In Theory: Do we bring tragedy on ourselves?

The recent tornado in Oklahoma that killed 24 people and destroyed or damaged 12,000 homes has stirred up a row on social networking site Twitter.

The day after the disaster, popular evangelical speaker and author John Piper tweeted two references to Job, including, "Your sons and daughters were eating and a great wind struck the house, and it fell upon them, and they are dead" (Job 1:19). This kicked off a storm of tweets and retweets as people interpreted the verses as either the right thing to say or a veiled way to blame people for bringing the wrath of God on themselves. Evangelical writer Rachel Held Evans slammed what she called Piper's "abusive theology of 'deserved' tragedy" and said, "The only thing we need to tell [tornado victims] is, 'I don't know why this happened but God is good and God loves us.'" A staffer at Piper's Desiring God ministry said Piper was "highlighting God's sovereignty and that he is still worthy of worship in the midst of suffering and tragedy."

Q: In events such as the Oklahoma tornado, the Sandy Hook school shootings and other tragedies, is it right to claim that those affected brought it on themselves?

It is ludicrous to claim that tornado victims and murdered children have brought it on themselves. People in the heartland don't need to get right with the supernatural, they need to build good storm shelters and safe rooms and then use them.

I have decided to believe that the Sandy Hook victims got included here because of some weird bug in this paper's copy-editing or printing software, otherwise this question would have made me run screaming from my computer.

So yes, rational atheist though I am, I indulge in fantasy sometimes myself. My fretting keeps my daughters safe from harm — I call it preventive worrying. If I take an umbrella it won't rain. Leftovers that I eat because they are about to go bad contain no calories.

The difference between people like Piper and me is that I know when I am engaged in magical thinking.

Roberta Medford


How sad that a member of the clergy, or any other person in religious leadership, would have the theological audacity or lack of compassion to blame a tragedy on its victims. It is difficult for me to believe that a person of faith would make the kinds of statements attributed to Piper in relation to the destruction and death caused by recent tornadoes in Oklahoma. Although I have heard these kinds of misguided statements before, I am always stunned by them. The God I believe in has no such vengeful attributes.

Having officiated at a memorial service for the almost full-term, stillborn baby of two wonderful parents, I cannot believe that there was any fault that would have possibly justified her death. Nor can I imagine a sin black enough to punish two little boys by taking away their mother through her death from the ravages of cancer. Rabbi Harold Kushner shared in his book, "When Bad Things Happen to Good People," that the question is not why bad things happen, but what to do when they happen. To claim to know why bad things happen to others is, to me, the height of hubris.

My hope is that people of faith, laity and clergy alike, will find ways to comfort those who are suffering — not blame them for their misfortunes. If we do judge them harshly, perhaps we are the ones who should, like Job, be blamed for our pride. Biblical scholar Dr. Bart Ehrman, in his book, "God's Problem," said, "Our response should be to work to alleviate suffering wherever possible and to live life as well as we can." To that I would say, Amen.

The Rev. Dr. Betty Stapleford
Unitarian Universalist Church of the Verdugo Hills
La Crescenta


This is a somewhat loaded question, but my immediate answer would be "no." No, I wouldn't say a natural disaster was asked for, and no, I wouldn't say the school shooting victims were more deserving to die than others. And how could anyone point the finger with any divine certainty anyway? It would just be a callous allegation.

Is it possible that our culture produces spiritually dead people who randomly murder their neighbors? Maybe, so perhaps then we as a whole nation are reaping an awful whirlwind.

In the Bible, there is that episode where God rained brimstone on Sodom for its pervasive wickedness against him, and it was destroyed (Genesis 19). But in Oklahoma, a fluke wind wound its way through a state that's on the very buckle of the Bible Belt, where 85% of citizens worship God. Why would God destroy his own? Which brings us to Piper. He quoted a very caring and spiritual verse, and if the reactionaries would first look before they leap and pile on, they wouldn't have anything to complain about. Piper referenced Job, of whom God opined, "there is no one on Earth like him; he is blameless and upright" (Job 1:8).

God loved Job and didn't "punish" him with familial misfortune. Piper was just reaffirming that bad things can happen to good people, and God isn't going about seeking whom he may destroy. How come a godly pastor quotes biblical Scripture for comfort and immediately he's demonized?

