Sunday, March 20, 2011

Are All Natural Disasters Supernatural Judgment?

[The following entry follows a sermon titled "God's Grapes of Wrath". Click on the title to listen to the audio.]

Today at Gray Road, we worked our way through Isaiah 5. It is a devastating picture of the trampling of God's kindness and the certainty of God's wrath. In verse 25, Isaiah proclaims, "Therefore the anger of the Lord was kindled against his people, and he stretched out his hand against them and struck them, and the mountains quaked; and their corpses were as refuse in the midst of the streets. For all this his anger has not turned away, and his hand is stretched out still." To summarize this verse, God's anger against sin has been clearly displayed in the past, and his anger against sin has not yet been fully seen.

In the past, God displayed His anger through the quaking of the mountains...a shaking so violent that "corpses were as refuse in the midst of the streets." It is likely that this is the same earthquake referenced by Amos in the first chapter of his prophecy (i.e.- Amos 1:1). Alec Motyer comments on this earthquake: "The Old Testament view of such an event as expressive of divine wrath does not testify to the quaintness of ancient thought but is an abiding instruction in how to understand natural catastrophe. The created world, in all the complexity, splendor and ferocity of its powers, is a controlled tool in the hand of the Creator, serving his righteous purposes."

Now, this may be a verse that we would have philosophical thoughts or discussions about on any other day, but the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan increases the importance of the discussion. According to one missionary to Japan that our church supports, over 500,000 people are displaced, and many are living on a rice bowl and some water each day. The death toll continues to rise...children have been orphaned, men and women have been widowed, and parents have lost children.

Now, reading the verse again, a question stirs in our hearts, "Are all natural disasters supernatural judgment?" In other words, was God judging the Japanese people for some sin or sins in their society? Before we answer that question, we have to affirm what the Scripture teaches about nature. God not only created all nature, but He controls nature. Consider these texts regarding God's control of creation:
  • Psalm 89:8-9: "O Lord God of hosts, who is mighty as you are, O Lord, with your faithfulness all around you? You rule the raging of the sea; when its waves rise, you still them."
  • Jeremiah 10:13: "When he utters his voice, there is a tumult of waters in the heavens, and he makes the mist rise from the ends of the earth. He makes lightning for the rain, and he brings forth the wind from his storehouses."
  • Psalm 104:32: The Lord "looks on the earth and it trembles, [He] touches the mountains and they smoke!"
  • Job 37:5-6, 10-13: "God thunders wondrously with his voice; he does great things that we cannot comprehend. For to the snow he says, 'Fall on the earth,' likewise to the downpour, his mighty downpour...By the breath of God ice is given, and the broad waters are frozen fast. He loads the thick cloud with moisture, the clouds scatter his lightning. They turn around and around by his guidance, to accomplish all that he commands them on the face of the habitable world. Whether for correction or for his land or for love, he causes it to happen."
  • Job 9:6: God "shakes the earth out of its place, and its pillars tremble."
Please note...this is not an exhaustive list. Remember the parting of the Red Sea during the children of Israel's exodus from Egypt. Also, recall the parting of the Jordan River when the children of Israel entered the promised land. Of course, who can forget the flood of Noah's day? In the New Testament, Jesus stills a storm with His word, and the disciples recognize that the wind and seas obey him. And the list could go on.

So, the first thing we must recognize is the absolute sovereignty of God over all creation. Every drop of rain, every ray of sunshine, and every gentle breeze are under His control. Likewise, but more difficult for some to swallow, every monsoon, every earthquake, and every hurricane are under His control. God is God over it all.

The second thing that we must know is that God does everything with purpose. He never acts flippantly. There are some difficult things that happen in life about which we can know some of God's purposes. For example, the individual sufferings we all experience are purposeful (Romans 5:1-5; James 1:2-4; 1 Peter 1:6-7). Another example is the way that God brought judgment on His people in the Old Testament. The Scripture explicitly points to the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah as God's acts of judgment (2 Kings 17; 2 Chronicles 36).

The third thing to know is that creation suffers under the curse of sin. When God spoke a curse in response to Adam's sin, part of that curse fell to the ground that Adam would work: "...cursed is the ground because of you..." (Gen. 3:17). Paul expounds on this as he writes that “the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth” and needs to be “set free...from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God (Rom. 8:21-22). This redemption is fully seen in Revelation 21, when God brings forth a new heavens and a new earth.

So, God is in control of all creation, and God does everything with purpose. God has even shown us that He has purpose in both individual and corporate suffering. This begs the question. Did God send the earthquake and tsunami on Japan as a form of judgment? After all, He sent an earthquake in the days of Uzziah because of His anger against the people. Is this just another occurrence of that?

Some people will automatically say 'yes,' as some did after the earthquake in Haiti, and some will automatically say 'no.' But does God still use disasters in creation as acts of judgment? I think the best answer I can give is, "He can." He is God, and the Scripture testifies to His use of these things in the past. However, there is no Bat-Phone from heaven letting us know what God’s ultimate purposes are in any disaster. “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Dt. 29:29). In other words, we shouldn’t go on TV or write on Facebook that God has certainly cursed Japan because of this earthquake...we have no ability to say that.

If it is unwise to respond to disasters such as these with a prophet-like declaration of God's exact purposes in each event, then how should we respond? I would suggest four things that every Christian can confidently do in response:
  1. Weep with those who weep. Our hearts must break for human suffering wherever it is found. We have spouses, we have children, we have parents...we know what it is to have suffering some on us unexpectedly. So, we weep with those who weep.
  2. Pray for and give toward relieving Japan's suffering. We pray for God to intervene. The same God whose powerful hand rules over the wind and the waves also guides human government and humanitarian aid. We pray that He makes avenues for food, shelter, and clothing to reach those who need it most the fastest. Not only that, we can give financially to meet the incredible needs that exist. One place you can give is Baptist Global Relief.
  3. Pray for gospel proclamation in Japan. In times of widespread disaster, the issues of mortality are heavy upon the hearts of men and women. Pray for great gospel boldness in the lives of both Japanese pastors and missionaries in Japan. Pray that "words will be given to [them] in opening [their mouths] to proclaim the mystery of the gospel" (Eph. 6:19). Also, pray that gospel opportunities that may have never opened previously will now open. As Paul requested, Pray "that God may open...a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ" (Col. 4:3). Pray that, in Japan, God will grant "an open door, which no one is able to shut" (Rev. 3:8).
  4. Pray that the Japanese people will be saved. God's overarching plan for the world is to glorify Himself by saving men through the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Pray that God will graciously open the eyes of the Japanese nation..."to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ" (2 Cor. 4:6). Pray that the whole society will be spiritually revolutionized as a result of this disaster.
  5. Resist the temptation to moral superiority. In Luke 13:1-5, some people are talking to Jesus about some recent disasters of their own day. Jesus asks a pointed question that we should hear: "Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way?...Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem?" Jesus' answer is a resounding "NO," and His word to them is, "Unless you repent, you will likewise perish." We are not morally superior to the Japanese because they are suffering...we must see such a disaster and recommit ourselves to lives of repentance and faith.
While we know that all of creation exists for God's glory (Psalm 19:1), we will not know God's full realm of purposes in each historical event (Dt. 29:29). We should respond to the Japanese disaster in the kinds of ways mentioned above, and we can be sure that the God who both stirs and calms the sea has the power to answer whatever prayer we might lay before Him. Whatever the the end of the day...we echo Paul's words of awe about this God: "Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!" (Romans 11:33). Or, in the words of Job 37:5, previously quoted, "...he does great things that we cannot comprehend."