Haiti, already the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, has been devastated by an earthquake. As I write this, estimates of the death toll range from 40,000 to 200,000. The injured continue to die in the streets without medical treatment or even water to quench their thirst.
When such disasters occur, questions always spring to our minds: Does God exist? If so, did he cause this earthquake? Did he simply stand aside and allow it? Was he powerless to stop it? Is God loving — suffering alongside the Haitians? Or is he cruel?
Pat Robertson quickly declared that the Haitians brought this on themselves. Their ancestors formed a pact with the devil, he said, enlisting Satan's help to overthrow the French colonialists who enslaved them.
Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that Robertson's version of history is accurate. What manner of God would wreak havoc on people for something their great-great-grandfathers did 200 years ago? Even if some in Haiti today still follow the devil, what about the many Christians who also live there?
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My church supports missions in Haiti. Many of my friends have traveled there. They invariably return humbled by the masses of joyful Christians they've met, and by the missionaries who labor among them at enormous personal sacrifice.
Was Robertson saying that God vengefully killed these Christians because of their ancestors' misdeeds or because their neighbors practice non-Christian rituals?
Just before the earthquake, my congregation's Wednesday Bible group embarked on a study of the Book of Job. When I heard about the tragedy, I thought of that book.
In the story's prologue, we find Job as a blameless, upright man. He's a doting father to 10 adult children. He worships God. He's generous and wise. He's rich. What he doesn't realize is that he has become the pawn in an unseen heavenly conflict.
Suddenly, he's pummeled by losses. All his children die. His wealth is wiped out. His health is ruined. He finds himself lying in the dust, in agony.
His friends come. When they behold the state into which he's fallen, they wail, then plop in the dirt beside him. They sit there seven days, too distraught to speak.
Then Job curses his mother for having given birth to him. He rages at God for not at least having the decency to let him die now.
Job's friends are so horrified that one of them, Eliphaz, springs to God's defense. Job gives Eliphaz a piece of his mind. Another friend speaks and Job tells him off. This cycle continues at length.
In my loose interpretation of a complex book, the arguments go like this.
Job's friends trot out every religious bromide you might hear today. They warn Job never to speak ill of God. They claim God is always good, always fair. Job must have committed sins he's not admitting; he's being punished justly. They ramble on and on.
The longer they talk, the angrier Job gets. He insists that he has done nothing wrong. God is absent or unfaithful. Job shakes his fist and demands answers from God, now.
At last God does answer, from a whirlwind, fittingly enough.
But God offers neither apologies nor explanations. What he says is: Job, where were you when I hung the planets in their orbits? Where were you when I created the crocodiles? I'm under no obligation to explain myself, and even if I did, you couldn't understand. You don't control the universe; I do. I'm God. You're dust.
Yet there is something you can do, God says. Pray for your friends. You at least are truthful. You haven't offered excuses for me. Your friends, on the other hand, are superficial and ignorant. They've substituted easy platitudes for the hard facts. But they, too, are only dust. Forgive them.
So Job prays. In time, the world rotates again and his fortunes are restored.
If you're looking for convenient answers — if you're even seeking a bit of solace — the Book of Job isn't where you'll find them. It tells us we'll never fathom suffering. We receive blessings, and we receive pain. That's how it is. It's a mystery.
It says the silliest thing we can do in the face of disaster is to trivialize it with bromides and half-truths. We didn't necessarily cause our misfortunes through our sins. Our dad or child didn't die because God needed another angel in heaven; dead people don't become angels and, besides, God's got millions of angels to begin with.
It says we must accept all this even as we rail against it. We must bow to a God we often don't comprehend and occasionally don't even like. We must pray for the Haitians, of course. But we must also pray for the Pat Robertsons.