When bad things happen to faithful people

Last night, I dreamed that a massive oak fell on my roof during a fierce lightning storm. In my dream, I was unharmed. But trying to escape, I discovered my only exit blocked by the tree. I called 911 and the line rang and rang. No answer. The logic in my dream was that the 911 operators were too busy fielding calls from others affected by the storm. I found a way to escape by climbing over the trunk and through the branches.

When I was free, I was suddenly with a group of friends. I was telling them about my brush with death. They were only mildly interested. It was as if an oak crashing on a home happens every day.

Most of my dreams fade quickly when I awaken, or I don’t remember them at all. But this dream lingered. While no expert at dream interpretation, I don’t think it’s a stretch to interpret this one as symbolizing a dramatic and frightening disruption occurring in my life. Something as solid as a giant oak is broken by a lightning bolt. Something as safe as a home is crushed when the oak falls.

And while I woke up to an intact roof and no tree branches blocking my exit, I also know that such massive and devastating events happen every day. Vacationers embarking on a cruise off the coast of Italy find themselves in a capsized ship, scrambling for safety. A driver traveling down a dark highway sees a deer leap from the woods and run in front of his car. A routine exam results in a diagnosis of a life-threatening illness.
A car running a red light crashes into another car.

At any moment, our lives can fall apart, the roof of our security crushed under catastrophe. We know this, and yet we don’t. We know this when it happens to us. But we don’t really believe it if it hasn’t happened to us or someone close to us.

When a terrible event hasn’t happened to us, we can maintain some distance from it. Our hearts may be touched, we may be rattled, we may try to imagine our reaction to such a devastating experience, yet our world doesn’t change. We are capable of maintaining the equilibrium we enjoyed before the event occurred.

But every one of us one day faces a life-shattering crisis — death, disease, accident, disability, divorce, addiction, estrangement. Every one of us eventually discovers our security crushed under the weight of catastrophe.

Some of us believe God is testing us through catastrophes. I don’t believe this. Some believe that if we were only pious enough God would have spared us. I don’t believe this. Some people believe that people crushed by catastrophe somehow deserve their fate. I don’t believe this.

If I believe in an all-loving God, then such responses contradict God’s loving nature. Would I test my own children by inflicting devastating pain on them? Would I inflict harm on my own children for not being holy enough? Would I see my own children as meriting catastrophic punishment?

I so often fail to love my children well. But I love enough not to wish them harm. How could God do any less?

Heartbreak and loss are unavoidable. They are woven in the human experience. But they are only devastating because we love. If we didn’t love, we would just be swept away or immediately rebuild our lives, like ants flooded out of their hill.

We suffer because we love. We love life. We love each other. We love light, goodness, and wholeness. When we lose those, we experience great pain.

Yet we have hope because we believe God is the source of all that is good. If we place our trust in God, as Jesus did, we will be led through life’s darkest hours. We will enter new life — transformed and whole.