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. ORAXX

    The Oklahoma tornado did happen for a reason and maybe someday the physicists will have enough information to fully explain it. For the moment we have to settle for colliding air masses of different temperatures, moisture content in the atmosphere, etc., for a general understanding of why.

    May 22, 2013 at 3:27 pm |
  2. Roger

    To the author of this article: Then what the Hell IS God? If God is actually the Creator of the Universe then HE and He alone is totally responsible for absolutely everything that happens in the Universe. God made this Earth in a way that's capable of creating tornadoes and hurricanes and earthquakes and floods and famine. None of those are caused by Man, they are caused by God. You seem to want to separate God from nature and somehow blame these horrible events on the randomness of nature. But it's all God! And if that's God, then it's a totally capricious and hateful God, NOT the so-called God of Love and Peace that Christians claim is revealed in the New testament of the Bible. No, sir, there is no God like that. When you come to realize that all we have is the natural world, with no creator God, no benevolent God, no God of Salvation, and that we all have to just do the best we can with what we find in the world, then we'll all be better off.

    May 22, 2013 at 3:22 pm |
    • hal 9001

      I'm sorry, "Roger", but there were too many words unnecessarily capitalized in your post, therefore, your assertions are unfounded.

      May 22, 2013 at 3:28 pm |
    • Gajabahu

      Completely agree and if more people would just accept that, it would be a much better world.

      May 22, 2013 at 3:35 pm |
    • Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohaim

      hal, don't be so concerned about Roger's capitalization. Roger's post does point out the paradox of different Christian belief. The key framers of the Constitution, for instance, were more Deist. Deism holds that there is a creator God, but that such a God does not interfere in any way with people's lives. Many Deists of those times also refuted both the divinity of Christ and the Bible.

      May 22, 2013 at 3:39 pm |
    • hal 9001 bot FAIL

      Hal, he wrote against the case for God, not for it. I'M SORRY YOU FAIL HAL. You get an "F". GO AWAY.
      Atheists with brains (stop giving us a bad name!)
      🙂 hahahahahahahaha

      May 22, 2013 at 3:42 pm |
    • lionlylamb


      Mankind's wisdom seekers know not the Godly wisdoms perceptivities nor sublime reasoning proclaiming that God is an all loving Father of all Life things within all manifestations of all life-living abundances. Civilizations are born onto Life's continually changing rather rhythmically moving d e n I g r a t I o n s continually rising and falling.

      May 22, 2013 at 3:43 pm |
  3. Alias

    So, if god sends natural disaster after people who don't worship him, shouldn't the parts of the world that are less than 1% christian be getting natural disasters on a regular basis?
    I mean, with all thosse people worshipping wrong in Mecca, Tokyo, Kabul, etc., etc., why kill christian children in America?

    May 22, 2013 at 3:15 pm |
    • OMG

      "He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous."

      – Jesus

      May 22, 2013 at 3:22 pm |
    • Darwin was right

      Power hungry Evangelicals today would LOVE to have the secular power again to take annoying skeptics like you – who ask these awkward questions – down into their dungeons and whip them until they repent their scientific nonsense that contradicts the Bible and insults God. Luckily we can now tell them all to GET STUFFED!

      May 22, 2013 at 3:22 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Because God more mercy on those who never heard of him than on those who know but turn away.

      May 22, 2013 at 3:24 pm |
    • OMG

      Power hungry.... people!

      It is not just religious people that pull these power hunger tragedies. Plenty of atheist regimes torturing and murdering people FOR believing in God.

      Just like the religious regimes that torture and murder for NOT believing in God.

      It is a human problem. Not a religion problem.

