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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
[twitter-follow screen_name='deaconpunnett']

(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)
  1. bobcat

    As I see it, the old cosmology in which every event is interpreted as God's judgment, good and bad, is just dead. It no longer makes sense to anyone, yet many hold on to it out of fear. As a group, humans will make no more progress until we stop looking to the Bible for authority on such things. The Bible actually holds us back because it tells of a world in which God picks winners and losers. My struggle is finding a place where I can grow spiritually without having to cave to this nonsense. For today, my answer is to give to those helping out in OK since I am unable to go myself right now.

    May 22, 2013 at 2:26 pm |
    • Ungodly Discipline

      The good news is, no one believes in God anymore.

      May 22, 2013 at 2:36 pm |
  2. roike

    CNN puts this on the front page? Now?

    May 22, 2013 at 2:12 pm |
    • sam stone

      when would you prefer?

      May 22, 2013 at 2:20 pm |
  3. His panic

    Those who trust in God and in Jesus Christ, God's only Son will not Panic. All others will panic.

    May 22, 2013 at 2:05 pm |
    • Uncouth Swain

      Fear is not a sin and serves a purpose.

      May 22, 2013 at 2:09 pm |
    • lionlylamb

      Panic drives the emotionally driven and stress hinders those spiritually blinded on both sides of the fences.

      May 22, 2013 at 2:20 pm |
    • Tyler

      That is the kind of bad theology the author is addressing. My grandfather is currently dying, and I can do nothing about it. I have found that it is hard, really hard, to pray, yet I take solace in knowing that the Holy Spirit is praying with me and for me with "groanings too deep for words" (Rom. 8:26). When I don't know how or what to pray, my God does. Just because I might panic when things like death happen doesn't mean my faith is bad. It means that I am weak and I need to rely upon God. These kinds of things reveal to me my weakness, but I rest, as best I can, in God's strength.

      May 22, 2013 at 2:21 pm |
    • bobcat

      That is just not true. Panic and calm is found in equal measure among believers and non-believers.

      May 22, 2013 at 2:27 pm |
  4. Janter

    Oklahoma's Senators voted to not support Federal support for Sandy Hook. Oklahoma deserves no support from us. Sorry your kids are dead. Sorry your house is blown away. You're not part of America because you choose to be a Red state who selfishly do not want to support others. Sorry, so sad, no prayers or money

    May 22, 2013 at 1:53 pm |
    • bubba

      you go to hell

      May 22, 2013 at 2:08 pm |
    • SabraMonkey

      Get the facts before spewing your hate. Red state senators voted no to Sandy aid for the same reason conservatives always vote against excessive spending measures...waste. They were voting against all of the non-Sandy related spending that was added to the spending bill by Democrats. The real question is "why did the democrats add all of this spending to the Sandy measure?" The answer...they could spend more pork because they could villify republicans who opposed it to the sheeple and thought it would be easy money. Republicans never question the Feds role in natural disasters...its one of the few roles they should assume. I hate when good responsible people are maligned by you guys and your cult of personality. Get the facts

      May 22, 2013 at 2:10 pm |
    • Uncouth Swain

      We don't punish people for the acts of two Senators.

      May 22, 2013 at 2:10 pm |
    • Alias

      Surely to god you are not suggesting there could be hypocracy in a christian state!

      May 22, 2013 at 2:11 pm |
    • Boytjie

      @SabraMonkey

      Get the facts before spewing your hate. Red state senators voted no to Sandy aid for the same reason conservatives always vote against excessive spending measures...waste. They were voting against all of the non-Sandy related spending that was added to the spending bill by Democrats.
      ======================
      You may want to get your own fact straight. 😉
      States that benefited from Sandy Relief included Alaska, Alabama, Mississippi, Texas and Louisiana. Red states.

      May 22, 2013 at 2:26 pm |
    • Tom

      Thank you SabraMonkey for your response. I tell that to all the ignorant and uneducated. The reason why the GOP denies funding is because the Dems ALWAYS put fluff that has no business in the aid package sent forth. I remember a time when the Dems pointed fingers at the GOP when the GOP refused to sign a Defense budget because they had non-military junk in there, pointing fingers saying "see, the GOP isn't for our military." The Dems actually put Hate Crime funding, as well as other aid in the Defense Budgetin 2009 when the Dems controlled the House and Senate. This was an abuse of the legislative process and made U.S. troops "political pawns" in an unrelated social debate. Now what does Hate Crime have to do with the military?

