The Condo Collapse in South Florida Was Not a Punishment From God. It Was Due to Human Negligence...

Finding Faith Amid Trauma and Disaster

by Rev. Paul J. Bern

Around the world, people are still struggling to come to terms with the condo collapse in Surfside, Florida which has left 24 dead as I write this, with 124 more missing and still more having been rendered homeless. In times like these, many people find comfort in their faith. But disasters can also challenge long-held beliefs. So I took a poll asking some prominent subscribers from my website how they make sense of such a disaster, where they see inspiration amid destruction, and how they respond to people who wonder, “How could God let this happen?” Whenever a disaster like this occurs, I go back to the Bible, to the First Book of Kings. Elijah, in despair over the situation in ancient Israel, runs to the desert, back to Mt. Sinai to find the God of the Revelation to Moses.

"And lo, the Lord God passed by. There was a mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks, but the Lord was not in the wind. There was an earthquake but the Lord was not in the earthquake." (1st Kings chapter 19. verses 11-14) To me, that is the key: the Lord was not in the earthquake. Natural disasters are acts of nature, not punishments from God. God cares about the well-being of all people. We are all children of God, and he is an all-seeing God. Conversely, nature is blind, an equal-opportunity destroyer. But so does the negligence of humanity, which is apparently the case with the condo collapse

Where is God in south Florida today? It’s in the courage of people to carry on their lives after that tragedy. It’s in the resilience of those whose lives have been destroyed, families swept away, homes lost, but they resolve to rebuild their lives each and every time. It’s in the goodness and generosity of people all over the world to reach out and help strangers who live far from them, to contribute aid, to pray for them. How can people do such things if God were not at work in them to lend a counterweight to that disaster in Surfside Beach?

The Japanese are more focused on relationships as opposed to raw faith, feeling the pain of others. I have observed this during Japan’s earthquake and the resulting tsunami in 2013. I saw it again during the time of the Hanshin Awaji earthquake. In 1995, the Great Hanshin earthquake on the island of Awaji killed about 6,500 people. There were many people who came to the affected area to help and volunteer. They have a word, “earthquake children,” for people whose perspectives were affected by the disaster. They became very active in community service or became Buddhist monks. So people will be more spiritual, feeling the pains and joys of others.

For die-hard believers like myself, there is no satisfactory answer for why we suffer. Each person has to come to grips with that. It’s not as if some magical answer can be found. But the idea of God suffering along with us can be very helpful. The Christian believes that God became human and that God underwent all the things we do. Jesus on the cross cried, “My God, my God, why did you abandon me?” Christians do not have an impersonal God, but a God who understands what it means to suffer. People can relate more easily to a God who understands them.

Where is God? God is right there with the people who are grieving and sorrowful. In my own life, when I have felt great sorrow, I have trusted that God is with me, and that I’m not facing my struggles alone. Oftentimes people become more religious in times of sorrow. They find that they are able to meet God in new ways. Why? Because when our defenses are down and we’re more vulnerable, God can break into our lives more easily. It’s not that God is closer, it’s that we’re more open.

These kinds of natural disasters become the collective responsibility of all humankind to mobilize our compassion and resources, and to ease the pain of the people who have suffered, or who have sustained great loss. This disaster is not the result of any sins of these people. We need to be clear that there is no belief that these victims “deserved” it for any of their actions. Rather, Christians see these kinds of tragedies as a test from God. Christians believe that God fortifies those he loves, and these tragedies also serve as a reminder to the rest of us to remain grateful to God for all our blessings and cognizant that we must support those in need.

These kinds of calamities should push us in positive ways. They should strengthen our faith in God and in his goodness. We attribute the things we don’t understand to his limitless wisdom and comfort ourselves that he is with us and he loves us. So there must be some meaning in what has happened, even if it is beyond our comprehension at this time. We are trained by our faith that every suffering, whether big or small, brings us closer to God’s mercy and forgiveness. If we are walking and feel a thorn pierce your foot, you should know that even this little bit of pain brings you divine blessing and God’s forgiveness. These times of suffering give us an opportunity to demonstrate patience and faith, and therefore to bring ourselves closer to God through Jesus Christ his Son.

Every natural phenomenon or man-made catastrophe challenges us as God’s trustees on this Earth, showing us that we should continue to study and explore ways of safeguarding humankind and all creatures from being subjected to this kind of devastation. It is the collective duty of all humanity to put all available resources in this to advance our understanding of how to respond to these disasters in a Spiritual way. As we contemplate all those people in Surfside. Florida who have died in this tragedy, we may feel very strongly that we ourselves, in some part or manner, also have died. The pain of one part of humankind is the pain of us all. And the human species and the planet Earth are one body. What happens to one part of the body happens to the whole body.

An event such as this reminds us of the temporary nature of our lives. It helps us remember that what’s most important is to love each other, to be there for each other, and to treasure each moment we have that we are alive. This is the best that we can do for those who have died. We can live in such a way that they are continuing to live in us, more mindfully, more profoundly, more beautifully, tasting every minute of life available to us, for the sake of their memory. The only sense to make of tragedies like this is that terrible things can happen to perfectly innocent people. This understanding inspires compassion.

Religion, on the other hand, erodes compassion. Thoughts like, “this might be all part of God’s plan,” or “there are no accidents in life,” or “everyone on some level gets what he or she deserves” - these ideas are not smart. They are extraordinarily callous. They are nothing more than a childish refusal to connect with the suffering of other human beings. It is time to grow up and let our hearts break at moments like this. I expect to see an increased need for spiritual sustenance in the aftermath of the condo collapse in South Florida.

I don’t believe that God wanted this to happen. I don’t think it was ever God’s intention. We know that there are going to be storms in life. No matter what happens we need to keep our faith and trust in Almighty God. And I want the people of Japan and from Surfside Beach to know that God hasn’t forgotten them, that God does care for them and that he loves them. We care and God cares, and we’re standing by them.