I’m either very lucky or very unlucky, depending on how you look at it.
In 1992, I remember hunkering down in a Miami shelter as Hurricane Andrew slammed the state. It was scary for a six-year-old. I can still hear the howling sounds of the wind going through the doors of that gym, sounding like a freight train. I can still recall the sight of going back home and seeing huge trees completely uprooted and thrown to the side like twigs.
Now, 25 years later, only three months after I accepted a call to come back to Miami, the state got hit with Andrew’s bigger and badder sister, Irma. Instead of Miami as its target, the Florida Keys ended up taking the brunt of the hit. I found that hurricanes can still be scary for adults.
(The satellite picture of Hurricane Irma (right) with Hurricane Andrew (left) superimposed, showing the size difference between the two storms. (Image/NASA/RAMMM8)
Since Irma, Hurricane Jose threatened Florida and now Hurricane Maria is bearing down on us. (Personally, I’m wondering what did we do to get the names of Jesus’ parents attached to the Hurricanes bearing down on us!)
This hasn’t stopped people from discussing theodicy (answers to the question of, “Why does God permit evil?”) with complete strangers.
How so? Here’s the scenario:
I was grabbing a few last minute items at Costco before Hurricane Irma and a lady behind me was waiting in line with her kids. She was telling her kids, and everyone around her, about karma and said that if you do bad things to people, “I’m pretty sure that your house is going to get blown away by the hurricane, because whatever you put out into the world will come back to you.”
Is that really the way it really works? Do good things happen to you because you do good to others and bad things happen because you did others wrong?
Did God send Hurricanes Irma and Harvey? I don’t see that. Kirk Cameron does. In a recent video post on Facebook, the actor said:
“When he puts his power on display, it’s never without reason. There’s a purpose. And we may not always understand what that purpose is, but we know it’s not random and we know that weather is sent to cause us to respond to God in humility, awe and repentance.”
Let’s put this theory to the test: Puerto Rico narrowly missed a direct hit from Irma but Barbuda (an island I thought was a mispronounced Barbados or Bermuda) was about 80% destroyed and deemed uninhabitable. Did Puerto Rico find favor in God’s eyes but Barbuda do evil? People praised God for “sparing” Puerto Rico, but now that Hurricane Maria is taking aim directly at Puerto Rico, did God send this hurricane to “finish the job”?
I’ve heard well-meaning calls from Christians encouraging others to find faith in the face of the storm.
“We need to have faith in God’s strength and protection. God is more than able to change Irma’s course. We need to be still and know that he is God.”
Do I believe in all of these sayings? Most definitely! However, did I stick around Miami to see what happens? Nope.
I evacuated to Orlando and rode the storm out with family. Why did I bounce? Because of how I view God, Sin, and the powers of nature.
(As we’ll see, well-meaning images like this create problems with our view of God. This makes it seem as if God directly guides the destruction, devastation, and deaths along the path of every hurricane.)
1. God is sovereign over all nature, yet even nature is infected by Sin.
The fall of humanity in Genesis 3 affected a lot more than just the relationship between people and God. It affected the entire planet. From that moment on, the Earth itself is said to be cursed and bound to Sin in some way. Biblical Sin is not just “bad things” that you do. It is an actual power that controls and affects humans, animals, plants, and possibly even the weather.
Storms happen. Jesus sometimes stops them like when he was asleep in the boat. Other times, the storm rages on and Paul and Silas get shipwrecked. Sometimes people die and sometimes only trees get blown away. This doesn’t mean that storms are manifestations of evil, it means that they are morally neutral byproducts of a curse that exists over creation.
This has big implications for how we should see disasters when they strike. Jesus tried to teach this to his disciples on one such occasion in Luke 13:1-5. Wikipedia had a great exposition of what happened:
“Apparently those making the report were looking for Jesus to offer some explanation of why bad things happen to good people—in this case even while they were worshiping. The “sin and calamity” issue involves a presumption that an extraordinary tragedy in some way must signify extraordinary guilt. It assumes that a victim must have done something terrible for God to allow something so tragic to happen to them.
