God’s Judgment Coming Through Disasters

gay hurricanesEver stop to think that maybe God’s really upset with open fields? And farmers? Seriously. Do you have any idea how many tornado’s go rampaging through open fields every year? We all pay attention when a tornado hits a populated area or a pro-gay church gathering, but the vast majority of tornado’s hit open fields and farm land. And since (according to some people’s thinking), natural disasters are a sign of God’s wrath, then God must have some big beef with open fields and farm land – right?

Or did you ever think through the implications of the fact that our planet couldn’t support life if it wasn’t so dynamic? Without geological process which lead to earthquakes and volcano’s and even weather events like hurricanes doing their part, life could not exist on Earth. So if destructive weather events and earthquakes and volcano’s and such are the result of man’s sin (the teaching of some folks), then if everyone stopped sinning, the planet would become stagnant and we’d all DIE. Now there’s a reason to carry on fornicating if ever there was one!

OK, OK, I’m being silly. Piper and Driscol their ilk not withstanding, I think all reasonable people understand that natural disasters are the result of the normal processes of the planet and not sent by God to punish us for pissing him off. And yet – believe it or not – I don’t think the “Hurricane Katrina was caused by Mardi Gras” people are entirely wrong to think that there is a link between God’s judgment and natural disasters. In the bible, natural disasters are sometimes linked quite explicitly to God’s judgment. But I don’t think it works the way some people think it does.

First of all, major weather events and calamity aren’t caused by people sinning and making God angry. Earthquakes, hurricanes, tornado’s, volcano’s and the like were happening long before we were here to piss God off. And life on earth does depend on these dynamic processes. The bible says that God “causes the rain to fall and the sun to shine on the good and evil alike.” Rain can mean flood and sun can mean drought, so this isn’t just a statement indicating blessings, but also disaster. So both good weather and bad weather will happen regardless of whether people are good or evil.

Or consider the time that Jesus and his disciples were on their boat in the middle of a terrible storm. Many of Jesus’ disciples were seasoned fishermen. These weren’t the sort of people who were likely to panic over a little rain and wind. Or even a lot of rain and wind. So this must have really been some storm to get them thinking they were about to die. Worse than any they had experienced before, perhaps. Pretty clearly, this storm wasn’t caused by sin or an example of God’s judgment on Jesus and his crewmates.

Then there’s this lovely description of Elijah’s encounter with God:

    And behold, the LORD was passing by! And a great and strong wind was rending the mountains and breaking in pieces the rocks before the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of a gentle blowing.

God is not in the wind or the earth shaking or the fire. God was the gentle blowing, inviting Elijah from his cave to speak with him.

When disaster strikes, it is not because God has sent it as judgment on us. But it may happen that when the wind, the fire or the earthquake comes, it will be followed by God’s still, small voice inviting us to speak with him.

The reason I say that I do think there is a connection between natural disasters and God’s judgment is because of the way judgment actually works. Judgment isn’t about punishment or condemnation, but about being confronted with reality. Repeatedly in scripture, a connection is made between God’s judgment and the truth of men’s sins being made known:

Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart. At that time each will receive their praise from God. ~ 1 Corinthians 4:5

God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil. ~ Ecclesiastes 12:14

Judgment is like a being shown a cosmic mirror which forces us to look at the reality of who we are, what we love and serve. We can plot and scheme and play nice much of the time while fooling ourselves about what we’re doing. But when we are pushed into extreme situations – like say, during a disaster – and we’re working off instinct, that’s when who we really are becomes clear.

Are we the sort of people who take pictures of someone who is about to be hit by a train or do we jump on the tracks and pull them to safety? Do we take a few minutes to gather our valuables as a tornado approaches or do we run to the neighbors to make sure they are getting out before the storm? As destruction approaches, do we wish we had time to settle some scores or to tell someone we love them? Do we find a picture in the rubble after the buildings fall and hold onto it in case we can return it or do we toss it aside to continue the search for our own stuff? In ways big and small, disasters will bring the reality of our hearts to the surface. And when we are face-to-face with the reality of our good or evil hearts, that’s judgment.

One of the often overlooked aspects of God’s judgment is that as a rule in the bible it comes on nations rather than on individuals. When someone first pointed this out to me, my immediate reaction was that this was unfair. I should be judged on my own merits, not on the merits of the group I belong to. But we are social creatures – we are made for relationship with each other. God doesn’t just want us to be good as individuals, he wants us to have properly functioning communities and nations. And much like with us as individuals, the way we react as a nation, community or group reveals the truth of who we are as well.

Do we fail to help the poor get out of the way of impending disaster? Do we make plans to meet the needs of the poor in the wake of a disaster? Are there families ready to look out for and comfort the children affected by disasters or have we lived our lives in such a way that we have masses of kids without the men and women they deserve to help them navigate traumatic situations? Do we provide security for those living in poor areas during major disruptions or do we deploy our resources to protect the well-to-do from further loss of their assets? Are we investing our money to maintain the services and infrastructure which keep the needy afloat and allow them to recover from disaster? Or do we give to the already secure under the guise of expecting them to create opportunity and security for the vulnerable?

As with individuals, the heart of nations are exposed when disaster strikes.

The reality is that disasters aren’t sent as judgment. But they can be a powerful means of rendering judgment on us by what they reveal. Of course, one of the other things which the “God is setting forests on fire because of abortion” crowd doesn’t get is that judgment isn’t always bad. Sometimes in judgment, we see what is ugly in us. But with heartening frequency we do discover that there is something very good in us as well.

