I Don’t Ask Why Bad Things Happen
Hurricane Ida, White Entitlement, and the Nature of Suffering
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“Why Does God Allow Suffering?” was the first question I can remember discussed at the Veritas Forum, a Christian student group, after I arrived at Columbia University as a freshman. I grew up materially poor in the Black church in the American South, so this question was a new one for me. Suffering was a given — a fact. I did not feel that I was owed life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, or prosperity. The assumptions of these white students were wholly other to me. Moreover, I never considered God to be the one to blame for my suffering because that seemed pointless after reading Job. For me, questioning God wasn’t about getting answers, but getting Him; and when considering the struggles of this life, I most certainly considered God to be the only one who could deliver me from suffering. Yet just as foreign as these questions were to me, I found my perspective met with the same confusion. Most of the white theologians to whom I was introduced in college and their acolytes around me wrestled with suffering quite a bit.
When bad things happened, I echoed Peter’s sentiments in John 6:68 in saying “to whom shall we go? You [Jesus] have the words of eternal life.” Everything just, loving, and beautiful is of, from, and in God. Full stop. So, post-graduation I hadn’t thought about these questions of suffering much. I chose to center the fight against injustice in my faith and vocation, thus moving these questions of theodicy again beyond my periphery.
From my perspective, and from what I know about God, a much more compelling and meaningful question is this: what exactly is suffering? What is suffering for me in 2021 with my steady income, significant education, and access to community and resources? What is it when I compare my circumstances to others with much less or much more? And what can God accomplish when difficulty does come our way?
In early September, Hurricane Ida hit New York. On that perilous Wednesday night, my wife and I knew there was a leak in the gap between the garage and our house leading into the basement. When I went to check it, there was a steady trickle, so I put a large plastic container under the falling drops. An hour later I tried to go back to the basement because the rain was more intense. I opened the basement door, and all I could say was “OH!” At the bottom of the stairs, our framed photos were floating toward the 2nd step. There was two feet of water swirling in every corner of the basement as more water barreled its way down the street, into the garage, and through the open door where the container had sat before it started floating uselessly with the photos. This was very bad. But was this suffering?
I feel like I have been in a frenzy the last two months, with few moments to catch my breath between estimates from contractors, Google searches about mold remediation, and texts to update my wife while she is at work. We don’t have flood insurance. None of this damage will be covered. Thousands of dollars and days of cleanup are certainly going to take its toll on our household, already stretched thin on time and money. But on the day after the storm, as I put soiled bags and boxes on the street, I reflected on all the help that had materialized within hours of Ida’s impact on us and our home.
Our superstar neighbor who happens to be a contractor, arrived mid-storm to try and open the main drain in the basement to no avail. But he came back the next morning and opened it successfully. He then pressure washed every speck of dirt out of the space. This took six hours. Another contractor friend showed up to ensure we had hot water and will repair the damaged water heater and boiler. My in-laws filled bag after bag with garbage, and then watched our kids while my wife and I lugged it all to the curb. Sanitation even drove by to assure us there would be no summons even though it wasn’t our pick-up day. What could have been tragic turned into lessons on how to do deep cleaning; look for and get rid of mold; relight a water heater; snake a drain with a drill; and receive blessings from our friends, neighbors, and church community.
It is true; that stormy Wednesday night kicked off a difficult 48 hours that was only the beginning of what will be a season of projects to budget for and problems to solve. Our washer and dryer must be replaced, along with four feet of drywall, plaster, and paint. We have multiple leaks in our roof. And we need a strategy for preventing all of this from happening again. Climate change makes catastrophic storms not just possible, but regular. This will cost us money, time, and energy, but nothing more than that. Because by the end of the Saturday after the storm, I was sitting down to a homemade meal of rice, vegetables, and smoked salmon, after a hike that ended with ice cream by the Hudson River. The question for me was not, “why did God allow this to happen to us?” but instead, “is this suffering?” Our money and community turned what could have been disastrous into an inconvenience. And some of what occurs this season may prove to be not bad at all, but actually fruitful in the long-term. I already have deeper relationships with my neighbors, and trust God more to provide and be faithful. What, if anything, have I lost that will not be repaired or replaced?
During the hurricane, at least 50 people died, and thousands lost property or were terrified as cars washed away, roads disappeared, and people fled for their lives. I am not saying God was unfaithful to them. What I am getting at is this: is there a different way to think about suffering when you are a Christian attempting to live your life reliant on God?
A few Sundays ago, I had just finished thanking the church for their generosity toward my family, not knowing I was about to hear the testimony of someone else in the church whose home had been destroyed by Hurricane Sandy nearly a decade earlier. Her pain was palpable and the grief of her loss was fresh though it happened years ago. The storm destroyed all of her family’s belongings; separated her from her elderly, ailing parents; and forced her and her husband to move hours away. Yet, at the same time there was a resting in and a wrestling with the reality of God‘s faithfulness the last decade. Moving was how she found our church and the spiritual formation and community that centers her today. Grief and gratitude, loss and thankfulness flowed together in a wave of language and experience that is still washing over me (you can watch the testimony in a video clip on Facebook here). Upon further reflection, her story and my experience with Ida felt revelatory to me, and increasingly reminiscent.
Hurricane Fran flooded my rural Virginia home in 1996 and so did Hurricane Floyd in 1999. The power was out for weeks and the same collage of community and resources came together to meet our needs. During those times I learned how to better rely on family, use a shop vac, make pancakes taste great on a charcoal grill, and pump water from the ground. Even while I stood in the eye of both of these storms looking up at the swirling clouds above me as trees littered the ground and knocked out our power, I did not ask, “why is God doing this?”
I still expect suffering and hardship, don’t blame God for it, and believe He will help us through whatever comes. What I am less sure of is exactly what “suffering” means for me. I will not minimize or dismiss my own hardships, saying other people have it so much harder; or inflate them to such a degree that the suffering of others is made insignificant. Moreover, I don’t need to find the cosmic logic that strings all of these events together into a clear, digestible lesson I need to learn from God. I don’t believe any of that was Christ’s invitation to me at 13 or now at 35. Instead, I will do what He commands and rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn while holding my questions before Him. I am not in need of answers, though I’ll take them if they come. What I truly want is His presence, because in it is Heaven; and that is more than enough. Fortunately, that is precisely what He promises.