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Is God Indifferent to Human Suffering?

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Christianity portrays God as an intelligent, all-powerful being. And the Christian Bible teaches that “God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God” (1 John 4:16 1 John 4:16And we have known and believed the love that God has to us. God is love; and he that dwells in love dwells in God, and God in him.
American King James Version×
).

Yet natural catastrophes such as hurricanes, tsunamis and earthquakes are often labeled “acts of God.” This carries with it the implication that mankind's Creator is personally responsible and accountable for the loss of life, material devastation and suffering that natural catastrophes leave in their wake. The anguish they cause leaves a lot of people very perplexed about God's attitude toward human suffering.

One woman standing in the midst of the New Orleans devastation told a reporter, “God doesn't live here anymore.” When asked why God allows such a disaster, a priest's reply can be summed up: There is no answer.

Is that true? Is there really no answer? Must we remain completely in the dark concerning God's reasons for not preventing catastrophic destruction, loss of life and incalculable misery? Or could it be that God has already revealed His reasons for not always intervening and that we simply haven't paid close enough attention to them?

Shared responsibility

A realistic assessment of responsibility for the death and suffering caused by natural disasters—especially those that are predictable—should always include a review of our personal and collective responsibility to prepare for the unexpected.

By labeling all natural calamities as “acts of God,” we are in danger of denying our own collective and personal responsibility. Such a view implies that God, by allowing natural disasters, is guilty of indifference. It suggests He is responsible and accountable for all human suffering.

Responsibility, however, is a two-way street. It's hardly fair to blame God for not doing all that He could if we have closed our eyes to the preventive measures we could and should have taken. Such an approach
in essence blames God for our own negligence. It completely ignores the principle of shared responsibility.

Consider the damage done in New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina. For years emergency-response personnel have warned that a massive and intense hurricane could devastate the Gulf Coast of the United States. A good example of this type of warning was the 2004 study on the vulnerability of New Orleans and the whole Gulf Coast to hurricanes packing the destructive power of Katrina and Rita.

The predictions of that study were so accurate they almost seem prophetic.

Explains government watcher Robert Longley: “During the summer of 2004, FEMA ran a disaster simulation exercise in which a fictional hurricane named Pam hit the New Orleans area. The purpose of the Pam simulation was to help FEMA and local authorities in hurricane-prone areas to prepare for future disasters.

“In the FEMA simulation, Pam hit New Orleans with sustained winds of 120 mph, dumping up to 20 inches of rain in parts of southeast Louisiana and creating a storm surge that topped levees in the New Orleans area. More than one million residents evacuated and Hurricane Pam destroyed 500,000-600,000 buildings.

“Emergency officials from 50 parish, state, federal and volunteer organizations participated in the five-day exercise held at the Louisiana State Emergency Operations Center in Baton Rouge” (http://usgovinfo.about.com/od/defenseandsecurity/a/
 femapam.htm).

Much was learned from that fictional simulation. Still more was learned when category-4 Hurricane Ivan was predicted to make a direct hit on New Orleans in September 2004. Ivan was virtually a dress rehearsal for Hurricane Katrina—hundreds of thousands of people evacuated the area before the storm veered away from New Orleans and pounded the Florida panhandle.

Even after many problems were identified through the simulation and Hurricane Ivan, only a few of the necessary changes and preparations were put in place. When Katrina finally did arrive on the scene, it was too late.

The early reaction by many government officials following Katrina was to blame others—with those at each level of responsibility pointing the finger at those above or below them.

As time passed, however, it became clear that all levels of those responsible for emergency readiness shared culpability for too-little, too-late preparation. This included planners from the highest government levels down to those in individual counties or parishes.

Responsibility must be shared! Once this is understood, we can more easily grasp God's response to natural disasters.

It is not that He is distant or uncaring. He simply has conditions for intervening in such matters. He is willing and eager to help. But first we have to do our part. This He makes very plain in the Scriptures.

Jesus Christ's instructive example

Just before He was crucified, Jesus looked down on the city in which He would be put to death, understanding clearly what lay ahead for Him. He also knew that in the not-too-distant future Roman armies would attack and devastate the city of Jerusalem. His love and concern for the people of that city affected His emotions so powerfully that He was moved to tears.

“As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, 'If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side.

