When natural calamities come with unprecedented force, which brings along with it death and widespread destruction, it is natural for the human mind to probe the reasons behind it. The rational mind tries to probe the natural factors behind it but a spiritual mind can make sense of it only with reference to spiritual activity. Silently or otherwise, the spiritual man asks, “God! Did you send this calamity on us? If yes, why?”
The Kerala floods which we all witnessed in these days is still fresh in our minds. With hundreds of lives lost, thousands of people displaced from their homes and billions of dollars lost in damages, that too in a place where Christians have a dominant presence, questions regarding God’s role in all of this is not far from the lips. I heard two Christian leaders proposing two contradicting assessments of the same situation. One said, God has sent it as a judgment upon us due to the increasing sin within the church. Therefore, we need to repent and turn to God. While another asked, how can God do this to a people who have served Him faithfully in this nation?
Natural Disasters as a Judgment of God
These two standpoints reflect the general responses within ‘Indian’ Christendom, and I use that adjective (in italics) after much thought. The first response is not unbiblical, rather that is how we have often seen God respond to human sin or rebellion in the scriptures.
After the first sin in Genesis 3, the spiritual corruption within man soon reaches its tipping point in Genesis 6:12, which says, “And God saw the earth, and behold, it was corrupt, for all flesh had corrupted their way on the earth”. In response to this God tells Noah, “For behold, I will bring a flood of waters upon the earth to destroy all flesh in which is the breath of life under heaven. Everything that is on the earth shall die” (Gen. 6:17). As promised, God destroys the whole of humanity by sending incessant rains for 40 days and 40 nights, a calamity which is unparalleled in human history but God graciously saved Noah and his family.
Nahum also prophesied that God will punish his adversaries with “an overflowing flood” (Nah. 1:8). And in Ezekiel, the flourishing of false prophets in Israel caused God to say that, “I will make a stormy wind break out in my wrath, and there shall be a deluge of rain in my anger…” (Ezek. 13:13). So, the use of natural forces as a mode or language of judgment is part of the way God has operated in this world.
A distorted understanding about the condition of Man
So, the first view point on the Kerala floods – that it is a judgment of God, is a strong possibility. But I would like to ask the person holding the first point of view what he thinks about the second person’s point of view. Although the former condemns the people for their sinful life, does he also agree with the latter that if Christians in Kerala were generally righteous, would God send such a calamity? If he says, ‘Yes, I agree that God would not send this calamity if we were righteous enough’, then I have a problem with that standpoint!
I had earlier said that these two points of view represent the general responses in ‘Indian’ Christendom. Often, the second viewpoint is the flip side of the first viewpoint. They are two sides of the same coin. They are the products of the very prevalent ‘Works based Gospel’ or ‘legalism’ that we find in many churches today. The general understanding being that ‘if we are generally good/ righteous then God would bring no evil upon us’ rather ‘if we are generally good/ righteous then God is obliged to protect and prosper us’. The latter part of the statement is the dominant view among church goers who subscribe to the ‘Prosperity Gospel’. This gospel holds that if we have faith in God and obey his commandments then he will bless us with good health and an abundance of wealth. And today a vast majority of the churches in India fall under these two categories, ‘Works based Gospel’ or ‘The Prosperity Gospel’ and they overlap in their thinking about what is God’s role in calamities. They believe that if they are good Christians, then God would not bring any evil or natural calamity upon them. Unfortunately, this viewpoint is not only ‘unbiblical’ but it effects our response to life in general.
Let us see why it is unbiblical. The second Christian leader says that since Kerala has produced many great leaders in the past and has done much for God’s kingdom in this nation, God will surely not bring such a calamity upon it. Here I see two major distortions: One is about the spiritual condition of a believer and the other is about the sovereignty of God.
Let me first talk about the spiritual condition of a believer. Our ministry or efforts for the Kingdom of God are not necessarily the measure of our relationship with God. For Jesus says in Matt. 7:22-23, “On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness”. It is very important to know how God looks at a believer. Despite his status of being justified by God, a believer never ceases to be sinless and therefore God needs to keep working on him till the very last breath of his life. John tells the church in 1 Jn. 1:8, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us”. This means that even the most mature believer commits sin and is not perfect. So, the very appeal to our own righteousness does not stand before God. We are never in a position to enter in to a ‘give and take relationship’ with God because we will never reach that stage of moral perfection in order to demand anything from God. Which brings me to the conclusion that God can take even the most mature believer through a trial in order to sanctify him and fulfill his ultimate purposes here on earth.
One immediate example that comes to my mind is of Job – a blameless and upright man who feared God and turned away from evil (Jb. 1:1, 8). That was the testimony of God about Job and it is hard to improve on this. Yet one day calamity struck Job. His enemies swooped down on his camp and took away his oxen, donkeys and camels; they killed most of his servants by the edge of the sword; the fire of God fell from heaven and burnt up his sheep; a great wind came and the house collapsed on his sons and daughters killing them on the spot and to top it all he himself was later struck with loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head (Jb. 1:13-19; Jb. 2:7). Despite this, Job does not curse God (Jb. 2:9-10) and his response to his suffering is full of faith and endurance. Yet, we all know that Job himself needed a dose of Godly perspective as he continued to suffer. God had to come and counsel him towards the end of his story (From chapter 38-41). This shows us that no man on this earth, however righteous he might be, can claim exemption from calamities. We are all work-in-progress and God in his infinite wisdom chooses to sometimes use calamities to take us forward on this path of righteousness.
