We are all struck by the fury and devastation in the Midwest this year. And we are left to wonder why and how God allows it. And old song says,

Does any one know where the love of God goes when the waves turn the minutes to hours? ….And all that remains is the faces and the names of the wives and the sons and the daughters. In a musty old hall in Detroit they prayed, in the “Maritime Sailors’ Cathedral.” The church bell chimed ’til it rang twenty-nine times for each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald….. “Superior,” they said, “never gives up her dead when the gales of November come early!” [1]

Yes, where does the “love of God go?” There are no simple answers, those that attempt them know not of what they speak.

There is a story of St Antony of Egypt wherein he pondered such things and received an answer of sorts:

The Abbot Antony, being at a loss in his meditation on the depth of the judgments of God, prayed, saying, “Lord, how comes it that some die in so short a space of life, and some live to the further side of decrepit old age: and wherefore are some in want, and others rich with various means of wealth, and how are the unrighteous rich and the righteous oppressed by poverty?” And a voice came to him saying, “Antony, turn thine eyes upon thyself: for these are the judgments of God, and the knowledge of them is not for thee.”

It was an answer in its “non-answer.” For our minds see so very little. Wittgenstein famously said in his Tractatus, Whereof one cannot speak, one must pass over in silence [2].

I suppose if God were to advance an explanation we would hear only thunder, for our minds cannot conceive such a thing. Sometimes we must remain humbly quiet before our God. Job thought question God, and God did answer, with a non-answer:

Then the Lord answered Job out of the storm. He said: “Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me. “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know….! (Job 38:1-4)

Then comes the great litany of creation, one of the most painfully beautiful passages in the Old Testament (it goes on for chapters). At the end, Job can only say,

“I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted. [You asked,] ‘Who is this that obscures my counsel without knowledge?’ Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know. (Job 42:1-3)

Another song (a gloss on Psalm 104) speaks of God’s glory in creation but also of its fearsomeness:

O tell of His might, O sing of His grace,
Whose robe is the light, whose canopy, space,
His chariots of wrath the deep thunderclouds form,
And dark is His path on the wings of the storm
. [3].

I have often meditated on the “non-answer, answer” and concluded that, while I cannot understand God’s ways, I have also been the situation where I cannot explain what I do, and yet do them, I must.

  1. At times I must take my Cat Daniel to the vet f0r shots. At the mere sight of the cat carrier, he darts under the bed and begins caterwauling and digs his claws into the carpet to resist my persistent tugs to pick him up. I tell him we are only going for a visit and he will be fine. But he does not understand, even though I speak to him. So loud and awful are terrified protests that neighbors look out the widows as I take him to the car. He moans and caterwauls all the way to the vet who puts him the front of the line since the waiting room is so disturbed with his cries. He moans all the way home and, upon emerging from the cage avoids me for days out of fear. Talk about trauma. But no explanation is possible for him. I act for his good, and the good of others but he does not, cannot, see that.
  2. At times I do “violence” in my garden. Roses must be pruned, old and dying plants must be removed. Fruits must be picked. Some flowers are cut and brought inside to be enjoyed. The soil must be broken and turned. One can imagine that if the garden and plants were sentient this is all very unsettling. I would like to explain what I am doing, but they are only plants and soil and cannot understand. When I break the soil I only enhance its ability to give life, but it does not understand this, it “feels” (in my imagined scenario) only pain. The pruning is “painful” to the roses and temporarily diminishes their glory But I know what I am doing and in Spring the glorious results show forth. Even to the clipped flowers I intend no indignity, rather it is a great dignity that they are brought into the house to enjoy special favor and admiration.

We cannot understand – I realize that humans are not cats or garden plants. But I suppose we are no better able to understand God’s ways than my Cat Daniel can understand me, or my roses comprehend my pruning. I have thought however, that the non-answer of God is not a refusal to answer us, so much as it is a manifestation of our inability to fathom God’s ultimate plans. He knows what he does and why. We are often left to cry or protest. Even if He did explain, we would hear only thunder.

There is an old song that says:

We are often tossed and driven
on the restless sea of time;
somber skies and howling tempests
oft succeed a bright sunshine;
in that land of perfect day,
when the mists are rolled away,
we will understand it better by and by

Trials dark on every hand,
and we cannot understand
all the ways of God would lead us
to that blessed promised land;
but he guides us with his eye,
and we’ll follow till we die,
and we’ll understand it better by and by
.

