Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity
“Divine Disaster Plan” first appeared in the April 2006 issue of Touchstone.
Divine Disaster Plan
Daniel Propson on Learning the Difference Between Judgment & Mercy
Every so often a high-profile Christian will explain a natural disaster like last year’s hurricanes in the following way: The victims were sinning, so God sent down punishment upon them. It is not—in most cases—particularly wise or discerning men who make such comments, and most rational people (Christian or otherwise) dismiss this explanation as absurd. Sending such punishment upon groups of people is the work of a wrathful God, and surely God is not wrathful.
This reasoning works inasmuch as it is convincing to us. The reasoning fails to work, however, inasmuch as the Scriptures, quite simply, do not support it. The New Testament might appear to temper the tempestuousness of Yahweh—but on closer analysis, we find no such thing. The story of Ananias and Sapphira seems to be a story of gentle apostolic correction, but then—pow!—the couple are destroyed by the wrath of God.
God is infinitely strong, and therefore (in a sense) infinitely dangerous. We are comforted, nevertheless, by his promise that “in all things [he] works for the good of those who love him.” God will only do things that work to the ultimate benefit of his creatures.
But the problem here centers around that phrase: “ultimate benefit.” We imagine that “ultimate benefit” has mostly to do with generalized kindness, making us feel good about ourselves, or—at most—firmly but gently guiding us toward the truth.
But God is not bound by our idea of our ultimate good. If setting our house on fire is likely to bring us to a greater realization of his truth, then we might as well reconcile ourselves to watching it burn. Our ultimate good is to know and be known by our Creator, and what seem to us little lapses in divine “kindness” along the way do not work against that good. We might very well suspect, therefore, that natural disasters can be the working of God in the history of man.
There is a question here of our status as moderns: Why do we, unlike countless generations of Jews and Christians before us, assume that God is not punishing us? Has the human condition somehow become less depraved? We still consider the Romans worthy of punishment, and the Crusaders, and the Nazis. But not us. Somehow, the words of our parents—to the effect that Jesus loves us—have monopolized too much of our hearts, and the biblical admonition, “He whom he loves, he disciplines” has found no room there.
But mercy without wrath is impotent. In Ephesians, Paul calls us “children of wrath.” This sense of our enmity with God ought to constantly inform our unity with God. Hebrews tells us to “endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons.” My father may never stop loving me, but you can be sure he will kick me out on the street if I break faith with him.
The poet John Donne speaks with frustration of the apparent gentleness of God in his famous poem, “Holy Sonnet 14.” In the face of Donne’s sin, God “as yet but knock[s], breathe[s], shine[s], and seek[s] to mend.” And there is an aspect of this mildness in our Lord, undeniably. But he will not always treat us so. In the wake of both natural disasters and the disasters that strike us individually, ought we not to consider that God might be “battering our hearts” into allegiance with him?
We cannot comprehend, nor perhaps forgive, God devastating us in such a way—but we are not put on earth to comprehend, and it is not our place to forgive God. Our place is courageously to bear the load that God has given us. We are put on earth to love as Jesus did.
A Cold Blessing
This brings me to my problem with the Christian spokesmen I mentioned earlier. They may have the facts behind them, but their words do not demonstrate the love of Christ.
They commit what the psalmist might call a “presumptuous” sin: In the midst of great pain and suffering, they offer a harsh word, a cold blessing. Perhaps last summer’s hurricanes, or the tsunami the year before, were works by God to humble those affected. Perhaps God had an entirely different purpose—or many different purposes—in mind. Either way, the role of a Christian leader is, first of all, to lovingly care for the victims, not to publicly presume to fathom the unsearchable wisdom of the Most High.
Natural disasters operate in the profound space between the individual and God. If the Lord has a message to be sent through suffering, he can be trusted to deliver that message to the deepest spaces of the human heart. He does not need a talking head on the television to illuminate his wrath. In fact, that talking head might work at odds to his steadfast love, convincing the sinner to discount the idea of God entirely.
Which would be an unnatural disaster indeed. •
Daniel Propson is an English teacher at Lincoln High School in Ypsilanti, Michigan. He and his wife attend St. Aloysius Catholic Church in Detroit, and are members of the Word of Life community in Ann Arbor. They live with their two young children in midtown Detroit.
“Divine Disaster Plan” first appeared in the April 2006 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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