A distorted understanding about the Sovereignty of God
I am still responding to the second opinion on the floods. And the next distortion I see in it, is with regard to the sovereignty of God. If God has not brought this calamity, then who has brought it? Many people do not even ask this question about causality because it is too complex. However, many sincere Christians would say, “Satan has brought this calamity on us”. The inherent idea in this kind of thinking is that God is not actively involved in the governing of this world. While Satan and human beings fight it out on earth, God sits around waiting for an appropriate time to respond. He is a passive God. Although many Christians do not confess it, but unknowingly they believe in Deism – the thought that God does not interfere in the affairs of the Universe.
Once again, this kind of thinking is clearly unbiblical. In Job’s story, Satan is directly involved in bringing the calamities on Job but the ultimate decision maker is none other than God. Each time, Satan goes out to attack Job, he needs an authorization from God (Jb. 1:12; Jb. 2:6-7). Without God’s permission, Satan cannot lift his finger against Job. Unlike many Christians, Job does not say that ‘Satan did this to me’. In response to his loss he says, “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Jb. 1:21). Despite his wife’s instigation to curse God, he says, “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?”. Even the author acknowledges God’s sovereignty over the calamities by saying, “for all the evil that the Lord had brought upon him” (Jb. 42:11). So, the Biblical writer knows that God is ultimately responsible for everything that happens on earth, even for the natural calamities that come upon it.
Here are a few more examples of this kind of thinking that we find in the Bible.
Ps. 147:15-18 says, “He sends out his command to the earth; his word runs swiftly. He gives snow like wool; he scatters hoarfrost like ashes. He hurls down his crystals of ice like crumbs; who can stand before his cold? He sends out his word, and melts them; he makes his wind blow and the waters flow.”
Jb. 37:11-13 says, “He loads the thick cloud with moisture; the clouds scatter his lightning. They turn around and around by his guidance, to accomplish all that he commands them on the face of the habitable world. Whether for correction or for his land or for love, he causes it to happen.”
Not only natural phenomenon but even the life-experiences and final destiny of every living creature is in the hands of God.
Matt. 10:29-30 “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?” Jesus said, “And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered”
Even the most random thing like the number at the roll of the dice is controlled by God.
Prov. 16:33 says, “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord”.
The extent of the sovereignty of God over all things is captured well by R.C. Sproul who said, “There are no maverick molecules in the universe”. So, the answer to the question, “God! Did you send this calamity on us?” The answer is “Yes”. Although there are many other direct reasons responsible for this evil, like Satan or human actions or other natural phenomenon, yet God has ultimately allowed it to happen. He is sovereign over it! Which would mean that God is not responsible for this evil because he is not directly involved in it. It is the sinful inclinations within Satan and human beings which give rise to such evil while God is completely righteous in all his dealings (Neh. 9:33). So, human accountability and God’s sovereignty go hand in hand.
God’s goodness and sovereignty is our only Hope
The second viewpoint on the floods, that God would not have brought these floods upon his righteous people assumes that ‘the goodness of God and the total sovereignty of God are incompatible’. So, when I say that calamities can happen even to the righteous, the immediate question that rises in your mind would be about the goodness of God. A little earlier I said that it would be hard to get a more righteous person than Job and yet God sends a calamity on him and his family. If there was one man who was more righteous than Job, then it was the Son of God, Jesus Christ. The Bible says that he committed no sin (1 Pet. 2:22). And yet Father God sent his Son so that he might die in our place. We can never pay for our sins and quench the righteous anger of God. Therefore, God in his wisdom chose to sacrifice his perfectly righteous Son to die in our place (Mk. 10:45). God the Father not only sent him to the world but planned out his brutal execution on a cross (Acts 2:23). It was also his sovereign will that wicked men should be allowed to carry out this plan (Acts 4:27-28). God’s goodness towards the world is seen in this unique act that he gave his only Son to die on a Cross, so that the world may be saved from the punishment of its sins (Jn. 3:16). So, God’s sovereignty does not obscure his goodness, rather it shines brightest at the Cross of Jesus Christ. His goodness and his sovereignty go together.
But many people in order to show the goodness of God try to compromise or dilute the doctrine of the sovereignty of God. They do that by showing that certain evil acts could not have been allowed by God rather Satan or wicked human beings or even natural forces are its sole agents. If we think this way then I don’t see much hope for Kerala or any other place facing natural calamities because then they are at the mercy of evil and random forces of this world. Rather our strongest hope or surest anchor is in the sovereignty of God. If God is sovereign to bring calamities, then he is sovereign to end them too. And this great promise was seen in Jesus. The One who loves us so much has the final say on storms and winds and waters. Once when the storm came, the waves threatened to swamp the boat on which Jesus and his disciples were travelling, the disciples cried out, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” (Mk. 4:38). The sovereign Jesus wakes up and rebukes the wind and the sea by saying, “Peace! Be Still”. The wind ceases and there was a great calm (Mk. 4:39). The same God, the same Jesus is sovereign over the Kerala Floods. And in his sovereignty and in his goodness is the greatest hope for Kerala because He loves them and is sovereign enough to calm the raging waters with just two words.