Why Does God Allow Suffering II

September 11, 2011

New York Fire Department Captain Jay Jonas did an interview this week on Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He was a firefighter on the fourth floor of the World Trade Center when it collapsed on September 11. He said that the 4th floor happened to be exactly the right place to be. The first floor was pancaked by the weight of the collapsing building. The floors above the 4th floor were destroyed, but the 2nd through 4th floors were not completely destroyed. It seems that some people near the middle of the building on those 3 floors in that building survived. When the dust began to settle about 4 hours after the building collapsed, he saw a small shaft of light coming from above him and realized that he was now on the top floor of the World Trade Center. He was able to climb out of the pile of rubble and make his way out to safety.

In his book about the experience, captain Jonas wrote that the one thing he does not like to hear from people is, “God was with you on the fourth floor that day.” That line stood out to the interviewer and Terry Gross asked him about why he doesn’t like to hear people say “God was with you.” He said that he had heard a friend of his radio in from the 44th floor to the commissioner before the building collapsed. The commissioner ordered his friend out of the building immediately. His friend responded to the commissioner, “I refuse that order, sir.”

It was extraordinary for his friend to refuse the order, but his friend was with too many people who needed help and he was not going to leave without them. He lost his life when the building collapsed.  Captain Jonas said to Terry Gross, “When people say that God was with me on the 4th floor, are they saying God was not with the people on the 44th floor? Did God want me to get out and not them? I can’t accept that.”


This is the question we have been asking as we prepare for the 10th anniversary of September 11th today. Where was God on that day? Often, people have asked it the way we put it in the sermon title, Why did God allow these things to happen?

Last week, we laid out the classic dilemma that faces theologians, “How can it be that God is all-powerful, completely good and that evil exists?” We ruled out the possibility that evil does not really exist. Today we may consider whether God is either not completely good, or not all-powerful.

The Exodus reading for today shows God saving the people of Israel by parting the Red Sea and swallowing up their Egyptian pursuers.  From the perspective of the Israelis, this is an completely good God, but you can imagine that the Egyptians felt differently about God taking sides. A large chunk of the Bible portrays God as taking sides with the Hebrew people. God rewards people who aim the Hebrew people in the right direction and punishes people who do not. We see this kind of understanding of God in the New Testament as well, as when Ananias is struck dead for betraying the trust of the disciples in the book of Acts.

This point of view pervades the Bible, insisting that suffering happens for a reason, a punishment for God, an incentive for people to change their ways and believe in God.  Tele-evangelists continue to promote this understanding of God today when they say that 9/11 was a punishment for the sins of the United States, that if the country would only return to prayer in schools or outlawing abortion or homosexuality, these kinds of things would not happen.

A simplistic understanding of suffering as punishment or incentive, however, leads to terrible conclusions. What is God trying to teach the hundreds of thousands of starving children in Somalia and other places around the world? How could God punish so many innocent people through hurricanes and natural disasters? Some say that it is finally a mystery, and that is certainly true, but I think the premise itself that God causes misery for mysterious reasons is incorrect in the first place.

Briefly let me mention one other major way the Bible talks about suffering – apocalypticism – the view that everything will work out in the end. The abused and oppressed will be made whole, either in this life or in a life to come. After a disaster like 9/11, we have a profound hope that the people who died did not die in vain. We hope that their suffering ended in an afterlife free from suffering, and we hope that the world learns the right lessons from their sacrifice so that we move toward a more whole world for all God’s people.

It is difficult for me to see that we really are learning the lessons we need to learn to move the world forward, but I still find myself hoping that we will. In the end I am convinced by the frank argument that Rabbi Harold Kushner made in the little book When Bad Things Happen to Good People. He argued that God is indeed completely good and benevolent, but that God does not actually control everything that happens – not just because God gives humanity free will, but because the universe is just not set up for God to control everything.

For some people this claim denies such a basic attribute of who God is that it is like claiming that God does not exist.  For some reason, however, I find this answer less problematic than saying that God causes children to get leukemia or that the people who died in last week’s hurricane had it coming somehow. I believe that God is completely good and was present with each person in the World Trade Center – the ones who got out and the ones who didn’t make it. I believe that God means for us to learn from everything that happens in the world, and for us to be God’s hands, feet, eyes and voice to move the world to be a better, more godly place.

One of the strongest tools God gives us – since we are quite imperfect ourselves – is forgiveness, the grace to start over ourselves and to forgive each other, and then to hold each other accountable in the continuing call to build God’s beloved community. This afternoon we come together with the broader community in Bryn Mawr to remember the events of 9/11, to find forgiveness for the ways in which we have responded over the last 10 years in ways which have not moved us toward community, and to rededicate ourselves to God’s call.

Responsive Hymn: 2234 Lead On, O Cloud of Presence