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May 22nd, 2013
08:34 AM ET

My take: Keep bad theology out of Oklahoma

Editor's Note: The Rev. Ian Punnett is the author of "How to Pray When You’re Pissed at God (Or Anyone Else For That Matter)" and a veteran talk show host. He has been married for 28 years and is the father of two college age boys.

By Ian Punnett, Special to CNN

(CNN) – “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.

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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.

CNN Belief: Who hears #PrayersForOklahoma?

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.

CNN’s Belief Blog: The faith angles behind the biggest stories

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.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ian Punnett.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Belief • Christianity • Opinion

soundoff (631 Responses)
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    November 27, 2013 at 11:36 pm |
  2. Steve Finnell

    WHAT IS YOUR SOURCE FOR THE TRUTH?

    If you are searching for the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, who and what are you going to consult? If you are looking for advice, information and instruction on how to be saved from sin and how to live the Christian life, where can you find God's inerrant truth.

    Are you going to consult books written by:
    Clement of Rome
    Irenaeus of Lysons
    Tertullian
    Augustine of Hippo
    Polycarp of Smyrna
    Bishop Fulton Sheen
    Martin Luther
    John Calvin
    John Knox
    George Whitefield
    Charles "Chuck" Colson
    Cotton Mather
    Jerry Falwell
    Billy Graham
    John Piper
    Max Lucado
    Alexander Campbell
    T. D. Jakes
    Oral Roberts
    Dwight Moody
    Joesph Smith Jr.
    Mary Baker Eddy
    Charles Taze Russel
    Sun Myung Moon
    L. Ron Hubbard

    DO YOU REALLY WANT TO TRUST YOUR SALVATION TO THESE MEN?

    As for me I trust the book written by these men:
    Moses
    Daniel
    Matthew
    Mark
    Luke
    John
    Paul
    Peter
    Jude

    I trust the book that was inspired by God.
    2 Timothy 3:16 All Scripture is inspired by God....

    WOULD THERE BE THOUSANDS OF DENOMINATIONS, IF ALL MEN WOULD JUST CONSULT GOD AND HIS VIEW FOUND IN, HIS BOOK, AND HIS BOOK ALONE?

    THE BIBLE SHOULD BE YOUR MANUAL FOR THE TRUTH!

    You are invited to follow my Christian blog at: steve-finnell.blogspot.com or you can google search steve finnell a christian view

    July 24, 2013 at 6:08 pm |
    • midwest rail

      Does your God condone stealing free advertising ?

      July 24, 2013 at 6:13 pm |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      I don't trust men's words, I trust reliable, testable results that can be verified by independent measurement. As for the god of the bible, he's too big a dovchebag to consider as a candidate for existence.

      July 24, 2013 at 6:13 pm |
  3. Praise FSM

    Here's an idea. Keep bad theology out of EVERYTHING.

    You want to sing to fairies in the privacy of your home or your church, knock yourself out. Otherwise, STFU.

    June 3, 2013 at 10:09 am |
    • Censorship

      Act of changing or suppressing speech or writing that is considered subversive of the common good.

      June 4, 2013 at 8:20 am |
    • docmagnus

      And "good theology" is what, exactly?

      June 17, 2013 at 12:10 pm |
  4. Kilgore Trout

    Good column in general. But if God is powerless to influence tornadoes, why call him God? How can he be "among the innocent" if he has the power to prevent it?

    Though the sentiments presented here are nice, the theology remains irrational.

    June 2, 2013 at 10:24 am |
  5. Matthew Crockett

    In Job, his friends decided that he was struggling because he had made God mad. God eventually gets involved to condemn his friends and remind them that they didn't make the world and have no call to claim why anything happens. This is actually a variation of that. A side effect of granting humans free will is the possibility that someone will make a tragic choice. God's involvement in this is one of love as someone who supports you when life hits a rough patch and promises a tear-free existence Later when we arrive in heaven.

    June 1, 2013 at 10:29 pm |
  6. faith

    BOYCOTT THE ADVERTISERS THAT WASTE MONEY ON THIS DE GE NERATE, SICK, HA TE-FILLED PE RVERSE MOUTHPIECE 4 NAZI GOD HATING FASCI S TS

    2DAY, 2MORROW, 4EVER

    June 1, 2013 at 5:54 pm |
  7. bev 156

    What would you do if you were dying because a boulder landed on your leg and severed it? The closest medical aid is miles away. Then you discover that your cell phone to call 911 was crushed in your pants by the boulder. You ask a pedestrian for help and they respond by telling you that you don't need their help. They say, "God never gives you more than you can handle." These are times that are obviously a cruel misuse of "God never gives you more than you can handle." However there are plenty of less obvious situations where people misuse this phase. I hope that society steps – ups in the less obvious cases too.

    June 1, 2013 at 3:29 pm |
    • Alison

      Personally, as a human being, I think I would respond with a fight or flight response in your described situation. I think morals and values come into play more than not and I dont think you can blame that on Christianity. God created us but he didn't give us a plan. Jesus came here to take on our sin. As a Christian I know that in life I am in a constant struggle to live up to what God wanted but I know that when I die I have eternal life. Ones personal power is in how they live their life. In my experience its been beneficial for me and those in my life to follow Christ.This world can use kindness. We have a choice. Period. In my experience, good things come from Jesus's preachings. I also attend an amazing church which breaks it down to our lives today. I found this article interesting.

      June 16, 2013 at 1:03 am |
  8. DEEANN

    I'm sick of all theology, but yes, there can be more than one interpretation for the tired old saw. From a well-meaning person it could mean "i'm so sorry, and I have confidence in you, I know you will get through. May you find peace" From a more incompetent person, it may may "I'm too lazy, unwilling or unable to think of anything better to say." In any case, I agree, the ballerina/quarterback comment is the height of insensitivity.

    June 1, 2013 at 2:12 pm |
  9. ZiggyDogg

    I too am sick of cliché, bumper-sticker theology and well-meaning but thoughtless people babbling, but can there be more than one interpretation of “God never gives us more than we can handle?” I'm reminded of the Mark Twain quote, "When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.” Mr. Twain cannot be more clear who he is describing . . . can he?

    May 31, 2013 at 12:48 pm |
  10. Sciernce

    BUZZ OFF fake science poster.and chadie/faith/Austin/toothless and L$H saw you somewhere today........the cats !

    all creationists HS too.

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    Have a great life if you can crawl out of the green slim you are in.

    May 30, 2013 at 6:04 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.