Images streaming out of the earthquake and tsunami devastated nation of Japan have evoked sorrow, compassion, sacrifice, introspection and questions. And most people find it difficult to fathom the sheer magnitude of the destruction.
Disaster creates not only crises, but also questions. Those questions fall into two categories: theological and physical. Perhaps we can merge those two dimensions into one necessary question for all Christians.
How do we react or respond now?
Psalm 66 is a song of praise, not for a tragedy that occurred, but for the unseen work of God during a crisis. It clearly illustrates the dependency of man on the greatness of God during times of trouble. Some believe the anonymous psalm was written after Hezekiah's deliverance during a time of national distress. In the last section of the chapter the audience is identifies as "all who fear God" [66:16]. Throughout this chapter the psalmist instructs the God-fearer regarding our response to crises. While no single sermon can address all of the difficult issues presented by a disaster, this text offers some useful advice to the Christian.
Seek understanding: "Come and see the works of God"- Psalm 66:5
Natural catastrophe, like many sicknesses and accidents, leave us with a host of valid questions about morality and the nature of God. The debate about God's role in physical disasters predates even the incarnation of Christ [remember Job?]. Unfortunately, people tend to rush to judgment on these issues and often come to erroneous conclusions. Dr. Albert Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, noted several different responses to disaster [BR Press, 8-30-05].
The atheist's response
Oxford University Professor Richard Dawkins explains, "Human life is nothing more than a way for selfish genes to multiply and reproduce." He would conclude that life is both random and meaningless. When applied to natural disasters, the atheist must conclude, "It is just nature - to bad."
The philosopher's response
When observing catastrophic death and destruction the philosopher suggests, "If God is God He is not good, if God is good He is not God." According to Mohler the philosopher believes "God can be good, or He can be powerful, but He cannot be both." Christians reject this outright. We understand that God is both "full of mercy" [66:20] and unable to be "tempted by evil" [James 1:13].
The legalist's response
The legalist explains all suffering as a consequence of sin. Be sure, some suffering is a result of moral failure. But we must be careful to not assign all suffering to sin. This was the response of the Pharisees in John 9 to the blind man. We should remember that natural disasters touch "the just and the unjust" alike.
The liberal religionist's response
Liberal theologians also rush to answers that prove untrue. They make three faulty mistakes. Some blame God and try to assign evil to the hand of God. Others, like the Christian Scientist, minimize or diminish God by rejecting the reality of the physical as an illusion. Others, like the Open Theists, doubt God's character by suggesting that God is always ready with Plan B in case Plan A fails. They have belittled both His power and omniscience.
The Christian's response
In contrast, the Christian trusts the wisdom and sovereignty of God without making Him the author of sin. More on this below.
Pray for those in need: "I cried out to Him with my mouth" - Psalm 66:17.
When facing calamity or disaster, the follower of God has access to the very throne room of heaven [Hebrews 4:14-16]. The psalmist cried to God. His words indicate a sense of urgency and desperation. And, true to His Word, "God has listened" and showed mercy [66:19]. In light of the circumstances in a natural disaster we should pray for God's grace and mercy for several groups of people.
A. Those that are hurting personally.
B. Those that are grieving over the loss of life and livelihood.
C. Those that fear and worry about what to do or where to turn.
D. Those that question and wonder what is happening.
E. Those who lead the recovery efforts.
F. Those that help the hurting.
Trust God: "He keeps us alive" - Psalm 66:9
Even in the face of crisis the people of God have placed their hand in the heavenly Father's. And we do so for good reason. Consider these truths about God.
God is unchanging - James 1:17
God is not like a spiritual Jekyll and Hyde. He does not vacillate between good and evil in either His actions or intentions toward us. Thankfully, God is not like us.
God is self-contained
He is who He is and He has revealed Himself to us. It is vain and arrogant for us to embrace the Oprah method to define the nature of God: "My God is … " Further, God can exist completely apart from humanity. We gratefully praise Him for His intervention in the human condition.
God is good, merciful, gracious and compassionate.
We should also note that the mercy and compassion of God will not permanently withhold the demand for justice in the face of sustained immorality. He said back in Genesis 6:3 "My Spirit will not always strive with man."
God is absolutely sovereign in the universe.
We must be careful here to distinguish between sovereignty and causality. While God certainly could cause an earthquake to accomplish His greater purpose [remember the ten plagues of Egypt], we must guard against assigning evil to God. Instead, He rules over all things to bring them into conformity to His will. Simply put, trust God's wisdom when you fail to understand His great purposes.
One ancient confession rightly stated, "God from eternity, decrees or permits all things that come to pass, and perpetually upholds, directs, and governs all events; yet so as not in any way to be the author or approver of sin nor to destroy the free will and responsibility of intelligent creatures."