Today, November 10, 2015, is the fortieth anniversary of the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. The Edmund Fitzgerald was a Great Lakes freighter that was built and launched at Nicholson Docks just a few blocks from where I now sit. It was the largest Great Lakes freighter of its time, measuring more than seven hundred feet. On November 10, 1975, it was making its last run south with a load of iron ore headed for Zug Island (just about a mile north of here).
The weather forecast on Lake Superior was turning dangerous. Before long, a storm blew up with winds over fifty miles an hour kicking up waves twenty to thirty feet. The Edmund Fitzgerald maintained radio contact with nearby ships until its last transmission at 7:10 p.m. Sometime shortly after that, the ship sank to the bottom of Lake Superior near Whitefish Point, taking twenty-nine souls with her. She remains there to this day.
Gordon Lightfoot memorialized the shipwreck in 1976 in his “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” It’s not a great work of musical art (or any other kind of art for that matter), but it has survived the years for its occasion. It gets played today all over. It’s morbid and sobering.
And it raises an interesting and difficult question:
Does anyone know where the love of God goes
When the waves turn the minutes to hours?
Where does the love of God go when suffering comes into our lives and the lives of others? Where is God in the midst of tragedy?
This is, in a nutshell, the problem of evil. If God is so powerful and so loving, why do bad things happen?
The whole problem of evil and tragedy in the world is a difficult one for Christians. I am not yet convinced there is a good answer, at least good in terms of making sense in our finite human minds.
I think there is a perfect answer bound up in the perfections of a sovereign God. But that remains for another world to be explained, if we could even grasp it then.
Truth be told, Christians aren’t the only ones with the problem of evil. Atheists and other non-Christians have the exact same problem. In fact, their problem may be worse since they do not have a coherent framework for even the concept of evil, much less its existence.
But what about the question? Does anyone know where the love of God goes when the waves turn the minutes to hours?
What should we say to these questions, whether raised by our own minds or the minds of others?
Well, first I would say the love of God doesn’t go anywhere. Of course, I am sure that Lightfoot wasn’t attempting to make a theological point by his use of the word “goes,” but I think the theological point should be made. The love of God does not go anywhere or cease to exist in the face of evil and tragedy, whether of human making or an “act of God,” as the insurance companies like to say. God’s love is constant, unchanging, and unmoving because it is who God is. When the Edmund Fitzgerald when down, God’s love was the same as it had been the day before or the day after, or forty years before or forty years after.
But second, in the midst of tragedy, I would not focus on the problem of evil. In fact, I would try to avoid it for the time. I would simply say, “We don’t know.” It is a mystery which we simply do not have the tools to solve at present. It is, in one sense, like an untimely death. You don’t know what caused it until the autopsy. But the autopsy must be done by someone with the knowledge and skill to reach right conclusions.
The problem is that in human tragedy, there is no one with the knowledge and skill to perform on autopsy for the Edmund Fitzgerald, or Hurricane Katrina, or an earthquake, or cancer, or anything else. We simply cannot explain the workings of God in this age except to say that we live in a broken world that groans for the redemption.
For now, rather than attempt to give answers, we weep with those who weep. We mourn with them in loss and grief. We share their confusion. We resist the urge in the moment to theologize, to explain, or to rationalize. There will be time for that later perhaps, when the fog has cleared a bit. But even then we must be cautious not to speak for God where God has not spoken.
For now, we take hope in Christ who rose from the dead in whom all the promises of God are yes. We take hope that one day he will right all wrong, will wipe away every tear, and will make all things new.
Until then, we recognize the this earthly life is but a temporary station that will be over all too fast in the best of situations. Don’t waste it by explaining the inexplicable. Use it to minister the grace of Christ to the hurting and love them for the sake of Jesus and the gospel.