Are acts of God really acts of God? The facts will shatter many long-held beliefs.
Why does the Kind, Most Merciful God lets people suffer as a result of floods, tornados, earthquakes and other natural disasters, and as well as personal tragedies? Your heart melts looking at the images of the victims and their loved ones, and you want to fly, if you could, to go help them. You still do whatever you can to help alleviate the sufferings.
Ever wonder if your heart gets filled with so much kindness and compassion, then how could the Most Kind and the Most Compassionate allows it happen? After all God is All-Powerful and certainly can prevent it if He wanted to. Does He want to punish someone’s sins? If so, why do the rest of us have to suffer? Moreover why can’t He wait till the Day of Judgment to serve justice?
These questions are not new and man has wondered these questions for ages whenever a calamity- personal or communal strikes them or others around them, asking questions:
Why me? Why us? O God why are you doing this to me/us?
Let me tell you upfront that I don’t profess to know all the answers but I will share my perspective, based on Muslim and other religious traditions.
In order to fully understand this complex issue, let us look at the big picture first.
Why are we here? Where did we come from? Where are we going? What’s the purpose of our creation?
Unless we have a good understanding of the big picture, this complex issue will remain a mystery.
From a Muslim perspective (shared to large extent by Judaism and Christianity among other major religions), we came from God and our return is to God. This life as we know it, is transient. Life is a (short) journey.
Life as a journey
Our souls were with God before we were born, then He joined the soul with the body (our current life), and when we die, the souls depart the body. On the Day of Judgment, the souls will be reunited with the body, though we are not sure in what form. Death as we know it, is therefore not an end, but rather beginning of another phase of our existence.
If you don’t believe in God, none of this will make sense. It is indeed a matter of faith and belief.
Why were we created?
You will not find the answer in one place, as you study the Qur’an or the Bible. But the Qur’an addresses this question on multiple occasions and I would summarize them as follows:
1.To worship God:
I created the jinn and humankind only that they might worship Me. 51:56
2. To act as His viceroy or vicegerent:
Behold, your Lord said to the angels: ‘I will create a vicegerent on earth.’ 2:30
This concept is very similar to the Biblical “God created man in His image”
“Then God said, “Let us make human beings in our image, to be like us. They will reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, the livestock, all the wild animals on the earth, and the small animals that scurry along the ground.” Genesis 1:26
3. To test and try:
Verily We created Man from a drop of mingled sperm, in order to try him: So We gave him (the gifts), of Hearing and Sight. Surely We have shown him the way: he may be thankful or unthankful. 76:2–3
Though seemingly random, and perhaps even contradictory, a deeper look will show that these three purposes are really not that distinct from each other.
As believers, we submit to the will of God. Worshipping Him does not simply mean we pray to Him in places of worship and at home, going over the rituals of worship, kneeling and prostrating. A greater form of worship is considered to be the service we provide to His creation. One of the Hadith often quoted from Tirmidhi is as follows:
“Those who are kind and considerate to Allah’s creatures, Allah bestows His kindness and affection on them. Show kindness to the creatures on the earth so that Allah may be kind to you”
Created in His image/acting as His Viceroy:
Working as his vicegerent, or in His image, means we represent God on earth.
Wow, that is a huge responsibility!
Though seemingly impossible to fulfill, in simple terms it means we are to reflect His attributes in our daily lives- attributes such as kindness, forgiveness, compassion and mercy. In fact the most common attributes of God mentioned in the Qur’an are The Most Kind and The Most Gracious.
Throughout life, we will face tests and tribulations. We are given the tools and free will to choose to respond “appropriately”, or not.
“Verily, We shall put you to test with some fear, and hunger, and with some loss of wealth, lives, and offspring. And (O Muhammad) convey good tidings to those who are patient, who say, when inflicted by hardship, “Verily we are of God and verily to Him shall we return;” upon them is the blessings of Allah and His mercy. “(2:155)
And like the verse quoted earlier:
Surely We have shown him the way: (so) he may be thankful or unthankful.
We see similar underlying themes in the New Testament and the Old Testament. The first one is part of the preaching of Paul and Barnabas in Antioch, the other one refers to Job’s afflictions.
“Where they strengthened the believers. They encouraged them to continue in the faith, reminding them that we must suffer many hardships to enter the Kingdom of God. Acts 14:22“….Should we accept only good things from the hand of God and never anything bad?…” Job 2-10
Categories of Sufferings
The various types of sufferings may be classified as follows:
1.Personal- due to neglect- for example, not taking care of personal health issues and then having an adverse outcome. Personal tragedies such as those affecting the loved ones would fall in this category, often prompting the “why me” plea.
2. Communal- refugee crises, oppression by dictators etc
3. Natural disasters, aka acts of God such as tornados, floods, famine and earthquakes.
Acts of God?
Insurance companies love this term. We think these natural disasters are from God. Whether they are meant to punish a community is subject to interpretations but the mere thought that God could be sending death to tens of thousands of people is hard to swallow for people of faith and non-believers alike. But are these ‘acts of God’ really acts of God?
A study published in Nature Climate Change journal in 2013 projected that the frequency and intensity of turbulence on transAtlantic flights will increase in the next 30 years as a result of rising CO2 in the atmosphere. They did not say if this might result in downing of the planes, but it would be not unreasonable to think that unfortunately some of this may result in loss of life.
Severe weather patterns including storms and tornados have been linked to global warming. NASA concurs with the global warming’s adverse effect on weather pattern resulting in flooding, tornados and other similar disasters.
What Is the Impact of Earth’s Warming Climate?
Some impacts already are occurring. For example, sea levels are rising, and snow and ice cover is decreasing. Rainfall patterns and growing seasons are changing. Further sea-level rise and melting of snow and ice are likely as Earth warms. The warming climate likely will cause more floods, droughts and heat waves. The heat waves may get hotter, and hurricanes may get stronger.
So what traditionally have long been considered acts of God now seem to be man-made disasters. The science is starting to show that (at least some of the) ‘acts of God’ are human, rather than divine interventions.
Is there a divine purpose for suffering?
Even though the natural disasters, refugee crises, famine in war-torn countries etc may have a human hand, the question remains as to why God would let people suffer due to personal and family tragedies.
Muslims believe that suffering increases the reward from God-in the hereafter. On the other hand for people who are witness to these natural disasters would fly, if they could, to help the victims. We want to give the victims of natural disasters and personal tragedies a hug, feed the hungry, give shelter to those without it and get the refugees out of the harm’s way. If we want to do all that, why would the all powerful, compassionate God not do that?
This prompts a question: are we actually more compassionate than God, God forbid?
God does not come down and feed the poor, people do. God does not come down and provide shelter to the homeless, people do. Helping those in need is a great form of worship and by doing so, we act in His image- as His representative and act as His tools.
Along the way, we also pass the test, if these sufferings are indeed tests.
As we help those in need, we essentially fulfill all three purposes of creation- worshipping God, acting as His viceroy/acting in His image and passing the test.
Sufferings increase our resolve to help others, make us get closer to God, soothe our souls, and strengthens our character.
It is easy said than done in real life scenarios. It is understandable that our first reaction is that of anger. We get confused. We understand we need to submit to God’s will but do struggle with dealing with them from time to time.
That’s just being a human. We are not angels after all.
The sufferings can indeed have the opposite effect: Sufferings can make us complain, not care about or help those in need, and move us away from God. For believers, these are not healthy choices.
Making the right or wrong choice is a function of the free will we are given. We have the free will to choose what path we want to take.
The question we have to ask ourselves is, when dealt with trials and tribulations; did we make the right choices? Did we act in His image and act in a compassionate manner?
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