As I write, Hurricane Irma is battering Florida. Just a few days ago we watched Hurricane Harvey flood Houston. Barely noticed in American news, devastating floods have killed over a thousand people in India, Bangladesh, and Nepal. A few days ago, an 8.2 magnitude earthquake devastated southern Mexico, killing dozens. When human suffering comes suddenly and on such scale, Christian believers and skeptics alike ask ‘why?’ Predictably – and sadly – some dubious Christian preachers have claimed America is being punished for this or that sin. On the other extreme, a college professor tweeted that Texas was suffering God’s wrath for voting Republican. (He apologized but got fired anyway.) Is there a Christian and biblical way to make sense of it all?
Let me first make clear that natural disasters are not God’s ‘punishment’ for anything. Storms and earthquakes are simply nature doing what nature does. God has given us a world that is amazingly beautiful and life-giving, and sometimes terribly dangerous and lethal. Natural disasters don’t differentiate between the good and the wicked. Jesus said that God in his mercy “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45). If nature’s blessings are given without deserving, I don’t know why we would expect otherwise from nature’s fury. But that doesn’t mean God is not speaking to us in the storm and the earthquake. What would God say to us in the midst of such suffering?
Some earnest people once came to Jesus with their questions about inexplicable suffering. The incident is told in Luke 13:1-5 (ESV) – There were some present at that very time who told [Jesus] about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “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.”
We know nothing of these incidents beyond this text. It seems Pilate’s soldiers had slaughtered some Jews in the very act of offering sacrifices in worship. Imagine a goon squad storming into your church and killing worshippers so that their blood splattered the Communion table. In the second instance, it seems eighteen workers were suddenly killed when a tower collapsed during construction. The reference to ‘Siloam’ may mean the tower was part of the Jerusalem wall near the Pool of Siloam.
Imagine you have come to Jesus with a serious concern and question. Why would a good and all-powerful God allow such gross injustice and suffering? Where was God? Why didn’t he protect these innocent people? And Jesus looks you in the eye and in essence says, “You’re asking the wrong question. What about your own soul? If you don’t turn to God in repentance, you will face a similar fate.” Wow! Come on, Jesus! Don’t you have empathy? But Jesus always has a way of penetrating right through our concerns to the heart of the issue. He doesn’t play theological games. As Pastor John Piper has said, “Nobody slept through a conversation with Jesus.”
No one said it out loud, but Jesus detected in the question the notion that there must be some reason these particular people suffered and died. Those Galileans killed at the altar of worship must have done something terrible for God to allow something so terrible to happen to them. In other words, they must have been guilty of great sin that deserved great punishment.
Let’s stop here and ponder. What would you have said to these earnest people? Do you have an answer for them? What is the meaning of suffering? Is it deserved? If so, when and why?
Jesus, as he so often did, ignored their question and turned the weight of the thing right back at them, and us. If I assume that victims of catastrophe must have earned it, what am I saying about myself as I sit in my comfortable office in tranquil Boise, Idaho? Am I saying that I deserve my safety and ease? Perhaps I should check that lazy assumption.
In essence Jesus said to them, “The sin of those Galileans was not extraordinary at all. Their sin was just as sinful and yours, and if you don’t turn to God and repent, you will meet an end just as tragic as theirs.” Once again, wow! Jesus won’t let me be a detached theological enquirer, even when my question is sincere. He’s going to make me – and you – the issue. In his boundless mercy and love he won’t let us off the hook so easy.
The Bible tells us that in God’s measure there is no such thing as an ‘innocent’ person. No, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). “There is none righteous, no not one” (Romans 3:10). Our rebellion against God is so great that what should shock us is that God is patient and slow to anger and we are not all consumed! We are so sinful that loss of life and suffering in disasters should not offend us as if something undeserved were happening to innocent people!
In case you didn’t notice it, Jesus has just given these theological inquirers an altar call. He’s inviting them, urging them, to turn to God and ask his forgiveness that is freely given to everyone who calls on him, for “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Romans 10:13). The victims of Pilate’s evil, a tower’s collapse, and a storm’s fury are not the issue, at least not in this moment. You are the issue. God loves you. Turn to him. Do it now.
There’s much more, of course. When we turn to God and he rebuilds our lives on the rock of his faithfulness, we find we can weather the storm. And God moves us with love and compassion to reach out to those impacted by disaster and offer rescue and help. Most of us are too far away to help directly, but we can pray and we can give as generously as we can to relief work. But don’t let giving ease your conscience so much that you don’t hear what Jesus is saying to you. The real issue is the direction of your own life. Settle that first, then write your check.
Pastor Phil Moran