“'They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God'” (Luke 19:41-44 Luke 19:41-44 41 And when he was come near, he beheld the city, and wept over it, 42 Saying, If you had known, even you, at least in this your day, the things which belong to your peace! but now they are hid from your eyes. 43 For the days shall come on you, that your enemies shall cast a trench about you, and compass you round, and keep you in on every side, 44 And shall lay you even with the ground, and your children within you; and they shall not leave in you one stone on another; because you knew not the time of your visitation.
American King James Version×
, New Revised Standard Version, emphasis added throughout).

Jesus deeply desired for them to have recognized who He was and the level of leadership that He had been offering them during His ministry. With deep feeling He lamented: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Matthew 23:37-39 Matthew 23:37-39 37 O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you that kill the prophets, and stone them which are sent to you, how often would I have gathered your children together, even as a hen gathers her chickens under her wings, and you would not! 38 Behold, your house is left to you desolate. 39 For I say to you, You shall not see me from now on, till you shall say, Blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord.
American King James Version×
, NRSV).

For 3½ years Jesus had crisscrossed the land of Judea with a message of repentance and renewal. Before Him, John the Baptist had called for the same changes. Both were ignored by the great majority of those who heard them. In the end, both were killed for preaching a message designed to repair the strained relationship between God and the people to whom they preached.

At that time Rome ruled much of the world with a heavy hand. The Jewish people resented its oppressive authority and were obsessed with gaining their independence. They wanted Jesus to lead them in an uprising to expel the Roman army. But they refused to accept His criticisms of their personal and national behavior.

Under those conditions Jesus, as His heavenly Father's messenger, warned them of the disaster they were about to bring on themselves.

The Jewish nation and its capital city of Jerusalem rejected His message that called for them to repent and submit to God. They wanted to hear a message about expelling the Roman army. In the end, war with that army is what they got. In A.D. 70 Jerusalem was completely destroyed and the majority of Jews not killed in the battle were carried away as slaves or had to flee for their lives.

Did God allow that disaster to happen? Certainly! He even foretold it. Yet who was at fault?

The blame fell on both the Jews and the Romans! Each acted out of misguided self-interest in defiance of the teachings and will of God. The consequences of the conflict produced by those choices were precisely what Jesus had said they would be.

Understanding God's perspective

God could easily give warning or prevent any natural disaster. And He is willing to do that, under certain conditions— that those receiving such protection will collectively pay close attention to His teachings by making them their personal standard of thinking and behavior.

From the creation of Adam to Noah's Flood—a span of more than 1,600 years—God observed human behavior intensely. His observations are not flattering. “The LORD saw how great man's wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time. The LORD was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain” (Genesis 6:5-6 Genesis 6:5-6 5 And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. 6 And it repented the LORD that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart.
American King James Version×
, New International Version).

Even God often finds it emotionally painful to watch how insensitive and callous human beings can be in their relationships with one another and with Him—though suffering often has the effect of making us aware of how much we need each other. By the time the Flood began, only the family
of Noah was found sufficiently obedient to God's will to be spared its devastation.

It's important to recognize that God is never unfeeling —but He is realistic. When the majority of people in a nation ignore His instructions—or worse, actively rebel against them—the nation forfeits any protection and personal intervention that God would so much like to give.

This loving concern is well documented in an excellent historical example. God gave the people of ancient Israel the opportunity to represent—by their example—the right type of relationship that He wants all nations to have with Him (Deuteronomy 4:5-10 Deuteronomy 4:5-10 5 Behold, I have taught you statutes and judgments, even as the LORD my God commanded me, that you should do so in the land where you go to possess it. 6 Keep therefore and do them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations, which shall hear all these statutes, and say, Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people. 7 For what nation is there so great, who has God so near to them, as the LORD our God is in all things that we call on him for? 8 And what nation is there so great, that has statutes and judgments so righteous as all this law, which I set before you this day? 9 Only take heed to yourself, and keep your soul diligently, lest you forget the things which your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life: but teach them your sons, and your sons’ sons; 10 Specially the day that you stood before the LORD your God in Horeb, when the LORD said to me, Gather me the people together, and I will make them hear my words, that they may learn to fear me all the days that they shall live on the earth, and that they may teach their children.
American King James Version×
). He made a pact with them that He would shield them from all types of disasters, predictable and unpredictable alike.

But He also set conditions. They were responsible for their part. They had to do all that God would teach them. Notice the essence of both what God expected and promised:

“If you follow my statutes and keep my commandments and observe them faithfully, I will give you your rains in their season, and the land shall yield its produce, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit. Your threshing shall overtake the vintage, and the vintage shall overtake the sowing; you shall eat your bread to the full, and live securely in your land.

