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When Lightning Strikes

Recent events have reminded me of a 2001 movie called “The Man Who Sued God.” As the plot unfolded, lightning destroyed the boat of an ex-lawyer turned fisherman. The insurance company refused to pay his claim, insisting it was an act of God for which the company was not responsible. Frustrated by that answer, the man decided to sue religious groups because they were God’s representatives on earth. Much of the movie wrestles with whether the “acts of God” accusation was true. If it were true, should God’s representatives pay for his losses; if it weren’t true, should the insurance company honor its responsibility? There have been a few times in my life when I wouldn’t have minded filing such a lawsuit to get a clearer understanding of what was and wasn’t a consequence of God’s actions. I imagine most of us have stared such questions in the eye once or twice during our lives.

The movie is entertaining and raises worthwhile considerations, but it never really offers an answer to the question: Is God responsible for these actions bearing tragic consequences? Acts of God, also known as force majeure in the insurance industry, typically refers to natural disasters such as tornadoes, floods, or hurricanes. Also often excluded from coverage, though not as an act of God, are things like war and terrorism. Whatever good faith is intended by the policy, there are certain risks for which the company does not want to be liable (which are the ones most devastating and difficult to recover from). There are certain things for which individuals do not want to be or feel incapable of being responsible—the loss of life, home, auto, and health, to name the obvious. That is why we buy insurance. We want protection from risks that would derail us. It is extremely disappointing to think you have your protective bases covered, only to discover in a moment of crisis that you are fully exposed to any losses incurred.

As it happens, that thinking can spill over into our views and expectations of God. Many of the foundational stories in religious traditions describe and emphasize a God who delivers God’s people. When we take those narratives to heart, we begin to hope and pray, even expect, that God has our back when the overwhelming event threatens to strike.

It reminds me of an account, fictional but real, where a tornado was bearing down on a particular town. The residents prayed fervently that God would divert the tornado and spare them from disaster. Lo and behold, as though it were an answer to prayer, the tornado changed direction and missed the town completely. Afterwards, people were singing God’s praises for sparing their community. However, in changing direction, the tornado ripped apart a neighboring small town in the next county. As many gave thanks for God’s protection, one astute individual wondered aloud how the town that was destroyed might be feeling about God’s grace in the aftermath of the storm.

The story illustrates that humans often attribute to God the responsibility for things they cannot control or for which they themselves do not want to be responsible. It is comfortable when all is well and it seems the plan is working. But when the unthinkable occurs, we are left to wonder why. Those questions may be accompanied by a crisis of faith, a bit of anger, a flood of tears, and a whole lot of despair. Before we know it, we have entered the territory of theodicy.  

Theodicy literally means “justifying God.” It largely wrestles with the problem of evil in the world. What is its origin? Why would God allow it? Many answers have been proposed. They typically lead to new questions. It gets most personal when we find ourselves wondering why bad things happen to good people. Why did God do this to me? Or if God didn’t do it, why did God allow it?  If it had to happen, why did it happen to me rather than someone else? What did I do to deserve it? I remember the response of a friend who learned she had a form of cancer. When people asked her if she wondered why it was happening to her, she replied, “Why shouldn’t it?” Though candid and sobering, her response reminds us that much of what happens in life is the result of causes and circumstances we don’t see, know, or control. Those moments can feel like life is one giant game of roulette.

When it happens on the other side of the world or to people we do not know, it is easy to acknowledge the pain and wish it were different. Right now, daily reports on the war in Gaza wear on me. Prior to that, Russia’s attempted conquest of parts of the Ukraine added sadness to each day. It still does. Mentioned with less frequency at this point are conflicts in Syria or Africa, among others. Much of this conflict is motivated by the ideologies of leaders whose agendas propel them forward in their violence. Who is responsible? The invading groups? The ones whom these groups perceive as having done them wrong, therefore justifying their response? God, for not preventing it? In the abstract we can philosophize and theologize about it, but on the ground, individuals – men, women, boys, and girls; mothers, fathers, daughters, and sons – have their life’s dreams amputated in an instant. I may mourn, and the global environment may grow more tense, but my daily actions are largely unaffected – so far.

It changes when things move closer to home. I receive several newsletters that include prayer concerns circulated by different congregations. Some on the list are friends; others are strangers. Together they provide constant reminders of the daily trials that face so many. When it happens to us or those we know and love, the luxury of being untouched by an abstract awareness of trouble in the world crumbles. Now, it has a more profound impact. Wishful thinking that peace would prevail is replaced by a grief that rattles us to our core. Up close, such loss is disruptive, even debilitating. It feels extremely personal. And it is, as indicated by the deep sorrow we experience. Only we have not been singled out by God for suffering. Our case is not unique, but is instead one of a multitude of heartaches throbbing around the world. Unfortunately, even though this is true, recognizing it won’t likely reduce the pain.

So, we are left to wrestle with the truth that suffering is part of living. It comes to us all in one form or another during our lifetime. For those who embrace a religious perspective, the question becomes “Where is God in all of this?” If the Divine is neither the cause nor the preventer, what is a legitimate expectation?”

Frankly, the answer to which you cling will depend on where you pitch your tent in the religious tradition. Where an understanding of God as Divine Warrior prevails, we will expect God to intervene on our behalf and deliver us. There will be victorious days; and there will be numerous disappointments – hence the problem to begin with! We will then have the choice of living with the contradiction, rationalizing why it didn’t go as we asked, or rethinking how we understand God’s engagement with humanity. Where God is viewed as uninterested or unable to intervene, lowered expectations may ease our disappointment but it also leaves us largely without hope. Perhaps we are mistaken to label it as a God problem to begin with. Could it be that we have a misguided idea of what God is about?

I suppose I have a Carmelite monk to thank for starting me down the path that sustains me. He was a professor for a Psalms class I took in seminary. One day a classmate asked for his opinion of divine justice. He roared back, “I’m 6’ 4” tall and have a full head of hair. What do you think I think about divine justice?” If you were there, you’d know what a hilarious response that was in context. Beneath that bodacious sense of humor was the capacity to send his students into the heart of the matter. His class required that we immerse ourselves in reading the Psalms daily. We were to spend time in analysis and reflection. Only then could we consult commentaries to see what others had written. That semester long engagement with those ancient prayers introduced God as a Presence and an Accompaniment. Though I was free to ask, that God wouldn’t solve all my problems; but neither did it ever abandon me or leave me alone. This, plus the discovery of a prominent Old Testament theme that described God as present, but elusive nonetheless, have been a bedrock to my own efforts at faithfulness.

On a recent trip to South Korea, I listened to a young woman who defected from the North recount the story of her escape. Before leaving home, with her father already absent from the family and her mother and sister having been gone for says in search of food, she pondered her fate. As she lay on the floor of her home, she thought she would die. In that moment, she realized that she wasn’t afraid of dying, but she didn’t like being abandoned.

Who does? But that is one of the major dilemmas of theodicy. Accompaniment doesn’t solve these questions, but it makes them more bearable especially when lightning strikes your boat.

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