Ask a Franciscan

Suffering from Natural Disasters

I understand that we, humans, are responsible for our own actions. We inflict a lot of pain and suffering on one another. However, there is a lot of pain, suffering, and all kinds of abuse that is not the result of human decisions. What about hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, and all forms of natural disasters? We do not and cannot control nature; only God can do that. And perhaps only God can answer this question. Why do you think God inflicts such natural disasters on many innocent, God-loving people? This isn’t Sodom and Gomorrah, or is it? 

Thanks for writing. My response should have included this type of suffering. Doesn’t your question assume that God operates in human time (past/present/future), initiating these natural disasters as punishment for some human action? Is that really the case? What if God is equally present to all time simultaneously?

I realize that may sound crazy, but isn’t that better than imposing our sense of time on God, forcing God to operate in human time? The natural disasters you list indeed kill people, injure others, and destroy vast amounts of property and goods. All of that is regrettable.

These disasters, however, reflect atmospheric conditions—for which God is ultimately responsible. Does God decide which person gets hit by lightning and then dies? No. Does God decide which thousands of acres may be destroyed by a single wildfire? No. Does that then mean that some parts of God’s creation are beyond divine control? No.

Some people use all human suffering as a reason not to believe in God—as though God were supremely indifferent to human suffering. That is not the God we meet in God’s most trusted self-revelation: the Bible.

The community of faith, however, identifies the Bible as divine self-revelation; the Bible does not come with a table of contents. Believers recognize the unique status of those books and help us sort through questions that still arise.

In my observation, people are more likely to stop believing in God because of tragedies caused by the misuse of human freedom than because of the natural disasters that you cite. God wants us to respond to both types of suffering by a proper and generous use of human freedom.

We cannot prevent last month’s natural disasters, but we can take steps to make ourselves and others less vulnerable to the next ones.

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