On the evening of December 26, 2004, my wife and I sat in our Tokyo apartment lamenting the fact that we had procrastinated preparations for our dream vacation to a particular tropical island in Southeast Asia for the Christmas holiday. As we considered what adventures we might’ve been experiencing right at that moment had we just bought plane tickets a few weeks earlier, we were motivated to head immediately to our computer and make arrangements to go on the trip a few months later. However, as soon as we got online we saw the early trickle of images and reports of the devastating Boxing Day tsunami.
That natural disaster was caused by a large earthquake in the Indian Ocean. The earthquake and tsunami claimed over 230,000 lives, including some from the island to which we had planned to go. During the weeks and months that followed this disaster, millions of people reflected on the fragility of life and many pondered questions concerning God.
One such person was my Japanese teacher. He was a 55-year-old Catholic man in a non-Christian country. Some of his neighbors who knew of his religious views questioned him about how he could believe in a God who was supposedly loving but who would nevertheless allow such a large-scale tragedy to occur. If God loves his children, and if he really exists, then why doesn’t he maintain a world free of pain and suffering? My teacher didn’t feel he had “good” answers to such questions and asked me how I would respond as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
I enjoy discussing such questions. But even though my beliefs regarding the matter are very strongly held, it’s not clear that my teacher’s neighbors would have considered any of my answers “good” either. After all, the most complete answers to questions regarding spiritual matters can only be understood properly through the Holy Spirit.
Ultimately, my teacher did feel the following principles from our conversation would help him better articulate his beliefs to his neighbors even if they were skeptical, rather than sincere, in their questions to him.
Direct consequences: I feel like I love my two daughters as much as a human can possibly love. They occasionally get bruised up if they choose to fight over a toy or jump off the top of the couch. My love for them does not and should not completely preclude their agency—i.e. their ability to choose what they will do. And my love for them does not shield them from all potentially painful consequences of their choices. Thus, that they experience consequences is not, per se, evidence that they are unloved or left alone by me. Similarly, the sometimes painful consequences of our choices are not evidence that we are unloved or left alone by God.
Indirect consequences: We are also affected by events that are not direct consequences of our own choices. Surely nobody believes that a ruinous tsunami is a direct consequence of a particular choice someone made. And, on a smaller scale, we are often affected—positively or negatively—by the choices of our family, friends, and others. Even though some encounters with events, including tragedy and disaster, cannot be mapped directly to our individual day-to-day choices, they are natural, expected consequences of the supremely important pre-mortal choice we each made to follow our Heavenly Father’s plan of happiness. We learn from the scriptures that we chose with our eyes wide open to come to this earth, which would be, by design, into a fallen state. In fact, the imperfections and challenges inherent in our mortal experience are the key to gaining the critical understanding for which we came. If my daughter were to sustain skinned knees by falling off the monkey bars at the playground then we wouldn’t say such an accident was necessarily a direct consequence of some particular choice she made poorly. Injury is simply a part of the set of potential outcomes naturally resulting from the earlier choice to go the playground. No sincere observer would see every possible playground accident as evidence that my daughter is unloved or left alone by me. Similarly, the indirect consequences, even when occasionally tragic, of our pre-mortal choice are not evidence that we are unloved or left alone by God.
Equity and fairness: Still, one might ask, “Is it fair that some people would die suddenly in a tsunami?” If this short season of mortality was the totality of our existence then the answer must certainly be, “No!” But if this life is actually just one important phase in a multi-stage progression (as members of my church believe it to be) then a loving God could and actually would account at a later stage of one’s eternal existence for any instance of injustice. Indeed, with an eternal perspective we can see that claiming life is unfair on the basis of an injustice in this particular (and temporary) phase of existence would be like turning on a baseball game, watching a few minutes, changing the channel before the bottom half of the inning started, and then claiming the game was unfair because only one team had the chance to bat. There is more to that game, just as there is more to life than this phase called mortality.
Why don’t I feel a crisis of faith when I witness natural disasters or war? Because my belief in God is derived from personal spiritual experiences; it is not the result of any awe I might feel when witnessing the beauty of nature or acts of human kindness. Thus, disaster and war can be truly tragic while still being easily reconciled to the existence of a loving God.
We humans needn’t worry that our trials and troubles are somehow proof that we are unloved or left alone in the universe. Despite life’s inevitable challenges, large (devastating disasters) and small (skinned knees), we can know that God lives and loves us and that we can return to him with our families.