Jesus responded to the question, answering that the calamities suffered by the victims of the falling of the tower of Siloam were not related to their relative sinfulness. He then diverted the focus onto the interrogators, wanting them to focus on their own souls.
“Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. 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.” Lk 13:2-5]
His mention of the fall of the Tower of Siloam added a nuance to his prior point: accidents happen. Therefore, even in the absence of persecution, death can come unexpectedly to anyone, irrespective of how righteous or how sinful they are. He may have been emphasizing that the time granted by God for repentance is limited.”
Does God send natural disasters as judgments? Yes. Yet, can Satan send natural disasters too? Yes. Keep this in mind: there is no clear correlation between disaster and faith (or lack thereof).
2. God doesn’t always save his people from tragedies that could easily have been avoidable.
There’s a funny anecdotal story that has always stuck with me.
A guy was stuck on his rooftop in a flood. He was praying to God for help.
Soon a man in a rowboat came by and the fellow shouted to the man on the roof, “Jump in, I can save you.”
The stranded fellow shouted back, “No, it’s OK, I’m praying to God and he is going to save me.”
So the rowboat went on.
Then a motorboat came by. “The fellow in the motorboat shouted, “Jump in, I can save you.”
To this the stranded man said, “No thanks, I’m praying to God and he is going to save me. I have faith.”
So the motorboat went on.
Then a helicopter came by and the pilot shouted down, “Grab this rope and I will lift you to safety.”
To this the stranded man again replied, “No thanks, I’m praying to God and he is going to save me. I have faith.”
So the helicopter reluctantly flew away.
Soon the water rose above the rooftop and the man drowned. He went to Heaven. He finally got his chance to discuss this whole situation with God, at which point he exclaimed, “I had faith in you but you didn’t save me, you let me drown. I don’t understand why!”
To this God replied, “I sent you a rowboat and a motorboat and a helicopter, what more did you expect?”
My friends who stayed in Miami aren’t acting presumptuously like this guy unless they took no action to prepare before the Hurricane hit. If they didn’t bother to board up their homes, stock some emergency supplies, or have some sort of action, then it’s not fair to blame God when tragedy strikes. That’s on you.
(There were some very ingenious ways that some people used to prepare…Hialeah…)
3. God works in many ways, yet humans are still ultimately responsible for their choices.
Some people decide to evacuate during Hurricanes while others chose to go. Choosing to evacuate is not a sign of a lack of faith in God any more than staying is a sign that you are more faithful.
It means that each of us took the actions that we felt were best for our own situations. Some members of my church flew hundreds of miles away, others stayed put. Wherever you decide to stay, be safe and keep each other in prayer.
Christians get into deep waters when we start giving reasons for why natural forces hit some places and avoid others. We are not spokespersons for the Almighty. The best we can do is be proactive in our preparations, intentional in our prayers for deliverance, and ready to assist the community after devastation.
Our God is bigger than the storms of life that we face. Yes, he can deliver us from the hand of Irma, but in case he decides not to dissolve hurricanes overnight, Christians will be there to face it and still praise Him. We will be there to help serve our community afterward and rebuild even stronger. All of these hurricanes are increasing evident symptoms of a sick, sin-infested Earth crying out, like Romans 8:20-21 reminds us:
“Against its will, all creation was subjected to God’s curse. But with eager hope, the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay.”
Again, does God send natural disasters as judgments? Yes. Yet, can Satan send natural disasters too? Yes.
Let’s not fall into the trap of spiritualizing real issues:
Pastor: “Raise your hand if you lost power.”
Me: *raises hand*
Pastor: “None of you lost power! You lost electricity. Your power is in Je-”
On this side of eternity, it’s hard to tell which tragedies fall into each category. It’s not our job to diagnose this; it’s our job to be faithful. So, let’s remind our communities of the hurricane, tornado, and death-free future that awaits us! And in the meantime, assist those around us however we can. Keep all of us in South Florida in your prayers!