Why do people suffer? When asked by the disciples about human misfortune–specifically about a man born blind, Jesus diverts their leading question and responds:
Neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him.
On Earth, only four earthquakes since 1900 have been more severe than the one to hit Chile yesterday morning. As I was reviewing news reports last night, a similar question surfaced, “Why is God punishing first Haiti, then us?”
I was pondering all this, plus some self-centered things, during my morning Lectio Divina today. I’ve come to that great chapter in John’s gospel on the healing of the man born blind. Immediately, I was drawn to this phrase above. In the JB, the term is “revealed” instead of “visible,” but the thought is the same.
When confronted with suffering, we cannot turn the clock back and warn people or undo some catastrophe. All that is left is to deal with the present reality. When natural disaster strikes, we can respond. And we do so with the offering of prayers, with donations of treasure, and if we’re fortunate, our personal talents. The Lord suggests that in this way God is glorified, through the transformation of grave misfortune into an expression of compassion and generosity. Or speaking of the Paschal Mystery, of the cheating of death and its transformation into new life.
Even our own sins can be transformed in this way. One of my favorite confessors spoke of this: the importance of not giving in to discouragement, but acknowledging the all-powerful God can turn our most grievous sins into an opportunity for amazing personal growth and for serving others in the glory and grace of God.
So while I think there are consequences to sin, I find it difficult to attribute earthquakes to any sort of punishment. (It would be an interesting theological discussion to ponder the notion of the natural world as it was created, and presumably, the conditions that did not change with the sin of Adam and Eve, but still present a challenge to life.) These natural disasters are tragedies, to be sure. But they provide the opportunity to glorify God. So let’s get to it, right?