When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” ~ Fred Rogers

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7 thoughts on “God’s Judgment Coming Through Disasters

  1. One factor in the ancient Jewish sense that God does intervene to cause the destruction of cities: It simply doesn’t fit for anything so momentous and tragic to happen for no good purpose.

    A long-standing interpretation (Abraham Heschel, likewise Elie Wiesel’s commentary on the Midrash interpretations of Sodom & Gomorrah) has it that God doesn’t do it in a vindictive spasm of Indignation — but out of a paradoxical divine Compassion. The emphasis in their stories of Sodom, for example, was not on their Wicked-City rep as a hotbed of naughty lusts; but on the inhospitality, greed, cruelty of its inhabitants. “This was the guilt of your sister [city] Sodom; she and her daughters had pride, surfeit of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.” [Ezekiel 16.49] In the Midrash, the fatal incident was the death of a young resident being tormented for enabling a beggar to survive. (Their laws were said to have been designed to swindle foreign visitors penniless and let them starve [or worse] on the streets.) Heschel says that the word translated ‘outcry,’ what brought the place to God’s attention, means literally a scream of anguish.

    That’s better than the moralistic explanation, but still makes God seem a bit of a dysfunctional Father, unable to communicate except by leveling the place. (Then again, who’s been paying attention down here? — or, except for a very few exceptions, realizing that God’s meaning might not be whatever we’ve always assumed, but can take some heavy-duty, critical thought to adsorb? )

    One difficulty is the fact that for us, people seem to be destroyed, while from God’s viewpoint the effect of that would be something like: “Go to your room!”

    There’s quite a bit in the Bible to suggest [and explicitly say!] that God’s “judgement” is not like that of us frightened humans: not vindictive or moralistic, but communicative. The books of Jonah and Job, for example…

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    • If one belives in the fullness of Eternal life, which would mean that temporal life is a relative good and Eternal Life the Absolute Good, then death really does “lose its sting.”

      Of course, the dying process usually still psychologically and physically hurts like hell!

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      • I don’t really remember that dying process, aside from the process we call ‘normal life.’ (That’s a scary process, though I’ve gotten more used to the idea.)

        We wouldn’t want to be too easily pried out of this life… As long as we’ve still wrestling that basic terror of nonexisting, the thought that it could happen without us noticing is scary too! [And besides, I want to run up a better score before that big sign starts flashing: “Game Over. Want to play again?”]

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  2. Rebecca, you are “thinking Hebrew”:

    “Nature is value-free. It can’t tell the role between the deserving the undeserving. God’s role is not to decide where the hurricane goes and how severe it is. God’s role is to motivate people to help neighbors and improve methods to predict hurricanes. God is found not in the problem, but in the resilience.” ~ Rabbi Harold Kushner, rabbi of the conservative Jewish tradition

    Hmmm, I seem to recollect that Jesus was Jewish, on his mother’s side. Maybe Jewish Rabbis get a lot of things that Greek philosopher/theologians miss.

    In Judaism it was possible simultaneously to ascribe change of purpose to God and to declare that God did not change, without resolving the paradox; for the immutability of God was seen as the trustworthiness of covenanted relation to his people in the concrete history of his judgment and mercy, rather than as a primarily ontological category. –Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition—Vol. 1.

    And perhaps poets are better theologians than philosophers; but I digress.

    As you point out, judgment can mean discernment which has more to do with a creative intuitive sensibility than legalistic consequences. Disasters do indeed expose character flaws that often remain hidden in the “good times.”

    There is a big difference between being a “good citizen” who simply does one’s duty and a “saint” who goes the extra mile in caring for others, often at great sacrifice of their own immediate self-interest.

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    • Jewish theological traditions took a lot from Greek philosophers, after Alexander’s conquests made that the default ideology of the world (from Spain to India, more or less.) But that’s not the style of thinking they were originally based on, which was much more poetic & grounded in actual human experiencing, ie the depiction of God in Job, the Psalms etc.

      A man I met who did good study sessions on the Psalms said he’d been told that Hebrew had no word “True” in the sense of Greek logic. What they had was more like “dependable.” God [like life, as it’s being created] sometimes works in ways that fit human language & logic, and sometimes doesn’t.

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    • My father, toward the end of his earthly life, used to say, “It was better in the old days–you got sick, you were a pain in the ass to your family for a few months and then you died. Now it goes on and on and on. . .”

      Death used to be part of the natural process of life. I lived in West Africa for 18 months in the early 60’s. West Africa was known then as “white man’s graveyard.” Actually, it was everyone’s graveyard. The infant mortality rate was 60%. Death was always at our shoulders; but, instead of being depressing, it gave most of us an appreciation, a zest, for the gift of life.

      I have done hospice for both companion animals and humans. There comes a time to stop trying to cure and to start palliative coping care. When the wisdom to discern that time is absent and technology replaces caring, life becomes a horror instead of a blessing.

      Rebecca posted about “delayed grief.” In our death-denying society it has reached epidemic proportions among those whose intimately loved ones have passed and the trivialization of the grief of those who have lost a companion animal really adds grief to grief.

      Life is often paradoxical and never moreso than in the tragedy that our death-denying culture has become a culture of death.

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