Yes, by and by, but not now. Jesus says as much:

I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear….You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy. On that day you will have no more questions to ask me. (John 16, varia)

For now, all we can do is pray for those who were lost and those who are suffering. We can send our help, but too many simplistic answers for why only make the suffering worse. And so we respect the mystery of God’s providence and trust by faith that All things work together for good to those who love God and are called, according to his purposes (Romans 8:28), somehow, in ways we know not.

Photo credit Paul McEnany via Creative Commons

This song says, When the oceans rise and thunders roll, I will soar with you above the storm. Father you are king over the flood, I will be still, know you are God.

33 Responses

  1. Vijaya says:

    Thank you for this beautiful reflection. It’s times like these when I am comforted by the stories in the Bible — where something awful as Joseph’s betrayal by his brothers is preparation for the future. My mother always said of her trials, “He’s preparing me for even greater challenges” and I would ask why she would love a God that is doing this to her. I didn’t want greater challenges. I wanted to know things would get better. I wanted security. I didn’t know then that it’s how we grow.

    The part that I don’t understand is when God says things like: And I hardened Pharoah’s heart. Why would He do that? Why would He make someone else think and do bad things on purpose? We know how that story ends, so we can justify it. But what about Judas — did he betray Jesus freely or was it ordained that he would. Do we know whether Judas went back and forth between the devil on one side and God on the other? It makes me question free will.

    In my hearts of hearts, I cannot believe that God would harden my heart or make me love my brother less. Those bad things have to come from satan, right?

    I know that we are but mere humans and cannot begin to understand the mind of God (but I can’t help but try). It’s taken me a looooong time to accept that some suffering is part of the grand plan (whatever it may be). Glory to God always.

    • Bender says:

      The part that I don’t understand is when God says things like: And I hardened Pharoah’s heart. Why would He do that? Why would He make someone else think and do bad things on purpose? We know how that story ends, so we can justify it.
      _______________________

      Although that conclusion would be justified by a strictly literal reading of those passages, to say that God makes someone think and do evil is to say that God is the cause of evil, and that He deprives people of free will, both of which would be totally contrary to God being all-good — as Love and Truth, He cannot be the cause of evil (St. Augustine has a LOT to say in this area).

      As such, since a literal reading would lead us to an untenable conclusion that is contrary to a fundamental tenet of faith, a literal reading would be wrong. That is, to properly understand it, we cannot simply engage in a superficial, plain-meaning approach, rather, we must look for a deeper meaning, e.g. allegory, metaphor, figures of speech, hyperbole, embellishment, etc., considering also that, while God is the ultimate author of scripture, He utilized human beings, who necessarily can only explain things in terms that they already understand, which in this case is the understanding of over 3000 years ago, and which tends to apply human attributes to God and to characterize those instances where God allows something to happen as God making them happen.

      So, rather than a reading which leads one to conclude that God did an evil thing, that He caused the evil of Pharaoh, which would be contrary to the truth of God, there must be a better reading, one that is more consistent with who God is, one more consistent with Christ, who is Love and Truth.

      Perhaps the better reading of such passages is that, rather than cause evil, rather than deprive Pharaoh of free will, treating him as a puppet in “hardening his heart,” God only gave Pharaoh what he wanted, which was an obstinate will? That God only made Pharaoh true to himself, firm in what he already believed and what he already wanted, in order to, among other things, reveal something of Himself and to take those beliefs to their logical extreme, which is that obstinate rejection of God can ultimately lead to only one end – death?

      Do not the passages about the Ten Plagues show that God, in fact, greatly respected Pharaoh’s free will? To be sure, God could have deprived Pharaoh of free will by overriding his intransigence to force him to let the people go, but He instead allowed Pharaoh to continue to resist God’s will.

      Reading the “hardened his heart” passages in the context of the whole of the Ten Plagues, and the whole of the Bible, in the light of Christ and consistent with God being the God of Love and Truth, is not the proper interpretation that Pharaoh, and Pharaoh alone, is responsible for his obstinacy? That Pharaoh, by his repeated refusals, by His repeatedly saying “no” to God, brought the consequences of his refusal on himself? That he, as sovereign of the Egyptian nation, bears the responsibility for the suffering imposed on the Egyptian people? And, given God’s repeated warnings about what would happen if Pharaoh continued to refuse to let the Israelites go, that God acted eminently fair and just?