      May 22, 2013 at 2:30 pm |
    • Odo

      People elect the representatives....so if they vote in reps who deny others aid, they should expect to not receive any when they need it....or to be called out as hypocrites.....which they are.

      May 22, 2013 at 2:31 pm |
  5. naturechaplain

    As a former Christian Minister I can appreciate this to a point. Ameri-christianity runs right back to preschool in these natural events that show such great, natural, power. "God protected US but not THEM. . .aren't WE special!" They don't say this, but the belief is their storm shelter. One reason, but not the only reason, I left the tornado of faith, is the appalling lack of that "miinistry of presence" the author mentions. The un-natural disaster of irrational faith continues to leave its path of destruction across so many communities. Sad really, when it doesn't make me angry.

    May 22, 2013 at 1:47 pm |
    • lol??

      HUH?? You are or were a pretend Christian?? Or got booted fer being nutso??

      May 22, 2013 at 2:25 pm |
  6. PeterD

    It was not God's Fault. It was Obama's Fault by Not Implementing The Lessons Leraned from Tornados in Tuscaloosa and Joplin both under his watch and not providing Tornado Bunkers in every school of Tornado Alley States. Instead Obama gave money for Arab Springs.

    May 22, 2013 at 1:39 pm |
    • bryan

      Yeah, Darn Obama. Hey, wait a minute... who writes the budget bills? Oh yeah, congress. Why didn't Sen.Coburn ask for federal money to fund the construction of such things... Wait, why is he now declining federal relief unless it comes with a budget cut???? I wonder if the people in Moore are as "principled" as their Senator?

      May 22, 2013 at 1:44 pm |
    • Lesliee

      You're wrong. Obama breathed, and the tornado started.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:44 pm |
    • funny

      not breathed...farted

      May 22, 2013 at 1:50 pm |
    • Janter

      As if Obama could get the money from the Tea Baggers to do as you suggest. Another thing Oklahoma's Senators voted to not support Federal support for Sandy Hook. Oklahoma deserves no support from us. Sorry your kids are dead. sorry your house is blown away. You're not part of America because you choose to be a Red state who selfishly do not want to support others. Sorry so sad no prayers or money

      May 22, 2013 at 1:51 pm |
    • barnboy

      Right. And 911 was his fault as well. And the Iraq war and Watergate and The King Slayer losing his hand.....

      May 22, 2013 at 2:01 pm |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      Obama is also to blame for the Irish Potato Famine. Just so we're clear on the facts..

      May 22, 2013 at 2:12 pm |
    • Alias

      Stop right there!
      The King Slayer's hand IS Obama's fault!
      If it weren't for all those entitlement programs,
      the pesants would have been poorer,
      and a Lanister could have bought his way out of trouble!

      May 22, 2013 at 2:22 pm |
  7. ME II

    Not bad... for a preacher.

    “God never gives us more than we can handle.”

    Tell that to those who died. (oh right you can't)

    May 22, 2013 at 1:26 pm |
    • Bbac

      Did you even read the article??

      May 22, 2013 at 1:50 pm |
    • Thomas

      For those with no hope, death is tragic...for those of us with hope...death is just the beginning...death is not some punishment, that we should fear....this life is nothing like what eternity will be for believers.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:55 pm |
    • ME II

      @Bbac
      "Did you even read the article??"

      Yes. Those were two separate comments, actually. Sorry, if I wasn't clear. I thought the article was rather good, for a preacher. And also, in a similar vein as the article, that particular statement is not very good for the reason I indicated.

      @Thomas,
      For those without belief in your particular fantasy, death is simply the ending of a natural process and nothing to fear. As someone said, death will be exactly like before being born and I was fine with that for billions of years.

      (... dying on the other hand can be very painful.)

      May 22, 2013 at 2:04 pm |
    • You're a poser

      @Thomas

      For those with no hope, death is tragic...for those of us with hope...death is just the beginning...death is not some punishment, that we should fear....this life is nothing like what eternity will be for believers.

      If you truly felt that way, you wouldn't be here talking about it.

      May 22, 2013 at 2:27 pm |
  8. Logic

    I don't need hugs from con-men who like to have their hands in my pockets as well.

    May 22, 2013 at 1:26 pm |
  9. EdwardTr

    The is very nicely phrased "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.". At time like this make it about the people that suffered the loss not about your personal beliefs or non beliefs,removing or adding religion to the process should be their choice.

