Quick judgments about God's wrath ignore mystery of suffering

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December 1, 2014

The mysterious man walked into the church after Communion, loudly announced, "Ebola is God's punishment" and then left. There are two problems here (three, if you include his lack of respect for people at worship and for the God they worship) – bad theology and racism.

To say people suffer because God is punishing them for their sins is a quick, easy and idiotic judgment. This is not to say that God does not care about evil. If God loves good, he must hate evil. God is passionately concerned about each person and whether he or she chooses good or evil. Scripture, both New and Old Testaments, includes several accounts of people who were punished for turning away from God.

These accounts cannot be reduced to people experiencing the natural consequences of their sins. To take one example, Ananias and Sapphira, early followers of Jesus, sold a field to give the money to the Christian community, but held some money back for themselves. When Peter confronted them about their sin, each dropped dead on the spot (Acts 5.1-11).

The story of Job, however, radically undercuts easy judgments about automatic links between wrongdoing and suffering. Job, the archetypal just man, is visited by suffering upon suffering. For St. John Paul II, Job's suffering "is the suffering of someone who is innocent and it must be accepted as a mystery, which the individual is unable to penetrate completely by his own intelligence" (The Christian Meaning of Human Suffering, 11).

Later in the same document (n. 13), the pope adds, "Love is the richest source of the meaning of suffering, which always remains a mystery: we are conscious of the insufficiency and inadequacy of our explanations." That is, suffering can be understood as an outpouring of God's love rather than of his wrath. This is perplexing for our comfort-obsessed culture: Suffering can be a gift to bring one closer to God.

As for Ebola, the vast majority of cases have occurred in six African nations. Rather, than concluding that the residents of these countries deserve God's wrath for their supposed evil ways, one might instead argue for increased measures to help prevent the spread of the disease. Nearby Nigeria has kept itself Ebola free, not through moral purity, but by vigilant disease prevention.

Meanwhile, the same day the mysterious man interrupted Mass at a local Church, the McKinsey Global Institute released a report stating that 2.1 billion people worldwide suffer from obesity. The causes of obesity are complex, and again it would be rash to make sweeping moral judgments. Nevertheless, the fact that no one seems to be singling out obesity as a sign of God's wrath is a sign of just how arbitrary and offensive such judgments can be.