      May 22, 2013 at 3:27 pm |
    • sam stone

      mighty white of him, bill

      May 22, 2013 at 3:28 pm |
  4. Nietodarwin

    “The difference between faith and insanity is that faith is the ability to hold firmly to a conclusion that is incompatible with the evidence, whereas insanity is the ability to hold firmly to a conclusion that is incompatible with the evidence.”
    _ William Harwood, Dictionary of Contemporary Mythology

    May 22, 2013 at 3:14 pm |
  5. Nietodarwin

    "Meteorologist would be theologians,"HA HA HA. The former do their best with the evidence, the latter are delusional nuts.

    "Religious faith not only lacks evidence, its independence from evidence is its pride and joy, shouted from the rooftops." Richard Dawkins

    May 22, 2013 at 3:11 pm |
  6. Darwin was right

    RELIGION started when a clever fellow, 50,000 years ago, said to his hunting group, "Hey guys, I'll tell you why lightning struck and killed Oog if you'll give me half that deer carcass." For the next 49,700 years, priests and preachers have been making a good living feeding their ignorant and gullible flock with supernatural nonsense answers to why natural phenomena occur and kill people. Hey people, GET OVER IT! NATURAL events (earthqukes, floods, volcanoes hurricanes, tornadoes, disease eqidemics, etc.) occur all the time ON THEIR OWN, powered by energy from the sun, radioactive elements in the earth, viruses, etc.) and don't need a BIG INVISIBLE MAGIC WHITE GUY in the sky to make them happen. If you try to explain this stuff as the 'WRATH OF GOD', then you're not much more advanced in your thinking than that guy who explained why Oog got hit by lightning 50,000 years ago! BTW, enjoy the venison.

    May 22, 2013 at 3:10 pm |
    • Nietodarwin

      "Religion was invented when the first con man met the first fool" Mark Twain

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

    You are a pastor your argument is invalid.

    May 22, 2013 at 3:06 pm |
    • Wow.

      You appear to be a closed-minded individual.

      May 22, 2013 at 3:09 pm |
    • Heretic

      Actually no, I just dont reason with the religious, it is futile.

      May 22, 2013 at 3:13 pm |
    • Wow.

      Yet you keep coming back to this Religion/Belief blog.


      May 22, 2013 at 3:19 pm |
    • Heretic

      Indeed, can always do with a good laugh.

      May 22, 2013 at 3:36 pm |
    • Wow.

      Keep coming back!

      May 22, 2013 at 3:45 pm |
  8. PeterD

    CNN Breaking News – This Just In – CNN has just learned from Associated Press (AP) that Barack Obama has developed a new Antiseptic Cream Called Hydrogen Barackside. Kills Jobs and Capitalism on Contact. Stimulates Marxist Tendencies, No Oversight Needed, Endorsed by Unions. For the General Destruction of Wealth. Warning: keep your wallet away when opening new and Improved Hydrogen Barackside.

    May 22, 2013 at 2:55 pm |
    • sam stone

      How is that stock market doing, Petey?

      Still having a hissy fit because Magic Underwear Mitt lost?

      May 22, 2013 at 3:08 pm |
  9. Brett

    Wow, what an irony. An article about stopping bad theology that is filled with bad theology.
    How is saying "this is just so wrong" a proper theological understanding of death in a weather related disaster. Just say you don't understand and mourn from there.

    Here is big news to the misguided reverend. "Everything does happen for a reason"!!!!
    Hey rev why don't you study Judaism and get a theological clue who God is and how He works!

    May 22, 2013 at 2:53 pm |
    • HumanKindForever

      Which cloud fairy are you referring to? There are too many to keep track of.

      May 22, 2013 at 3:35 pm |
  10. Michael in Houston

    Thank you Pastor. And I agree 100%.

    May 22, 2013 at 2:48 pm |
  11. Uncouth Swain

    I found this: http://evidentlyitstrue.com/Standing_Offer.html

    So what atheist in the Maine area willing to take the offer?

    May 22, 2013 at 2:48 pm |
    • youreyesareweird

      too bad these guys don't want to scrutinize the evidence proving super-naturalism (not that there is any, just say'n)

      May 22, 2013 at 3:18 pm |
  12. Bible Clown©

    Pat Robertson says the dead were just evil sinners anyway or God wouldn't have smote them.

