My views about Hurricane Harvey are informed by my time as a religion and ethics correspondent for “Good Morning America” with the late Msgr. Thomas Hartman in the 1990s and early 2000s. We would be interviewed periodically about religious holidays, but we were called in constantly after some natural disaster to defend The Boss from the charge that a good God should never allow such a bad thing to happen. We were asked to justify God’s goodness in the face of natural evil so often that we took to calling ourselves “catastrophologists.”
Our answer to this question of theodicy was always the same: God is good and the storms or earthquakes are just a consequence of the great blessing of living on a living planet. The moon has no hurricanes because the moon is dead. The earth has hurricanes because the earth is alive, and its life-giving nature comes occasionally with big wind, big rain or big fire. These are the meteorological consequences of having an earth with a molten core and a breathable atmosphere. This is God’s blessing to us, not God’s curse.
I am not sure where our impulse to blame God for all the bumps in our roads comes from. I know the Bible is festooned with promises that righteousness will produce “rain in its season” and other agricultural bounty, but I do not hear God speaking through these promises. I hear them instead as God’s general view, which I think is true, that we will do well if we do good. I tend to think that the belief that any natural disaster is a betrayal by God of some promise is just the result of the arrogance of people who cannot imagine why they should not be continuously blessed and why the sun should not shine every day. Truth be told, I also blame the insurance companies for our theological myopia about natural disasters. They are the ones who refer to these disasters as, “acts of God” on the parts of our insurance policies that list the things they do not cover. Whatever the reasons, many of us just seem persistently unwilling to accept the fury of nature as an inescapable and incurable but ultimately blessed part of life here on planet Earth.
There is eloquent biblical comfort for those struggling to endure or to merely comprehend the aftermath of the hurricane. It is from the book of Kings. Elijah the prophet is hiding out for his life and is afraid. “And God said, ‘Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the LORD.’ And, behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the LORD was not in the earthquake: And after the earthquake a fire; but the LORD was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice” (1 Kings 19:11-12).
This passage is echoed by a similar teaching in the Book of Job (4:16), “There was silence, and I heard a voice.” It is tempting to believe that God is only revealed in nature at its most wild but this is not true. Just as God’s spirit in the first chapter of Genesis hovers over and ultimately tames the stormy waters of creation, so too God is present, now in the quiet acts of compassion and the quiet acts of hope that are saving people and fulfilling God’s command in Isaiah to be a “shelter in the storm.”
In my broken heart, I pray for and grieve for the victims of this massive hurricane. I pray that God will help them listen beyond the wind and the rain to the still small voice of God speaking to them with comfort and hope.
For the rest of us, I ask you to continue reading in 1 Kings 19 to verse 13,
“And it was so, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle, and went out, and stood in the entering in of the cave. And, behold, there came a voice unto him, and said, ‘What doest thou here, Elijah?’ ”
That is the question God intends for the rest of us. “What are you doing?”
The amazing volunteers who are plucking people from their rooftops have answered this question. Those around the country who are sending donations of food and supplies and money to the relief organizations — they have answered this question.
“What are you doing?” is the only question God cares about now.