This week included two separate experiences. I read from Job and I had a vivid dream of an earthquake. Let me link them here in a single reflection on God’s greatness in the face of human self-confidence.
I’ll start with the earthquake dream. In the dream I saw a hillside in motion as I looked out through a moving window. Then the building I was in collapsed sideways as one wall gave way. A frightening image followed by a quick wake up!
My point in mentioning this little nightmare isn’t to make much of the dream itself but to share how it launched my reflection on the ways we view disasters: our earthquakes, hurricanes, and tsunamis. These acts of God, or, in the common coinage of today, natural disasters, are events that threaten our personal security. They make us realize just how small we are in the face of massive and overwhelming forces that readily crush our otherwise secure spaces.
What came to mind is how our modern point of view disengages these events from God’s rule of the universe. That is, the Bible always owns the linkage between natural events of just this kind: that God forms the storms, rules the earthquakes, and owns the seashores of the world. He even goes so far as to claim that every sparrow is under his care and every hair on our head is numbered. There are no surprises in God’s universe: he rules over every event. Whether the tsunami in Indonesia, the many earthquakes throughout the world, or the great storms like Katrina. Yet the naturalistic impulse of our modern world is to describe these huge events as if a scientific description of how they came about removes the divine role in having them happen.
To say, for instance, that tectonic plate movements led to an earthquake doesn’t displace God’s role in directing that earthquake—it only explains how he did it. To treat a low-pressure system formed off the coast of Africa as a strictly “natural” event just because we can trace its movements with satellite images is biblically naïve. There has never been a storm, a fire, a quake, or a flood in the Bible times that God didn’t own as part of his realm. Elijah ruled the weather in Israel under God’s direction for three years. The storms and sequential tragedies that plagued the Egyptians in Moses’ days were signals of God’s rule. The promise of future earthquakes as a sign of Christ’s return tells us that the supernatural connection is not yet broken.
What we cannot do is assign a specific meaning to these events, as did at least one prominent public minister in recent days. He pronounced Katrina to be God’s judgment on New Orleans. The man might have had some credibility if he had prophesied six months beforehand that God would soon bring about a major hurricane against the city. But to make his claims afterwards, to a city that held a cross section of sinners and saints, was to kick people once they were down, at a time when grace and compassion was needed rather than blame-casting. Even if God was judging New Orleans (that is, some who live in the city) in a unique way, we need to let him convict those to whom any lesson is offered. To offer a broad-brush post-event charge is just not convincing. I’m sure that if God regularly set up storms and earthquakes to judge sinful cities as a direct consequence for their sins more than a few cities that are currently prospering should have long since disappeared!
So how do we link the power of God to the power of natural forces? Job’s narrative offers a key insight. As God, in chapters 38-41, charged Job with impudence for his questioning God’s goodness, most of the features involved “nature.” God asked Job to explain how the earth was formed and operates, how the animal kingdom carries on under divine directives, and how the weather runs through its courses.
In the middle of this listing comes a unique charge that addressed humanity in particular: “Look,” God told Job, “on everyone who is proud and bring him low and tread down the wicked where they stand” [40:12]. In this cryptic saying God challenged Job to do what God alone can do—to bring about human humility. Only if Job could achieve this miracle would God feel obliged to answer him: “Then will I also acknowledge to you that your own right hand can save you” [40:14].
What can we learn here? Without reviewing all of Job’s narrative and theology here, I can at least remind readers that Job was unjustly charged by his erstwhile friends with being struck down with terrible tragedies because of his sins. We learn, in fact, from the narrator that Job was blameless and that the charges were mislaid. But we also learn that God is not apologetic for what Job endured and that through the tragedies Job’s soul grew and prospered.
We can also learn that nature brings us God-defined tragedies. What if my nightmare about an earthquake proved to be a premonition of a coming event? And in such an event both Christians and non-Christians were spared in some cases, and struck dead or injured in other cases? Would we then be able to say “I have a lesson from God for you!” God forbid!
But we can be certain that God is an expert in humbling us. And in our humility we will at last cease blaming God for events in nature that are byproducts of Adam’s fall; and then begin to acknowledge that he is God! His purpose, both in allowing tragedies and in giving his graces, is to expose pride as an ultimate barrier to his love. A barrier only God can remove, sometimes with a tender touch, and sometimes with hard surgery. The proper response to a tragic event is to call on the God of all mercies. As C. S. Lewis put it, pain is God’s megaphone. If some event helps us listen to him, trust him, and follow him it can never be called a tragedy of nature. Call it, instead, a divine tragedy that offers pathways to life through the humility it brings us. Even when it’s an earthquake, a hurricane, or a flood.