Thursday, 7 April 2011

Where was God?

Yesterday I picked up a copy of Edwin Lutzer's Where was God? ('Answers to tough questions about God and natural disasters').  I have found it compulsive reading and have decided that I will finish it today and blog some thoughts (plus share these thoughts at Sunday night's communion meal).

Not all of these thoughts are from Lutzer's book.  These are my thoughts that came to me as I read.  All the quotations are Lutzer's, unless otherwise stated.

1.  We must not ignore the horror of tragedies.  Natural disasters make me feel uncomfortable because they raise difficult questions that can shake my faith.  But it would be ignorant to turn off the telly and ignore the reality in order to preserve my belief.  We must have a faith stronger than that.  Neither should be hide from the devastation and human sorrow associated with such disasters.  Lutzer says, 'Many of us are better at trying to explain natural disasters than we are at weeping over them.'

2.  Our first response should be to pray and give rather than explain.  Jesus sets us an example of one who was moved to action by people's suffering.  It may be of more value to pray for those effected, and give to those helping, than simply to speak in God's defense.  'We should be willing to help those who are in distress even at great personal risk.'  'Jesus was touched by the plight that the curse of sin brought to this world.'  One woman surveyed the repairs done on her home by relief workers after Hurricane Katrina and commented, 'If it weren't for the Christians, we would have no hope here in the Gulf Coast.  We needed them, and they showed up.'  If only that was always the case!

3. Natural disasters remind us about what is really important.  In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, author Max Lucado said, "No one laments a lost plasma television or submerged SUV.  No one runs through the streets yelling, 'My cordless drill is missing' or 'My golf clubs have washed away.'  If they mourn, it is for people lost.  If they rejoice, it is for people found."

4. We live in a world characterised by death. The apostle Paul explains how death is related to the rebellion of humankind (Romans 5:12).

The question is not so much 'why did that person die?' but 'why did they die in that way?' Why do some people die in their sleep after a long and peaceful life, while others die painfully in their youth? We are told that all will die, but we are not told why people die in the way that they do.

Indeed, natural disasters are a wake-up call regarding our own mortality. C. S. Lewis pointed out that war does not really increase death; even without war, the victims would still have to die eventually.
Lutzer writes,
In natural disasters, God intensifies the curse that is already upon nature and, for that matter, upon us. When we look at it this way, we realize that natural disasters happen every day as thousands of people die from disease, accidents, and tragedies of various kinds. Natural disasters only catch our attention when they are of great magnitude with many simultaneous deaths and unbelievable devastation to property. These disasters are really only a dramatic acceleration of what is happening all the time.

5. We can't explain away the involvement of God.

Sometimes people try to get God off the hook by saying that he merely 'permitted' a disaster, rather than ordaining it. This hair-splitting will not do! If God is in control of this universe then he had the power to stop it. Jesus calmed a storm with a word (Mark 4:39). At the word of Christ, the tsunami in Southeast Asia would have ended before it began. The Bible pictures God as ruling over nature: he who ... calls for the waters of the sea and pours them out over the face of the land - the LORD is his name (Amos 9:6).

Satan may have afflicted Job, including using the natural elements of lightening (to kill his sheep and servants)and a windstorm (to kill his ten children). 'Here, is proof, if proof is needed, that satanic powers might indeed be connected to the natural disasters that afflict our planet.' But Job knows that God remained in control, declaring, 'The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away' (Job 1:21). In that story we can see that Satan acted with God's permission and God set the boundaries around what Satan could do.

God sent the flood (Gen. 6-9), the plagues (Exodus 1-15) and the storm that pursued Jonah. God is in control of his creation. We also read God claim, I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I the LORD, do all these things (Is. 45:7); and Amos declare, When disaster comes to a city, has not the LORD caused it? (Amos 3:6).

6.  We should not think that we can offer a complete explanation.   
'As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts' (Is 55:8-9). After the earthquake in Turkey, John Piper says, '[God] has hundreds of thousands of purposes, most of which will remain hidden to us until we are able to grasp them at the end of the age.'  Lutzer writes,
After years of studying the problem of reconciling the suffering of the world with God's mercy, I have concluded that there is no solution that will completely satisfy our minds, much less the minds of a sceptic.  God's was are "past finding out."  He has simply not chosen to reveal all the pieces of the puzzle.  God is more inscrutable than we care to admit. 
'The New Testament faces realistically the pain and evil of this world, but assures us that the future will make sense of the past.'  'It is not necessary for us to know God's purposes before we bow before His authority. And the fact that we trust God even though He has not revealed the details is exactly the kind of faith that delights His heart.'

When we are not sure what to say to people the best rule is to say nothing.  'I am well aware that little or nothing can be said to ease the pain of those who mourn the loss of loved ones ... Glib answers can be hurtful not helpful.'

7.  When we are confused about what we cannot know trust the one we can know. 
Martin Luther urges us to 'flee from the hidden God and run to Christ.'  While natural disasters may raise questions that baffle us and present us with mysteries we cannot answer we can still be sure that God is good.  We know that God is good because he has shown such beauty in the person of Jesus and demonstrated such wonderful love through the cross of Christ.

8.  We must avoid speculating. On November 1, 1755, an earthquake hit Lisbon killing 30-60,000 and reducing three-quarters of the city to rubble.  Protestants were inclined to say that it was a judgement against the Jesuits (who had founded the city) and the Jesuits responded that it was because the Inquisition had become too lax. Tele-evangelist, Pat Robertson, suggested that the stroke which ended Ariel Sharon's rule in Israel was God's judgement for having divided 'God's land.'  Such explanations are mere speculations and can be a source of embarrassment for Christians.

Luke 13 (1-4) should put an end to claims that natural disasters and accidents are personal acts of judgement. There people ask Jesus about two talking points of that day. One involved a tower falling and killing a group of people. The question was asked, 'those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them - do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem?' Jesus replied, 'I tell you, no!' But unless you repent, you too will all perish.'

'Tragedies separate people into two camps - the dead and the living - but not the saved and the damned, not the religious and irreligious.' Yes, natural disasters could be an act of specific judgement. But we are not given the information that would enable us to say whether they are or not. So we would be wise not to speculate.

9.  Natural disasters drive people in one of two directions.  This is merely an observation.  People either run to God or run from God when disaster strikes.   Lutzer comments, 'The Lisbon earthquake split Europe between earth and heaven. On the one hand, the tragedy stimulated interest in the comforts of religion, especially the Christian faith, Church attendance increased and people were more likely to be attentive to eternity, and loyal to the church and God. But it also spurred the development and the growth of the secular Enlightenment.'   

10.  The Cross is the ultimate answer to suffering. All death reminds us to repent.  Did you notice Jesus' warning?  'Unless you repent, you too will all perish.'  Those who heard of those tragedies were reminded of their own need to repent.  I can't figure out what to think about what one person wrote to World Magazine:
We owe a great debt to those affected by Hurricane Katrina.  They received just a small taste of the wrath of God as a warning to us all that unless we repent, we will likewise perish.
'Earthquakes and the tsunamis they sometimes generate are the voice of God shouting to an unrepentant planet.'

Jesus would point to these daily reminders of the fragility of life and warns us to repent.  Unless we repent we will perish - we will face a fate more dreadful than any earthquake - as we take the punishment for our sin.  If we repent, turning from our sin and enthroning Jesus as our king, we will see that he has taken our punishment on the cross.  He has removed the sting from death and he is bringing us to a new creation where suffering and death no longer can touch us. 

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