God did not send Irma, Harvey, Jose, and Maria. I hope you know that.
Why didn’t God prevent Irma, Harvey, Jose, and Maria? Larry King asked a variation of this question on Twitter last night. If God is omnipotent, why doesn’t he prevent natural disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes? King noted that no religious leader has ever been able to answer that for him. The tone of the tweet was not antagonistic. It felt like an honest question mulled over a lifetime. It’s a question we’re all asking. And it’s not just about natural (or human-made) disasters. It’s about all kinds of tragedy and injustice and loss. It’s the cry of Jesus from the cross.
Before going further, let’s ask ourselves what we actually lose if start to allow for the possibility that God might not be omnipotent in the way we traditionally mean.
In philosophic and theological studies, the question of why terrible things happen to good or innocent people is known as “The Problem of Evil.” Millions of attempts continue to be made to solve the conundrum as classically presented: if God is all-good, all-powerful, and all-knowing, why does evil persist?” Some answers are more satisfying than others, but none seem entirely sufficient in the moments they feel most needed.
Martin Luther said that we know God best through God’s love and compassion, not God’s power. There’s something to that, but we’re still left asking “but if God has the power to prevent X,Y,Z, why won’t he?”
Luther also wrote at length about the suffering of Jesus on the cross as real spiritual trauma for God. On the cross, Jesus (God in time and space and flesh and blood) experiences the quintessential human question: “God, why have you forsaken me?” On the cross, God experiences the human condition in totally, because on the cross, God experiences the feeling of being Godforsaken. God experiences what we experience. God knows the pain we know.
We lose nothing, really, if we allow ourselves to consider the idea that God, who is mighty to save, may not be omnipotent in the way we generally think we mean.
My response to Larry King’s tweet was “maybe God isn’t omnipotent. but I do believe God is in the suffering and mourning and struggle. That’s why I follow the Crucified.”
It took the cross for God to know Godforsakenness. And God stayed on the cross. Christians follow a murdered God. I think that tells us something.
If God isn’t omnipotent in the way we’ve traditionally said, how can we say God is mighty to save?
I think the answer to this part of the question lies in the call to take up our own crosses and follow Jesus. To sacrifice confidence and trust in anything besides the love and compassion of God as the grounding of our being and the source of our identity. The cross frees us from seeking our personhood or salvation in systems of politics, economics, and empire. Naked and crucified, the God born in the poverty of the manger completes his final to move to total solidarity with us. The life and death of Jesus are no quaint pantomime: God knew hunger, tragedy, temptation, weakness, and loss. God felt utterly abandoned by God. We know and feel all of those experiences on the ebbs and tides of life.
In the person of Jesus, God found the fullness of God’s identity: the God who relies on the care of others for survival, the God who struggles within complex family systems, the God who celebrates at weddings and mourns the loss of friends. The God who rejoices in our triumphs and the God who suffers the way we suffer.
Where is God in Harvey, Irma, and Maria?
God is in the shelters. God is in the living rooms of family and friends where displaced people are finding hospitality and healing. God is in the suffering and loss. God is in the hope of resurrection, in the kindness and compassion of strangers becoming friends. God is in the clean-up crews and buckets.
I don’t know what God is able to do about preventing human suffering. I pray as if God can do every single thing. But I do know what God is able to do in the wake of devastation. Christians follow a crucified God, yes, but also one of Resurrection. On the cross, God felt the horror of feeling Godforsaken. In the Resurrection, proof of God’s attendant care breaks forth as Easter Morning. Jesus was not forsaken or forgotten. The power of God, mighty to save, manifests in healing after horror. We feel Godforsaken, but we aren’t ever really. God’s attendant care is there in healing after horror. That’s another way God saves us.
I’m okay with the idea that the God who heals us might not have the power to prevent everything that hurts us. Come what may, I always seem to find God in the aftermath. None of this is to say with certainty that God’s not omnipotent in the classical sense. But if God is, it seems God may have more to answer for than what the cross itself sets right. While it’s true that the frequency of extreme weather events rises with pollution, and while it’s true that so much of what we call evil or unjust is the accretion of broken people living broken lives, and while it’s true that none of that is God’s fault, a classically omnipotent God ought to be able to find a way around the human noise we throw up to heaven. A classically omnipotent God, we hope, would say “regardless of your free will and brokenness, I have abolished evil, entropy, and want.”
That’s not the reality we seem to experience. But that doesn’t mean God isn’t here, isn’t moving, isn’t active, isn’t real. Jesus was killed by systemic injustice and the evil choices of his enemies. Jesus was raised to glory by the God whose attendant care is there, healing after horror.