Responding Biblically to Disasters

Tom Ascol

 

From a message given on September 11, 2005 at Grace Baptist Church, Cape Coral, Florida

By the breath of God ice is given, and the broad waters are frozen. Also with moisture He saturates the thick clouds; He scatters His bright clouds. And they swirl about, being turned by His guidance, that they may do whatever He commands them on the face of the whole earth. He causes it to come, whether for correction, or for His land, or for mercy (Job 37:10-13).

Four years ago most of us were riveted to our televisions and radios watching and listening to the horror unfold in Washington DC and New York City as our nation was attacked by radical Islamic terrorists. The images of the twin towers falling and people running for their lives--and jumping to their death--are, for many of us, indelibly etched into our minds.

The events of that Tuesday morning continue to have an immeasurable impact on our nation and many other nations of the world. I remember that we met for prayer that night, humbled, grieved, angry, frustrated--unsure what to do with all of our emotions but very sure that we desperately needed our God. Disasters have a way of driving people to their knees, causing us to reevaluate our lives and our beliefs.

Two weeks ago, our nation witnessed the unfolding of a different kind of disaster--this time caused not by the murderous plans of terrorists but by what most people refer to as "natural forces." Hurricane Katrina is now being called the worst natural disaster in our nation's history. The damage that it wreaked along the Gulf Coast will take perhaps months to fully assess. It is estimated that total damage costs may reach $125 billion. Insurance companies are bracing for record payouts, perhaps as high as $60 billion. The death toll already is in the hundreds and there is fear that it may reach the thousands before everyone is accounted for.

How should we respond to disasters? Some of our responses are inevitable because they are reflexive. When fire meets your hand you pull away in pain if your nervous system is functioning properly. When your eyes and ears are made aware of the kind of human suffering that we have witnessed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina it is only natural to feel deep grief and sorrow.

But we also inevitably try to make some sense of it. "Why?" That's a question that our minds cannot long avoid if we are determined to live thoughtful, meaningful lives. We must not allow ourselves simply to turn off the television set and go on living as if all is well in the world. All is not well. A disaster has struck and we need to know how to think about it and how to respond to it.

A reporter asked a pastor recently if he would like to ask God why tragedies happen. The pastor wisely responded that he did not need to ask God that question because the Bible already gives us the answer. That really is true. The Bible genuinely does speak to the reality of tragedies and disasters. And while it does not answer all the questions that we might have about them, it does teach us how to think about them and, more importantly, how to respond to them.

In this article I want us to look into the Bible for this kind of instruction. Katrina has rightly been described as a disaster of biblical proportions and so it is very fitting that we should go to Scripture for insights into responding to such disasters.

No one verse will do. What we need is to consider several strands of biblical teaching and bring them together in our thinking. Discovering those strands of biblical teaching is not that difficult. The real challenge is bringing them together and keeping them together in our minds.

To respond biblically to disaster we must remember and believe certain truths God has revealed in His Word. And we must remember and believe them at the same time.

My approach is to look at representative passages from the Bible that teach specific truths that we need to know and remember as we respond to tragedies and disasters. Many other passages could also be cited but I have limited myself to a few that are representative of what the Bible teaches on God, sin, grace, judgment and redemption. And I want us to consider these teachings under three broad headings.

First, the occasion of the storm should be seen in light of the Bible's teaching on God and sin.

God is absolutely sovereign over every aspect of creation. He rules and controls people:

All the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing; He does according to His will in the army of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth. No one can restrain His hand or say to Him, "What have You done?"(Daniel 4:35).

Including all those in authority:

The king's heart is in the hand of the LORD, like the rivers of water; He turns it wherever He wishes (Proverbs 21:1).

Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom . . . (Ezra 1:1).

He rules and controls nations:

This decision is by the decree of the watchers, and the sentence by the word of the holy ones, in order that the living may know that the Most High rules in the kingdom of men, gives it to whomever He will, and sets over it the lowest of men (Daniel 4:17).

[God] brings the princes to nothing; He makes the judges of the earth useless. Scarcely shall they be planted, scarcely shall they be sown, scarcely shall their stock take root in the earth, when He will also blow on them, and they will wither, and the whirlwind will take them away like stubble" (Isaiah 40:23-24).

He rules and controls nature--including the weather:

Are not two sparrows sold for a copper coin? And not one of them falls to the ground apart from your Father's will (Matthew 10:29).

