As the situation in New Orleans and surrounding areas continues to grow in magnitude, we have each surely read a dozen emails (as was the case with the Tsunami) asking “Where is/was God?” Some actually claim that God did this as a punishment to New Orleans, a city of sin. Please understand our teaching:
First of all, whether one or a city of 100,000 dies, God is ‘there’. Not a sparrow falls from the sky falls without his knowledge. In truth, when one or 100,000 perish, it is the same to God: a disaster. Mankind was created to live—in communion with God, not to die. Our Lord is the Great Shepherd who leaves the flock of 99 to save the one; it is surely the case that in a disaster like this, God is in the midst of it. And who knows more about suffering than sinless Jesus Christ who bore all of humanities suffering and shame on the Cross?
Second, God does not ‘send’ hurricanes, plagues, tsunamis, AIDS, or any other natural or unnatural disasters to “punish” people. New Orleans is no more or less ‘sinful’ than Charleston. Why? Because cities aren’t sinful, people are. And if we are to be true to our faith and to the Scriptures, I am more sinful than anyone in any town. This is what we profess at every Divine Liturgy: “I believe, O Lord, and I confess, that Thou art truly the Christ, the Son of the Living God, who camest into the world to save sinners, of whom I am first” (cf. 1 Timothy 1:15). There is a long line of sinners, and I am at the front of it. But, remember the Gospel, even forespoken by the Prophet Ezekiel thousands of years ago: “For God desires not the death of a sinner, but that he should turn from his wickedness and live” (precommunion prayers, cf. Ezekiel 18:32).
God was there when the storm was coming. God is there in the grim mess which remains. God did not ‘send’ this storm to punish anyone. What this storm does do is the following: It shows that the whole cosmos, the whole of creation is ‘out of whack’, in need of salvation. Christ’s second coming, according to the Scriptures, is a renewal of the whole creation. But as for now, the whole universe is as St. Paul writes: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:22ff). The whole earth, the whole universe needs Jesus Christ. The sins of Adam and Eve on down to your sins and mine contribute to the ‘groaning’ of the universe, where the winds and the waves now destroy. But remember, our Lord created them “good” (see Genesis 1 and 2) and is still Lord over them as He was when He himself walked on water and calmed the storms. This storm also allows us to be the presence of the Living, Saving Jesus Christ whom we proclaim fully in the Orthodox Church. An opportunity to be His compassion for the destitute, His hands and feet for the weary, His home for the homeless, His cloak for the naked, etc. If God is to be seen in this tragedy, it is through us who remain personally unharmed by the storm, but who know the One, True God.