“And I will grant peace in the land, and you shall lie down, and no one shall make you afraid; I will remove dangerous animals from the land, and no sword shall go through your land. You shall give chase to your enemies, and they shall fall before you by the sword. Five of you shall give chase to a hundred, and a hundred of you shall give chase to ten thousand; your enemies shall fall before you by the sword. I will look with favor upon you and make you fruitful and multiply you; and I will maintain my covenant with you.

“You shall eat old grain long stored, and you shall have to clear out the old to make way for the new. I will place my dwelling in your midst, and I shall not abhor you. And I will walk among you, and will be your God, and you shall be my people” (Leviticus 26:3-12 Leviticus 26:3-12 3 If you walk in my statutes, and keep my commandments, and do them; 4 Then I will give you rain in due season, and the land shall yield her increase, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit. 5 And your threshing shall reach to the vintage, and the vintage shall reach to the sowing time: and you shall eat your bread to the full, and dwell in your land safely. 6 And I will give peace in the land, and you shall lie down, and none shall make you afraid: and I will rid evil beasts out of the land, neither shall the sword go through your land. 7 And you shall chase your enemies, and they shall fall before you by the sword. 8 And five of you shall chase an hundred, and an hundred of you shall put ten thousand to flight: and your enemies shall fall before you by the sword. 9 For I will have respect to you, and make you fruitful, and multiply you, and establish my covenant with you. 10 And you shall eat old store, and bring forth the old because of the new. 11 And I set my tabernacle among you: and my soul shall not abhor you. 12 And I will walk among you, and will be your God, and you shall be my people.
American King James Version×
, NRSV).

Did you notice here how often God promised to act directly to ensure they would be both blessed and secure? “I will grant peace in the land … I will look with favor upon you … I will maintain my covenant with you … I will walk among you, and will be your God”!

God's favor included excellent weather that would bring blessings instead of disasters. His favor included peace and security with assurance of victory over enemies. It also included abundant agricultural blessings.

His requirements were easy to comprehend. The people were to follow all of God's instructions with attentive ears and hearts.

How simple and direct! But God also warned them not to turn a deaf ear to His teachings—like most of the Jews did in the days of Jesus, as mentioned earlier.

God told them: “You must therefore be careful to do as the LORD your God has commanded you; you shall not turn to the right or to the left. You must follow exactly the path that the LORD your God has commanded you, so that you may live, and that it may go well with you, and that you may live long in the land that you are to possess” (Deuteronomy 5:32-33 Deuteronomy 5:32-33 32 You shall observe to do therefore as the LORD your God has commanded you: you shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left. 33 You shall walk in all the ways which the LORD your God has commanded you, that you may live, and that it may be well with you, and that you may prolong your days in the land which you shall possess.
American King James Version×
, NRSV).

The fruit of unrighteous behavior

Later, prophecies in the New Testament give an enlightening picture of what the world's societies will be like in the period leading up to the second coming of Jesus Christ. Like the time before Noah's Flood, it is not a flattering picture even though it is bustling with human commercial activity.

Revelation 18 describes the international trade of that period as incredibly prosperous and far-reaching. Great varieties of merchandise are shipped from one seaport to another. Immense fortunes are made. Prosperity abounds. But so does human selfishness, greed and brutality.

Paul, writing to Timothy, explained that “in the last days distressing times will come. For people will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, inhuman, implacable, slanderers, profligates, brutes, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding to the outward form of godliness but denying its power. Avoid them! (2 Timothy 3:1-5 2 Timothy 3:1-5 1 This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come. 2 For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, 3 Without natural affection, truce breakers, false accusers, incontinent, fierce, despisers of those that are good, 4 Traitors, heady, high minded, lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God; 5 Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away.
American King James Version×
, NRSV).

He is describing a time when people find it expedient to appear to be religious but not expedient to live godly lives. God judges by what is in the heart. He extends or withholds blessings according to this principle: “Righteousness exalts a nation , but sin is a disgrace to any people” (Proverbs 14:34 Proverbs 14:34Righteousness exalts a nation: but sin is a reproach to any people.
American King James Version×
, New International Version). It is righteous living, not the outward appearance of mere religious piety, that counts with God.