      • Daniel says:

        Along those lines, what do you with the tenth plague? Did God cause the death of children?

      • Vijaya says:

        Bender, thank you so much for helping me not to read the Bible so literally. Some (actually many) of these Old Testaments stories are hard for me to understand. I know God is all good even when I question why He would do something. You make a good distinction between allowing something to happen vs. doing it. It also helps me to understand the wrath of God upon the Egyptian people (and others in different Books).

        • Bender says:

          For a number of interesting papers on the subject, you might take a look at Pharaoh’s Hardened Heart, The Journal of Scriptural Reasoning (Vol. 2, No. 2, Sept. 2002).

          As for the Tenth Plague (and the number 10 has symbolic significance here), we should not forget that God took that plague upon Himself as well, that is, the death of His first-born.

          And while worldly physical death can be an occasion for sorrow, note also that scripture does not say that they died a horrible death, rather, the life — which God had given to them in the first place — was merely taken away. In that respect, it caused less pain and suffering than some of the other plagues. And, it should not be forgotten that, as important as our life is in this world, it is not the be all and end all of existence — there is life beyond this world, so to die in this world is not the worst thing possible. Thus, the mere removal of this worldly life not being an inherent evil, for God to take such life back is not an evil act. (We should also note that, while the Israelites were God’s “chosen” people (chosen for a particular role to play), the Egyptians were God’s children too. So we may confidently expect that God, being all-merciful, extended to them the same prospects of salvation that all the peoples of the Old Testament age had upon the death and resurrection of Jesus.).

          Moreover, it should be pointed out that the Egyptian religion was a death cult. Also, Pharaoh was held to be a living god, son of Ra, the sun god. By the other plagues, which showed His dominion over the sky and earth, etc., the Real God had already demonstrated that the other gods of Egypt were false. Now it was time to demonstrate that God also had dominion over life and death, and over Egypt’s living god, by removing the life from Pharaoh’s first-born son. That other people, “innocent” Egyptians, might have suffered the death of their children as well only goes to demonstrate the intensely social nature of sin — Pharaoh’s obstinance in opposing God does not merely affect himself, the sins we commit affect the people around us.

          • Bender says:

            Just to clarify the point about God merely removing the worldly life that He had given those first-born –

            Death is a part of life. We are all going to die at some point. Some might die 50 years from now, some might die next year, some people will absolutely, positively die tonight. We all die. It is entirely natural and is not, in and of itself, an evil.

            Not one of the first-born who died was going to live forever. They would have died anyway eventually. All God did was to speed up that process for some. For Him, since He gave the life, to take it back is not a species of “murder,” especially since He is Life itself.

            • Vijaya says:

              Bender, I very much appreciate your thoughts and the extra resources you mention for my education. I was also thinking of Jesus’s suffering and death. God didn’t spare His only-begotten Son because He loves us so much, He wants us to be with Him forever.

              God bless you, and all the others who are so very helpful.

      • GABRIEL says:

        Daniel:

        Yes He did.

        When God has had enough, then He has had enough.

        Vijaya:

        God does not do stuff because humans think they are good or aprove of them.
        Things are right and good, simply because God does them.

        It does not mean you should do the same, however.

        It just means when all is all, God is The Man, and He decides what goes. No-one else.
        And whatever God does or decides, it is by nature and essence good, because He is the only judge of His own actions. There is no-one higher.

        It is called Divine Command Theory, and it is spot on.

        Fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. That means God can surely say:

        “If I kill 10 000 kids today, that is good, because then the generations will fear me and hold my just and righteous commands, and then I will not have to kill a 100 000 or a million a few years from now. Also, they will learn to fear my messengers, and harken to their words for the millenia to come, and that will spare much grief, injustice and blasphemy”

        Or something along those lines…

        • Bender says:

          Things are right and good, simply because God does them . . . It is called Divine Command Theory, and it is spot on
          _________________________

          Actually, it is called Islam, and it is dead wrong.

          God cannot do something that is objectively evil or false, but it becomes “good” or true merely because He did it. For God to do evil would be for God to do something contrary to Himself. And God, being Logos (from which we get the word “logic”), cannot, as a matter of logic, be contrary to Himself. He cannot be both God and not-God at the same time.

