Natural Disasters: Is It God vs. Humanity?

In a natural disaster such as Hurricane Isaac, the faithful are praying more frequently, more deliberately and more urgently. In times of trouble, fear, scarcity, sickness, and in riding out life's most trying moments, plenty of people who are not usually all that faithful call God nearer as well.

It seems a primal human need to make sense of events, to seek comfort and context for things that happen around us and to us. To hope for the best and be able to distribute some good vibes around the globe via the Almighty just seems to many like the right thing to do.

Sometimes a paralyzing fear seeps through and threatens the strong constructions of our lives. While some just give it up to God and hope for the best, others push God away when bad news is imminent or when it arrives. Either way, in life's toughest moments almost everyone brings God to mind.

For believers, God can tend to hover somewhat distantly when things are good and then be pulled in tight as needed, like a kite on a long string. When things go awry, depending on the crisis, others may feel as though the kite string has broken and that the kite is disappearing in the wind.

When death confronts us and when disaster strikes, most people don't really even have control over the thoughts that rush through their minds. It is no fun to be reminded that we are not always in control of our own protection and wellbeing. There never has been a welcome natural disaster. There never will be.

As long as hope remains still alive in a particular crisis, prayers race to God but with bad news or when prayers seem worthless with the confirmation of a horrible worst-scenario outcome, they often stop again, with many left frustrated and angry with God.

When trying to comprehend the loss of a single life, perhaps news of a car crash killing an entire family, many still feel it is possible to call on God's control over the situation.

But perhaps when the numbers grow larger, less comprehensible -- as in the more than 30,000 people killed in Mexico by drug lords last year alone, the Tokyo earthquake and tsunami killing many tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands killed in the Rwandan genocide, or even the 12 million who were killed in the Holocaust, or the more than 50 million people killed by disease epidemics such as the Great Influenza Outbreak in 1918 which happened in span of six months -- it becomes less possible for many people to keep believing God is really in control of anything. A look at this chart of worst natural disasters is a humbling reminder of how much many of us have to be grateful for.

As much as we may try to empathize, we don't fully understand the many disasters and desperation in distant places like Africa, where war, famine and disease are constant. We can't comprehend the suffering and desperation in India, even if we go see it with our own eyes. These people who live with and live on despite trying circumstances rarely remain unchanged by horror and loss. Hardship has a way of delineating us.

When neither the crisis nor the human reaction to it can be controlled, many of us on the outside of a crisis wonder just what kind of God we have and what possible use is praying? These are age-old questions without age-old answers.

A few years back I heard a child explaining his own theory on why tsunamis and earthquakes happen and his little theory remains with me, alongside my faith in God. As I listened to what I thought would be a boyish superhero theory, he surprised me. "There are all these wars in the world and all the anger from the fighting goes into the earth, then the earth can't stand it any longer and pushes it out again any way it can."

Is there really any better explanation?

While disasters are awful, they can create opportunities for compassion and collaboration, courage and service. Without any hardship, how kind would humanity be? Without natural disasters, when would countries reach out across borders with aid, medicine, support and food?

When would we ever show that we actually care about each other?

Sometimes disasters of epic proportions bring out the best in us. Who knew that actor Sean Penn had such a big heart, such a loud voice and such a big brain before the earthquake in Haiti that claimed the lives of some 300,000 innocent humans at the end of 2009? An actor, a Hollywood celebrity, stepped up in a way that few people ever could and has provided more relief for victims and more coordination for the displaced, who number approximately 400,000, than almost any single person. He is on the ground working in tent camps, in Washington lobbying, and working his network like a symphony director to get the fix in place and get the pledges and promises fulfilled for the Haitian people, now faced with extensive flooding and damage from Hurricane Isaac.

During this current crisis may we each remember to do something to help those who need it most. Even a note of encouragement might help someone.

While we hate them, catastrophes don't really define us, they reveal us. For believers, they can reveal God's inability to protect us all the time, and God's power in us to help each other. For non-believers they can reveal humanity at its best.

Often they reveal love.