We live in a world of people and nature. Both require attentiveness. Are Oklahomans or Connecticuters worse sinners than those from states without twisters and shooters? No, for "all have sinned and fall short" (Romans 3:23). God had Job in mind with high opinion and God loves the world, but stuff still happens, and Earth is still not heaven.

The Rev. Bryan Griem
Montrose Community Church


I have a pet peeve. It is the Christians-name-natural-disaster-as-judgment-of-God story that inevitably is written when something bad happens. It is a pet peeve because someone else gets to define my faith to the public as something insensitive, narrow-minded, and guilt-evoking.

It is no surprise to me that people would jump to conclusions about Piper's comment. It is the story we are expecting. Yet, it seems that Piper is the one incurring the wrath he brought upon himself. Theology was never meant to be contained in 140 characters or less and Piper's comment was too vague for the medium he chose.

The story of Job was the exact opposite of our popular news trope, "Christians say God judges people for evil." The story of Job seeks to address, "Where is God in the face of senseless tragedy?" It is the exact question we ask in the face of a school shooting, terrorist bombing or natural disaster. The answer was not that Job was being judged for evil. The moral is exactly what Piper's staffer mentioned: "God is still worthy of worship in the midst of suffering and tragedy." Job addresses the fact that it is tempting to blame God when bad things happen to us, but in reality, God is worthy of worship. God is in the process of redeeming the darkest portions of our lives. God heals us and promises a future where we are neither enslaved or defined by the grief of our past.

David Derus
Fuller Theological Seminary


I agree with the comment of Rick Warren about these types of disasters. We need to express love and compassion without imposing our opinions. With events such as the Oklahoma tornado, the Sandy Hook school shootings and the Boston bombing, the affected did not bring it on themselves. This is especially clear in cases like the Oklahoma tornadoes because thanks to science, we can understand exactly how a tornado is created, and why it occurs when and where it does.

A tornado is a vortex of wind reaching from the ground to cloud level. Tornado Alley in the United States is the home of most of the tornadoes in the world, and the most violent ones. The physical geography of the U.S. contributes to the number and intensity of weather events in Tornado Alley. So there is no mystery involved in the Oklahoma tornadoes and no reason to blame any action or inaction by the residents of Oklahoma.

When bad things happen it does not mean that people have done something wrong. The best way to help others is to just show up and help without moralizing and berating.

Steven Gibson


Neo-Calvinists like Piper hold an extreme view of God's sovereignty. They believe that nothing that happens on this Earth, including natural disasters, bombings, wars, even the decisions of individuals, can occur outside the sovereign will of God. Theirs is a world that is ultimately totally predetermined by a deity who does what he pleases without explanation for reasons we don't understand. Yet, paradoxically, we are to love and embrace this God and trust him.

Somehow they ignore the fact that Scripture teaches that God created a perfect world for humans and gave them dominion of that world. Unfortunately, humans made the choice of rebelling against God and in so doing, signed over their dominion of Earth to a renegade spirit, Satan, who is referred to as the "god of this world."

Satan's dominion is expressed in the temptation of Christ, when Satan offers him all the kingdoms of the Earth, stating "for they have been given to me." Jesus clearly stated Satan's intention in human affairs: "The thief (Satan) comes only to steal and kill and to destroy." He then contrasts this with his intention for humans, "but I have come that they might have life, and have it more abundantly" (John 10:10).

Apparently Jesus was not a neo-Calvinist. In the most famous prayer in human history, Jesus taught his disciples to say, "Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on Earth, as it is in heaven." If everything is ultimately the sovereign will of God, why would Jesus teach us to pray that God's will be done on Earth?

Human tragedies and natural disasters are not the judgment of God. I agree with Evans that this is abusive theology. These are times to comfort and encourage, not judge and condemn.

Pastor Ché Ahn
HRock Church


It is difficult to categorize natural disasters and human tragedies under the same aegis. The world, with hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, tidal waves, electrical storms and even the Ice Age, has always been subject to the changes in nature. Are we, through our 21st-century insensitive plundering of Earth's resources, aiding in the force and frequency of natural disasters? There is strong evidence to support that theory. Industrial fracking for fossil fuel, and the individual disposing of dozens of plastic bags every day by millions of humans, is not stabilizing the Earth in any way.

