures and the Church, through prayer and meditation, and also through the messages and the witness that creation continually trumpets.

Thus, it is not so much a question of when or where or how disaster might strike, or when and how our life on earth will come to an end, but rather how we live the life we are gifted with, and whether and how we respond to the One who brought us into being. Do we love God and heed his word, or at least do we try to, or do we not?

As for those who suffer, for the Christian there is the knowledge that although the innocent may seem to be or may be unjustly treated here on earth, the Innocent One, Christ Jesus, suffered and was harshly dealt with and unjustly put to death, by men. Furthermore, Mary, Christ’s Mother, who was also spotless and innocent, had her own heart pierced with the sword of suffering as she saw her son cruelly put to death. Their pain was the result of the sins of men.

This should make it clear that even worse than the violence associated with natural disasters is the violence that comes from man, and the pollution and poison of sin that we so often opt for, and which ultimately kills the soul.

3. A third view is one which not many may be prepared to accept. While encompassing the first two, it goes further. It is holistic and affirms not only the interconnectedness and interdependence of natural phenomena, but also that of the natural world and the spiritual. This view is based on the Bible and the teaching of the Catholic Church. In this context I draw heavily on an account by Fr. McGinnity of Ireland.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (section 339) teaches that, “Man must respect the particular goodness of every creature to avoid the disordered use of things which would be in contempt of the Creator and would bring disastrous consequences for human beings and their environment.”

As “stewards of God’s creation” we have a responsibility to do more than safeguard and share the resources of the earth.

We are obliged most especially to respect the masterpiece of God’s entire creation, namely the human person created in the Divine image,

We are obliged to go further again in avoiding “contempt” for the Creator, who constantly sustains all that exists.

“This seems to indicate that an order of interdependence exists at three levels, the Creator, humanity and the creation, and must be respected if we are to ‘avoid disastrous consequences for human beings and the environment.’ ”

Avoidance of “contempt of the Creator” is currently more honoured in the breach than the observance. This is increasingly expressed in widespread resentment at any mention of God’s rights or his law. God is increasingly viewed as an intruder in the human domain, except perhaps when blame has to be attributed. And as for “respect for the particular goodness of every creature”, what of the millions systematically killed in abortion, or trafficked for abuse and yet voiceless throughout our world? To this one could add much more: eg. the silent or the overt violence used to exploit others, the unjust structures, values and practices that condone and facilitate these.

“The ‘mastery’ over the world that God offered humanity was to be realised above all within man himself: mastery of self (both individual and collective). The Catechism invokes the triple form of lust mentioned in a letter of St. John which subjugates individuals: greed, self-assertion and pleasures of the senses which we must constantly struggle to control with God’s help if (self-) mastery is to be gained.”

“When this struggle is abandoned, as the prevailing culture so enjoins, the individual (and the nation) lapses into moral degeneracy. With the erosion of conscience, the new ‘morality’ becomes political correctness.”

“Thus human beings placed in charge of the entire created order and intended to realize their highest potential in “offering all back to their creator”, use their determinations to frustrate His purpose, “do their own thing” and effectively wreck the right order intended by God. Then right order is destroyed and “disaster” ensues.”

“God permits us in our freedom to do evil, but if this happens He works to bring a greater good from the consequences…The Father might thereby prevent what Jesus called the greatest catastrophe of all, surpassing in gravity any that can possibly occur in this life, despite their inexpressible sorrow, the eternal loss of a person’s soul (Matthew 10:28).”

Lessons

The events of December 26th, 2004, teach us that death may come unexpectedly.

Whatever our confidence and pride may be in human genius and capability, we are weak, vulnerable and not in control of planetary events.

We know however that we could and should treat our earth and our environment and life itself with greater concern and respect, and use our knowledge and skills to understand, to be forewarned by early-warning systems and to try to avoid or mitigate the adverse effects of natural disasters. This is well within our God-endowed capability if we are willing to put people before profit, self-interest and greed.

Above all, the events of Boxing Day 2004 could help us to realise that while we should live our lives with joy in the Lord, and without morbid fear of death and doom, we would do wisely to be prepared to meet our God and to give an account of our stewardship any time we are required to.

It would be the greatest of self-inflicted misfortunes if, when invited to peace and happiness in the presence of God, we, by our lives, and by our selfishness, elect to make not God but myself my own, empty and utterly desolate destiny.

It is re-iterated that our faith assures us that “those taken in innocence in such tragedies as sin does bring upon our world, unite with the innocence of Christ and become thereby a means of saving the guilty in the mysterious action of God’s redeeming work.”

Conclusion

Whatever view or views we may take, the events of December 26th, should not be regarded as punishment by an angry God. They must be more realistically seen for what they are:

a clarion call to compassion and empathy with those who suffer and have suffered, a call to which millions the world over responded so magnificently,

a call to a wiser and more humane world order, and also as an urgent reminder that we need to set our lives and our world in order,

a call to conversion and a new beginning.

For the Christian, it is a fresh invitation to take Christ as our light, our way, the truth and the life.

Let us pray for one another, and that we remember that we are all children of God, and thus brothers and sisters. May we find our peace in this.