A number of interesting natural and unnatural things have happened in the last few days. We have seen an amazing solar eclipse which happens only a couple times in most people’s life time. Some people go too far on one side making such an eclipse a biblical sign from God, and others go too far the other way almost worshiping the sun itself. We’ve also seen moral disasters involving riots over racism or supposed transgender issues. One person was actually threatened with jail time if a supposed transgender person was offended too much. We’ve also been cautioned by a mad man in North Korea threatening the United States and other countries around him with his nuclear weapons which he treats as toys to be thrown around in his temper tantrums.
The most notable occurrence, however, is the natural disaster known as hurricane Harvey. We all have been glued to television images of the worst flooding in our life time in an American city and the sickening scenes of people losing their homes and possessions. It is only by the quick response of authorities and neighbors that there has not been more loss of life. Our church has prayed for sister churches, extended family, and people who are suffering irreplaceable loss. Forty or fifty inches of rain is just incomprehensible to us until we actually see the result. The hurricane itself, with its destructive wind, doesn’t seem nearly as tragic as the water brought on shore during and after the storm. It is not the first hurricane to bring tragic destruction, and it won’t be the last. There are other places in the world which are hit more frequently than our shores and usually with greater damage.
So what are we to think of such natural disasters? Like other phenomena, there seems to be as many opinions and responses as there are people involved. Christians have a truer perspective, however, and even though we may differ among ourselves as to what God is doing, we all agree that God is in control and these things are not a surprise to Him. It is good for us to think upon His works during times like this, and to be ready to give an answer of the hope that is in us to people who question why a good God would allow such a thing to happen. It is to that purpose that I attempt to answer a few questions.
We speak of the providence of God as the outworking of His will throughout the ages. We may be speaking of human history and God’s control over the affairs of men or we may be speaking of God’s control over the creation itself. Daniel wrote, “He changeth the times and seasons: he removeth kings and he setteth up kings” (Dan. 2:21). Asaph the psalmist wrote, “For promotion cometh neither from the east, nor from the west, nor from the south. But God is the judge: he putteth down one, and setteth up another” (Psa. 75:6-7). Of the elements of nature, God answered Job and said, “Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? Declare, if thou hast understanding. . . Or who shut up the sea with doors, when it brake forth, as if it had issued out of the womb? When I made the cloud the ferment thereof, and thick darkness a swaddlingband for it, and brake up for it my decreed place, and set bars and doors, and said, Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further: and here shall thy proud waves be stayed?” (Job 38:4-11).
The New Testament declares that Jesus Christ Himself upholds everything in the created world, “Who being the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person, and upholding all things by the word of his power” (Heb. 1:2); “And he is before all things and by him all things consist” (Col. 1:17). These statements coincide with the fact that Jesus Christ is the One who created all things in the beginning, “All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made” (John 1:3); “For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him” (Col. 1:16).
So when we talk of God’s providence controlling all the actions and activities in the world, we realize that no storm nor flood, no hurricane nor tornado, no draught nor freeze, no birth nor death, happens without His full knowledge and control. The apostle Paul exclaimed, “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!” (Rom. 11:33). And Abraham, begging God to spare Sodom, acquiesced and said, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen. 25:18). In a fallen, broken world only God can know which is the best way for all things to happen. Certainly, we cannot understand it nor comprehend the necessity for one thing or another, but we can be sure that God does. And since we know that in the end we will praise Him forever for what He has done, we should also praise Him now as those things are working out in our own time.
There have been cataclysmic judgments of God throughout history. The dispensations are mostly divided by such judgments. The fall of man in the garden caused God’s judgment to be placed on all of creation from man and beast to earth and soil. The flood of Noah’s day was a judgment of God by water that destroyed the world so that God could start again, “And the Lord said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air; for it repenteth me that I have made them” (Gen. 6:7). The tower of Babel, the Babylonian captivity, the tribulation period, are all judgments of God due to man’s sin and rebellion against His will.
Yet the question remains as to whether something like hurricane Harvey is a judgment of God for some wickedness of man. Since nothing happens in this world without His knowledge and control, wouldn’t we say that such is the case? This was the rhetorical question Jesus put to His listeners in Luke 13:1-5, “Or those eighteen, upon whom the tower of Siloam fell, and slew them, think ye that they were sinners above all men that dwelt in Jerusalem?” He asked the same concerning many Galileans whom Pilate slaughtered in the temple, were they “sinners above all the Galileans, because they suffered such things?” But the surprising answer of our Lord was, “Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.” We are all sinners and we all deserve judgment from God, and in a far worse fashion than these.
In the days of prophets and miracles, God often did bring judgment immediately upon sinners. Korah and his followers perished when God opened up the earth and they all “went down alive into the pit, and the earth closed upon them: and they perished from among the congregation” (Num. 16:33). But the age of grace is a different age. God will judge its sin at the end of the age. If in this age God, in His sovereignty, chose to punish sin at a particular time and in a particular way, we would not know it because it would not be in a miraculous form but in a more natural way. We are better off to remember that all of human history is mixed with God’s judgment on Adam and Eve’s posterity as well as with God’s goodness. There would be no storms nor sickness nor death if our Edenic parents had not disobeyed God. There would have been no hurricane Harvey, nor flood, nor personal loss. There would not have been a Holocaust, a Columbine, a 9-11, nor any other tragedy if sin had not entered the world in the garden. So we cannot pronounce any such tragedy as a particular judgment of God, but at the same time we can also pronounce all tragedies a result of man’s sin and God’s judgment. Just as God’s rain falls on the just and the unjust, so does His curse.