Dr. Korva Cole says that our young people are hot-wired for spiritual connection. When we raise our children to not be aware of a loving and attentive spiritual presence that cares for us in our deepest sorrow, loneliness and longing, then we might be raising children who as teenagers and young adults feel free to act out on society when they feel as if they have no control over their lives. We are all connected. What we do to one other person, good or bad, affects us all, as a species. But to say that small children who know so little of the world outside of the love of their families have brought death by a mad assassin's bullets upon themselves is a terrible and unfortunate misreading of the Torah, the Quran or the Holy Bible.

The Rev. Dr. William Thomas Jr.
Little White Chapel


Christ taught that it is not our place to judge those who suffer misfortune. A more appropriate scripture to consider following the Oklahoma tragedy is found in Matthew 22, where Jesus counsels, "Love thy neighbor as thyself."

Those simple words become profound in their application. From them we learn empathy, compassion and tolerance. And we also hear a call to render help, both emotional and material, when our neighbor is in need.

I don't believe the deadly tornado was a punishment sent from God any more than countless other tornadoes, tsunamis, earthquakes and hurricanes have been acts of divine vengeance. To suggest that it was must have been terribly hurtful for the victims.

We live in a world of random acts that often cause pain and suffering. One of the most difficult challenges we face is to remain faithful, even during trials that we don't fully understand.

The Book of Job uses a literary device to teach this. In Chapter 1, Satan makes a proposition that God accepts: Job, righteous in prosperity, will be subjected to grievous trials to see if he will denounce God. The great triumph of Job is that he emerges with deeper faith and greater understanding.

It is noteworthy that in the end, God himself chastises those who suggest Job's suffering was the consequence of sin.

I don't know what was in Piper's heart when he sent the tweets. The second verse he cited, Job 1:20, could be viewed as a call to turn to God for comfort.

Regardless, the controversy is unfortunate. It has created contention, and worse, drawn attention away from the actual tragedy. Better that we set the arguments aside and look instead for ways to help.

Michael White
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
La Crescenta


Oh, of course not! Things happen and sometimes there is neither rhyme nor reason. In one of the Gospels, a tragedy happens and people die. Jesus' disciples ask him if they died because they sinned or their parents sinned. Essentially, Jesus says neither, and he really leaves the question unanswered (See Luke 13: 1-5).

The problem of evil and the problem of innocent people suffering is actually unanswerable. We do have choices in this life and we make our choices and then live with the consequences. For example, if we want to live in a wooded area, we must realize that wildfires are always a problem in Southern California. I'm not saying that anyone who chooses to live in the woods "deserves" what he/she gets; but an intelligent, rational person, religious or not, takes responsibility for his/her choices and then proceeds to live his/her life. And some of us don't have the full range of choices that others have.

In the past few weeks I have found myself wondering why people choose to live in Tornado Alley — but maybe some of them don't really have the choice to move. Innocent children certainly don't have that choice.

Also, I am reminded of the Greek tragedy aspect of life: People try to change something so that a predicted disaster avoids them — and then some other disaster that they didn't see coming consumes them.

Life is tough and unpredictable and the good folks don't necessarily fare any better than the not-so-good folks. (Jesus addresses that one, too. See Matthew 5:45.) This faith that believers share does not make anyone bullet-proof. We believe because we believe, and not because we think we're going to get a free pass through life. So why believe, one might ask? Because we can do no other.

The Rev. Skip Lindeman
La Cañada Congregational Church
La Cañada Flintridge


To simply post Job 1:19 is, in my mind, grievously inadequate in light of the very real suffering of Oklahoma's residents. It's an exceptionally vague response to the crisis that leaves us wondering just what Piper's point was. If I had read that post after losing a loved one I would have found it insensitive and lacking in necessary explanation and application to the situation.

I don't fault the theology of judgment that Piper and others have publicly expounded. All human sin merits the judgment of God, eternally and even temporally. Scripture attributes the temporal judgment of the flood in Noah's day directly to God's action. And we truly don't deserve any blessing in light of our sins against God. But we must proclaim the whole counsel of God, that he is also "a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness and truth" (Psalm 86:15). It was God's mercy that moved him to send his son Jesus, who died on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins.

As a sinner who deserves God's judgment as much as anyone else does, I'd be extremely hesitant ever to preach that "they had it coming," even though in fact the person in question might have. And Los Angeles deserves it more than Oklahoma, probably.

Pastor Jon Barta
Valley Baptist Church

Copyright © 2019, Burbank Leader
EDITION: California | U.S. & World