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How faith leaders respond to tragedies like the California wildfires

“You have two ears and one mouth, so you’ve got to be listening twice as much as you’re talking.”

California Church Holds Vigil For Victims Of Deadly Camp Fire Noah Berger-Pool/Getty Images

Why does God let bad things happen to good people?

It’s a question that faith leaders have to answer before their congregations every day. But for clergy members in California, who have spent the past few weeks watching devastation wrought by a series of wildfires that have killed 77 people, left up to 1,000 missing, and destroyed tens of thousands of homes, it’s one that hits particularly close to home.

How do you explain the devastation wrought by a wildfire within the context of faith? And how do you frame that explanation in a way that allows victims to verbalize and come to terms with their own grief and, sometimes, anger? For clergy in affected areas of California, wrestling with the problem of evil is part of the job description.

Take Jesse Kearns. Kearns is a pastor at First Christian Church in Chico, California, just outside the site of the Camp Fire, one of the most destructive fires in the state’s history. The church is associated with the Disciples of Christ, a historically progressive-leaning mainline Protestant group. While his church is involved in helping the victims of the fire in material ways — providing financial support and some housing for those affected by the fire — his job has also involved providing spiritual and emotional counseling.

In a phone interview with Vox, Kearns noted that the question of why God allows suffering is far from a simple one to answer. It’s complex enough that an entire field of Christian theological discourse — theodicy — has sprung up to ask the question of why evil exists in the world.

All too often, Kearns said, people, including Christians, are quick to embrace what he calls a “doctrine of retribution”: the idea that natural disasters or other tragedies are a form of God’s punishment for people’s wrongdoing. (This is particularly common among some, though by no means all, prominent evangelical leaders; Pat Robertson, for example, famously blamed God’s wrath over feminism, liberal abortion policies, and LGBTQ equality as a contributing factor in 9/11.)

“Unfortunately,” Kearns said, “there are a lot of religious organizations today who capitalize on that, and they tell people that the reason California has been getting so many floods and fires and natural disasters is because it’s a liberal state, or because we’re ahead of the game on LGTBQ rights — they’ll [say] this is God’s punishment. But that isn’t consistent with anything.”

Certainly, he said, not with Scripture. He pointed to the Book of Job — the story of a good man whom God makes suffer as part of a bet with Satan — as a biblical answer to the question of why bad things happen to good people. In the Bible, Job suffers even though he doesn’t deserve to, and the text grapples with the fact that there is no easy answer why.

Sometimes Christians are encouraged to “not question God” after a tragedy, Kearns said, or told not to grieve or doubt God. But Job gets angry with God and expresses doubt and sorrow.

“It’s okay to grieve,” Kearns said. Even if that means processing anger.

Christian theology helps pastors offer some answers

But when it comes to dealing with this grief and anger, pastors still feel compelled to offer some answers.

Bryan Meyers, a senior pastor at Grace Community Church, a nondenominational evangelical church in Chico, sees the wildfires as evidence of the fallen nature of creation.

Like Kearns, Meyers has spent the past two weeks helping victims of the fires, including rehousing some victims in church members’ home. “We actually wanted them to be in homes and to just love on people and to give them some comfort and security,” he told Vox in a phone interview.

But dealing with people’s spiritual needs presents a unique set of challenges. People naturally want someone to blame when things go wrong, he said, and when something like a wildfire happens, people sometimes direct that blame at God. Part of his job, he said, is helping people of faith work through that blame.

Meyers says that understanding the problem of evil is rooted in his interpretation of the Christian idea of creation, and in particular the Christian idea of sin. For Meyers, “God created all things.” The account of creation we get in Genesis, he says, is one of “perfection”: a world in which human beings are in “right relationship” with one another, and with the created order as a whole.

After the biblical fall, when Adam eats from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil even though God tells him not to, “sin enters the world. Things are broken. Our relationship with God is broken. Our relationship with each other is broken. And also our relationship with the world is broken.” Meyers sees the destructive elements of creation — from natural disasters to warfare — as inextricably linked to the entrance of sin into the world.