    May 22, 2013 at 1:24 pm |
  10. Randy

    I know that belief in god brings hope to those in hopeless situations. I know that it brings comfort to those who have been beset with some terrible personal tragedy. I know these things, yet, I also know that believing them does not make the claims of a supernatural god true. No more true than a child who feels good because he believes Santa will bring him presents on Christmas morning.

    May 22, 2013 at 1:24 pm |
  11. Uncouth Swain

    "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.” "

    Darn right. Whether you are religious or not. Finding the will power to just "be" with someone and not try to fix their problem can be more important to that person than anything else.
    When I lost my father four years ago this June, it was enough for friends and other family members just to hang out with me. I didn't require or want their solutions. I just needed time and the knoweldge that I wasn't alone.

    May 22, 2013 at 1:23 pm |
  12. JS

    God never promised a stress free life, a life w/out problems or pain. What he did promise was salvation through his Son – Jesus Christ.

    May 22, 2013 at 1:22 pm |
    • MagicPanties

      Leprechauns never promised me unicorns, but hey, here is my invisible pink unicorn.
      Go figure.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:23 pm |
    • Thor

      Silly humans

      May 22, 2013 at 1:27 pm |
    • EdwardTr

      I cannot prove there is no god, but I can disprove every single god known.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:28 pm |
    • A Conversation

      @EdwardTr...o.k. disprove God exists. (Which God? You ask. O.k., for the sake of argument, the God understood to exist by Christians.)

      May 22, 2013 at 1:48 pm |
    • sam stone

      no, JS....man promised salvation....a promise they are in no position to honor

      May 22, 2013 at 1:59 pm |
    • nerdy_christian_13

      Well said.

      May 22, 2013 at 3:57 pm |
  13. Heretic

    The bible is losing.

    May 22, 2013 at 1:19 pm |
    • Uncouth Swain

      I didn't know the Bible was trying to win anything.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:24 pm |
  14. bob

    Excellent post! I also am offended, annoyed (sometimes amused when it doesn't involve something like kids dying) by the bumbling attempts of people who would do better to be quiet. If the only time a person thinks about weightier issues is at a periodic funeral, it may be they are not the person to offer perspective. And the days after a tragedy certainly aren't the time. It demonizes God, hurts the recipient, and makes the offerer look like a fool. As Rabbi Kushner has it "Show up and shut up." Thank you for your thoughts.

    May 22, 2013 at 1:12 pm |
    • Greg Joyner

      FOS

      May 22, 2013 at 1:20 pm |
    • @chad

      God does a fine job of demonizing himself.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:24 pm |
  15. James

    Ironically, CNN brings in a few atheists to blame God for the tornado and those who survived the tornado thank God for being alive. The only reason I even watch CNN anymore is to see how much lower they will go. Their political bias is off the charts to the left and to print a story by an atheist at a time like this takes them to a new low.

    May 22, 2013 at 1:10 pm |
    • Mara

      "...a few atheists to blame God..."

      Rediculous. If they're blaming a God, they aren't atheists. Atheists don't believe there's a God to blame. What you probably saw were lapsed or angry Christians railing against the God they feel betrayed them.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:26 pm |
    • Thor

      Ironically, you have no clue what an atheist is or you wouldn't have made this dumb comment

      May 22, 2013 at 1:34 pm |
    • God

      Atheists are blaming God? Really?? Think about that a second... times up! ZAP!

      May 22, 2013 at 2:01 pm |
    • sam stone

      "Ironically, CNN brings in a few atheists to blame God for the tornado"

      as someone else pointed out, atheists cannot blame something in which they do not believe

      if you were to find the posts of Topher (Gopher), he is saying that man caused the storms because they "sinned", whatever the fvck that means

      May 22, 2013 at 2:02 pm |
    • lol??

      Of course atheists blame God. That's what their default father taught em.

      May 22, 2013 at 2:31 pm |
    • lol??

      Saved or lost is the choice. It's amazing the practi*tioners of their beloved dialectic don't acknowledge this.

      May 22, 2013 at 2:36 pm |
    • sam stone

      you cannot blame something in which you do not believe, despite lol??'s blathering

      May 22, 2013 at 2:54 pm |
  16. H. Mulford

    There is no God, only nature and we can not fight her, only respect her. Get better protection and we will not need empty words of solace. My heart goes out to everyone touched by the disaster, but there is no God or Devil, only people, and this was not brought on by some misplaced evil. The world is not flat and religion is very antiquated and serves no usefullness in this society. Yeah, bring it on, guess you think I'm a heathen or something. Keep paying your hard earned money to some phoney minastry. Good luck with that!

