When Tragedy Challenges Faith

About this article

Why does God allow bad things to happen? This short article adapted from Understanding Catholic Christianity provides both a "head" and a "heart" response to that question from the Christian perspective.
When a Natural Disaster Strikes
Natural disasters such as hurricanes, tornados, wildfires, and floods can challenge our trust and belief in God. We may ask: How could a loving God let bad things happen? How could God let us down like that? Will God really come through in helping the victims? Does the experience of tragedy mean that we cannot place our trust in God?

A Faith Response to Tragedy
A Christian faith response to these questions involves both the head and the heart, belief and trust. Let's look at Christian beliefs that address these questions first.

A "Head" Response
God loves us and wants us to have life that is overflowing with goodness. God longs for our love in return, and desires an intimate relationship with us, but genuine love is always freely given, never forced. God made us free so that we would be able to love. Beginning with the first humans, people have often used their freedom to turn away from God's love by choosing to love themselves over God.

Some natural disasters have tragic consequences at least in part because of human choices. Decisions about pollution, urban planning, or management of natural resources have consequences in the natural world. God created an intricate and wonderful world, but it too is journeying toward a state of perfection. Mysteriously, physical evil will exist as long as creation has not yet reached perfection.

In Christian belief, God does not arrange tragedy and suffering to teach us something, to punish us or to fulfill some grand purpose. Because God loves us so deeply, we can say that God suffers with us when we experience loss and suffering. God even shared human suffering on the cross, in the person of Jesus. Moreover, God overcame sin and death through Jesus' Crucifixion, which was followed by the abundant life of the Resurrection. Christians believe that through faith, they share in the promise of the Resurrection: Evil and suffering do not have the last word; God's love ultimately wins.

A "Heart" Response
In the end an honest Christian response to the problem of evil admits that these "head" explanations, taken alone, fail to satisfy. This is especially true when pain and grief overwhelm us. We realize that life has a mysterious dimension, and some things are simply beyond us.

That is why Christian faith responds to tragedy not only with the head but also with the heart. Belief in the Resurrection invites Christians to deepen their trust in God when they encounter trouble. For many people who trust in God even in the presence of suffering, the Resurrection becomes not just a matter of belief but a life-giving reality that they experience in their life here and now.

Consider the experience related by a Catholic high school student whose life was turned upside down by her parents' divorce:
Life was hard. We were constantly on the move, and all the stability of my childhood was slipping through my fingers. It just seemed like everything and everyone around me was in a whirlwind of change, and I was left there with my head spinning. I began questioning God's love. Why had he abandoned us? . . .

Then one hot summer morning, I was awakened (no, not by a bright light) by the sound of my mother shouting and the two babies wrecking the apartment. I felt overwhelmed by it all. I slithered onto my knees and poured my heart out to God. Then I went back to sleep. That's when it happened. There was no magic dust or sparkles, nor did an angel appear to me, but something much better, something priceless. I felt a warm blanket of love wrap around me, and I felt God tell me not to worry, to let my heart be still, and that he loved me.

No magic show, no drug, nothing of this world could match that feeling. . . . No, my life is not perfect now and my problems have not disappeared, but I know that God loves me, and that makes all the difference. (K. B., "A Warm Blanket of Love," in Every Step of the Way: Stories by Teenagers 4, Saint Mary's Press, 1999, pp. 47-48)
The Christian response to suffering is to hang in there and keep believing that goodness can eventually come from our pain, and that God's grace is given to us when we suffer and when we grieve.

"Lean on God"

It's okay to acknowledge feelings of being abandoned by God in times of tragedy--the Book of Psalms is a wonderful example of such expressions of sorrow. All of the tragic events of recent days may challenge our faith, but they can also be an opportunity to grow in faith if we "lean on God" in the way that K.B. did in the excerpt above. In addition to leaning on God, it's important to lean on one another by sharing doubts, fears, and other feelings with the people we trust the most.

Discussion and Reflection

  • Sometimes we want to turn away from the suffering of others. In the face of a natural disaster or other major tragedy, we might want to turn off the news, put down the newspaper, or talk of other things. How could letting ourselves deeply feel horror and grief in the face of this disaster actually lead to something good?
  • Sometimes we become so overwhelmed by suffering in the world that we need to make a special effort to look for signs of God's presence in the world. Think back over the past week. Try listing all the signs of God's presence in the world that you can remember: for instance, laughter with friends, a good prayer experience, or an act of kindness.
  • How are each of us called to be signs of God's presence in the world, especially in times of tragedy?


(This activity is adapted from Understanding Catholic Christianity by Thomas Zanzig, published by Saint Mary's Press, 1997) Copyright © 1997 by Saint Mary's Press. Permission is granted for this activity to be used for classroom or campus ministry purposes. This prayer may not be republished in any form without written permission from Saint Mary's Press. To order this book, contact Saint Mary's Press at 800-533-8095, or visit our online catalog at www.smp.org/catalog.cfm.)

Published September 11, 2001.