But he hopes for a better future: one that transcends his own life on this earth. Citing Romans 8, which talks about the peace promised to those who believe in Jesus, he says, “We all long for perfection ... we want that perfect life, the perfect body, the perfect relationship.” The Bible, he says, promises Christians that one day, even creation itself will be perfected once more: “to be in perfect harmony and unity, and so we know that day will come.” His faith in the power of that reconciliation — a perfection that will transcend the death and suffering of this world — helps him maintain his own faith, and encourage others.

“We have to remind ourselves that there’s more to life than this,” he says. “This life is short. It may feel long, but no, it’s really short. And so in my mind, this is all like a dress rehearsal to the bigger show.”

“I think that’s what pulls people through tragedy,” he added. “I think that’s what leads firefighters and police officers and other first responders — that type of faith and belief that leads people into things that may even take their life.”

Kearns takes a slightly different approach in the way he shares his theology with parishioners. He points to Jesus as proof that while we may not understand why God does things, we nevertheless can have faith that God “walks with us” during our human struggles.

“Jesus, we believe, is a manifestation of God who walks among us in this world and has become a part of the human condition, which quite often is filled with pain and grief and death,” he said. “ Yet he came, walked among the people, and was put to death. So this is God’s way of saying, ‘It’s okay because I’m here with you.’ And so ultimately, the response I give to people is stuff happens. This isn’t your fault. It’s okay to grieve. And Jesus was with us. So God is with us.”

Both pastors’ perspectives point to a wider issue: The problem of evil is one that transcends any one religious tradition, or any set of answers. Even within the Christian theological tradition, there isn’t a single answer to the problem of evil in the world, or how we’re supposed to respond to it.

From St. Augustine to Martin Luther, John Calvin to Kierkegaard, some of the greatest philosophical and theological minds in history have spent years of their lives trying to grapple with the question of why we suffer. Some have adopted the “doctrine of retribution”; others blame original sin; others point to divine mystery — the idea that we can never know God. (Beyond the Christian tradition, other religions have come to their own differing sets of conclusions about why there is suffering in the world.)

Nobody yet has come to a conclusive result.

But despite this, pastors and religious leaders have to contend with the fact that people who have suffered still want answers. And part of their job is to help them through that process of questioning, anyway.

Sometimes, the answer is just to listen

Both pastors agree that putting the problem of suffering into a theological context can be a long process. The most important part of ministry isn’t necessarily preaching, but listening.

Kearns cites a favorite phrase of his wife, a grief counselor. “You have two ears and one mouth, so you’ve got to be listening twice as much as you’re talking. And so that’s why letting people vent without interjecting your theology or trying to provide answers is so important, especially for people who have faced multiple tragedies.”

Meyers concurs. “If people are hurting and grieving,” he said, “we meet them in that space.” Right now, he says, the reality of the fire is hitting members of his congregation — it’s one thing for them to be aware that they’ve lost their homes after evacuation, but another thing for them to return and confront the physical reality of the damage they’ve experienced.

Talking about the afterlife, or about God, might be more than some of his flock are ready to hear. “Sometimes people aren’t ready for certain principles or truths because they’re just hurting,” he said. “And I think in those moments, it’s best just to be silent. Just to hold people, and just to hear them tell their story. Because they’ve been traumatized. And I think over time, what happens is that those waves diminish in magnitude and they also diminish in frequency, and then they can get the 20/20 hindsight vision and see the good things that came from even tragedy.”

But what good things can come from a tragedy like the California fires? For Meyers, one answer lies in the outpouring of love he’s witnessed among his flock in recent days. “I can’t tell you how this has brought our city together,” he said. “We’ve got people in multiple political parties loving each other. We’ve got people from multiple backgrounds and places loving each other well. All the unrest that we see in our world and in the division and the polarity of our country — I’m just so grateful we don’t have that right now.”

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