Then He arose and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, "Peace, be still!" And the wind ceased and there was a great calm (Mark 4:39).

Here is the point--God is absolutely sovereign in this universe. Just as He created everything so He continues to rule and control everything. He was in control of Hurricane Katrina and He directed its path just as precisely as He directed the time, place and circumstances of the birth of Jesus Christ.

To say, as some have, that God had nothing to do with this hurricane or with other disasters is to deny what the Bible clearly teaches. God was absolutely sovereign over every gust of wind and every drop of rain and every wave that surged through the levees around New Orleans.

Consider one more passage that underscores this point. In Job 37:1-13 Elihu speaks truthfully when he says:

At this also my heart trembles, and leaps from its place. Hear attentively the thunder of His voice, and the rumbling that comes from His mouth. He sends it forth under the whole heaven, His lightning to the ends of the earth. After it a voice roars; He thunders with His majestic voice, and He does not restrain them when His voice is heard. God thunders marvelously with His voice; He does great things which we cannot comprehend. For He says to the snow, "Fall on the earth"; Likewise to the gentle rain and the heavy rain of His strength. He seals the hand of every man, that all men may know His work. The beasts go into dens, and remain in their lairs. From the chamber of the south comes the whirlwind, and cold from the scattering winds of the north. By the breath of God ice is given, and the broad waters are frozen. Also with moisture He saturates the thick clouds; He scatters His bright clouds. And they swirl about, being turned by His guidance, that they may do whatever He commands them on the face of the whole earth. He causes it to come, whether for correction, or for His land, or for mercy.

God is absolute sovereign over every part of His creation, but it is also true that sin has ruined every facet of creation.

Sin has morally ravaged people:

Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually (Genesis 6:5).

Behold I was brought forth in iniquity and in sin my mother conceived me (Psalm 51:5).

Sin has morally corrupted relationships (and therefore societies):

Where do wars and fights come from among you? Do they not come from your desires for pleasure that war in your members? (James 4:1).

Even in the immediate aftermath of the fall we see the ravages of sin manifested in blameshifting:

Then the LORD God called to Adam and said to him, "Where are you?" So he said, "I heard Your voice in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; and I hid myself." And He said, "Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you that you should not eat?" Then the man said, "The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I ate." And the LORD God said to the woman, "What is this you have done?" The woman said, "The serpent deceived me, and I ate" (Genesis 3:9-13).

Sin has infected nature with cosmic rebellion:

For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now (Romans 8:20-22).

Hurricanes exist because of sin. Natural disasters are the consequence of sin entering the world and ruining every facet of creation--including nature. This is NOT the way things are supposed to be! There were no natural disasters in the Garden of Eden.

In light of what the Bible teaches about God's sovereignty and about sin, should we conclude that God directed Hurricane Katrina to the Gulf Coast because of the specific sins of the people there? Some are saying exactly that. After all, the Mississippi coast is littered with gambling casinos and New Orleans--well, it is well known for its brash displays of immorality.

In fact, as Katrina made land fall, New Orleans was preparing to host its 32nd annual "Southern Decadence" festival from August 31-September 5. According to the publicity literature, Southern Decadence is an annual gathering of "wildly aberrant, unusual, motley, slightly crazy bunch of avant garde attitudes in drag" who spend 4 days indulging various sexual perversions before spilling out into the streets of the French Quarter on the Lord's Day to parade their decadence publicly. It is an event that city officials welcome.

In his letter of welcome to those who were planning to travel to New Orleans for the festival, Mayor Ray Nagin wrote, "Southern Decadence XXXII is an exciting event! We welcome you and know that you can anticipate great food, great music and great times in New Orleans" (http://www.southerndecadence.com/ accessed September 8, 2005).

So, knowing this about that city, are we allowed to say that God sent the hurricane to New Orleans because they were so sinful? NO. We are not allowed to say that, and here is the reason: In Luke 13:1-7 Jesus brought up a great disaster that took place in Siloam when a tower fell and killed 18 people. Then He asked those standing around Him this question in verse 4: "Do you think that they were worse sinners than all other men who dwelt in Jerusalem?" Then He answered that question in verse 5a: "I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish."

