GRAPPLING WITH GOD’S SOVEREIGNTY
Asking why a terrible thing happened is one aspect of a biblical lament. The Bible encourages us to grapple with this question by giving examples of great saints who did this, like Job, Jeremiah, and the psalmists. Job struggled a long time to make sense of what was happening around him. Usually at the end of a time of grappling, God’s people affirm that because God is sovereign and knows what is happening, the wisest thing is to keep trusting Him. We see this often in the Psalms (e.g., Ps. 73).
Believing in God’s sovereignty at a time of tragedy helps us to avoid hopelessness amid the struggle. We must rely on God’s promise that even out of terrible tragedy He will bring something good to those who love Him (Rom. 8:28).
This perspective of God’s sovereignty may not come right away. Sometimes it’s necessary for us to wrestle with God over this. Prayer and meditation on His Word really help at such times (Ps. 27). We may be busy recovering from the disaster or serving those who have been adversely affected by it. But we must find time to spend with God and His Word. This is why God’s people must always continue worshiping Him in community, regardless of how serious the situation may be. When we worship together, we focus on those eternal realities that remind us of God’s sovereignty. The exposure to these truths helps drive away the gloom that engulfs us and gives us the strength to trust God to look after us. Having been comforted by God and His Word, we then have the strength to launch into sacrificially serving others who are suffering.
GROANING WITH CREATION
We must remember that when Adam and Eve sinned against God, sin entered the world and the universe lost its equilibrium. The Bible pictures creation as being under a curse (Gen. 3:17; Rom. 8:20). Therefore, natural disasters will continue to happen until God brings into being a new heaven and a new earth (2 Pet. 3:13; Rev. 21:1). Paul said “that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now” (Rom. 8:22). He then said that those who know Christ also join in this groaning (v.23). During the aftereffects of events like the tsunami and hurricanes Katrina and Rita, we have clearly seen the groaning of creation and of God’s people.
Christians must learn how to groan. If we don’t, when problems arise in the place where God has called us to serve, we may be tempted to run away from God’s will and go to a safer place. Groaning helps us to cope with difficult circumstances.
The groaning that is talked about in Romans 8 is described as the pains of childbirth (v.22). Women who experience excruciating labor pains are able to endure it because they are looking forward to the glorious moment when they give birth to a child.
Similarly, our groans remind us of the glorious end that is surely coming (see 2 Cor. 5:2-4). This helps us not to run away from the tough situations in which God puts us. We can endure suffering because we know that permanent, eternal deliverance in heaven will surely come.
Groaning also takes away the bitterness we have over the pain we have experienced. We must learn to groan in the presence of God and His people and not bottle it up inside. When we do that, we give expression to our pain and we release the pressure that has built up over our painful experience. Then it will be difficult for bitterness to grow.
Our groaning also allows God to comfort us, either personally or through our friends.When we are truly comforted we can’t be bitter, because we experience a love that drives away the anger that is at the heart of bitterness.
So as the nation groans over Katrina and Rita, we also groan individually. Part of our groaning would be asking God why such a thing happened, even though deep down we have the confidence that God is in control of His world.
A GOD WHO GROANS
One of the most amazing biblical teachings about God is that when we groan, He groans with us (Rom. 8:26). God knows what we’re going through, and He feels our pain. The Bible says that when Israel was distressed, God was also distressed (Isa. 63:9). In fact, He laments and mourns for people who do not even acknowledge Him (Isa. 16:11; Jer. 48:31). That’s so different from the common idea that God is distant and uninvolved.
God’s groaning should not surprise us, for we find that when Jesus (who is God) lived on earth, He also groaned over the pain of this world. He wept over Jerusalem because of their stubbornness and the punishment that was to come (Lk. 19:41-44). He also wept at the tomb of His friend Lazarus as He joined with the others who were weeping there (Jn. 11:33-35). We can therefore conclude that God is weeping with those who are weeping over the losses from the tsunami and hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
God’s weeping gives us a strong reason not to be reluctant to weep. But more important, when we realize that God groans with us, it will be difficult to be angry with Him over what has happened to us. This also makes it easier for us to go to Him for comfort when we are perplexed.
IS THIS A JUDGMENT?
One question that is often asked is whether calamities such as the tsunami or recent Gulf Coast hurricanes are a judgment from God. Some people even assert that these are acts of God against sinful people. But serious doubt is placed on the reliability of such a claim when we realize that thousands of wonderful Christians were impacted along with everyone else in the affected nations.
When Jesus came into the world, He experienced the same kind of suffering that everyone else did. That was a key aspect of His identification with humanity. In the same way, those of us who follow Jesus are also called to suffer along with people in distress. Recovering from a disaster gives all of us an opportunity to do just that. It’s our privilege as Christians to be among those who have suffered a devastating calamity. We are to be united with them in their grief.
The comments Jesus made about two disasters that took place in His day are very helpful to consider. He had just been speaking about judgment, and some people reminded Him of an incident in which some Galileans were killed by Pilate while they were in the act of making their sacrifice. Perhaps they were mentioning this tragedy as an example of God’s judgment. Jesus did not go along with their reasoning. Instead He said, “I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish” (Lk. 13:3). Then Jesus went on to cite another tragedy in which a tower fell and 18 people were killed. Again He said that unless they repented they would “all likewise perish” (v.5). The repetition of the same warning in verses 3 and 5 adds to the urgency of the warning.
Jesus’ point was that tragedies should be warnings to us that unless we repent we will face more serious consequences. In the same way, events like the tsunami and recent hurricanes give all of us an urgent warning. They should sober us and remind us how vulnerable we all are. Are we ready for death and the judgment that follows? These events should lead us to bow in humble submission to the God who is over all, even over nature.
We must keep in mind that most of the statements about judgment in the Bible are directed to the people of God. Only a few are to those outside of God’s covenant community. We know that people will be judged for their rebellion against God. And we must do all we can to show them how they can be saved from that judgment. But it would be dangerous for us to say that a particular event is a judgment of God.
Jeremiah prophesied that the Jews would be punished for their rebellion against God. And they persecuted him for that. But when they were punished, he did not gleefully say, “I told you so!” He mourned for his people (Jer. 9:1). Actually, even before the judgment, he knew that he would be overwhelmed by sorrow if they did not repent. He said, “If you will not hear it, my sou l will weep in secret for your pride; my eyes will weep bitterly and run down with tears, because the Lord’s flock has been taken captive” (Jer. 13:17).
We should follow Jeremiah’s example by doing all we can to prepare people to stand before their Maker at the coming judgment.
In the wake of a disaster like Katrina, people might be tempted to fix blame on someone. They ask questions like: Didn’t officials at all levels of government know about the possible devastating effects of a Category 4 or 5 hurricane on New Orleans? Why wasn’t something done years ago? And why did it take so long for those affected by the hurricane to get potentially lifesaving assistance?
While it might take years to get answers to these questions and others like them, may we, as the people of God, not be guilty of neglecting to warn people everywhere of the coming judgment of God. And may we sense the immediacy of their physical and spiritual crisis and rush to give them the assistance they need to alleviate their suffering.