Among some Christians you will often hear the aphorism: “Everything happens for a reason.” Really? How in the wake of hurricanes, internally displaced persons, floods, earthquakes, and shattered infrastructures does one maintain this? It seems to infer divine intent in even the most devastating circumstances.
The Bible does teach that suffering is instructive; however, it does not suggest that that there is divine purpose behind every natural cataclysm. Horrific events are part of a groaning, unfinished creation. God is involved in human history, to be sure, yet more times in a hidden, nearly imperceptible way. Usually, we understand the divine hand in things retrospectively; and we also understand the role our human choices play.
Divine testing is a theme of Scripture, and at times God does use the exigency of a human situation to explore the level of trust humans have in holy providence. Take the situation of the Israelites in the wilderness. After the magnificent Red Sea crossing, the people might have imagined a straight shot into the land of promise, with God clearing every obstacle for them.
It does not quite unfold in that way. Soon the provisions packed in Egypt run out, and they face desperate circumstances. Their complaint rises to God, by way of Moses and Aaron. Nostalgic for Egypt, the people idealize their settled existence there—forgetting their ravaging bondage and indignity.
God does not question their need, and thus promises that bread and meat will be available daily, except for the Sabbath. “In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not” (Exodus 16:4b). Will they be willing to depend upon God for provision? Will they try to hoard, or will they trust there will be sufficient delivery of essential food? God does not test them by placing them in a tenuous position; the test has to do with following instruction about the method of accessing what God is providing.
Wilderness is a dangerous place, and even traveling through it presents a test. It is a time of refining the identity of the congregation of the Israelites, but it is fraught with unfaithfulness and oblivion to the covenant God is forging. Rebellion erodes trust in the story of prolonged wandering, and many things occur that God does not will but eventuate because of human sinfulness.
Nonetheless, God does accompany in every human situation and helps us try to make meaning even of our failure. Tragedy, however, usually eludes the explanation of “happened for a reason,” and we should be very reticent to rationalize the suffering of others with this glib interpretation.
Thankfully, American Baptists are acting with boldness to rebuild Puerto Rico. That is the right response.
Molly T. Marshall
Central prepares leaders for seeking God, shaping church, and serving humanity.