Ian Punnett: Keep Bad Theology Out of Oklahoma

Reposted with permission from the CNN Belief Blog

"God never gives us more than we can handle."

God, have I learned to hate that cliche.

As a clergy person, as a hospital chaplain intern and as a father, I have come to believe that, at best, that platitude is a classic example of meaningless bumper-sticker theology. It's easily said and only makes sense when it goes by you so fast you don't have time to think about it.

At worst, however, claiming that God scales a tragedy up or down depending on our ability to handle loss is as heartless as it is thoughtless.

In the deadly aftermath of the tornado that destroyed so much of Moore, Oklahoma, pain is only compounded by the implication that somehow the survivors are complicit in the death of a loved one because of their strength as a person. In this view, if God is only giving me what I can handle, then it would seem my boys would be a lot safer if I were weak.

Anybody who has stood in the reception line at a child's funeral likely has suffered through the repetition of this dubious claim and its equally insidious cousin, "God must have needed a new quarterback (or ballerina) up in heaven," another expression that has hurt more people than it has healed.

Instead of simply saying, "I am so sorry this has happened" or "I am heartsick over what you are going through" or "This is just so wrong," some mourners attempt to explain the unexplainable by forcing the world into the "Everything happens for a reason" paradigm. Bumper-sticker theology of this type reorders the universe less for the benefit of the grief-stricken and more for the benefit of the person offering it.

Because what could be reasonable about the death of a child? Deadly tornadoes can be understood scientifically, to be sure, but there is nothing reasonable about a tornado wiping out a school full of frightened children.

A tornado is not the finger of God squashing us like bugs on a sidewalk. If weather were God's instrument of justice and  tornado victims were singled out to reward the good or punish the bad, then meteorologists would be theologians.

In researching  my book "How to Pray When You're Pissed at God (Or Anyone Else For That Matter)," I spoke with dozens of people who told me that they lost their ability to pray - at a time when they needed it most - when family and friends pressured them into believing that God took their loved one on purpose, and that they were supposed to feel good about it.

In Oklahoma the death toll is 24, and it's expected to rise. I believe that God stands innocently with all the victims. The difference between those who lived and those who died is not the difference between those who had more or less faith, but the random difference between those who turned left and those who turned right.

In our hearts, we might crave the order of a world where God never gives us more than we can handle, but ultimately platitudes are placebos. They only work some of the time and their effectiveness requires the buy-in of the recipient.

If a bereaved parent finds peace in believing that God needed a little quarterback in heaven, far be it from me to challenge that perspective.

That said, in the face of tragedy, I believe that the faithful can best serve victims with sympathetic ears and warm hugs in what is called "a ministry of presence." If they want to cry, cry with them. If they want to laugh and tell stories, smile through the pain, and if they want to yell "Why, God, why?" at heaven, then shake your fist too and leave the question unanswered for now.