A nation that desires God to look after its national welfare must heed this instruction: “Be careful that you do not forget the LORD your God, failing to observe his commands … Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down … and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied … You may say to yourself, 'My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.'

“But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth … If you ever forget … I testify against you today that you will surely be destroyed” (Deuteronomy 8:11-19 Deuteronomy 8:11-19 11 Beware that you forget not the LORD your God, in not keeping his commandments, and his judgments, and his statutes, which I command you this day: 12 Lest when you have eaten and are full, and have built goodly houses, and dwelled therein; 13 And when your herds and your flocks multiply, and your silver and your gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied; 14 Then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the LORD your God, which brought you forth out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage; 15 Who led you through that great and terrible wilderness, wherein were fiery serpents, and scorpions, and drought, where there was no water; who brought you forth water out of the rock of flint; 16 Who fed you in the wilderness with manna, which your fathers knew not, that he might humble you, and that he might prove you, to do you good at your latter end; 17 And you say in your heart, My power and the might of my hand has gotten me this wealth. 18 But you shall remember the LORD your God: for it is he that gives you power to get wealth, that he may establish his covenant which he swore to your fathers, as it is this day. 19 And it shall be, if you do at all forget the LORD your God, and walk after other gods, and serve them, and worship them, I testify against you this day that you shall surely perish.
American King James Version×
, NIV).

God leaves those who ignore these instructions and warnings to the mercy of both nature and their enemies. He no longer ensures that they will be blessed or secure. Those who spurn godly behavior reap the fruit of their own thinking, often totally unaware of how fragile their security is.

Jesus explained that people living in the prosperous era before His second coming will mostly be oblivious to the impending disasters drawing near: “Just as it was in the days of Noah, so also will it be in the days of the Son of Man. People were eating, drinking, marrying and being given in marriage up to the day Noah entered the ark. Then the flood came and destroyed them all.

“It was the same in the days of Lot. People were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building … It will be just like this on the day the Son of Man is revealed” (Luke 17:26-30 Luke 17:26-30 26 And as it was in the days of Noe, so shall it be also in the days of the Son of man. 27 They did eat, they drank, they married wives, they were given in marriage, until the day that Noe entered into the ark, and the flood came, and destroyed them all. 28 Likewise also as it was in the days of Lot; they did eat, they drank, they bought, they sold, they planted, they built; 29 But the same day that Lot went out of Sodom it rained fire and brimstone from heaven, and destroyed them all. 30 Even thus shall it be in the day when the Son of man is revealed.
American King James Version×
, NIV).

God's response to harmful behavior

God allows or sometimes even causes suffering for another reason. He uses it as a means of correcting wrong behavior. Notice the scriptural advice to those who begin to stray from the ways taught in God's Word:

“And you have forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as children—'My child, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, or lose heart when you are punished by him; for the Lord disciplines those whom he loves, and chastises every child whom he accepts.'

“Endure trials for the sake of discipline. God is treating you as children; for what child is there whom a parent does not discipline? … Moreover, we had human parents to discipline us, and we respected them. Should we not be even more willing to be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share his holiness” (Hebrews 12:5-10 Hebrews 12:5-10 5 And you have forgotten the exhortation which speaks to you as to children, My son, despise not you the chastening of the Lord, nor faint when you are rebuked of him: 6 For whom the Lord loves he chastens, and whips every son whom he receives. 7 If you endure chastening, God deals with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chastens not? 8 But if you be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, then are you bastards, and not sons. 9 Furthermore we have had fathers of our flesh which corrected us, and we gave them reverence: shall we not much rather be in subjection to the Father of spirits, and live? 10 For they truly for a few days chastened us after their own pleasure; but he for our profit, that we might be partakers of his holiness.
American King James Version×
, NRSV).

God is very focused on the ultimate outcome of our lives. Therefore He sets choices before us. He even allows us to make bad choices (Deuteronomy 30:15-19 Deuteronomy 30:15-19 15 See, I have set before you this day life and good, and death and evil; 16 In that I command you this day to love the LORD your God, to walk in his ways, and to keep his commandments and his statutes and his judgments, that you may live and multiply: and the LORD your God shall bless you in the land where you go to possess it. 17 But if your heart turn away, so that you will not hear, but shall be drawn away, and worship other gods, and serve them; 18 I denounce to you this day, that you shall surely perish, and that you shall not prolong your days on the land, where you pass over Jordan to go to possess it. 19 I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both you and your seed may live:
American King James Version×
).

