The Cross, Part 2: The God Who Sends Tornados and Fails to Protect Soldiers

NOTE: In my first post on the Cross, I mentioned that people who face suffering attempt to draw a picture of God on a connect-the-dot page with no numbers, just words like sin, love, grace, justice…. Unfortunately, it’s never quite right. God comes across either all-powerful and uncaring, or all-loving and impotent.  This is the problem of theodicy.

On the radio, a young college student described how a tornado ripped into her dorm room while she and her friends huddled in the bathroom. “God is sovereign,” she bravely proclaimed several times throughout the interview. “And if he wanted to take us, he could take us.” Her voice was filled with emotion—fear, relief (none of them got hurt), shock. My heart melted for her. I pictured in my mind a group of girls clinging to one another, shaking, praying, eventually screaming in the dark while the building creaked and crashed around them from the tornado that God had sent.

At the end of the conversation, though, the interviewer asked an interesting question. He said, “As you look at the pile of rubble that was once your dorm, what are you looking for?”

She had an immediate answer. “I don’t care about my car or my computer; that can all be replaced.” She paused, choking back tears. “But I really want to find my Winnie-the-Pooh doll that I sleep with at night.”  She hesitated, trying hard not to break down on national radio. And then she added, “It’s the one thing I have that I can’t replace.”

Another image emerged in my head: a traumatized young woman, scanning brick, broken glass and busted furniture looking for a tattered, golden stuffed animal. I wondered how her faith would be affected if she wasn’t able to find her doll. In her mind, though, I’m sure getting a chance to hug her doll again was the only thing she was really thinking about. She wasn’t psychoanalyzing her behavior as she searched. She wasn’t trying to figure out why finding this doll was so important to her.

But I was.

Her words haunted me for the rest of the day. I rooted for her to find her doll, and I found myself wondering from time to time if the joyous reunion had occurred, yet. And I also pondered how her connect-the-dot picture of God had changed after experiencing such a devastating, near-death ordeal, now that the question of theodicy was no longer academic, and she felt drawn to her doll for comfort rather than the Sovereign who sends tornadoes.

I imagine that her drawing looked a little more like Winnie-the-Pooh.

My daughter is involved in a church soccer league, which the organizers view as a great opportunity to witness to the kids and parents. And so during half-time, some brave soul attempts to hold everyone’s attention for ten minutes with a devotional. It’s always an uncomfortable time, because the kids are rambunctious and thirsty, and the parents are trying to attend them. You can tell that people don’t want to be rude, but it’s obvious that few are listening. And so the devotionalizers resort to various gimmicks or humor or hyperbolic statements to engage their audience. During one such half-time the man speaking made a bold declaration— “God is your Superhero! You can always count on Him to rescue you!” The man said it with such confidence, too, proclaiming, “The Bible and all of history testify that God always comes through for people.” I bristled when I heard this taught so emphatically.

Ironically, I had just read an article that morning about an army chaplain who was going through a crisis of faith in Iraq. He had been taught in his Sunday School class that God always rescues you. And yet, as he prayed earnestly for the protection of the men and women he ministered to, it didn’t seem to have any effect at all. At first, even though he didn’t understand, he continued to dutifully pray, believing that with enough patience and diligence, God would answer.

But months went by, and still no change: people continued to be riddled with bullets and ripped apart by bombs. The suffering was senseless—soldiers, citizens, children.  And it was all done in the name of God.  The chaplain invoked his God to protect. The terrorists invoked their God to wreak vengeance. It didn’t seem to matter who prayed or what doctrine they believed, the killing and the suffering continued. Eventually, the daily trauma whittled away at the chaplain’s faith to the point that he didn’t know if he believed anymore. In a brutally honest confession, he said that some days he did, and most days he didn’t.  Yet, no matter how he felt, he did his best to pray and minister to the men and women under his charge, all the while hiding the inner turmoil caused by his impression that God didn’t seem to be rescuing anyone, despite the bold proclamation of the soccer-dad, living safely far from the war.

Both of these individuals represent honest attempts to reconcile a personal trauma with a caring God. The student clung to a powerful God who sent a terrifying tornado, and so she struggled to find comfort. The chaplain clung to a graceful God who seemed powerless to do anything about the violence, and so he struggled to see God at all.

And this is the tension found in the cross; it is the place where evil and love collide, and the question of “why?” is left hanging.

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Over the course of Lent, I will be reflecting on the Cross and how different people have understood it throughout centuries, especially as it relates to evil and suffering. The final meditation will be on Good Friday.

Kelly Pigott is a church history professor who teaches at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas. You can find more musings on history, culture, contemplative spirituality and theology, along with interviews with authors at kellypigott.com. Follow him on twitter @kellypigott

About Kelly Pigott

Kelly Pigott is a church history professor who teaches at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas. You can find more musings on history, culture, contemplative spirituality and theology, along with interviews with authors at kellypigott.com. Follow him on twitter @kellypigott

  • http://jesuswithoutbaggage.wordpress.com/ jesuswithoutbaggage

    I am so glad the Father, through Jesus, tells us about reconciliation (with him, with others, and within ourselves) and also about eternal peace and happiness. In the meantime, I don’t think he is very involved in manipulating the circumstances of our lives.
    However, I believe that our temporary suffering seen from an eternal perspective will seem less overwhelming than it does to us today. This is my view of theodicy.