Brothers and sisters, be very careful that you do not look at the Gulf Coast of Mississippi or New Orleans and conclude that God sent that hurricane to them because they are really bad sinners. Our sins are no less deserving of disasters than theirs. There is enough sin in Grace Baptist Church to warrant a thousand hurricanes being unleashed on us. There is enough sin in my own heart to deserve the same. Do not let your right understanding of God's sovereignty lead you to an unjustified and erroneous conclusion about why He directed the hurricane where He did. Be biblical and biblically balanced in your response.

However, do not think that God was not intimately and directly involved in directing the path of that storm. Remember Elihu's words to Job in 37:12 [The clouds and moisture] "swirl about, being turned by His guidance, that they may do whatever He commands them on the face of the whole earth. He causes it to come, whether for correction, or for His land, or for mercy."

In light of that awesome truth I find it very sobering to read these words written by the organizers of the 2005 Southern Decadence festival in their promotional ads:

"Not even the fire from a dragon's breath would keep participants and watchers from assembling in the 1200 block of Royal Street on the first Sunday before Labor Day for a celebration that has gotten bigger and more wonderfully insane each year since its casual creation in 1972." (from http://www.southerndecadence.com/history.htm accessed September 9, 2005).

What they supposed fire from a dragon could not do, God did with a hurricane.

Second, the outcome of the storm should be seen in the light of the Bible's teaching on common grace and judgment.

The images and stories that have most captured our attention are not those of the actual storm itself, but those that have emerged from its aftermath. Human nature at its best and its worst has been on clear display. How can we make sense of these extreme and contrasting human responses to this disaster? The Bible's teaching on common grace and judgment can help us.

What is common grace? Most of the time when we think of grace, we think in terms of God's kindness in salvation. Grace is God's goodness that He shows to sinful people who deserve His wrath. It is revealed to us in Jesus Christ and unites us savingly to God. It is by this "grace" that we are "saved through faith" (Ephesians 2:8). Saving grace is experienced only by those who trust Jesus Christ as Lord.

But God shows grace to unbelievers as well. We read in Matthew 5:45 that "God makes His sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust." This is part of His common grace. This common grace is common because everyone experiences a measure of it. It is grace because it is far more than we deserve from the God against whom we have sinned.

God demonstrates His common grace both positively and negatively. Positively we see it in its provision of human kindness and goodness. God gifts people with talents and abilities and then stirs them to use these gifts for the benefit of others. This is what enables people to do things that are good and helpful even though they are not rightly related to God.

We have seen many examples of this in the aftermath of Katrina: the heroic rescue efforts, thousands of volunteers, and millions of dollars donated. All of this is a display of God's grace--His common grace operating in our sinful world.

Negatively we see common grace at work in its restraint of human sinfulness and evil. Given the reality and wickedness of sin (consider Romans 3:10-18), have you ever wondered why the world is not a field of blood? The reason is grace! God restrains sin--through the ministry of His Spirit and the declaration of His Law.

He also brings judgment by removing His common grace. Consider Paul's warning in Romans 1:18-32.

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man--and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things. Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonor their bodies among themselves, who exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen. For this reason God gave them up to vile passions. For even their women exchanged the natural use for what is against nature. Likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust for one another, men with men committing what is shameful, and receiving in themselves the penalty of their error which was due. And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a debased mind, to do those things which are not fitting; being filled with all unrighteousness, sexual immorality, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, evil-mindedness; they are whisperers, backbiters, haters of God, violent, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, undiscerning, untrustworthy, unloving, unforgiving, unmerciful; who, knowing the righteous judgment of God, that those who practice such things are deserving of death, not only do the same but also approve of those who practice them.

Three times he repeats that "God gave them over."

Sam Storms shows the connection between this working of God's common grace and some of the horrible crimes that took place in the wake of the storm. Just a couple of days after Katrina hit this is what he wrote:

"Why is it that looting is so rampant in New Orleans today? Is it because people who were otherwise good and law-abiding suddenly decided to become evil and criminal? No. Human nature hasn't changed.

"The reason for looting is obvious. All the normal impediments to thievery in New Orleans are no longer in place. There is no electricity, so there are no alarms or lights or other manifestations of electronic protection on personal property. Security guards are gone. The police cannot gain access to certain areas of the city. Surveillance cameras that otherwise would photograph burglars are no longer operative. In other words, virtually all the restraints and obstacles to criminal behavior have disappeared. What kept the sinful and criminal inclination of the human heart from expressing itself is gone."

(see Sam Storms, "Katrina, Common Grace, and a Theory about the End of the Age" posted Sept. 1, 2005. Many of the above thoughts have been gleaned from this excellent article.)

