Theophany … is that a new hymn or something?
By Nathan Decker
“Tranquil spectators — you brave souls Who contemplate your brothers’ wreck —
You research in peace the cause of thunderstorms,
But your calmness will vanish when you feel its fury.
Your humanity returning, you’ll cry as we do.”
– Voltaire poem on the Lisbon Disaster
Wildfires in Australia, murder hornets on the West Coast, worldwide pandemic and economic slowdown, and now it’s raining because of a tropical storm off the coast. With ease we can join laments in asking “why Lord?” Why such disease and hardship? How could you let this happen? Where are you in all of this?
These questions are not new. Humanity has pondered since before Biblical times searching for meaning in life — most especially in times of suffering. Theophany is a branch of theology uniquely devoted to finding answers to the problem of evil, disasters and questioning God’s love, power and humanities involvement. The Bible even has stories of plagues and pestilence sent by a powerfully angry Divine to guide the nation to its knees in prayer.
I do not believe the God I know and worship sent COVID-19, the economic downturn, or any of the other sufferings we experience. God does not pick this son to die or this daughter to live. Nor does God send hurricanes, earthquakes, floods and tornadoes to punish people for their sins. To characterize God in this darkness calls the Divine a sociopath and ultimate immature manipulator who throws a temper tantrum when he doesn’t get his way. All-powerful God, yes, but all-loving Savior?
Some will point to the Old Testament stories of plagues in Egypt, snakes in the camp and battles won by the holy and lost by the unclean. I would ask was this God, or was this our telling history through a theological lens? If we were to use the same approach to American history, we might say that Pearl Harbor was God’s way of telling us we weren’t righteous enough, Hurricane Katrina was sent to punish New Orleans, and the reason COVID-19 has killed more in the U.S. than other nations is because we are the most sinful.
I reject this belief. While God is revealed in many people through all history, the fullest revelation of God I have encountered is in Jesus Christ. While Jesus had the power to heal all our earthly sufferings (food, disease, storms, etc.) his priority was on the healing of our souls, our relationships and showing us the law of compassion, mercy and forgiveness. Succinctly, though he had all the power, he chose to be all-loving.
This is the choice we must make, believe, and live. God is love. God doesn’t cause suffering, but God’s promise is to provide meaning and purpose to our suffering. When bad things happen, free-floating anxiety and anger make it easy for us to look for someone or something to blame. Politicians and those seeking power are the keenest at this behavior today. Viruses, storms and economics ebb and flow through the chaotic natural world. God looks at the mess and finds creative ways to bring us together where we are better, stronger, and rising above the ways things were. Instead of following power, follow love. After all, it’s what Jesus would do.
“Walking down the street, Jesus saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked, “Rabbi, who sinned: This man or his parents, causing him to be born blind?”
Jesus said, “You’re asking the wrong question. You’re looking for someone to blame. There is no such cause-effect here. Look instead for what God can do.”
– John 9:1-3