Where is God in Natural Disasters?

November 19, 2012 at 5:15 am Leave a comment


Credit: Charles Sykes, Associated Press

$30 billion.  That’s the amount of damage that Superstorm Sandy inflicted on just the state of New York.  New Jersey is still tallying the cost of the storm for them.  Of course, that is only the price of Sandy in dollars.  The price of Sandy in human terms is much higher.  More than 110 people lost their lives to the storm.  There is also the suffering of the survivors.  There is still no power in some areas.  Gas, though no longer rationed, is still in short supply.  People are still scavenging for basic supplies like toiletries and food.  And residents are still picking up the pieces of their shattered homesteads.

Whenever a storm of such magnitude hits, many people begin to wax metaphysical and ask, “Why?”  Why did this storm do so much damage?  Why did this storm hit in the first place?  Why did this storm hit me and ruin my life?  Why?

Over the years, Christians have had no shortage of answers – some good and some not-so-good – to the question, “Why?”  In Puritan New England, earthquakes were quite common.  In 1727, an earthquake of 5.5 on the Richter scale struck the Boston area.  In 1755, an even stronger earthquake of 6.2 struck.  The pastors of that day took these earthquakes signs of God’s judgment and called people to repent of their sins, specifically the sin of greed.  For these clergy, the answer to the “Why?” of natural disasters was quite:  God was angry at unrepentant Puritans.[1]

Blessedly, the theological answers given today are usually more nuanced and biblically sensitive, though this is not always the case.  (One thinks of Pat Robertson’s theologically inept comments following the Haiti earthquake of 2010 when he claimed the disaster specifically and Haiti’s poverty generally was the result of a pact that Haitians made the with the devil back in 1791.)[2]  Generally, however, Christians do not subscribe to such a tit for tat theory of divine retribution. After all, the story of Job unmistakably undermines such a crassly simplistic and moralistic view of retribution.

So what is the answer to the “Why?” of natural disasters, at least as far as God’s involvement is concerned?  Two points that will help us gain clarity concerning this question, even it is not fully answerable, are in order.

First, though it is treacherous to point to specific sins as causes of natural disasters, we can point to sin in general as playing a role in natural disasters.  This much is clear simply by turning the story of history’s first sin.  After Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, God says to Adam, “Cursed is the ground because of you…It will produce thorns and thistles for you” (Genesis 3:17-18).  Thorns and thistles, hurricanes and tornados, earthquakes and blizzards are all due to the sinfulness of this world.  Before the Fall, such things were of no concern.  In this way, natural disasters are not natural at all, but unnatural results of sin.

Second, we must remember that our Lord is concerned about and helps those who suffer the devastating effects of natural disasters.  I cannot help but think of the short, but poignant, story of Jesus’ disciples when they were caught in a violent storm:

Then Jesus got into the boat and his disciples followed Him.  Without warning, a furious storm came up on the lake, so that the waves swept over the boat.  But Jesus was sleeping.  The disciples went and woke Him, saying, “Lord, save us!  We’re going to drown!”  He replied, “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?” Then He got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm.  The men were amazed and asked, “What kind of man is this?  Even the winds and the waves obey Him!” (Matthew 8:23-27)

Jesus’ peaceful sleep while the waves are breaking over the bow of the disciples’ boat is a picture that grips me.  For, on the one hand, such a picture encapsulates the feeling of many when a natural disaster devastates their lives.  “Where was Jesus when this disaster hit?  Why didn’t He stop it?  It feels like He was sleeping on the job!”  The disciples of the first century, just like us disciples of the twenty-first century, wrestled with such quandaries.  But on the other hand, Jesus’ peaceful sleep can be of great comfort.  For it reminds us that Jesus is not rattled or roused by the storms and disasters of this world because such storms and disasters have no power over Him.  Quite the contrary.  He has power over them!  This is why, with one little word of rebuke, He can calm the raging wind and waves.

Because Jesus has prevailing sovereignty over creation, we can take refuge in Him, for we know that, even when natural disasters strike, Jesus has everything under control.  As the Psalmist reminds us:

God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.  Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.  (Psalm 46:1-3)

The earth may give way, the mountains may fall, the storms may come, but this is still our Father’s world.  He has it under His control and, even more importantly, He has it under His care.

Do not be afraid.


[1] For a brief history of the Puritan response to natural disasters, see John Fea, “Seeing the Hand of God in Natural Disasters,” Patheos Evangelical (8.31.2011).

[2] For Pat Robertson’s comments, see Ryan Smith, Pat Robertson: “Haiti ‘Cursed’ After ‘Pact to the Devil,’” CBS News (1.13.2010).

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