          For more, see Pope Benedict’s Regensburg lecture.

        • Ah Gabriel, I do cringe at times when you are so blunt. I accept that your theory that what God does is good, simply because he does it is a theory that is out there and held by not a few. However, I would tend to side more with what Pope Benedict and others have asserted which holds that faith and reason are not inimical and that, other things being equal, God does not act arbitrarily or in unreasonable ways. The position you espouse is closer to Islamic notions. In his ill fated Regensburg address the Pope was trying to make just this point. I personally would rather accept the mysterious quality of some of these matters and continue to hold that God is reasonable and my struggle to understand some of his ways means the problem is in me, not in God.

        • Bender, I appreciate your answer here. I would add that the catechism takes up the difficult issue of primary causality in matters such as this:

          And so we see the Holy Spirit, the principal author of Sacred Scripture, often attributing actions to God without mentioning any secondary causes. This is not a “primitive mode of speech”, but a profound way of recalling God’s primacy and absolute Lordship over history and the world, and so of educating his people to trust in him. The prayer of the Psalms is the great school of this trust.” (CCC # 304)

        • Vijaya says:

          Ouchie. That’s really harsh. But I do trust the Lord, that everything He does is for the good. I have also seen great goodness pour forth from people in the time of calamities. Families and neighbors and entire communities are brought together.

  2. Nick says:

    God’s ways are known, partially, in the Paschal Mysteries. Some suffer more because He has predestined them to greater glory, while others suffer less because He foreknows their loss of Heaven. His Providence is not without His Omniscience, which includes knowledge of our choices and actions, and His Predestination is not without His Providence, which includes the fruits of the Redemption of man. We see God partially and so know partially by faith; in Heaven we will see Him face-to-face and so know everything, in accordance to our capacities that is (and our capacities bespeak of our choices and actions).

  3. Michael says:

    Typo alert: there are actually a few more, but this one kinda stands out- surely you did not mean to describe the weather as “furry”. Maybe you were already thinking ahead to Daniel? ;)

  4. Cynthia BC says:

    The way to get a cat into a carrier is to pick up the cat, then have an accomplice bring out the carrier. The carrier should be placed on the floor with the door on top. While the accomplice holds the door open, drop the cat into the carrier butt-first. It’s worked for me with my various cats, including my current one who weighs 20 lbs.

  5. GABRIEL says:

    Here is a first-person video captured during the storm.
    Notice the distinct lack of Atheism or blasphemy during the rage.

    To hear these people pray with what sounds like a fairly high degree of honesty,
    is a relief from the ongoing blasphemies & atheism found all around these days.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cQnvxJZucds

    G.

  6. Lisa Missenda says:

    Powerful reflection. Thanks

  7. MJ says:

    Thank you Msgr Pope for your reflection.

    In response to a St. Louis area local radio personality’s request, and the donation of one of his advertiser’s trucks, local people brought supplies filling three eighteen wheelers to share with the people of Joplin. While there it dawned on me that God may allow such tragedy so we can show His love.

  8. Linus says:

    Msgr., your cat is overly sensitive!

    About the storm last Sunday in Joplin. One thing is certain, it would have been better if a lot more folks in Joplin had observed the Sabbath that Sunday. It would not have saved all but it would have saved some and surely would have reduced some of the injuries. Things like that are a lesson if nothing else – always have your lantern lit and have plenty of oil. When bad things come it comes to the good and the bad. It may go too far to speak of ” judgements ” but the U.S. has had an amazing run of catastrophes the past few years.

  9. Christian says:

    I don’t know what to do. My gf keeps thinking that the floods and hurricanes are a sign of “the End.” I keep trying to tell her how this is not a biblical worldview, but then she says that it seems like it’s the wrath of God. Please help.

  10. Larrry says:

    nine of the 10 costliest insurance events in U.S. history followed dramatic calls by U.S. officials for Israel to make land concessions in bids for peace with its neighbors.

  11. richard says:

    My take on natural disasters is that they are manifestations of God’s justice.

  12. Nombuso says:

    My word!! What a brilliant article that gives such insight and wisdom!! All I googled was: where is God in the midst of a storm!! I got more that I bargained for! I understand, as a rose in God’s eyes, I must be pruned! It my be very painful however, in the end, I know, it is for the best! To God be the glory!! Forever!!

Leave a Reply