As I write this, people in Nepal are pulling out the broken bodies of their loved ones from the pulverised remains of their buildings, amongst the stench of death in the aftermath of a 7.8 Richter scale earthquake.
My niece is there. Mercifully, we heard from her that she is safe and well.
In tragedies like this people use such terms as a means of expressing relief, but people of faith, including the Christian faith, mean it literally: "God has mercifully spared the life of someone we care about."
Showing mercy means withholding justly-deserved punishment. My niece, however, is an extraordinarily good person; she has no need of mercy as she is not deserving of punishment. Besides, what about those hapless victims - over two and a half thousand within a couple of days of the quake - who have died? Why was God not merciful to them? Did they deserve to have the life squeezed out of them as they lay crushed under tonnes of masonry, dying in blind, terrified agony?
In a few days' time, no doubt, some bedraggled victim will be extricated from the rubble, alive, against all odds and this will be described, without any sense of irony, as a miracle. God will, once again, be given credit for singling out one person for his special mercy, but he will not be blamed for ignoring the plight of the many.
Few people of faith will even discuss the blindingly obvious question of why an omnipotent God would have chosen to create the world in such a way as to ensure that earthquakes are inevitable; the simple physics of the Earth's structure ensures that they must happen. An enthusiastic evangelical once told me that the world is the way it is because God could not have made it any other way! Right. An all-powerful God who invented the design principles of the universe, but who lacked the foresight to build in safety. I don't think so!
Whichever way you look at it, logic allows no place for a loving, omnipotent God in this scenario. A God who creates a world that inflicts such indiscriminate violence upon its sentient inhabitants is either cruel or powerless. Or both.
And yet, as soon as the disaster happened Christians fell on their knees to pray to God, asking him to intervene: to help the injured, to provide medicines, to comfort the bereaved. You don't hear any of them berating God for his savagery. It is exactly the way an abused woman will often behave towards her abusive partner. She will make excuses for his behaviour, even blame herself, and return to him again and again instead of fleeing from him in fear and treating him with the contempt he deserves.
Why is this? Well, when a disaster happens we have such a sense of despair that we naturally want to cry out for help. If the abuser is the only one with power (the abuser is always the one with the power) then, it seems, we will cry out even to him. I had a sense of this when I was waiting for news of my niece in Nepal. Having once been a Christian, I know what it is like to resort to prayer in moments of anxiety and, being naturally worried for her safety, I experienced a creeping desire to pray, even though I knew this to be a worthless exercise, not to say an illogical one. My emotions were stirred to want to protect, and compassion drove me to want to help. When we want to make a difference immediately, praying seems to offer us that opportunity; it makes us feel as if we are doing something, even though we are not. (Instead, I sent money, which really is doing something that will make a difference.)
In spite of the fact that logic has crushed it as effectively as the collapsed buildings have crushed those unfortunate souls in Nepal, faith remains a seemingly intractable element of many people's lives. Does that matter? It certainly does if you expect God to actually answer your prayers and protect you from disaster. In reality you'll just have to take your chances with that one; the Almighty won't lift a finger.
Paul Beaumont's acclaimed debut novel A Brief Eternity was nominated for the Dundee International Book Prize and is available on Amazon and other retailers.Suggest a correction