Did God have anything to do with the monstrous storm that wreaked havoc in Texas for several days? Some will argue that God was simply an interested observer; after all, the laws of nature rule in this fallen world.
But intuitively people know that God was in charge. I’m sure that even those who had not prayed in years called on God in their distress, asking Him to control their circumstances. And, of course, as believers we know that God was not just an interested bystander.
The book of Job is instructive here. God gave Satan permission to send wind and lightning to kill Job’s children but Satan could not act without God’s express approval. To be sure, nature is fallen and so earthquakes, hurricanes, and tsunamis occur, but Job knew that whatever the secondary causes might be, his calamity was traceable to God. “The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD” (Job 1:21, italics mine).
Who sent the flood during the days of Noah? Who sent the plagues that ravaged Egypt? Who sent the storm that caused the pagan sailors to throw Jonah overboard? In these and dozens of other passages, the Bible traces the ultimate cause of these disasters to God. He does not usually do them directly, of course, but the secondary causes of nature are also under His command. Jesus could have spoken the word and Hurricane Harvey would have become as calm as the waters of Galilee.
God has His own reasons for these events which are unknown to us. But from Scripture we can glean what our response should be and the lessons to be learned.
First: We Grieve, We Do Not Judge
Jeremiah grieved alone. He was dismayed that others were so calloused that they could walk past the destroyed city of Jerusalem with dry eyes. “Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by? Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow, which was brought upon me, which the Lord inflicted on the day of his fierce anger” (Lamentations 1:12). The destruction of Jerusalem did not just affect the wicked; the righteous suffered equally. Jeremiah grieved for both.
Jesus, when speaking about a disaster in Jerusalem, asked, “Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:4-5). Here was a tragedy known and talked about in the city of Jerusalem. It is quite possible that this tower was an aqueduct built by Romans who were employing Jews in its construction. Of course the Jewish zealots would have disapproved of Jewish workers helping with a project that would benefit their despised oppressors. We can hear it already, “Those men deserved to die…they were victims of God’s judgment!” The self-righteous pointed fingers in those days too!
Jesus affirmed that those who died when the tower collapsed were not greater sinners than others in Jerusalem. It was both morally wrong and self-righteous to sit in judgment on those who were killed so unexpectedly. From God’s standpoint, disasters might be meticulously planned, but from our perspective they occur haphazardly, randomly.
Let our tears be translated into action, helping with our prayers, with our giving to organizations that help the distressed and, if possible, join others who are physically responding to those in need. We grieve for the people in places like Corpus Christi and Houston; we grieve we do not judge.
Second: Values Are Clarified
When that tower in Siloam fell, no one mourned the loss of the bricks, but eighteen families mourned the loss of a husband, father, or brother. As Max Lucado said back when Katrina hit New Orleans, “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 who are lost. If they rejoice it is for people who have been found.” (1) He goes on to say that raging hurricanes and broken levees have a way of prying our fingers off the stuff we love. One day you have everything; the next day you have nothing.
“For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?” (Matthew 16:26). Disasters help us separate the trivial from the weighty, the temporal from the eternal. Suddenly what is most important becomes most important.
Third: Life Is Uncertain
Natural disasters confirm the words of James, “Yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (James 4:14). The people who lose their lives in a natural disaster do not wake that morning telling themselves, “This could be my last day on Earth.” Collapsing towers, accidents, and floods happen without warning.
When you read the obituaries of those who have died in sudden calamities, you should visualize your own name in the column. All of us know someone who has been unexpectedly killed in an accident, perhaps in a car wreck, at work, or by drowning, not to mention a heart attack. When we grieve with the families, we should remind ourselves that our own death could be just around the next corner. We are born with an expiration date.
Tragedies rid us of the overconfidence we have that we are in control of our destiny. Disasters, in the words of David Miller, remind us that “Human existence on Earth was not intended to be permanent. Rather, the Creator intended life on Earth to serve as a temporary period in which people are given the opportunity to attend to their spiritual condition as it relates to God’s will for living. Natural disasters provide people with conclusive evidence that life on Earth is brief and uncertain.” (2)
In one of his most popular books, C.S. Lewis imagines a lead demon, Screwtape, telling his underlings that war can be dangerous to their demonic agenda because it causes humans to think about eternity. If the demons are not careful “they might see thousands turning to the enemy [God] during this tribulation. In fact, it just might cause thousands to divert their attention to values and causes that are higher then they themselves…Thus, in wartime men prepare for death in ways they do not when things are going smoothly.” (3)
Then the demon continues:
“How much better for us if all humans died in costly nursing homes amid doctors who lie, nurses who lie, friends who lie, as we have trained them, promising life to the dying, encouraging the belief that sickness excuses every kind of indulgence, and even, if our workers know their job, withholding all suggestions of a priest lest it should betray to the sick man his true condition!” (4)
Lewis believes—and I concur—that “contented worldliness” is one of the demons’ best weapons at times of peace. But when disasters come, this weapon is rendered worthless. He writes, “In wartime not even a human can believe that he is going to live forever.”
This is one of the reasons why we will never know all of God’s purposes in natural disasters—we simply do not know the thousands, or perhaps millions, of spiritually careless people who were forced to take God seriously in a time of crisis. Even those of us who watch these calamities from a safe distance, hear God saying, “Prepare for your own death…it may be soon.”
Fourth: We See a Preview of Coming World-Wide Judgments
Let’s return to the words of Jesus as He speaks about the collapsed tower of Siloam, “But unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3). We’ve all seen a movie preview that gives us a glimpse of what is yet to come. Natural disasters remind us that severe judgment is coming.
Depending on how you classify them, at least three or four natural disasters will accompany the return of Jesus to Earth: “For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather. Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn…” (Matthew 24:27–30).
Convulsions of nature will eventually be a part of God’s sovereign judgment. Here is a future ‘natural disaster’ which is the real movie after the preview.
“When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. The sky vanished like a scroll that is being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?’” (Revelation 6:12–17).
We owe a great debt to those affected by Hurricane Harvey. What happened to them is a warning to us all. If we don’t repent we “shall likewise perish.”
Fifth: While There Is Time, We Must Find Firm Ground
Jesus likened a future judgment to a natural disaster. He ended the Sermon on the Mount by telling the story of two men: one who built his house on the sand, and the other on the rock. On a beautiful sunny afternoon they looked identical; perhaps the house built on the sand was even more beautiful than the one built on the rock. But a natural disaster revealed the difference between the two. “And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock” (Matthew 7:25). The other house could not endure the storm, “and great was the fall of it” (Matthew 7:27).
Recall that the Titanic went under with 1,522 people knowingly going to a watery grave. At the White Star office in Liverpool, England, a huge board was set up; on one side was a sign titled: Known To Be Saved, and on the other, the words: Known To Be Lost. Hundreds of people gathered to watch the signs. When a messenger brought new information, the question was: to which side would he go?
Although the travelers on the Titanic were either first, second, or third class upon boarding, after the ship went down, there were only two categories: the saved and the drowned. Just so, in the final Day of Judgment, there will be only two classes: the saved and the lost. There is only heaven and hell.
God shouts from heaven, “Unless you repent, you will likewise perish.”