The biggest difference between 9/11 and 12/26 is also the hardest to come to terms with. On the one hand, the perpetrators of 9/11 clearly had evil minds and evil intentions toward their victims. On the other hand, the perpetrator of 12/26-
But before you conclude that this is only one more reflection on the troubling idea of the sovereignty of God, let me ask you to consider the plight of a columnist like me, writing in a weekly newsmagazine dated nearly three weeks after the terrifying events in south Asia on Dec. 26. I am not reporting from Indonesia or Sri Lanka or Thailand, and have nothing new to offer on this page by way of original coverage or fresh detail. In today's news climate, that's not primarily why you read WORLD in any case. You are not so much asking, "What is the news today?" as you are inquiring, "What does this week's news mean?"
And I'm supposed to help you understand what this news all means?
Do I really have anything new to say, to believers or especially to cynical nonbelievers, about the grand idea of God's sovereign purpose? When we who hold fast to that historic truth are shaken to our intellectual and ethical roots by what we have seen and heard, can we be helpful to others?
On two earlier occasions-following the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City and, of course, after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001-we got into serious tiffs even with some of you loyal readers over our interpretation of God's involvement with those sobering events. So I don't want now to re-travel those same roads, especially since it's so hard in the case of the tsunamis to shift the blame to an evil human cause. Whether God ordered the recent events in South Asia, or merely allowed them, you're left with virtually the same conundrum: If "My God is so big, and so great, and so mighty, there's nothing my God cannot do," then don't the children to whom we teach that little song have a right to ask the obvious questions?
What's really important here-for us, for our inquiring children, and for our skeptical and unbelieving friends and acquaintances-isn't a comprehensive explanation. What's important is the attitude with which we ask the questions.
If the book of Job teaches us anything on the subject (and to what more pertinent place could you turn to figure out the meaning of catastrophe and disaster?), our very first response should be to get quiet enough to hear God saying, "Shhh!" I am not suggesting that the order to "Be quiet!" applies first and foremost to the people who are directly affected by these terrifying events. The order almost certainly applies first and foremost to those of us who have overly glib and easy explanations for all that has happened.
Job, after all-the one who was both affected and afflicted-was also the one who found it easiest to say, "God has given. God has taken away. Blessed be the name of my God." It was Job's friends, on the other hand, the ones who were sure they could explain it all, who blathered on and on, for chapter after chapter, always finding it hard to hear God's blunt instructions to "Shut up!" When someone exclaims to us in bewilderment, "I don't understand this. How could God do this?" there's nothing at all wrong with saying, "Neither do I. His ways are past finding out." And then let the quiet make its own noise.
Against the backdrop of that quiet, quiet questions are in order. One of my daughters reminded me last week that the Bible includes no record of Jesus' responding harshly to anyone who came wrestling honestly with the hard issues of "why?" The "why" word appears nearly 100 times in the Gospels alone. Along the way, Jesus was tough with the Pharisees-but that was because of their hypocrisy and pretense. They had everything all figured out. But to those who came with quiet tears, Jesus typically offered gentle and patient responses.
When the most devastating ocean wave of our lifetime sweeps away the lives of 150,000 people-including both the very rich and the very poor-what thoughtful person cannot be wracked with hard questions? Just make sure you ask them in a quiet place. And try to make sure that the questions themselves are framed in a soft and quiet way.