The looting, raping and murdering that took place was a little display of what happens when God withdraws even a little of His common grace in our world. Positively, common grace stirs people to do good to their neighbors. Negatively, it restrains people from doing even more evil than sin would naturally encourage them to do.

We have looked at the outcome of the storm in the light of the Bible's teaching on common grace, but what about judgment? Is natural disaster God's judgment on the world for sin? No. At least not in its fullness. Why? Because no natural disaster is severe enough.

Sin deserves eternal damnation. Romans 6:23a makes it clear: the wages of sin is death--eternal death. Paul also warns in Romans 8:13 that if we live according to the flesh (our sinful nature) we will die.

The only just punishment for sin is the eternal wrath of God. This is what hell is all about. This is also what the cross of Jesus is all about. Hell and the cross are the only two places in the world where sin is properly judged. In hell, God's wrath will burn eternally against those who lived and died in rebellion against Him. At the cross, God's wrath was poured out on His eternal Son and satisfied by His sufferings and death for all who submit their lives to Jesus Christ as Lord.

No hurricane or terrorist attack--no disaster or catastrophe of any kind--can ever pay for your sin. There are only 2 places where it can be paid for: hell or the cross. If you are trusting Christ you can be sure that your sins have been eternally, finally punished in the suffering and death of Jesus. If you refuse to trust Him, then you will be called on to pay for your sins yourself in the unimaginable horror of hell.

Dear friend, do not miss the opportunity to turn away from your rebellion and turn to the God of grace whose Son came to save sinners from sin. Do you want to be reconciled to God? Do you want to be forgiven of your sin? Then trust Jesus Christ as your Lord!

So, if disasters are not God's ultimate punishment on sin, do they have anything to do with divine judgment? Yes. They are temporal displays of judgment.

Temporal displays of judgment are but a foretaste of the great judgment to come. God specifically used disasters in the Old Testament to warn of judgment (as we see in the prophets such as Jeremiah and Amos). These are always to be seen as warning shots--calls to repent, before the great day of God's wrath comes. Just as Jesus said, "Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish."

Everyone of us is a recipient of common grace. You have been given another day of life--breath, health, strength, food, relationships, etc. All of this is God's goodness to you. Listen to what Paul says in Romans 2:4-5.

Do you despise the riches of His goodness, forbearance, and longsuffering, not knowing that the goodness of God leads you to repentance. But in accordance with your hardness and your impenitent heart you are treasuring up for yourself wrath in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God.

Every breath you take is a call to return to God! Your health is a call to repent. Your marriage or your children or your job or your wealth--they all are expressions of God's goodness to you. Will you despise the riches of His goodness and keep storing up wrath for yourself in the Day of Judgment? Do not miss this lesson from Hurricane Katrina!

Finally, the opportunity of the storm should be seen in the light of the Bible's teaching on special grace and redemption.

Sin has ruined everything. Seeing the heartache and devastation wrought by Katrina should make us feel that more keenly. We must not ignore the lessons of sin that the storm can teach us. But sin will not have the last say! Christ is at work restoring everything! The work that He began when He established His kingdom on earth is the work of renewal--the work of making all things new. Salvation is not only personal, it is cosmic. He has overcome sin and death and every last one of God's enemies. All who bow to Him as King become a part of His kingdom. In His kingdom we receive a new relationship with God--as our Father and friend. And we receive a new relationship with this world--we become aliens, strangers to it, knowing that our real citizenship is in heaven.

Brothers and sisters, we have been saved from the final coming judgment of God, therefore we do not view disasters as a foretaste of what awaits us.

This sets us free to see life for what it really is. This world as we know it is not permanent and it is not all that there is. So we do not have to live like this is as good as its going to get. We can learn to enjoy it without becoming enslaved to it. We can give away our possessions to those in need because we know that ultimately we are simply stewards, not owners of the things that God has given to us.

We can go and minister to the poor and needy and homeless because we know that in Jesus Christ we really do have all that we need.

We can look on disasters not as an opportunity to distance ourselves from those who are suffering but as an opportunity to enter into their sufferings with them because we have Christ.

Armed with the message of God's salvation in Jesus Christ we can go to people whose lives have been shattered and offer them hope--the very hope that we ourselves have come to experience because of God's grace to us in Jesus Christ.

(photo from Reuters)