But He wants us to learn from their consequences, to see and distinguish the harmful effects of foolish decisions. If we still fail to get the point, He may even take a more direct approach and bring bad consequences upon us. But His goal is always to bring us back to His ways, His teachings.

George Barna, America's leading pollster of behavioral patterns among professing Christians, once observed that even though the practice of Christianity in the United States may be represented accurately as “a mile wide,” it also may be described just as accurately as only “an inch deep.”

Understanding and applying biblical principles seems to be at an all-time low not just in America today, but in most Western countries. The shallowness of devotion to God's ways today is very similar to that of ancient Israel's people and priests.

Addressing directly the priests responsible for giving the people of that era the knowledge of His ways, God exclaimed: “… My people are destroyed from lack of knowledge. 'Because you have rejected knowledge, I also reject you as my priests; because you have ignored the law of your God, I also will ignore your children.

“'The more the priests increased, the more they sinned against me; they exchanged their Glory for something disgraceful. They feed on the sins of my people and relish their wickedness. And it will be: Like people, like priests. I will punish both of them for their ways and repay them for their deeds'” (Hosea 4:6-9 Hosea 4:6-9 6 My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge: because you have rejected knowledge, I will also reject you, that you shall be no priest to me: seeing you have forgotten the law of your God, I will also forget your children. 7 As they were increased, so they sinned against me: therefore will I change their glory into shame. 8 They eat up the sin of my people, and they set their heart on their iniquity. 9 And there shall be, like people, like priest: and I will punish them for their ways, and reward them their doings.
American King James Version×
, NIV).

Today, clear biblical instruction is mostly out of vogue even among professing Christians, having been replaced by feel-good messages and emotionalism. Though the United States is one of the last Western nations engaged in a political struggle between secular and religious values—with secularism having won nearly everywhere else—only a small portion of the religious factions in that struggle are actively committed to living expressly as the Bible teaches.

But that segment could profoundly affect the effectiveness of God's discipline on those nations where the teachings of God's Word are available.

The “watchman” assignment

In ancient times a watchman in a tower or on a defensive wall was assigned the responsibility of warning his countrymen of any approaching threat. Throughout history God has charged His faithful servants with a similar responsibility. Here is an example of that charge as given to Ezekiel:

“Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel; so hear the word I speak and give them warning from me. When I say to a wicked man, 'You will surely die,' and you do not warn him or speak out to dissuade him from his evil ways in order to save his life, that wicked man will die for his sin, and I will hold you accountable for his blood.

“But if you do warn the wicked man and he does not turn from his wickedness or from his evil ways, he will die for his sin; but you will have saved yourself” (Ezekiel 3:17-19 Ezekiel 3:17-19 17 Son of man, I have made you a watchman to the house of Israel: therefore hear the word at my mouth, and give them warning from me. 18 When I say to the wicked, You shall surely die; and you give him not warning, nor speak to warn the wicked from his wicked way, to save his life; the same wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood will I require at your hand. 19 Yet if you warn the wicked, and he turn not from his wickedness, nor from his wicked way, he shall die in his iniquity; but you have delivered your soul.
American King James Version×
, NIV).

The Good News magazine is committed to providing sound biblical teachings and warnings appropriate for our time. As disasters and suffering increase, our goal is to help readers understand that God has not hidden His face from what is happening.

We also suggest other material and resources devoted to the same goals. It's our fervent hope that you will take full advantage of these informative resources—and not just read, watch or listen to them, but act on them.

We now live at a time when disasters are called “acts of God,” yet with few people understanding why He allows them. He is neither negligent nor indifferent. He wants us to recognize our need for His care so that we will take His word seriously and apply it.

Those who turn to Him and make the Bible the foundation of their lives can take great comfort in these words: “Let your conduct be without covetousness; be content with such things as you have. For He Himself has said, 'I will never leave you nor forsake you'” (Hebrews 13:5 Hebrews 13:5Let your conversation be without covetousness; and be content with such things as you have: for he has said, I will never leave you, nor forsake you.
American King James Version×
).

If you want God to include you in that category, you must make sure, as in James 1:23-25 James 1:23-25 23 For if any be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like to a man beholding his natural face in a glass: 24 For he beholds himself, and goes his way, and straightway forgets what manner of man he was. 25 But whoever looks into the perfect law of liberty, and continues therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed.
American King James Version×
, that you have become a “doer,” not just a “hearer,” of His Word. GN

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