    • Dee Donovan

      You’ve said very well what I’ve been trying to say to some of my friends, thank you! For me, when I finally learned what “Christianity”, or “being a Christian” meant (at least to the transforming and miraculous extent that I finally understood it), when I realized I was embracing Christianity after decades of “wandering”, I realized I was FORTUNATE to have this gift that “being Christian” gave me, (at least in terms of understanding, coping with the world), as directly opposed to feeling a “good” or “better” person because of it, as some of my friends would snidely (in their ignorance, which I well understand!) assume I felt about myself. I don’t feel “better” than anyone, just “better equipped”. I don’t think we’d be saved from tornadoes, per se, but rather, comforted in our fear, pain, loss, in a very real, meaningful way; comforted knowing there’s a Much Bigger Picture we can’t possibly yet know, and when we do, we’ll say “Ah!”. Yes it would be nice if there were no pain or suffering or tragedy. Or to think we could be spared it by being ‘good enough’ or prayed hard enough. But to me, that’s sort of missing the point. I’m still a relative new-comer to Christianity, and still am not sure “what” to pray for, what CAN be prayed for, besides strength, courage, insight, compassion, hope; for “intercessions” that help me make the best of a reality, learn from it, survive it, make good come from it, rather than avoid, “evaporate” or undo it. When it comes to laws of physics, standing in front of a tractor-trailer going 65 mph will get you killed…when it comes to wars, we can’t expect them to stop til we figure out how to stop them, prevent them; how to “live together” on this planet. Which we clearly haven’t figured out yet. Until then, lives will be lost in horrible ways. But lucky are those who die with the comfort that Christianity can bring, who’ve lived with that beauty, love, hopefully making the life such as they did have, while they had it, a little better; and in the end, the belief in a Bigger Picture that will one day make a sense – however senseless it seems in the moment – to give Very Real Comfort.

  • Eve Fisher

    My personal experience is that most people who talk about “God as Superhero” have led extremely sheltered lives, without a clue how sheltered they have been. When I hear someone talk about how Jesus helped them find a parking space (and yes, I’ve heard that), I shake my head and think, “Christ died on the cross for your parking space? Shame He’s not coming through for the kids in the cancer ward.” What I have seen, though, from people who have really been through hell – well, it’s like the old AA saying. “Religion is for people who believe in hell; spirituality is for those who have been there.” With religion as rules (most people who believe in “God as Superhero” also believe that if you “live right” nothing terrible will happen to you; like I say, they’ve led VERY sheltered lives), and spirituality as quiet trust, burning like a candle in the dark. There is a lot of darkness; but one candle can be enough…

  • Ethan Wamsley

    The soccer issue also poses a two-fold problem. The man may or may not have led a sheltered life; but he also may just have a very deterministic view of God (that’s the way it seems to me just based on this statement). There’s also the problem that he’s charged with addressing young children during a ten minute halftime. There’s not much to be said during that ten minutes (I never paid attention to my coaches “speeches” when I was in those leagues) and there’s also the issue of what to say to kids. While we don’t want to over-simplify faith for them, kids also see things in black and white; the older we get the more grey we see. There’s not a good way to say that sometimes God answers prayers the way we want and sometimes God answers prayers through silence. There’s not a good way to tell a child that either God lets us suffer or God can’t stop it. As someone who has been in charge of trying to help teach kids of various ages, I can say from experience that the one thing I would not want to do is say something that might jeopardize the faith of a child. I’m sure what was said had the well-being of the children at heart. While perhaps misguided and “sheltered” who doesn’t want their children (or anyone for that matter) to be sheltered from death and suffering? I don’t suspect that someone who claims that Jesus helped them find a parking space really thinks that’s why Christ died on the cross for them; that’s simply their explanation of why something small and good in their day happened. I don’t think they would disagree with the lament over children (or anyone) battling cancer. They simply manifest their faith in a different way.

  • Kelly Pigott

    Thanks for the beautiful comments on the topic. In addition to being a church history professor, I am a chaplain and pastor as well, so my posts on this subject come from decades of sitting with people while they have experienced some pretty horrific things. I’m enjoying your insights….

  • James Neely

    Why does Christianity so easily attribute retribution or some type of fault to human tragedy; oh, they weren’t prayed-up or maybe they were living in sin of some sort. Rather than face a God who at times withdraws or holds back his hand of deliverance that we so earnestly pray for. What about those individuals who come to Christ praying for deliverance from addictions, where some receive and some do not. Many would say oh it has to be in his faith, it cannot be that God is holding back. I would ask these who seem to actually lack faith that God is approachable in all circumstances, is ever traffic fatality a person of no faith? Come on. We vainly try to put God into a package we can understand when he is screaming I wont fit. So then we go shallow rather than remembering God does not rebuke reverential questions. Job was not at fault for asking, but at accusing because he could not understand the theodicy of God in the mist of evil.

  • Melinda Arlette Pace-Padfield

    This discussion centers somewhat on what we as Christians see as God stepping in to control things in our lives. Shouldn’t we also consider that Satan also has some control over things happening around us? I don’t see God as failing me so much as I see Satan using his power to influence. I have seen situations that I know were influenced by the Hand of God, but I also see situations that were influenced by Satan. The trick is opening your eyes enough to know the difference.


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