In the days following the tornado that tore through Tupelo, Lee County and Itawamba County, the miracle of the loss of only one life has been repeatedly cited as the one saving grace of the storm. It could have been so much worse.
Other areas were not so fortunate. In addition to one death in Lee County, there were 13 other deaths just in Mississippi the same day – most of them in Louisville and Winston County.
Naturally those whose lives are spared are thankful to God. But who dies and who doesn’t in a natural disaster – not to mention whose home is demolished and whose doesn’t have a scratch – raises the perennial question of where God is in the deciding.
Pondering the question is a slippery slope. If we survive a disaster without losing our lives or the lives of loved ones, or if we escape property damage while others lose everything, does it mean that God heard our prayers and not those of others? Why do some suffer and others do not – having seemingly nothing to do with their piety or virtue, or even as Job lamented, sometimes in inverse proportion to it?
In his popular classic, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” Rabbi Harold Kushner discussed the problems with automatically assuming that God chooses, willy nilly, to allow some to avoid suffering while afflicting others, to decide who lives and who dies, whose prayers are heard and answered and whose are not.
Whether it’s about illness, calamity or any form of suffering, Kushner wrote, “I can’t believe that God chooses to hear the prayers of some and not of others. There would be no discernible rhyme or reason to his doing that. No research into the lives of those who died and those who survived would help us learn how to live or how to pray so that we too would win God’s favor.
“When miracles occur and people beat their odds against survival,” Kushner continued, “we would be well-advised to bow our heads in thanks at the presence of a miracle, and not think that our prayers, contributions or abstentions are what did it.”
Does that mean we shouldn’t pray for God’s protection and miraculous presence? Of course not. But it does mean we should not assume that we somehow have God’s favor over someone else because we were spared suffering in a particular circumstance.
God is with us, everywhere and always. That is God’s promise to the faithful, and it is enough of a miracle by itself.