    May 22, 2013 at 2:47 pm |
  13. Reality

    Taking god down a notch helps:

    In Church: The Human Story of God, Schillebeeckx says, "Therefore the historical future is not known even to God; otherwise we and our history would be merely a puppet show in which God holds the strings. For God, too, history is an adventure, an open history for and of men and women."

    Bottom line: One of God's greatest gifts to us is that of the Future.

    Schillebeeckx was responding to the Dutch citizens who were blaming God for the North Sea storms that destroyed a significant number of levees resulting in a significant loss of life and severe storm damage. Sound familiar??

    On the other hand keep the following in mind:


    The Ten Worst Things GOD'S CREATURES Have Done to Each Other:

    M. White, http://necrometrics.com/warstatz.htm#u (required reading)

    The Muslim Conquest of India

    "The likely death toll is somewhere between 2 million and 80 million. The geometric mean of those two limits is 12.7 million. "

    Rank …..Death Toll ..Cause …..Centuries……..(Religions/Groups involved)*

    1. 63 million Second World War 20C (Christians et al and Communists/atheists vs. Christians et al, Nazi-Pagan and "Shintoists")

    2. 40 million Mao Zedong (mostly famine) 20C (Communism)

    3. 40 million Genghis Khan 13C (Shamanism or Tengriism)

    4. 27 million British India (mostly famine) 19C (Anglican)

    5. 25 million Fall of the Ming Dynasty 17C (Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Chinese folk religion)

    6. 20 million Taiping Rebellion 19C ( Confucianism, Buddhism and Chinese folk religion vs. a form of Christianity)

    7. 20 million Joseph Stalin 20C (Communism)

    8. 19 million Mideast Slave Trade 7C-19C (Islam)

    9. 17 million Timur Lenk 14C-15C

    10. 16 million Atlantic Slave Trade 15C-19C (Christianity)

    May 22, 2013 at 2:44 pm |
    • lol??

      What country do you live in?? Iran??

      May 22, 2013 at 2:45 pm |
    • Uncouth Swain

      Ignore Reality...it's just a bot with no brains.

      May 22, 2013 at 2:46 pm |
  14. Ungodly Discipline

    True story, I grew up in Oklahoma. Live there for 12 years and went to college in OKC. One time one of these tornados was headed straight for the campus. No where to go. It changed course but it was terrifying. My grandmother lived in Kansas and once saw a tornado, with people and debris IN it, go right over her. Nightmare.

    May 22, 2013 at 2:42 pm |
  15. Boytjie


    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.
    The GOP controls the House – how did it pass without GOP support? Funny how Dems get the blame for everything and the GOP for nothing.

    May 22, 2013 at 2:36 pm |
  16. Mike Mongo

    I agree with the author that simple statements without context can complicate and confuse us at times of grief and crisis, however that may be defined. However, his oversimplified attack on oversimplified statements, leaves one to feel the entire article is pointless.

    May 22, 2013 at 2:35 pm |
    • Third Eagle of the Apocalypse

      In other words his simple logic trumped your simple faith.

      You mad bro?

      May 22, 2013 at 2:51 pm |
    • Bible Clown©

      I think you are just overthinking it.

      May 22, 2013 at 2:53 pm |
  17. Bob

    Perhaps the answer can be found in 2 Corinthians 1:8–9
    "8 For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers,2 of mthe affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. 9 Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us nrely not on ourselves obut on God who raises the dead."

    May 22, 2013 at 2:35 pm |
    • Third Eagle of the Apocalypse

      You might as well be quoting from Avatar: The Last Air bender for all the legitimacy the Bible has.

      May 22, 2013 at 2:53 pm |
    • Bible Clown©

      Get back to us when God actually raises the dead. Right now you got nothin.'