    May 22, 2013 at 1:04 pm |
    • Thatsfunny

      "Bring it on"? You read an article in a section of the CNN site called "Belief blog" and then criticize (badly and stupidly...it's m-i-n-i-s-t-r-y by the way) those who *gasp* BELIEVE! And then you expect no backlash? lol

      May 22, 2013 at 1:14 pm |
    • lol??

      He's schmarter than you and probably more humble. Humbled by science.

      May 22, 2013 at 2:38 pm |
  17. Admin

    There is a scripture that has been twisted to that "Bumper Sticker" cliche: I Corinthians 10:13
    No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.

    See here, it's not about anything more than temptation. Not tornadoes or getting mugged or losing a child...but about being tempted.

    If God only gave us only what we could handle, then we'd all be lazy crybabies. Hard things make us better and stronger...sometimes they break us. Sometimes it's too hard and we doubt God. Sometimes we turn to Him. God has to allow for this because we have to choose to follow Him or not. Otherwise we'd be robots.

    Sad when I see this.

    May 22, 2013 at 1:04 pm |
    • You're a poser

      If god is all-knowing as christians claim he is, then "robots" are exactly what we all are.

      May 22, 2013 at 2:33 pm |
    • lol??

      poser, u a poser.

      May 22, 2013 at 2:40 pm |
  18. William R. Walls, LCSW-C

    Has anyone noticed that the 4 stories on CNN.com regarding faith and the OK tornado express overtly atheistic views? Also, not one of the Christian writers mentioned referrenced God's Word directly. It is sad that CNN and agnostic/atheists are using the trajedy in OK to attack Jesus Christ and His followers. The Holy Bible addresses issues deeply involved in and surrounded by the OK trajedy. If we would all just read and understand His Word on such matters, we would have a clear understanding of events. God is in control. We live in a fallen, lost, and dying world full of pain and trajedy. Faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior is the only true comfort while we trod along on this side of eternity.

    May 22, 2013 at 1:03 pm |
    • sam stone

      and christians use tragedy to attack atheists....what is your point, willy?

      May 22, 2013 at 1:04 pm |
    • Greg Joyner

      what was gods word on this???????

      May 22, 2013 at 1:23 pm |
    • bob

      William, I can see your point. But right after a tragedy is a tough time. There certainly are times to make sure all the theological points are in a row, but when someone has just been destroyed by the loss of a child, how would it feel to them at that moment? I know the perspective offered would be done so in good faith, but the timing would be way off. And that's the point, I think, of this article: Reflecting the types of things you should say (or not say) IMMEDIATELY after a tragedy. Give it a few days (weeks, months?), whenever is appropriate, and then this article would probably be addressing the things you thought were missing. It doesn't mean someone is veering from their faith, or that they're an atheist, just because they don't address their theology point by point, in detail, at times like this. It could just be they are taking seriously the proverb that says 'there is a time for everything.'

      May 22, 2013 at 1:23 pm |
    • Trevor

      And you Sam sound like my 10 year old boy thinking its justified that because his little sister did it to him its OK for a little "payback"...grow up and let it go.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:24 pm |
    • sam stone

      trevor: i wonder how wee willy feels that atheists or agnostics can attack a being in which they do not believe

      May 22, 2013 at 2:06 pm |
    • sam stone

      trevor: the belief blog is full of both sides attacking each other.

      May 22, 2013 at 2:14 pm |
    • Alison

      No, what I notice is that you seem to think that a Christian who doesn't express his faith the way you wish he would is an Atheist. I thought it was a wonderful post. I too prefer a thoughtful faith rather than bumper sticker theology, but that doesn't make me an atheist.

      May 22, 2013 at 2:15 pm |
    • lol??

      A&A's attack every word of scripture and pay university professors to do the same. They be schmart.

      Don't be late fer ur appointment.

      May 22, 2013 at 2:43 pm |
  19. Mark DiSciullo

    I hope someday you all find the peace you're looking for. It obviously isn't going to be found here amongst these comments.

    May 22, 2013 at 12:57 pm |
  20. Anna

    A tornado hit. some people pray, some don't. Who cares!!! Mind your own business. There are other things to work on right now, like recovery. Help out! don't be so lame.

    May 22, 2013 at 12:50 pm |
    • My take: Keep bad posts off of Belief Blog

      Fail.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:56 pm |
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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.