Last week, I published an article entitled, “Questions We Ask After a Tragedy.” In it, I listed five common questions that come up when something terrible happens and offered what I hope are helpful responses to each question. Though the post was well-received, the most common feedback was that I’d left an important question off the list: How could God allow this?
I chose not to include this question for a reason. I do think it’s an important question, and one we should at least try to answer. And it is true that we tend to voice this question a lot after something terrible happens. After all, it only seems natural to wonder why a loving, powerful God wouldn’t intervene when a person sets out to kill others. But I think that often when we ask this question, we aren’t really asking it to get any sort of answer.
Here’s what I mean: When a person is still reeling from a horrific event, they aren’t exactly ready to talk about theology. A person who is in shock may ask a philosophical question, but that doesn’t mean that they are looking for a philosophical answer. And someone who’s mourning a major loss doesn’t need an explanation for their suffering; they need comfort.
The truth is that there is no answer to the question, “How could God allow this?” that would make a victim or someone close to a victim feel any better in the wake of a traumatic event. There is a time for such discussions, but the moments directly following these horrific acts are not the right time. Why, then, do we ask this question during these moments if an answer to the question isn’t what we’re looking for?
I think that there are a few reasons. First of all, we ask the question because we have to. Tragedies tend to double as crises of faith, even for the most pious of believers. When something bad happens, it forces us to question what we believe, and so we have no choice but to ask why something so awful could happen in a world ruled by the God we claim to believe in.
We also ask the question because the very act of voicing the question has value. It gives an outlet to pain and tension that, left unrecognized, could lead to anger, resentment, or even a loss of faith altogether. It brings God into the equation, even if his exact place in that equation is in question for the time being. And it creates solidarity between us and the people around us, as well as every person throughout history who has suffered pain, because we have all found ourselves asking this question at one point or another.
And ultimately, we ask this question because we don’t know what else to do. We’re scared and confused, and the only way we know how to express those emotions is to ask God how he could let something like this happen. I think that within the context of a tragedy, we’re not really so much concerned with the intellectual responses that this question tends to warrant. Rather, we have more practical, fundamental questions that we just aren’t able to voice.
Again, I’m not saying that the question of why God lets these things happen isn’t worthwhile. But I don’t think that’s our main concern when we’ve just been struck by something horrendous. Rather, I think that when we ask this question, what we’re really asking is something more like this:
Does God care?
When something awful happens in our lives, it often seems like God is unconcerned. After all, if he was interested in what was happening, why wouldn’t he intervene? In these moments, we need to know at the most basic level that God cares about us and what we’re going through.
And fortunately, we have plenty of reasons to believe that God does care about us. Not only does scripture consistently tell us of God’s love and concern for his children, but it also tells us the story of just how much God cares about human beings and what happens to us. God cared so much that he became a human himself and entered history with us. That’s pretty incredible. And if it doesn’t demonstrate God’s concern for the world and for what happens in it, I don’t know what does.
It might not be too difficult to believe that God cares about the world as a whole. He did creat it, after all. But God isn’t just concerned with the big picture. He also cares about each person individually. The truth is that God knows each of us intimately. Like a loving parent, he cares for each of us uniquely and is concerned about us and the things we are concerned about. Sure, God cares about the world, but he cares about each person in the world, too.
When these terrible things happen, it’s natural to wonder whether or not God cares about it. But the unequivocal truth is that he does. God cares for the world, and he cares for each of us individually, and we need to be reminded of that (and remind others of that) in the midst of tragedy.
Could God have stopped this?
These events also make us wonder about God’s power. Is it possible that God didn’t stop this from happening because he simply couldn’t? It would certainly help answer the question of why he allows these things. But it would also mean that he hasn’t overcome evil. and if that’s the case, then why would we trust him?
Scripture is clear that God created the world and rules over it. It’s true that some things—and I would argue many things, if not most things—that take place in this world are not what God wants, but that’s not because he does not have the power to stop them. God has the ability to do whatever he wants. But he allows things to happen outside of his will for reasons that we do not always understand. But we don’t have to completely understand that to believer that God is in control.
I want to be clear here: God does not want these tragedies to happen. They are not a part of his will or his plan for the world. When people are violent and hateful towards one another, they are going completely against what God wants for them and for humanity as a whole. God’s will is not always carried out, but that’s not because God does not have the power to carry out his will. We know that he does, and that ultimately, his plan for the world will come to fruition in the long run.
After something horrendous takes place, we need to know that God is in control. Trusting in him and the fact that he is still on his throne, even when the world around us seems completely out of control, is what helps us maintain our faith and a sense of stability (however limited it may be) through the darkest of times.
Where is God when bad things happen?
So we want to know about God’s concern for us, and we want to know about his power over the world. But neither of those things does us much good unless we are sure of his presence with us. Because in the wake of a disaster, it doesn’t feel like God is there. It feels like he’s somewhere far away focused on something else. It makes us ask, “Where is God?”
Of course, we aren’t the first to wonder where God is. One of the recurring themes throughout the Psalms is the question of where God was when his people were taken into exile by foreign armies. After all, the temple was the representation of God’s presence with his people, and they had been removed far from it. (Not to mention that it had been burned to the ground.) But as we know and as the psalmists came to find out, God’s presence isn’t limited to any geographical location.
The answer to the question, “Where is God in the midst of tragedy?” is simple. He’s right there. He’s there mourning with the victims and their loved ones as they cry out in pain and desperation. He’s there working through the servicepeople and volunteers as they rescue, heal, and protect. He’s there comforting, drawing people to himself, and yes, intervening in ways that we cannot perceive or understand. When tragedy strikes, God is there.
When terrible things happen, we don’t need long, theological discussions about why God allows certain things to happen while stopping other things. Though that may be the question we ask out loud, it’s not the question that our souls are crying out for answers to. What we really need to know is that God cares, that he’s in control, and that he’s with us. These truths mean so much more in the midst of tragedy than any philosophical argument could, and they are the truths that we need to hear and to share when disaster strikes.
And strike it will. When it does, may we do our best to hear in others the questions they may not be able to articulate themselves and offer them the comforting answers that they so desperately need.