Paul Prather: We can't understand God's role in the tornadoes

Why are some spared while others suffer? It's beyond us mere mortals to understand

Contributing columnistMarch 9, 2012 

Angel Babcock's story was one of hope when she was found alive in an Indiana field, then heartache when she died in a Louisville hospital. Her parents and two siblings also were victims of the tornadoes that struck Indiana and other states on March 2.

I've been pondering two stories about the tornadoes that ravaged Kentucky and several other states last week.

The first story thrilled my soul. The second broke my heart.

Therein lies a dilemma faced by people like me who would attempt to understand the role God plays — or doesn't play — in natural disasters.

The first story was about a home video shot in Ezel. I hope you've seen the whole thing and not just the excerpt that aired on some television newscasts.

In the longer version, a dark, roiling mass of storm clouds descends toward a woman named Charlotte Hall. The camera is focused on the rotating sky, and all you can see of Hall is one hand uplifted against this fierce, oncoming storm.

But you can hear her powerhouse prayers. As a funnel cloud bears down on her, she begins to rebuke it, as we Pentecostals say. She calls on Jesus to take the tornado away. She breaks into tongues. She doesn't waiver, doesn't run for the cellar, just shouts to the Lord and commands that storm to leave.

And the forming tornado seems to obey. Instead of blowing Hall to kingdom come, it stays aloft. It passes over her like the death angel in Exodus.

I initially saw the video on Facebook, and went full-bore Holy Roller. I had myself a hallelujah party.

My joy was tempered later when I learned that this same storm soon touched down in West Liberty and killed six people across Morgan County.

The second story was that of Angel Babcock, 15 months, who was discovered alive in a field in New Pekin, Ind., where a tornado had hurled her, her parents and her two tiny siblings. The others were dead. Angel was rushed to a hospital in Louisville. Despite a nation's initial hopes, shortly afterward she, too, died.

When a TV station broadcast an interview with Angel's sobbing grandfather, I fled my den. I have a son, a daughter-in-law and three grandchildren virtually the ages of Angel and her family. I couldn't bear to watch that grandpa's agony.

These two very different stories — a woman spared, a young family wiped out — raise questions as ancient as religion itself.

Where was God in those storms? Did he send the tornadoes or merely allow them? Did he protect Hall? If so, why didn't he deliver little Angel or those folks killed a few miles away from Hall by the tornado that missed her?

Mainly, we tend to interpret such events according to how we're already predisposed to see them. For folks who don't believe in God, the apparent randomness and cruelty of such disasters are evidence there couldn't be a supreme, loving deity.

Others believe there might be a divine power but that, if it exists, this power is limited, impersonal and far removed from human affairs. Theirs is the deistic notion of a clockmaker God who wound up the universe, then walked away.

We Christians are predisposed to believe in a God intimately involved in everyone's life — the Lord of all creation.

I prefer to think that Hall appealed to an all-powerful, loving God, and that, as a result, God steered a tornado away. That's the simplest, happiest plot line.

Still, it presents problems.

The corollary would be that God didn't steer deadly storms away from the folks down the road from Hall or the Babcock family in Indiana. I assume some of the people who died were praying as fervently as Hall was, and loved the Lord as much. Some who died were mere babies.

Did God love these people less? I don't think so.

Yet if God intervened to save Hall, then he could have saved Angel — and didn't. If he lacked the power to help Angel, then he didn't rescue Hall, either, and her survival was a fluke.

Some of my fellow Christians say, well, you have to look at this from another perspective. Death isn't a tragedy; it's a hiccup that carries us into heavenly bliss.

If God spares one and lets another die, they say, both acts are evidence of his love. He loves the one he left here and the one he took. It's all the same. He'll forge good results from both events. It's a win-win situation.

I wouldn't try telling that to Angel's grandfather if I were you.

For me, the best answer is, in a sense, no answer.

This question of why some people are spared while others suffer is among the oldest of spiritual mysteries. For instance, scholars say the first biblical book composed was the Book of Job. It's entirely about these matters.

Job is desperate to know why he formerly received great wealth, joy and divine protection, then fell headlong into poverty, grief and illness.

Job and his egocentric "comforters" argue about this for 37 chapters.

God finally responds. Here, in my paraphrase, is what the Almighty says: I'm God and you're not. I do what I want, and what ought to be done. I don't have to explain myself. If I did explain, you wouldn't understand, because it's all far beyond you.

To this day, that's about where we still are.

So. We rejoice with the survivors. We cry for the dead. We hug the grieving relatives. We truck in toothpaste, toilet paper and blankets for the homeless.

But we don't understand. Maybe we can't understand.

We can only try to help as best we know how, then put one foot in front of the other and continue walking forward.

That's why it's called faith.

Paul Prather is the pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You can email him at pratpd@yahoo.com.

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