February 13, 2023

Not Why, but What Now?

A massive earthquake took thousands of lives in an area already plagued with years of war, starvation, and suffering.

By Mark W. Fowler

“As God has not made anything useless in this world, as all beings fulfill obligations or a role in the sublime drama of creation, I cannot exempt myself from this duty, and small though it may be, I too have a mission to fill, as for example:  alleviating the sufferings of my fellowmen.” —Jose Rizal

Last week, we read of tragedy in Turkey and Syria: a massive earthquake taking thousands of lives in an area already plagued with years of war, starvation, and suffering. We see images of collapsed buildings and frantic rescue workers pulling children out of wreckage. Let us fully, if briefly, think about the quantum of suffering caused by this from the comfort of our homes. Some were not killed instantly, but expired alone in the dark and cold, trapped by rubble crying for help. A small child suddenly finds himself orphaned, his entire family killed, while he survived. A young father loses his children, his wife paralyzed by a spinal injury. A young mother is widowed. And on and on.

And we want to ask: Why?

Geologists will respond that it was tectonic plate movement. Correct, but that’s not what the suffering are asking; not what we, as witnesses, should be asking. Why me? Why my children, spouse, parents? Why now? Why here?

Unbelievers will seize on this as evidence that there is no God, or if He exists, He is negligent, uncaring, powerless, or all three. Some will wrongly attempt to attribute this to the long-simmering sectarian strife, as did Job’s counselors in the eponymous book in the Bible. The inquiry is a proper one. If we believe that God is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent, what was He doing when this happened? What was He thinking?

I will not attempt to defend Him; He doesn’t need my help. While this was happening across the universe, other things were happening: All the planets continued to orbit the sun, which maintained its fusion reaction producing light and heat. On Earth, thousands of babies were born, some were conceived, some died in utero. The Mississippi River continued to flow south. Waterfowl took the measure of water temperature and hours of daylight and began to pair off to reproduce. Soon they will return to their homes, navigating precisely to the pond where they were hatched. Beneath the soil, seeds lie in wait until the right combination of temperature and moisture elicit germination. The wind blows. The tides ebb and flow. Of these things, men have only the basic knowledge. Our understanding of the magnitude and complexity of running the universe is infinitesimally small. We are unable to teach waterfowl how to navigate. We have never made a seed or an embryo from scratch. We do not know where human consciousness lives. We don’t know how memories are stored. We cannot make a human eye. We cannot affect the winds or change the tides.

The created world consists of order bounded by chaos, of yin and yang, male and female. Sometimes chaos breaks in and disrupts our lives. It was ever thus. The essence of being is that each of us has a role to play. From the most severely handicapped child to the physics professor at Harvard to the janitor in Tennessee. Each is called to be and to influence her immediate surroundings. This conflict between chaos and evil is not unknown to God. Even in the midst of tragedy, He is still there effectuating His purpose. Even the blind and lame, however tragic their lives, exist to manifest the work of God.

As I write, thousands of rescue specialists are on scene doing their best. Not shrinking from tragedy, but running to it, finding strength in each successful recovery and persistence with every loss. Doctors, nurses, and medical technicians of all stripes are working tirelessly to save lives. The first responders and medical workers spent years in preparation for this moment of need. From where did that impulse to serve arise? Across the world, people are sending money, prayers, and ammunition to beat back the chaos and restore order. What moves them to sacrifice their own comfort and financial needs to do that? Churches, the Red Cross, The Red Crescent, and many charities created the infrastructure to respond to this long before it happened. Where do people get the vision to do that?

From The One who is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent. The impulse arises not in spite of, but because of, The Great I AM. “Why” is not our question. That is the lesson of Job. Regardless of our fears and ignorance, God remains in control. The question for us in the face of tragedy is, “What now?” Consider, then, this appearance of chaos, this tragedy, as a call to respond. Let us roll up our sleeves and answer it.

Mark W. Fowler is a board-certified physician and former attorney. He can be reached at [email protected]

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