Is it preferable that 1000 people die in an earthquake, or that one person hurts their finger?
It's a no-brainer, isn't it? One person in a bit of pain is almost nothing when compared to the agony and loss of even ten people in an earthquake, let alone 1000.
Now imagine two scenarios:
1. You see on the news that 1000 more people have perished in an earthquake on the other side of the globe
2. Someone accidentally closes a door on your little finger, almost crushing it completely
Which one causes you more physical pain? Obviously the second.
And a more tricky question: which one causes you more emotional pain?
If we're honest, it's probably the second one, too. I am much angrier with the person who was so careless with the door than I am with God for causing an earthquake. I suspect most people react similarly out of proportion.
I hadn't really thought about this until it was mentioned - almost in passing - during a sermon I heard last Sunday. I don't remember what the rest of the talk was about, but I was very much struck by the throwaway question as to which of these two situations caused me the more pain.
Perhaps I wouldn't have thought much more about it, but in one of those non-coincidences that God seems to delight in sometimes, I'm currently reading Philip Yancey's 'I Was Just Wondering' which basically attempts to answer - or at least ponder on - some frequently asked questions about God and the Christian life.
In his chapter 'Scorpions, Worms and Missiles', Yancey makes exactly the same point: when he was working in a refugee camp in Somalia, he found himself a lot more worried about the possibility of being stung by a scorpion than by the knowledge that 10,000 of the refugees were likely to die within months.
He goes on to quote the book of Jonah, where God made a similar point in a dramatic way. Jonah really didn't care about the thousands of people in Ninevah who were destined to destruction if they didn't change their ways. But he got very angry when God sent a worm to destroy the tree that was shading him from the sun.
I suppose it's human nature that we are most emotionally involved in things that affect us or our loved ones directly. It's basically rather selfish - or, at least, self-centred - but perhaps it's a mechanism to protect us. It would be impossible to give vast emotional energy towards caring deeply about every world disaster - or, indeed, every finger shut in a door.
But sometimes there's so much bad news around the world that we seem immune to it. Another shooting incident in the USA, another riot in the Middle East, another drought in Africa, another earthquake in Asia... do we care at all? Do we pray - even briefly - for those dying in agony, and those who have been bereaved? Or do we just shrug it off as yet more evidence of the depravity of the human race, or the End Times?