Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.
- Psalm 139:7-12
Our hearts break for those who have lost so much this week in Moore, Oklahoma and the surrounding area. The images that flash across our television and computer screens make us wish we could be there. We hold our collective breath hoping against hope that there will be no more fatalities, knowing that there are likely more who have perished. Jesus once said, “Blessed are those who mourn …” (Matt.5:4). It hurts to watch people hurting. Our hearts break over the things that break the heart of God.
Tragedies of this magnitude give way to a lot of questions concerning the existence of God. Even if you assume that God exists, there are still questions about his role in the tragedy. From a Christian perspective there tends to be two different approaches: (1) God causes everything to happen and therefore, caused the tornados to rip through Moore, Oklahoma. Typically, this is followed by some variation of “God has his reasons and we are not to question him.” (2) God did not cause the tornados in Moore, Oklahoma, but he allowed them to happen. This is usually justified by drawing a fine line between God’s specific will and his permissive will. God in his sovereignty allowed it to happen, even though he didn’t necessarily want it to happen. This seems only to remove God one step away from culpability.
If God did this, how can we call him loving? If God is all-powerful and all-knowing, how could he let this happen? These are natural, and frankly, fair questions. There are no easy answers. The problem of evil and suffering in our world has baffled theologians for centuries. The prophets asked the same questions, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” and “Where is God?” (see Jeremiah 5:19a; 12:1; Habakkuk 1:2-4). An entire branch of theology, called “theodicy” has developed to deal exclusively with these questions about evil and suffering. For a succinct overview of how people have tried to answer these questions throughout history I would recommend the excellent article by Jim Denison found here.
I do not believe that God caused the tornados to happen. We know how tornados happen. Any freshman in high school can explain the meteorological conditions that cause tornados to form. The truth is our planet is a tiny cocoon in our universe. We live in a universe with violent and powerful physical forces. Move away from our plant in either direction and it gets worse. Move away from our galaxy (our cosmological cul-de-sac) and I’m told things get radically violent. Life as we know it is impossible in most regions of our galaxy – the physical conditions are simply too violent. Sometimes, even in our little cocoon the violent forces of the universe break in and remind us just how good we have it … most of the time.
That may not help much when it’s your child who has died in the tornado. Frankly, nothing is going to help much when it’s your child who has died in the tornado. Tears and prayers and hugs and good friends are the only approximation to a magical salve for that kind of suffocating emotional pain.
But that leads us back to the bigger question: Where is God?
Elie Wiesel in his book, Night, details his Holocaust experience at Auschwitz. He writes about how, at 14, he was taken to the death camps. They traveled by train for 3 days, eighty people in each cattle truck. Arriving at Auschwitz, men and women were segregated. Elie never saw his mother or sister again.
He wrote: “Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget those flames which murdered my God and my soul, and turned my dreams to dust.”
One day the guards made them watch as they hanged a boy. Wiesel recalled just before the hanging someone behind him whispered: "Where is God? Where is he?" It took the boy half an hour to die. Behind Elie the same voice asked: "Where is God now?" and a voice inside Elie said: "Where is he? Here - hanging on this gallows."
Wiesel was saying that God was dead, powerless to help. The Holocaust made him rebel against God for allowing people to be starved, tortured, butchered, gassed, burned.
But later in life something changed the Professor of Humanities at Boston University. Wiesel, in a speech confessed: "Rooted in our tradition, some of us (at Auschwitz) felt that to be abandoned by humanity was not the ultimate. We felt that to be abandoned by God was worse than to be punished by Him. Better an unjust God than an indifferent one.. man can live far from God, but not outside God. God is wherever we are." Elie then asked: "Even in suffering?" and quietly added "even in suffering."
So where was God at 3pm on May 20th? You know where he was. You have read the news reports and watched the interviews. God was in Moore, Oklahoma. He was in Plaza Towers Elementary School … in Rhonda Crosswhite, the sixth-grade teacher who covered her students with her own body to shield them from the showering debris (read here). He was in Becky Jo Evans, the first grade teacher who did the same (read here). He was in all the teachers who acted quickly to shield and save young lives. He was in all the neighbors who immediately began to rescue hundreds from the rubble. He was in each child who died. And he will be in every one of us who reaches out to help.
The psalmist says, “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.” He concludes that even the darkest night cannot conceal him from God’s presence, because even the darkest night is light to God. I don’t know much, but I know that to be true ... especially in Moore, Oklahoma.