Theology for Calamity

theology-calamityI think there are times when I make comments on Facebook that I probably should have been more patient and taken the time to write something longer and more balanced.  Yesterday I made a comment about natural disasters that in retrospect deserved something better than a pithy Facebook explanation, especially in the wake of the Moore, Oklahoma tornado.  Such a tragedy deserves something more thoughtful, and I join the chorus of people offering their sympathies to the families that have lost precious loved ones.  May God’s peace be with you.

How can a person have peace in the face of such loss?  It is human nature to search for reasons to explain why calamity happens.  To say that a tragedy has purpose seems almost insulting when you’re the one who has suffered loss.  You might say, “If this tragedy has purpose, then what did I do to deserve it?”  Let me say up front that I’m not trying to give purpose to disaster.  Far be it from me to say that God’s will was for a tornado to rip through an elementary school.  That is above my pay grade, and such statements do nothing to assuage the pain, nor do they do justice to the complex spiritual reality of the situation.  However, while you cannot discover the purpose of disasters, the Bible has much to say about why disasters happen at all.

Before I move forward, let’s confront something head on.  We all like simple answers.  It is human nature to try and reduce things down to the lowest common denominator.  We like to feel like we’re in control, so whenever something complicated comes along, we reduce it to terms that we can understand and manage.  The news media does this for us all the time.  They package the news for us by reducing the complexity of the issue so that it can fit into five-minute explanations that contain nothing except the most polarizing components of the issues (which consequently is good for ratings).  Christians do the same thing with theology and the complicated realities of life.  We reduce things down to make them manageable, to make them easy to understand, but in doing so we lose our grasp on reality.  When it comes to calamity, let me submit four ways we reduce reality.

One way we reduce reality is by saying that it is all random chance.  We say things like “mother nature had a tantrum” to help put some kind of face on the apparent random nature of disasters.  The naturalist sees nature as a series of unfolding probabilities.  Time plus chance, means that given enough time, all possibilities will come to pass.  In other words, when disasters hit, the odds have finally caught up to you.  In a naturalistic universe, everything has its moment with disaster because given enough time, chance will eventually find you.  The problem with this point of view is that it is patently unbiblical.  Yet, surprisingly many Christians take this point of view because it allows them to take a que sera, sera (whatever will be, will be) outlook that subsequently absolves them of any soul searching.  If it’s random, it has no meaning so why trouble yourself with searching?  Tell that to the parent that has lost a child.

Another way we reduce reality is to say that such tragedies are completely the work of Satan.  I’ve already seen this one at work on Facebook.  Many people like to blame Satan for calamity, and let’s be honest, there are times where he can be blamed.  And why not?  We love hating a villain on whom we can lay all responsibility for our woes.  We have a psychological need for a scapegoat.  The classic text for this would have to be Job.  In Job chapter one, Satan is given permission to test Job, so he destroys his property by the sword, and kills his children with a “great wind” that collapsed their home.  I know that there’s a deeper debate here, but I think we can all agree that while God gave Satan permission to test Job, Satan chose the nature of the tests; he chose the calamities that would test Job.  So, yes sometimes the source of calamity is Satan.  But is it biblical to blame all calamity on Satan?  And besides, how many among us have such sharp discerning skills that we could actually know this for sure?

But then there are some among us who suggest that God himself is the source of all disasters.  These people go to the Scriptures about God’s sovereignty and make the case that both blessing and calamity come from God.  In Isaiah 45:7, God says of himself, “I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the LORD, who does all these things.”  This text creates all sorts of uncomfortable feelings for people who have understood God as a god of only love and kindness and patience.  But this is not the only one.  Even Job looked at his wife and said, “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” (Job 2:10).  Job implies that his understanding of calamity was much deeper, more complex than merely blaming the Devil for his troubles.  God also has a clear role in calamity.

And lest you think this is the end of the possibilities, there remains one more.  I have only recently been introduced to this idea, so I’m still wrapping my mind around it and trying to integrate it into my heart.  In the book, The Explicit Gospel, Matt Chandler makes the follow argument.  When Adam and Eve sinned (Genesis 3), God placed a curse not only on humanity, but also on all of the created order. The result? Thorns, thistles, storms, floods, droughts, earthquakes, tsunamis, tornadoes, hurricanes, and any other natural disaster I left out. No one ever points the finger at himself or herself when natural disasters happen. No one ever looks at a natural disaster and says, “My sin caused this.” Brilliant observation.  In Matthew 24:8, Jesus called these kinds of disasters “the beginning of the birth pains.”  In Romans 8, Paul says that creation is awaiting its own redemption and that it groans in the pains of childbirth.  Sin has subjected creation to God’s curse.  Indirectly, my sin makes me a contributor to calamity.  This does two things within me.  First, it creates godly sorrow within me over my sin that leads me to repentance.  It doesn’t lead me to take responsibility for calamities that happen, but it reminds me that because sin is here, creation has fallen from the “good” status it had before the Fall.  But secondly, and I think more importantly, it creates a deep longing inside of me to see Jesus wrap things up by returning and restoring all things, redeeming us, and redeeming the creation to the fullest degree!  But like the other explanations I’ve mentioned, this point of view cannot stand alone.

So what is the answer?  If you believe in the God of the Bible, you clearly cannot accept a naturalistic explanation of random chance.  In fact if you are a Christian, you must first be a supernaturalist (thank you Matt Chandler) before you can even begin to have an understanding of the world that accounts for the complex realities we face.  May I suggest to you that the only biblical answer is to have a theology robust enough to make room for all three – Satan, God, and sinful humanity – as the cause of disaster?  I’m not saying that we should take each calamity and hunt down which is the responsible party.  That would be yet another attempt to reduce reality.  Instead, we must humbly acknowledge that it’s complicated and it cannot be reduced, and cry out like Ezekiel, “O Lord God, you know!”  It is pride that demands an answer.  Only the humble will find peace and rest in the midst of tragedy because they have ceased striving for answers they will never find and trusted in God’s providential care.  If you know that God is good, then even in the midst of calamity your faith can remain unshaken and even become stronger and more robust than it was before.

I pray that the faith of the believers in Moore, Oklahoma will bear much large, juicy fruit through this tragedy, and that they will be more rooted in Christ in the aftermath than ever before.  I have hope that their faith will spill over into the lives of their neighbors and become a blessing during these dark days ahead.  May it be so, Lord.  Amen.

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