God Goes to Work
So why do natural disasters strike certain places and not others?
The day before the holy season of Lent begins, hundreds of thousands of party animals gather in New Orleans for Mardi Gras. Apparently the timing is meant to be conducive to sinning as much as possible while you can, because during Lent you aren’t supposed to (a popular misinterpretation of Lent foolishly implying that God has scheduled an open season and closed season for sinning).
Or take a stroll down Bourbon Street for a plethora of opportunities to buy drugs, get your thrills cheering for female amateur mud wrestlers, peek at porn, and drown your inhibitions in drunken revelry. All in a city that welcomes this hedonism with open arms to boost its economy and image.
And what has happened to the Superdome which for a time was the Tower of Babel when it comes to sports domes, built with an indefatigable resolve fueled by human pride?
God’s fist has, some say, finally pounded it’s fury on these transgressors and their vile trophies. Some have concluded something like this, “If God controls hurricanes and plans the weather with a purpose, then he obviously sent Hurricane Katrina to punish a city full of sinners spitting in his face.” Some of the same people have applied this analysis to the 9/11 attacks and to the Asian tsunami disaster. Acts of God aimed at areas of rampant wickedness, purging the world of their evil.
Ironically, you never hear that kind of talk when a tornado rips through the farms and small towns of the Midwest, traditionally a bastion of conservatism and steady morals. But isn’t there plenty of sin there, too? Milwaukee isn’t just home to Happy Days’ clean cut Cunningham family and to somewhat innocent Laverne and Shirley, but also to Jeffrey Dahmer and a beer-drinking culture that boasts a tavern on every corner.
So why do natural disasters strike certain places and not others? Are the people there somehow more deserving of trouble? We have a number of incidents in the Bible that help answer that question, beginning with the 9th chapter of John where Jesus’ own disciples ask him the same thing about a man born blind. “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” the disciples ask Jesus, assuming that either one or the other had to carry the blame.
“Neither,” Jesus replied, turning his disciples from the blame game when it comes to identifying the trigger for trouble. “This happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.” Jesus points less to cause and more to purpose for trouble. Jesus mentions not the past, but the present and the future as contributing factors to this man’s blindness. And not to an action of this man, or his parents, or the wicked government, or anyone else but to an action of God. In other words, Jesus says that where there is trouble God is working and he wants his work displayed like an artist craves publicity for his masterpiece.
What, then, is God’s work? Jesus follows up with his disciples in John 9 as if he knew we’d ask that question, “As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me … While I am in the world, I am the Light of the world.” While Jesus has the opportunity, he wants to brighten the darkness of guilt, despair, hopelessness, and violence in the world with God’s work. To prove his point, he takes the man born blind and heals him, giving him back his sight. God’s work is a miraculous transformation from darkness and blindness to light and sight, all by the power and love of Jesus. So then, God’s goal for hurricanes, terrorist attacks, and tsunamis – and tornados in the Midwest too – is to display his work of giving light and sight to people blinded and clouded by the hopelessness of humanity to get along, by the uncertain desperation of self-survival, by the sinful pride that refuses life-changing help from a forgiving Savior.
Even in events like the worldwide flood or the ten plagues in Egypt or the annihilation of Sodom and Gomorrah or the destruction of Jericho – acts of God unleashed with a fury on sinful wickedness and rebellion – we see at the same time a saving purpose in the love of God reaching out in mercy to people who need his help. Perhaps one of the greatest examples of this is Jesus himself basing the operations of his ministry on this earth in Capernaum, which was by the Sea of Galilee in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali, “to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah: ‘The people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned’” (Matthew 4:14,16). This area of the land had seen its greater share of trouble, but it was all part of God’s plan for Jesus himself to walk there.
The same can be said of Louisiana, Mississippi, and the rest of the gulf coast. The same can be said of New York City and India and Indonesia. The same can be said of your troubles, too. They happen under the watchful eye of a caring God who wants his work displayed in your life. He wants to open your eyes to the joy, peace, and forgiveness of his saving love. He is paving the way for Jesus to walk there.
Let’s not oversimplify and overcriticize by condemning areas of calamity as targets of God’s wrath. Instead, let’s note that what is the greater trigger of trouble, instead of the wrong actions of terrible people, are the right, wonderful works of a gracious God.
PRAYER: I must confess that your work still remains a great mystery, God. I want it to be simple and understandable and within my grasp but you are so much greater than I. Help me accept this, I pray. When your decisions confuse me and the recipients of trouble in my world seem like the kind of people who don’t deserve it, remind me that you are at work according to your way and your time and your love. Comfort those who are distressed this day, especially those hurting from Katrina and those anxious about Hurricane Rita. Display your work in their lives and open them to the peace that this world cannot give, but that you can through Jesus Christ. Amen.