Something further can be said about tragedies that come upon us all due to sin that entered our world. We all suffer them at one time or another. If one person dies in 9-11 or in hurricane Harvey, they may get more recognition than someone who dies in a car accident due to a drunk driver on a lonely country road. But the tragedy is no less for either grieving family. I have stood at the bedside of faithful saints who were stricken by sudden and terrible diseases, and I have held the hands of grief stricken parents at the grave side of a child who died prematurely. To the suffering ones, the size of the disaster or the notoriety which it brings matter little.
Yet remember this, that since we live in this broken world, and since evil comes upon us all, so does the constant opportunity to serve and help our fellow man and especially our brothers and sisters in Christ. It is precisely because of tragedy that we have reason and opportunity to serve. Consider how bitterness and differences are immediately put aside during tragedies such as hurricane Harvey. There is an imago dei in each of us that causes us to help one another. It is the rainbow that appears during the storm. It is the testimony of God within His human creature that cries out to its Creator in praise and thankfulness at times of tragedy. This is the testimony of God within the sinner also that causes him to seek his Creator. Ironically, tragedies are also opportunities for witness. This is truly the silver lining to the cloud that covers us all.
The church is the body of Christ. We usually recognize it in two forms. This age of grace has contained the universal church, i.e., all of those who have truly placed their faith and trust in Jesus Christ. They were placed into that body by the baptism of the Holy Spirit at the moment of their conversion and are kept there by the power of God through the blood of Jesus Christ. We have an obligation to love a brother or sister “in Christ.” The other usage of the word describes the local church in a given locality. Of the 115 times that ekklesia (“church”) appears in the New Testament, well over 100 of those refer to local churches. A believer’s obligation is much more to the local church for serving, worshiping, praying, helping, than to the universal church. During tragedies we see all denominations, groups, fellowships, and missions, reaching out to their constituencies and trying to provide help in any way they can.
The New Testament does not give the local church a mandate for a social gospel to the world. That may sound harsh but it is not. The social or political gospel is not the Scriptural business of the local church. It is a difficult thing as a pastor to hold that distinction in a day when the world looks at the church as a service organization for the community. What do they know about the gospel? But knowing this does not prohibit a local church from doing what it wants to do to help its fellow man. As we have said, it is an opportunity for witness or service. Yet that is different than seeing it as a New Testament mandate. I often give the homeless man on the corner some change, but that does not mean that I must.
I believe it is a wonderful thing for a church to open its doors for victims during a tragedy. Many church buildings are designated centers for disaster relief. Many local churches are polling places for the communities. These things come from a love of our fellow man and from that innate desire to help anyone made in God’s image. At the same time we should guard the integrity of the local church for the worship of the saints and for the preaching of the gospel, asking God to help us keep that balance that we see in His Word.
There was a small plaque above my grandfather’s rocking chair that read, “Prayer Changes Things.” James said it, “The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much” (Jas. 5:16). Peter quoted the Psalmist, “For the eyes of the Lord are over the righteous, and his ears are open unto their prayers” (1 Pet. 3:12). We never hear the word “prayer” spoken more than in times of tragedy. I’m sure that many people use the word but never practice it. But believers do and they know that God in heaven hears and answers prayers.
In Revelation chapter 8, in the middle of the tribulation period, prayers are being offered to God by those suffering on the earth. John sees an angel offer incense from that heavenly altar “with the prayers of all saints” . . . And the smoke of the incense, which came with the prayers of the saints, ascended up before God out of the angel’s hand. And the angel took the censer, and filled it with fire of the altar, and cast it into the earth: and there were voices, and thundering, and lightnings, and an earthquake” (Rev. 8:3-5). This is a heavenly picture (similar to Psalm 18:6-10) that shows how our prayers from earth cause God to act from heaven. And things change!
Prayer is the one thing every believer can do during a tragedy and know that what he/she is doing is making a real difference. Our church has mighty prayer warriors. Grandmas and grandpas may not be able to go to south Texas and help flood victims, but they cause mighty things to be done by their prayers. A blessing of this modern age is the ease and speed with which information can be shared and prayers can begin. We all can do better at organizing such prayers, and we all could do better at actually being doers of the Word and not hearers only. Somewhere and at sometime each of us should be in our “prayer closet” speaking to God. Though it is good to enlist as many prayers as possible, remember that it is the effectual fervent prayer of a (single) righteous man (or woman) that avails much. Give me one grandma who walks with God and actually prays, than a hundred who post it on their refrigerator.
My favorite John Bunyan book is titled, “Advice to Sufferers.” Since Bunyan spent much time in and out of prison for his faith, he knew something of suffering. In this book he uses 1 Peter 4:19 as his key verse. “Wherefore, let them that suffer according to the will of God commit the keeping of their souls to him in well doing, as unto a faithful Creator.” Bunyan reminds the reader that Peter didn’t use the description of God as loving, sympathetic, comforting, etc., and all of those are true of Him. But rather we go to a God Who is the Creator. He made heaven and earth and they are His to do with as He will. A Creator can make or destroy, He can begin a thing or end a thing, He can punish and bring judgment, and He can reward and bring blessing. Since He is ready to hear us and desires to answer our prayers that are asked in His will, why would we not go to such a Creator in times of need?
We can do it ourselves or we can ask God to do it. Which is more powerful? C.S. Lewis called this privilege the dignity of causality which God gave to man. However, man spends 90% of his time trying to do it himself, and 10% of his time asking God to do it. Sure, we should work as though it depends on us, and pray as though it depends on God. But given the two options, if I only had one to choose, I would choose to cast my cares upon Him because He cares for me, and to be still and know that He is God.
And so . . .
Natural disasters happen in a world of nature that God has created and maintains. We live in it until we go on to the next life. In the meantime the earth will groan under the curse and so will we. But let us not be weary in well doing for we will reap if we faint not.