The Rekindling of Hope:
Looking for Answers in the Aftermath of Hurricane Harvey
Dr. Paul R. Shockley
In the wake of loss, pain, and suffering emerging from Hurricane Harvey, thousands of us are looking for answers. We went from the anticipation of a new school year to terrible anxiety, catastrophe, and displacement in a matter of days. While some of us have experienced very little damage, others of us have lost much. Perhaps too much! Thus, our feelings are a mixture of genuine happiness for those who been spared and genuine pain for those who have lost not mere things, but visual memories, family heirlooms, and hard earned possessions. Beyond our ability to control our circumstances, the realization of certain dreams we have worked so hard to achieve have literally been taken from us in a way we could never have anticipated. Then there are some of us who just can’t ever seem to get ahead. What little we have actually gained is now swept away or ruined.
Like the apostle Paul, whose life experiences included being bit by a viper following a terrible shipwreck (Acts 28:3-4), imprisonment, torture, and injustice, exclaimed in Romans 12:15, we “rejoice with those rejoice, weep with those who weep.”
Even before the flooding receded from my own location in SW Houston, looking at the damage from the tornado that I could hear a few nights ago when it came thundering down into our next door neighborhood like a freight train, and receiving news of people who need to be rescued from flooding (with no resources like a boat to help them), I received an unexpected text from a previous student of mine. He is a bright student. Contagious personality. Fun loving.
After introducing himself in the text, I asked him, “How are you?” His first response was, “Well... not too good. I have a couple of theology/philosophy questions and I’m just wondering why does God allowing suffering?”
How does one even begin to answer such a question? I think about Jesus. My mind flashes from one miraculous scene to another. While Jesus' first miracle was turning water into choice wine in John 2 at the wedding of Cana, His greatest miracle involved the raising of Lazarus in John 11. Here my mind paused. I opened the Scriptures. I read and re-read what happened in John 11. Hope is rekindled. Refreshment and restoration became my experience in the very early hours of the morning.
Consider John 11:
Fellow Jewish people already gathered to comfort Mary and Martha in their loss. Jesus had already received word that Lazarus, “the one you love is sick” (John 11:3). By the time Jesus arrives Lazarus had been in the tomb dead for four days. Before Jesus even makes it to the front door, Martha comes out of the house, approaches him, and says, “...if you had been here, my brother would not have died’” (John 11:21). Later, Mary shares those same sentiments. She says, “Now when Mary came to the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said to him, ‘Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died'"(John 11:32).
If we are brutally honest, then perhaps we too share those feelings. “God, if you were here, you would not have allowed Hurricane Harvey leave a destructive path of filth, loss, suffering, and death. God, you could have prevented the hurricane! You could have turned that hurricane around from the gulf shores affecting no lives, immediately dissipated its power, or even wiped its existence from the face of this earth. But you didn't! God, where are you?”
Those questions are permissible. In fact, they should be asked. In their grief, Jesus did not rebuke Martha and Mary for their statements to Him. Instead, Jesus spoke words of assurance and demonstrated what He could do with loss, suffering and death. I believe Jesus is doing the same for us today. Hope is being rekindled.
The student’s question is not foreign to my own personal plight with pain and suffering. Though every worldview has to deal with the problem of moral and natural evil and suffering, and not all explanations have equal weight or explanatory power, I do remain convinced that God is loving and sovereign over all. Even after Martha and Mary were bold enough to actually say to Jesus that His absence allowed Lazarus to die, Martha goes onto say in the next verse, “But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask“ (John 11:22). Jesus responds to her words with kindness and authority, “Your brother will rise again.” But what strikes me this time is how Jesus responded to Lazarus’ death. John records:
32 Now when Mary came to the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the people who had come with her weeping, he was intensely moved in spirit and greatly distressed.34 He asked, “Where have you laid him?” They replied, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus wept. 36 Thus the people who had come to mourn said, “Look how much he loved him!” Jesus wept. He promises to raise Lazarus from the dead. But even with the miracle of resurrection that is about to occur (John 11:38-44), Jesus wept. Jesus weeps.
While my response to this student is ultimately inadequate, it offers me a peculiar hope, a certain clarity or light against the backdrop of real catastrophe. Perhaps it will help you too. Here you will see I am indebted to the thoughts on the mystery of evil by thinkers like Os Guinness, Ravi Zacharias, John Lennox, Erwin Lutzer, and Norman Geisler.
Here’s my response to the student:
That's a great question. Here are some things I ponder when I see natural evil and yet firmly believe in God who is good and sovereign:
(1) To even say something is evil, we have to have a moral standard. Thus, the objective moral law argument emerges. So, evil actually affirms God’s existence.
(2) God Himself experienced evil with His Son on the cross for our sins. He faced injustice, hatred, mockery, horrific pain and suffering, and even abandonment. But even here we also see infinite love, grace given freely, redemption made possible, and a unique peace that transcends all affliction and despair.
(3) Jesus took care of the problem of sin at His first coming (John 19:28-30; Ephesians 2:8-9) and when Jesus comes back at His second coming (Revelation 19-20), He will take care of the problem of evil. No more natural evil and suffering (Revelation 21-22). So, I take it that this is the best way to the best world achievable. No one can prove otherwise.
(4) While we don't know why God allowed this hurricane to hit us, we are looking at all of this natural evil and suffering through a "key hole." We don't have the opportunity to see all the ripple effects and how God will tie all this together (Romans 8:28-39). But since we intimately know Him, we can trust Him like a young child can trust his loving Father. Our trust in Him is not an irrational leap of faith. We know who this God is. We know Him. So, we can trust Him. Faith is the reliance upon Him who we have good reasons to believe is true and trustworthy.
(5) Consequently, there are certain incredible values flowing from this catastrophe we are witnessing right now: (a) people from all socio-economic backgrounds, gender, race, etc are helping each other; (b) An adjustment to live for what matters most. While the things we surround ourselves with and perhaps even live for are being swept away, we are seeing ordinary folks like you and me, becoming the "heroes" we should be to our neighbors every day of the year (Mark 12:28-34). Like President George H. W. Bush (41st US president) said in a statement, “...truly inspired by the flotilla of volunteers- Points of light all-who are answering the call to help their neighbors." (c) A reminder that life is vaporous. Thus, let's love each other, committing our wills to the true good of other people (1 John 3:16-17).
(6) One question we should also be asking is, "God, why am I still living?"
While God did not prevent Hurricane Harvey, we are seeing God’s presence as we minister to people, meeting them where they are and taking them where they need to be. People are coming together, sacrificing themselves, surrendering their own comforts, and meeting practical needs. Some of the walls that have divided us (e.g., racial; socio-economic) far too long might be coming down. Real heroes are emerging; narcissism and trivial diversions are also being displaced. Hopefully, our trivialities will be exchanged for a greater love, namely loving people where we live. May that begin with me! In the midst of a horrific catastrophe we are facing today, a better tomorrow is rekindled.