Where is God in the Canadian wildfire? How not to talk about God and suffering

Pictures are emerging of the devastation caused to the Canadian city of Fort McMurray after a wildfire that continues to rage in the country. The scale is so great, the level of damage is hard to pin down. There are reports that whole neighbourhoods have been annihilated. Almost 90,000 people have been evacuated.

A Mountie surveys the damage on a street in Fort McMurray, Alberta, CanadaReuters

We believe in a benevolent God, who created the world and every person on it. This God loved the world enough to send his only Son to die for its sake. When natural disasters happen, killing, or causing suffering to countless numbers of these individuals God claims to love, the character and/or existence of God is naturally brought into question.

When faced with natural disasters, enquiring friends and the question of the goodness of God, how - as Christians - can we respond?

Theological greats over centuries have sat with this question and there is yet to be one satisfying answer.

So, instead of telling you what to do, here are some tips on what to avoid when confronted with the reality of human suffering from natural disaster.

1. Don't get defensive

When someone asks you about suffering - in relation to natural disaster or more generally - it is rarely going to be from a place of objectivity. People tend to ask about suffering when they are suffering themselves, or are affected by another's suffering. In the case of the Canadian wildfire, although no lives have been lost, almost 100,000 people have been displaced, unsure if they have a home to return to. There is a human face to suffering - don't eclipse it with theological arguments.

When Jesus met Mary and Martha - sisters of the then-four-days-dead Lazarus - he did not greet them with a theological exposition justifying their brother's death. No, "Jesus wept" (John 11:35).

While there is space to acknowledge and explore apologetics surrounding the goodness of God in the face of suffering, in the aftermath of an event, it is inappropriate.

We are called to comfort the suffering and to show compassion, not to become defensive and hostile to those who question our God in their pain.

A wildfire in Canada has forced almost 90,000 people to evacuate their homesReuters

2. Don't claim God's judgement

There is a school of thought in Christianity that equates natural disasters with God's judgment.

Don't join it.

While there is biblical precedent for natural disasters resulting from God's judgment, this by no means gives us a liberty to begin sitting in the judgment seat and alleging blame. Particularly when, if we are talking about a justice system in which the guilty get punished, things do not add up. Rather, it is the innocent who bear the brunt of the punishment often. Surely this creates an image of a God who is indiscriminate.

He is also a God of inconsistency. If we make a link between natural disasters and human wickedness, we are left with a muddling picture. It is hard to believe that God chose to punish New Orleans for having a gay pride event (as preacher John Hagee suggests) or that Haiti was sent an earthquake as penance for an alleged pact with the devil (as claimed by evangelist Pat Robertson) and Hitler got off scot free.

Instead of speculating about the potential wrath of God, let us look - once again - to Jesus.

In Luke 13:1-5, Jesus tells his followers about two tragedies - one a massacre of Galileans by Pilate, and the other a tower that collapsed and killed 18 people. His point was not that they were targeted because of particular sin, rather he drew attention to the fallen nature of every human and the hope in repentance.

We are all sinners in need of a saviour - in the paradigm above, we would all be deserving an earthquake - but Jesus came so that we might be free from that sin. He suffered God's wrath so that we might be free from it.


3. Don't forget Jesus

It is easy, when faced with terrible human suffering, to forget the character of the God that we worship. It is easy to focus on the tragedy and allow that to dictate what we think about God, imagining him to be a far off mercenary who exists apart from our pain, callously indifferent to suffering.

This is not the God we worship.

It was Martin Luther who said: "When you look around and wonder whether God cares, you must always hurry to the cross and you must see Him there."

When confronted with the question of where God is in natural disasters, the truth is that He is there, suffering alongside those who suffer. The Christian God is not an abstract idea, distant power or objective reality, rather he is a person who has experienced life on this earth, knows pain and was willing to suffer himself in order to liberate us.

It is easy to become focused on the tragedy and lose trust in God, but the truth is that He is with those who suffered as one who suffered.

It is not doctrine or judgment that God has to offer amid the suffering of this world, but his son Jesus, who died on a cross for the sake of all who suffer.