      May 22, 2013 at 2:54 pm |
  18. sly

    "The Red Sox are the best team ever"
    "No, the Yankees are the best team ever"
    "No, the Red Sox are the best team ever"
    "No, the Yankees are the best team ever"
    "God is real"
    "No, God is fantasy"
    "No, God is real"
    "No, God is fantasy"
    "No, God is real"
    "No, the Red Sox are the best team ever"
    "No, the Yankees are the best team ever"
    "No, the Red Sox are the best team ever"
    "No, the Yankees are the best team ever"
    "No, the Red Sox are the best team ever"

    May 22, 2013 at 2:34 pm |
    • Third Eagle of the Apocalypse

      The difference is the teams have physical, empirical evidence to support their existence real with factual statistics you support such an opinion. God on the other hand has yet to be proven real and has no factual statistics to support his existence. Nice try though.

      May 22, 2013 at 2:56 pm |
    • OMG

      God is real. Just because YOU can't see Him, doesn't mean nobody else can.

      May 22, 2013 at 3:11 pm |
    • Which God?

      Jeebus Christ, OMG, you can SEE it as well as hear it? Doubly delusional.

      May 22, 2013 at 3:22 pm |
  19. Deanna

    Apparently this man doesn't know much about God or the Bible. Everything that God has ever created dies. The Stars, Planets, Animals, Plants, etc. This planet is dying too maybe in a couple hundred thousand years...who knows. But, the point is that these storms, natural disasters are God made. We are God made...tell me anyone who can create a human being from scratch? no one okay, so get this everything that is man made doesn't have a life or soul. We don't know what happens after we die all we know is that we are all gonna die some day. It's cruel and unfortunate and we all wish we could change this and bring back our loved ones at every age. But, for what reason? Because we love them, we miss them but if you will, for all we could no is that their souls are in complete paradise. Yes, God listens to our prayers and yes we get upset at God...read the story of Job. He lost everything and he was devastated. But, God respondend to Job more or less Where were you when i laid the foundations of the earth? Do you know how to strech out the stars or call the mountains to spring forth? Can you loose Orion's belt? in short God is real, he knows what he's doing and he does hear your cries.

    May 22, 2013 at 2:34 pm |
    • Billy

      and he let's his pal Satan play a lot when he runs out for a beer.

      May 22, 2013 at 2:40 pm |
    • Bible Clown©

      "Apparently this man doesn't know much about God or the Bible." Absolutely! Let's all crucify him for trying to talk sense into whacky fundamentalists! No, I'm serious, why don't a bunch of you god-believers go kill him for not believing exactly what you believe? Just nail him right up there and teach him not to have an opinion different from yours. After all, "God needs a talk show host up in His Heaven."

      May 22, 2013 at 2:45 pm |
    • sam stone

      in short, god is a fantasy

      May 22, 2013 at 2:46 pm |
    • sam stone

      "tell me anyone who can create a human being from scratch?"

      your parents

      May 22, 2013 at 2:47 pm |
    • sam stone

      "We don't know what happens after we die"

      Not normally something that True Believers have the guts to admit

      May 22, 2013 at 2:49 pm |
    • Bible Clown©

      "We are God made...tell me anyone who can create a human being from scratch?" My wife and I made one from scratch, using unskilled labor. I'm sure God is very proud of the fine effort you made there, though. He will probably smile on you or something. Perhaps there will be a miracle just for you!

      May 22, 2013 at 2:57 pm |
    • Third Eagle of the Apocalypse

      God made the angles and the Devil (good job god, right?). So are they dying too?

      May 22, 2013 at 3:01 pm |
    • sam stone

      god made jeebus.....is he dying?

      May 22, 2013 at 3:10 pm |
  20. Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohaim


    May 22, 2013 at 2:33 pm |
    • hellloooo

      The lady in this video has a fine rack.

      May 22, 2013 at 2:46 pm |
    • Bible Clown©

      Those are volcanoes.

      May 22, 2013 at 2:59 pm |
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