Last weekend I lived through my first hurricane, Hurricane Irene…sort of. The storm hit the New Jersey shore as a weak category 1 hurricane but in reality, we only experienced tropical-storm force winds. However, as has been reported all over the news, there has been extensive damage done across the east coast from flooding including as of now, the loss of forty-two lives.
As it unfortunately happens way too often under such circumstances, I heard some rumblings about this hurricane being an act of God punishing the wicked. Since the loss of my own son, Kenny, in 2002, I’ve been more attuned to the question of human suffering. Far too often I have heard claims trying to simplistically explain suffering as an act of God punishing the wicked.
Such statements assume that the world operates under the doctrine of divine retribution which believes that good fortunes come to those who live morally upright lives and bad fortunes come those who live in wickedness. Consequently, according to this doctrine we can determine who are the righteous and who are the wicked based on the blessings (or curses) people receive in life.
From a biblical perspective, this doctrine runs into trouble. In the book of Job, the opening verse of the prologue describes Job saying, “This man was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil” (Job 1.1). This is not saying that Job was sinless, it simply is a statement about his moral character and faith (see Gordis, The Book of Job, 11). Job was a righteous man. In fact, Job even defended himself as righteous in his confrontation with Yahweh (Job 29.14) and never is this claim rebutted by Yahweh. Yet if you know the story of Job then you know that Job suffered in every conceivable way short of dying.
Though there are accounts in the biblical canon where people are afflicted for their wickedness, one of the things the book of Job is saying to us is that human suffering cannot always be reduced to the simple explanation of divine retribution. Whatever the reasons for human suffering, the doctrine of divine retribution is a false doctrine which fails to explain the mystery of suffering.
I don’t know why human suffering occurs. All I know is that as a person of God I must pray for those who are suffering, be present with them, serve as I can, and trust that God is making all things new in Christ.