When things go wrong – such as a loved one dying, a company laying off its workers or a natural disaster destroying everything – the typical response is to ask why. Why did this happen to me? Why did God let this happen? Why didn't God answer my prayers?
After experiencing tragedy in his own life, Adam Hamilton, senior pastor of United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, has made a career out of helping hurting people find the answers.
In his new book, Why? Making Sense of God's Will, Hamilton says that bad things do not happen because it is God's will, or because it is punishment for unacknowledged sin.
The truth is that sometimes, things just happen, he says.
Hamilton gained his perspective of tragedy after his youth pastor and the pastor's brother, both his friends, died within minutes of each other due to a work-related accident. At the funeral, Hamilton, then a seminary student, struggled to retain his faith. He also found that Christians' efforts to comfort him actually made his struggle more difficult.
"One person said 'There must have been sin in their lives and this is why it happened.' Another one said 'No, God loved them so much, he wanted them in heaven.' Another one said 'No, this happened so that someone would give their lives to Jesus,'" he recalled.
Hamilton said their efforts to explain God's intentions triggered more questions he could not answer.
He remembered feeling confused and thinking, "This doesn't make any sense. Why would God kill my two friends so that one person could give their life to Jesus at the funeral ... They were in the prime of their lives. They could have spent the rest of their lives sharing their testimony and inviting people to Jesus."
Another thought that came to mind: "If God electrocutes people for having sin in their lives, there's a lot worse sinners out there who weren't electrocuted like my friends were. And if God loved them so much He wanted them in heaven, well what would that mean? Would that mean that He didn't love the rest of us so much that He didn't electrocute us? "
Hamilton said he returned to seminary school after the incident and began studying the Doctrines of Providence, an education in how God works through providence.
Through this intense study he realized to suggest that suffering and tragedy is God's will is to say that God is either loving, merciful and just but not all powerful, or that that He is all powerful, but not loving, merciful and just.
Neither option is true, he believes. Instead, "God doesn't make everything happen."
In fact, if you take a second look at the Bible, starting from the fall of man on through the New Testament, Hamilton says you will find "there's a whole lot in the Bible that God doesn't intend to have happen and yet it happens because God gives us freedom."
In his book, Hamilton explains that when God made humanity, He gave man the ability to make choices. He also created humanity to live in and be responsible for a world of cause and effect – where every choice that we make can have positive or adverse effects on ourselves and humanity.
Hamilton writes, "Such freedom comes with the possibility that we might choose a course of action that will lead to suffering in our own lives or in the lives of others."
The Kansas pastor's approach to the question “why” is one that establishes that our own sin may be the cause of our tragedy. It also draws heavily on the realities of nature and science.
As he puts it, "We live in a world in which our bodies are fragile and in which if you drive too fast and you hit a tree, the laws of physics say you're going to die."
In that scenario, the death is not a result deep-seeded sin or a divine plan but of simple cause and effect, choice and consequence.
He applies the same concept to the Japan earthquake and tsunami that killed more than 14,000 people in March. "Why did the earthquake and tsunami occur in Japan? Was it the act of an angry God? No, it was the result of the movement and collision of the earth's tectonic plates."
Christians must also understand that while God encourages us to pray for a miracle, He does not always intervene personally to withhold the effects our choices or the natural laws that regulate our world, Hamilton contends.
Instead, "God's primary way of ruling and acting on our plant is through people." While God does sometimes perform miracles in our lives, He also uses doctors to heal people and ordinary people to feed and clothe those in need.
In fact, the author says, when Christians put tragedy and suffering in the right perspective, they realize that although God does not always save us from the repercussions of this cause and effect world, He does work through circumstances and people to answer each other's prayers and share His love with everyone.
Hamilton sums, "When we place our sorrows and suffering in God's hands, we find God redeems the suffering and uses it for our good."