This column’s November 18 article, “Why, dear God, did you allow Yolanda?” was just one among countless musings in recent weeks on what, God knows, is His message or motive in the super typhoon’s laceration of death and destruction across the Visayas.
“Where was God in the Philippines?” headlined CNN belief blog co-editor Daniel Burke. He samples views from a wide range of observers, from atheist Sam Harris (“Either God can do nothing to stop catastrophes like this, or he doesn’t care to, or he doesn’t exist”) to popular Jesuit priest James Martin (“. . . the idea of God suffering along with us can be very helpful”) as well as Muslim and Buddhist perspectives.
“Oh, there is a God; he saved us,” was how Yolanda victim Soledad Majos, 75, quoted by London’s The Independent newspaper, saw heaven in the hell she survived. And her take on why God sent the killer storm in the first place? “Because there are so many bad people. This is His punishment.”
Beforeitsnews.com agrees in its November 13 article, “Disasters will continue to happen, if we do not call on the real and true name of God when we pray to Him!” Citing the Book of Deuteronomy, the website warns: “We . . . receive a blessing from God if we obey His commands or a curse from God if we disobey.”
Everything ends –but when?
Mass homilists, too, offered thoughts on what God may be saying in the life-snuffing cyclone winds and house-engulfing storm surges. In mass readings yesterday, Jesus Christ and the prophet Daniel predicted the destruction of Jerusalem and the fall of empires, respectively. The celebrant then stressed how everything in this world would pass away—as seen in the recent Visayas devastation.
Another mass celebrant two Saturdays ago reflected on Christ’s parable about the wise virgins who brought enough oil for their lamps at the wedding, and the foolish ones who got shut out of the festivities when the groom arrived before they could get back from buying oil. The Jesuit homilist cautioned the faithful to always be ready to face the Lord, “for you know neither the day nor the hour”—as Yolanda’s fatal passing showed.
The Sunday after at another church, the priest saw in the 250-kph winds and five-meter waves the divine test of human virtue and vice. People were drowned, decimated, dislocated, dispossessed, and otherwise distressed for the Lord to see if they would do the right thing, from keeping the faith and caring for the least of their brethren, to turning away from pride, greed, violence, and other evils. In God we test.
No stopwatch for the Judge
Personally and with limited formal theology, this Catholic writer can accept the temporal and unpredictable nature of this world, though one wonders whether Filipinos needed Signal No. 4 to be reminded of these facts of life. But maybe we do.
So listen up: the Four Last Things of death, judgment, heaven, and hell can come sans warning. And even though Yolanda was anticipated for at least a week, and the government’s NOAH storm warning system predicted 17-foot surges in Ormoc, thousands were still surprised by the storm’s ferocity.
Plainly, those who died in a calamity never expected to perish, and the November 16 homilist rightly urged prayers for the 3,600-plus fatalities counted at the time. Most drowned in Yolanda’s wake and obviously with no final rites to prepare them to meet their Maker.
We implore Him to show mercy to His unfortunate children, now more than 5,000 dead, and we believe that He would not turn them away just because they turned to Him only after their time on earth had run out. The all-forgiving God doesn’t judge His beloved children with a stopwatch.
God does not give killer tests
On the other hand, in this writer’s heart of hearts, he cannot believe that the all-merciful and loving Lord lines up lethal trials on the road to heaven. As the Epistle of the apostle James says plainly, “God cannot be tempted by evil and He Himself tempts no one.”
And in the misfortunes He Himself is recounted as inflicting in scripture readings, this daily mass-goer cannot recall any divinely decreed deadly distress meant to assess anyone’s faith, hope and charity, prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude. After all, if the test kills, how does one pass it?
There are heavenly punishments for sins committed, from the Great Flood inundating the earth, to destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the four-decade captivity of the Israelites in Babylon. The Almighty also sends afflictions to prod people to do His will, such as the ten plagues forcing the Egyptians to free the Israelites, and the hounding of Jonah till he agreed to deliver His warning to the city of Nineveh. Many have pointed to natural calamities as imparting divine warnings for man to top despoiling nature.
What about Job? Didn’t heaven bring tragedy upon him and his household to test his faith? And Abraham, too, who was told to sacrifice his son Isaac on the mountain. Those were painful, cruel trials, right?
True, but remember that God sent an angel to stay Abraham’s hand just before he could put his son to the blade. Test, yes; death, no. And it was in fact the devil who tried Job’s devotion with the decimation of his family and flocks, and the disease of his body. He proved loyal to the end, and God restored him to health, family and prosperity.
Perhaps what many see as God’s word and will in disasters is really the failings of this world, with its calamities, enormities and fatalities. Yes, these ills test us, exposing virtue and venality. But the divine message in all this can’t be just a finger-wagging “do this or else,” though there certainly is much wrong to right in the world.
Rather, far more than angry admonition, His paramount point may be simply that amid our pains on earth, our Father in heaven embraces us. Like the good thief in last Sunday’s Gospel, those who believe in the midst of agony are told, “You will be with Me in Paradise.” Amen.